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Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central

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Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central

Aroldis Chapman blew away Mike Olt with four straight fastballs. The first one hit 99 mph. The next three clocked 100 mph. Game. Over.

That’s how the dominant, mysterious Cincinnati Reds closer sent everyone home on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, closing out a 3-2 victory over the Cubs. Welcome to the National League Central.

It’s not as glamorous as the old American League East that made Theo Epstein a legend throughout New England for taking down the Evil Empire. Or Joe Maddon a big celebrity for transforming the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in their David and Goliath story against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

But this division features five teams that are going for it now, and the Cubs manager knows what that means for Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara and eventually Kris Bryant and Javier Baez.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon said. “So I love when your own division is very, very competitive. I think young players get better sooner because they got to show up every day. Otherwise, you will be embarrassed.

“When you’re playing good teams, you really have to show up, and I think our division’s going to really draw that out of our young players.”

[MORE: Cubs can't hide Jon Lester's throwing issues]

Jake Arrieta learned that the hard way with the Baltimore Orioles. Arrieta blossomed after that change-of-scenery trade in July 2013, taking two no-hitters into the seventh inning against the Reds last season.

“Nothing is going to be handed to you,” said Arrieta, who retired the first nine Reds before a three-run fourth inning. “You’re having to face guys that are the best of the best, day in, day out, series after series. So, yeah, you have no choice but to grow up quick, or else you’re going to be shipped out.

“Playing that level of competition really escalates your development. It has to. Because if you want to survive there, you have to find ways to get it done.

“We’re in the thick of it right here in the Central. It’s no slouch.”

Except for that one inning, Arrieta (1-1, 1.98 ERA) again looked like a frontline guy against the Reds (5-3). But the only offense this lineup could generate came from pinch-hitter/No. 3 catcher Welington Castillo, who hit a two-run homer off ex-Cub Kevin Gregg in the eighth inning. The Cubs (4-3) ran out of late-game magic against Chapman, falling out of first place.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Epstein’s front office and veteran players viewed as short-term assets have talked about the urgency of getting off to a good start the last few years, so the team wouldn’t get blown up at the trade deadline.

Now, the Cubs hope to be buyers on July 31, and 25 of their first 31 games come against Central opponents.

“The start is just so essential, especially when you’re in a really competitive division,” Epstein said. “We put ourselves in a big hole the last few years. I think we have more talent this year and we have a more realistic chance to go do some damage and really compete.

“(But) focus on getting off to a good start. It’s so important in this division.”

It’s not necessarily the same as going into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.

But everyone knows about the St. Louis Cardinals and their 11 World Series titles. The Reds have made the playoffs three times since 2010. The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off back-to-back seasons winning a wild card. The Milwaukee Brewers spent 159 days in first place last season.

“You got to take charge of your division,” Maddon said. “You have to ascend within your division. Nobody’s going to be just giving us anything here. Not at all. We have to go out there and take that momentum. We have to take our place within the division. As it should be.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

[MORE: The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason]

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

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, as we discussed on the latest CubsTalk Podcast.

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.