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Cubs will get their shot at Cardinals as rivalry heats up again

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Cubs will get their shot at Cardinals as rivalry heats up again

The St. Louis Cardinals are under investigation by the FBI and Justice Department. Their top prospect (Oscar Taveras) died in a car crash last October. Their Opening Day starter (Adam Wainwright) is out for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon. They still have the best record in baseball.

Whatever happens to the hackers who cyber-attacked the Houston Astros, the Cubs know the Cardinals won’t go away anytime soon, that they will eventually have to go through their biggest rival.

“They can’t lose right now,” reliever James Russell said. “It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s a big series. We need to go in there and do some damage.”

The Cubs traveled to St. Louis after Thursday’s disappointing 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The biggest crowd at Wrigley Field so far this year (41,498) watched $155 million ace Jon Lester give up four early runs and last only four innings. A four-game series that began with victories over Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke ended with the Cubs getting shut down by Carlos Frias and four relievers.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs still see Addison Russell as a big-league shortstop]

Russell made his big-league debut with the Cubs in 2010, when the window to contend slammed shut for Lou Piniella, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.

Russell got traded to the Atlanta Braves at last year’s deadline and returned to a completely different team this season. He understood how long it had been since the rivalry had some real juice, even though the Cubs began the day in third place in the National League Central, trailing the Cardinals by 7 1/2 games. Still, a 39-32 record would be good enough to make it as a wild card if the playoffs started today.

“Obviously, our main goal is to win the division,” Lester said. “We’re going to keep trying to plug along and do that. That starts tomorrow.”

The Cardinals are 26-7 at Busch Stadium, where weird things usually seem to happen to the Cubs amid the sea of red. The national media wants a piece of Joe Maddon, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. MLB Network is picking up Friday’s game, Fox wanted the rivalry for its Saturday window and ESPN chose Cubs-Cardinals for “Sunday Night Baseball.”

“Of course, when you’re playing them head up, you definitely want to make some noise,” Maddon said. “But I don’t want our guys to approach it any differently. I don’t want them to think that they have to play any harder or any better. Just go play.”

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant leaves Cubs-Dodgers finale with 'flu-like symptoms']

General manager Jed Hoyer, whose wife is from the St. Louis area, hears it from his in-laws whenever the Cubs play the Cardinals. It’s not as glamorous or as overhyped as the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. But Hoyer compared the Cardinals — with 11 World Series titles overall and 11 playoff appearances since 2000 — to what Theo Epstein faced when they took down the Evil Empire.

“I look at their presence as a huge positive,” Hoyer said. “It makes you keep your standards really high and makes you not cut corners because we’re not going to beat them with gimmicks. We’re not going to beat them by cutting corners. We’re going to have to beat them by being a great organization.

“That’s what we had with the Yankees. I think we were much better in Boston because the Yankees were in our division. If we hadn’t had them, we might not have kept our standards that high. We always felt like we had to win 95 games to make the playoffs.

“I kind of feel the same way here. It might not be 95, but it’s the same mindset of that’s what we have to develop to go head-to-head with them. It’s good. It pushes us.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cubs still have 13 games remaining against the Cardinals — and nine more against the Pittsburgh Pirates — and won’t pass the schedule’s halfway point until after the Fourth of July weekend.

“You always got to keep your eye (on the division),” Maddon said. “We’re going to keep getting better. I believe that. We’ve had kind of a mini-run, but not a real good run yet, and we’re definitely capable of that. As our young guys get more experience, I believe that’s all possible.

“The focus has to be winning the division. And then if you don’t, you still have a shot. But if you don’t want to aim high enough, man, you’re going to miss your target.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

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, as we discussed on the latest CubsTalk Podcast.

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.