Cubs

Jon Lester's message to frustrated Cubs: Figure it out

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Jon Lester's message to frustrated Cubs: Figure it out

Jon Lester's message to the frustrated Cubs was simple: "You gotta figure it out."

The two-time World Series champion and three-time All-Star knows what it takes to make it in the big leagues and has been a steady voice in a young clubhouse filled with guys still trying to adapt to "The Show."

The Cubs (46-40) had to field questions about the grind after dropping their third straight game, this time a 5-1 loss to Chris Sale and the White Sox (41-44) in front of 41,596 fans at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon.

"You gotta figure it out," Lester said. "The grind in the minor leagues is just the same in the big leagues. The only difference is — you get to take planes to different cities as opposed to buses.

"The grind's there. ... We all go through it. It doesn't matter how old or young we are."

[MORE: Could Cubs and White Sox get together on a Samardzija trade?]

The All-Star break may be coming at a good time for a Cubs team that just went 18 innings in between runs stretching from the sixth inning Wednesday until Jonathan Herrera delivered a pinch-hit double down the line in the seventh inning Saturday.

The Cubs have provided just one run of support total for Lester over his last four starts and for the second straight outing, Kris Bryant made a costly error that opened the door for a big inning from the other team against Lester.

But the veteran southpaw refused to play the blame game.

"I think there's an overall team frustration," Lester said. "I don't think you can point fingers at anybody. We all accept blame at different times. I don't like to single out anybody or single out a side of the baseball.

"Guys are up there grinding, they're prepared and that's all you can ask. The effort's there, the preparation's there, that's all you can ask.

"It's just a funny game — you square a ball up, a guy catches it. You hit a bleeder and it goes through a hole. It goes the same way pitching. We gotta continue to do the little things and the ball will fall our way eventually."

The Cubs have scored two runs or less in 13 of their last 18 games, though they have found a way to win four of those 13 games thanks to some record-setting starting pitching.

The Cubs — minus Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — will get four full days off during next week's All-Star break, giving those young hitters a chance to hit the reset button and get some rest before the "grind" restarts Friday in Atlanta.

"You have to relax the mind a little bit," Joe Maddon said. "The break is definitely coming at the appropriate time for us."

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The Cubs offense has floundered of late, but they've also gone up against some tough pitching, facing the likes of Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Chris Sale...even after finding a way to beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

"We've seen a lot of good pitching," Maddon said. "We've hit some balls well that have found leather as opposed to grass. We've seen good pitching. That's it. We have young hitters that are seeing good pitching.

"We are a swing-and-miss team. That's part of our DNA right now. They've gotten the better of us, but I am not discouraged in the least."

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.