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Joe Maddon perfectly captures 'Little League' mindset with Cubs

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Joe Maddon perfectly captures 'Little League' mindset with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. - Everybody knows Joe Maddon loves when his players are versatile - able to hit in any spot in the lineup and play all over the field.

But it's much harder to pin down why it works so well, producing a successful product between the white lines.

Baseball players are creatures of habit. They love their routine.

Yet Maddon's desire for flexibility is the opposite of "routine."

The way Maddon manages, players never truly know where they're playing or where they're hitting in the lineup until they get to the ballpark that day.

Sort of like...Little League.

"I think that's a perfect way to describe it," Kris Bryant said. "When you think back to when you started playing baseball, it was always so much more fun in Little League.

"And now it's kinda like Little League in the big leagues."

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Cubs fans!]

Less than a week after Bryant was called up to the majors last season, Maddon already had the rookie out of his natural position of third base, playing center field with Dexter Fowler banged up.

Bryant had some experience in the outfield in college and took some reps out there in spring training, but he had never played anywhere but third base in his professional career until that moment in Pittsburgh...in his sixth MLB game.

Bryant said he's ready for anything now, which is kind of like Little League, when kids aren't pigeonholed into one spot and play six or seven different positions in one game.

Maddon spent Tuesday talking about the possibility of Bryant winning a Gold Glove at third base, a statement that would have been considered a longshot when Bryant was coming up through the minors with his defense at the hot corner as his biggest question mark.

Yet even after Bryant has proved his worth with his glove and arm at third base, he insists he wants to keep playing the outfield, too.

"I think it's good to move around," he said. "It gets you so you're not complacent. That's what I like. I don't like going to the field and seeing, 'Oh, I'm batting third or fourth or fifth and playing third every day.'

"It's kinda cool to see, 'Oh, I'm batting second today and playing left field.' It's like, you're more ready. It's fun.

"I guess that just comes from me growing up - I played all over the place and didn't really expect anything. I never knew exactly where I was going to play and I enjoy it. That's the fun of the game."

Addison Russell is clearly the Cubs' best defensive option at shortstop, yet he wants to stay ready and flexibile at second base, too.

Chris Coghlan hadn't played infield for years (and hardly at all in the big leagues) before Maddon moved him to third base, then second base and then even first base last season.

Kyle Schwarber is getting in work at both catcher and left field.

[RELATED - As legend of Schwarber grows, Cubs slugger plans to stay true to himself]

Javier Baez is learning center field and can already play all over the infield.

Ben Zobrist is the king of versatility, playing solid defense at four, five or even six defensive positions.

Jason Heyward has mastered right field and now is being moved to a more demanding position in center.

Maddon thinks the players being ready for anything can actually benefit them.

"I like the idea that they're out here just playing," Maddon said. "... When our guys come to the ballpark, they have to get ready to do a lot of different things. So their mind just can't be drawn or focused on one thing - whether I'm hitting or not.

"I think that's what gets guys in trouble more than anything is where they're at on the hitting spectrum right now and their day depends on that. I'd rather their day depend on us just winning and what they can do to help us win.

"We have so many guys that [are versatile] and I don't feel like we're losing anything in regards to catching the ball and maintaining a solid defense."

Maddon joked with the Little League mindset, the Cubs need to find somebody to bring the juice boxes.

And on a team with a bunch of guys who are barely old enough to drink, that Little League style fits in perfectly.

"I think that's one of the things that makes Joe such an unbelievable manager is that you never know what you're gonna do," Bryant said. "You never know what to expect in the clubhouse and I think more guys should be like that."

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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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: