Heading to Triple-A Iowa, Dillon Maples could be X-factor for Cubs

Heading to Triple-A Iowa, Dillon Maples could be X-factor for Cubs

Whether or not the Cubs add a high-octane reliever before the July 31 trade deadline, Dillon Maples is lurking as an X-factor in the second half for the defending World Series champs.

The Cubs are planning to promote Maples to Triple-A Iowa, sources said Monday, after the right-hander blew away hitters at Double-A Tennessee, pitching backwards and unleashing a wipeout slider to notch 28 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.  

Maples had never pitched above the A-ball level until this season, putting up a 5.33 career ERA and staying far off the radar after getting a $2.5 million bonus as a 14th-round pick in the 2011 draft, the last one overseen by former general manager Jim Hendry.

That’s when chairman Tom Ricketts wisely authorized a spending spree before a new collective bargaining agreement would radically change the spending limits on amateur talent. Ricketts fired Hendry in a secret meeting that summer, but asked him to stay on and close a draft class headlined by Javier Baez.

Maples – Gatorade’s North Carolina high school player of the year – had options as a punter/kicker with a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina. While that athleticism hasn’t translated into the frontline starter the Cubs once envisioned – Maples has dealt with injuries and thrown only 182.1 innings across the last five seasons combined – something clicked out of the bullpen this year.

The Cubs see Maples as having an 80 slider on the 20-80 scouting scale and encouraged him to use that as his primary weapon, understanding there will still be a learning curve in the Pacific Coast League.

Maples also gave up 11 hits and 11 walks in those 13.2 innings with the Smokies after a strong showing at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach (4-0, 2.01 ERA, 44 strikeouts in 31.1 innings).

That’s probably not where Maples envisioned beginning his age-25 season. And Joe Maddon’s bullpen – with All-Star closer Wade Davis and setup guys Carl Edwards Jr., Koji Uehara and Pedro Strop – has been a real strength for a 46-45 team. But all these years later, Maples will soon be one phone call away from Wrigley Field.

Cubs Twitter has a whole bunch to say about the Daniel Murphy trade

Cubs Twitter has a whole bunch to say about the Daniel Murphy trade

Daniel Murphy is the Cubs' new second baseman. 

There were, of course, tweets. So many tweets. There were analytical tweets:

There were smug tweets:

There were Cubs Killer tweets:

There was this very sad Kris Bryant tweet:

Not to be confused with this very sad White Sox tweet (RIP Kopech Day):

And there were cat tweets. There are always cat tweets:

How Daniel Murphy's arrival impacts Addison Russell and the Cubs infield

How Daniel Murphy's arrival impacts Addison Russell and the Cubs infield

The days of Addison Russell as an everyday player may be coming to an end.

The Cubs acquired veteran infielder Daniel Murphy Tuesday afternoon and the ensuing dominoes have yet to fall on the Chicago roster, but one path could be Murphy indirectly replacing Russell in Joe Maddon's lineup.

Either way, Murphy is added depth for the ailing Kris Bryant, who is still nursing a left shoulder injury and does not currently have a timetable to return to Chicago. Even when Bryant does return, he may not be at 100 percent and the Cubs probably won't want to play him every day in September, so more depth in the lineup is not a bad thing.

But back to Russell.

The Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop currently boasts the best batting average (.259) and on-base percentage (.326) of his brief career, but his slugging percentage is way down (.359), leading to a career-low .685 OPS. 

Among qualified National League hitters, Russell has the sixth-lowest slugging percentage — a stark contrast from the guy who hit 21 homers and drove in 95 runs in his first full big-league season in 2016.

Much of the lack of power can be attributed to a knuckle/hand injury he suffered in June that has affected his swing the last couple months. Russell continually downplays that hand injury, but the Cubs know it's more of an issue than he lets on.

The problem is, he's still an elite defensive shortstop (the finger only impacts him in the field if he catches a ball off his glove hand awkwardly, he said) and he's so vital to the Cubs' run prevention that they haven't yet given him an extended period off to heal fully.

With Murphy in town now, that can slide Javy Baez over to shortstop on a more regular basis, either giving Russell time on the disabled list to heal his knuckle or reducing the wear and tear down the stretch, especially as the Cubs begin a brutal stretch of 23 straight days with a game.

Murphy is a below-average fielder at second base, so the Cubs' defense takes a hit, but the offense would receive a huge boost.

Since July 4, Russell is hitting only .208 with a .526 OPS and 29 strikeouts in 37 games. He has not homered since June 29.

Murphy, meanwhile, has been on fire. Since July 8, he's hitting .364 with a .950 OPS, 5 homers, 21 RBI and only 10 whiffs in 35 games.

At the moment with the Cubs offense mired in its worst slump of the season, Murphy may be more important to the team in the starting lineup. Maddon could always insert Russell in for defensive purposes in the middle of games, but right now, it's tough to see how the Cubs can keep giving the young shortstop starts on a nearly everyday basis.

That being said, the best course of action may be a platoon of sorts between Murphy and Russell if the latter does not hit the DL.

Russell actually has had his fair share of success against left-handed pitchers in 2018 (.286 AVG, .780 OPS) while the left-handed-hitting Murphy has posted only a .622 OPS against southpaws this season.

Against lefties, the Cubs could deploy Russell at short and Baez at second base. Against righties, they could go with Murphy at second and Baez at short. That could help keep both Russell and Murphy healthy and fresh down the stretch.

Or Murphy could slide over to third base and Ben Zobrist or David Bote gets the call at second base for that day. 

There are plenty of options at the Cubs' disposal, but Russell is the guy most likely to lose out on playing time with Murphy's arrival.