Cubs

Cubs still trying to measure up to Cardinals

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Cubs still trying to measure up to Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – Baseball’s marathon schedule doesn’t lend itself to statement games, and nothing will be decided in early May, but the Cubs should find out what they’re made of here at Busch Stadium.

To be honest, the Cubs haven’t held up their end of the rivalry since winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. The St. Louis Cardinals continue to be the gold standard, with 11 playoff appearances since 2000 and 11 World Series titles overall.

The Cardinals (19-6) still have the best record in baseball after Monday night’s 10-9 victory over the Cubs in front of 41,981 and a national-TV audience. The Cubs have done a lot of things right in their deliberate rebuild, but nothing will be handed to them in the National League Central.

“I love this,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I want our guys to love this. I hate that I constantly bring up the past, but the Rays got better because they played in Yankee Stadium a lot and they played in Fenway Park a lot. That’s how these guys are going to get better.

“You got to get past that point where – I don’t want to say you’re intimidated by it – but you’re taken by it a bit. You’re not as comfortable with it. And then you start embracing it. You start looking forward to it. As our young guys start getting into this moment here, I really believe that we’ll be that group also.”

[RELATED: Maddon, Cubs sticking with three catchers]

The Cubs put up five runs in the first inning, and knocked out Carlos Martinez by the fourth, but the Cardinals are relentless. St. Louis does not quit. Mark Reynolds responded with a grand slam off Travis Wood in the first inning, and the Cubs bullpen could not stop the bleeding.

Help is on the way: Justin Grimm threw a scoreless inning for Triple-A Iowa on Monday and appears to be very close to rejoining the team after his right forearm injury.

James Russell is also trying to force the issue after getting released by the Atlanta Braves near the end of spring training and returning to the organization on a minor-league deal. The lefty has not allowed a walk through 9.2 scoreless innings with Iowa, notching 12 strikeouts.

The Cardinals have an assembly-line quality to them, still rolling even with ace Adam Wainwright missing the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. The Cardinal Way won’t go away, which became a talking point during Cubs president Theo Epstein’s end-of-season news conference last year.

“How do you balance like admiration and contempt?” Epstein said. “I’m a Cub, so I have to hate the Cardinals, but I also admire the way they run their baseball shop…for basically the better part of a century.

“They’re really consistent. They make good decisions. All the way back to George Kissell, they teach the game the right way. They stay true to that vision of how to play Cardinals baseball, and they develop homegrown players who are loyal to it.

“I hate to say this on the record, but in some respects, we have to do a lot of things they do in order to be successful. On the other hand, I think we’re building something that has the chance to go toe-to-toe with them and surpass them. I think we have the chance to win this division, and win it on a consistent basis, and we’re going to need to in order to win the World Series.”

[CUBS ROAD AHEAD: A measuring stick in St. Louis]

Kris Bryant (four walks) and Addison Russell (2-for-5, home run) got their first tastes of the rivalry and should be fixtures for years to come. The Cubs are 13-11 – 5.5 games behind the Cardinals – and will get three more chances to make up some ground this week.

“I’m here to tell you, man: You want to play good teams,” Maddon said. “If you want young kids to get better, you want to play the best teams as often as you possibly can.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: