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Culture shock: Epstein won't obsess over Yankees anymore

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Culture shock: Epstein won't obsess over Yankees anymore

There was a golf cart parked outside the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium. The years the Cardinals had won the World Series were painted onto the back 26, 31, 34, all the way to 06 and filled up the entire bumper.

The rumor was that the cart was positioned like that only when the Cubs were in town, so that the players would see it each time they showed up for work (as if theyd bother to take off their sunglasses, turn off their cell phones and notice). Thats St. Louis.

Theo Epstein grew up rooting for the Red Sox, and went to Brookline High School, which sits about two miles from Fenway Park. He was braced for the Boston media, and understood how much the fans there hated the Yankees.

Cubs-Cardinals wont generate as much heat as Yankees-Red Sox. Fighting George Steinbrenners Evil Empire is a bigger national story. But theres no doubt that Epstein will have to close the gap on the Cardinals.

Because while the Cubs just spent nine days haggling with the Red Sox over two prospects as compensation to get an executive with two championship rings the Cardinals were chasing their 11th World Series title.

Does Epstein really have an idea of what hes getting himself into? The answers will start coming Tuesday, when hes introduced as the new president of baseball operations at Clark and Addison.

The Red Sox viewed almost everything through the Yankees prism. The Cubs arent as obsessed with the Cardinals, but Epstein can learn something about this group by how they responded against their biggest rival.

Just ask Carlos Zambrano, minutes after Carlos Marmol blew the save on June 5 in St. Louis: We played like a Triple-A team. This is embarrassing. Embarrassing for the team, for the owners. Embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassing. Thats the word here for this team. We stinks.

Or Mike Quade, who sat in his Busch Stadium office on July 30 and was asked if he felt like he was managing for his job: I feel like that every day. When the blame game starts, you cant sit in this seat and not take some of it. I understand that. But me sitting here and cowering because of that is absurd.

Decisions should be coming soon on Quade and his coaching staff, and eventually Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. Epstein whiffed big on several free agents in Boston Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, to name a few and hes coming to an organization that has been crippled by the wrong long-term contracts.

When Albert Pujols hugged Jim Hendry behind the batting cage at Wrigley Field on May 10, the Cubs general manager at the time immediately knew it would become a runaway national story. (The Cardinals were also in town on Aug. 19 when chairman Tom Ricketts publicly announced Hendry was fired.)

Chicago reporters may not become as obsessed with Epsteins personal life, because he didnt grow up here, but its not like hell be getting a free pass. Just ask anyone who covered Dusty Baker or Lou Piniella how worn out they were by the end.

That Pujols ducked out of the clubhouse without speaking to the media after Thursday nights Game 2 loss to the Rangers probably shows that life inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl would get real old, real fast for the future Hall of Famer.

When Epstein became the youngest general manager in baseball history in late 2002, he inherited a 93-win team built around Cooperstown-level talents Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, plus foundation pieces like Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe.

The Cubs have been a fifth-place team for the past two seasons, but Epstein will find that the game can be more forgiving outside the American League East. The Cardinals won 83 games in 2006 and the National League Central and another World Series title.

In Epsteins nine seasons on the job, the Red Sox won at least 90 games seven times, and never less than 86. Even if you are a tortured Cubs fan, you have to like those odds.

If its all about getting in the tournament and getting hot, then these Cardinals are the perfect example. They were 10 12 games back on Labor Day. They snuck into the playoffs by one game as a wild card.

It helped that the Cardinals won 10 of their 15 games against the Cubs, including two on the seasons final weekend in St. Louis. Immediately after that loss on Sept. 25, the Cubs had their rookie hazing. Young players dressed up in short skirts for the long flight to San Diego.

One coach couldnt hide the disgust on his face as he walked out of the dressing room, though it was hard to tell whether it was all the laughter, or another one-run loss to the Cardinals, or some combination of both. It remains to be seen how many will be back in that clubhouse next year.

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: