Cubs

Danny Salazar's return gives Cubs another All-Star pitcher to deal with in World Series

Danny Salazar's return gives Cubs another All-Star pitcher to deal with in World Series

CLEVELAND — While official 25-man World Series rosters haven’t been announced yet, Cleveland right-hander Danny Salazar — who hasn’t pitched in the playoffs due to a mild strain of the flexor muscle in his right arm — said Monday he was informed he’ll be a part of the Indians’ efforts to win their first World Series since 1948.

Unless, of course, he has an odd accident (like the infamous drone-related one Cleveland right-hander Trevor Bauer suffered) before Tuesday morning.

“Nothing's official, so if we have another drone incident or anything with model airplanes or anything, we reserve the right until we have to turn it in,” Francona cracked.

So barring another bizarre misfortune befitting of Mr. Burns' softball team of ringers from “The Simpsons,” Salazar gives Cleveland “another really good arm that's kind of a wild card that we think could help us,” Francona said.

The Indians and Salazar aren’t sure how they’ll use the 2016 All Star, but however they do, it’ll likely be in Game 4 in Chicago. Salazar could be in line for an abbreviated start or to relieve rookie left-hander Ryan Merritt, who threw 4 1/3 innings in the Indians’ American League Championship Series clinching win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Oct. 19.

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Salazar, who hasn’t started a game since Sept. 9, said he threw 45 pitches over three innings in a simulated game Sunday and said he’s “ready for everything” in the World Series. He could throw more than 45 pitches if he is called upon as a starter in Game 4 but likely will be on a strict pitch count. His only other limitation is that he hasn’t thrown his curveball while rehabbing yet, though that’s a pitch he only threw 5.1 percent of the time in 2016.

Salazar’s largest weakness in the regular season was an off-and-on lack of control. He issued three or more walks in 11 of his 25 starts. Right-handers had considerably more success against him — a .264/.351/.404 slash line — which could be a positive if Merritt, a left-hander, starts and Salazar is in line to relieve him.

But nonetheless, having to face Salazar adds another wrinkle to the Cubs’ first World Series berth in 71 years, whether or not he pitches out of the bullpen. The 26-year-old led Indians starters with a 27.6-percent strikeout rate, largely using his power changeup to get swings and misses while mixing plenty of mid-90s fastballs and mixing in a few breaking balls here and there.

“He's got unbelievable stuff,” Indians Game 1 starter Corey Kluber said. “That would be definitely an extra weapon to have on our pitching staff.”

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?

cubs_podcast_offense_slid.jpg
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: