Faith in Addison Russell pays huge dividends for Cubs

Faith in Addison Russell pays huge dividends for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – When Joe Maddon talked about trying “to rearrange the chairs a little bit,” the Cubs manager didn’t explicitly finish the Titanic metaphor for this National League Championship Series – or seriously consider benching Addison Russell and moving Javier Baez to shortstop to jumpstart what had been baseball’s best team during the regular season.

The Cubs never really had a shortstop controversy, even as Theo Epstein’s front office held onto and collected middle infielders during the rebuilding years. Maddon loved Russell’s reliability and no-chrome style from the first moment he saw him fielding groundballs during spring training last year. 

If the Cubs really are going to follow Maddon’s lead – and play the same game on Oct. 19 that they played on April 19 and July 19 – then you have to trust the players who helped you pile up 103 wins and get to this point against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

“Right now, Addison and Javy up the middle is our best chance, I think, to win as we set up the middle defense,” Maddon said before Wednesday’s Game 4 at Dodger Stadium.

Defense may win championships, but the Cubs absolutely needed a jolt to their offense, and Russell delivered with one electrifying swing during a 10-2 victory that tied this best-of-seven series at 2-2 and guaranteed at least one more night of October baseball at Wrigley Field this year.    

“This guy had 90-something RBI, 20-something homers,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “That means he can hit. They don’t sell those at Walgreens.”

Russell certainly hadn’t been the only reason the Dodgers put together back-to-back shutouts, the scoreless streak extending to 21 innings on Wednesday night at Chavez Ravine. It’s not like Russell was the only Cubs hitter who struggled to track Clayton Kershaw’s fastball or felt off-balance against Rich Hill’s curveball or made slow adjustments against those left-handed looks. 

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But the sense of urgency in the playoffs always screams: Do something!

Russell had been in a 1-for-24 offensive spiral during these playoffs. Baez has been a breakout October star, going 9-for-27 with a division-series-shifting home run off San Francisco Giant Johnny Cueto and making one spectacular defensive play after another. Ben Zobrist – one of the game’s most versatile defenders and this team’s most accomplished postseason hitter – can always move back to second base from the outfield.

That faith in Russell paid huge dividends in the fourth inning, when he slammed a 94-mph Julio Urias fastball over the right-center field wall for a two-run homer, a 4-0 lead and some breathing room for a team constantly getting questions about the pressure on a franchise that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908. 

“It’s definitely a sigh of relief to have a big night,” said Russell, who pumped his fist after that homer and went 3-for-5. “My confidence was still there. I feel like I’ve been seeing the ball well, taking some pretty good swings, so I definitely wasn’t panicking. I was a little more frustrated than anything else.” 

Russell drove a ball to the warning track in left field in his first at-bat against Urias, who at the age of 20 might be the game’s next great left-handed pitcher. Russell lifted another ball to the warning track in center field against Los Angeles reliever Luis Avilan in the seventh inning, showing the power switch might be getting flipped after lowering his hands in his swing.
Russell also became the catalyst to a five-run sixth inning, hustling on the groundball he hit toward the right side of the infield, rushing Dodgers second baseman Kike Hernandez and forcing a wild throw to first that allowed him to take an extra base. 

As Maddon would say: Respect 90. Even if Russell looked a little lost at times – with Jason Heyward pinch-hitting for him – the manager still believes in the 22-year-old who finished tied for the major-league lead with 19 defensive runs saved at shortstop.

The Cubs identified bumping Starlin Castro off shortstop as a turning point during last year’s 97-win campaign, and they certainly missed Russell’s steady presence when a hamstring injury sidelined him during the 2015 NLCS the New York Mets swept.  

If going to the All-Star Game for the first time – and hanging around the best players in the world this summer – helped boost Russell’s self-esteem, could a bad October experience hinder one of the franchise’s cornerstone players?

“I thought that the All-Star Game appearance did absolutely accelerate his confidence,” Maddon said. “But regardless of what happens right now, I don’t think it’s going to detract from next year. He’s way too young. He’s got so many adjustments to be made over the next several years. 

“Javy’s been rising to the occasion, but we got a lot of young guys, man, and there is still a lot of time – years to come – for them to continue to get better. So I don’t think any negative experience right now is going to linger. I don’t.”   

The Cubs always appreciated Russell’s old soul and chill personality, the attributes they believe will help them get back to the World Series for the first time since 1945.

“Like I said, I really wasn’t panicking,” Russell said. “Really wasn’t nervous. It was just (more) my teammates know what I have to bring to the plate – and I definitely want to display that here in the postseason. 

“But I’m just excited about playing and happy to have my teammates here, rooting me on. They didn't doubt me for one second.”

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move


Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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