Cubs

Jorge Soler homers in return to help Lester, Cubs beat A's

Jorge Soler homers in return to help Lester, Cubs beat A's

OAKLAND, Calif. — Cubs manager Joe Maddon thought Jorge Soler might get a jolt out of returning to the majors after spending two months recovering from a nagging hamstring injury, including a two-week stint in the minors.

Boy, was Maddon right.

Soler hit a three-run home run in his first at-bat after being activated off the disabled list, Jon Lester pitched seven strong innings, and Chicago beat the Oakland Athletics 7-2 on Friday night.

"Sometimes a guy just needs to show up and then he gets the adrenaline going on, and that was a big hit," Maddon said. "I didn't think it was high enough to go out. It was out so quickly."

Dexter Fowler also homered while Javier Baez added a two-run double to help Chicago win its fifth straight. The Cubs also improved to a major league-best 67-41.

Lester (12-4) pitched for the A's over the final two months of the 2014 season after getting traded from Boston. He returned to the Coliseum for the first time since then and faced a distinctly different Oakland team than the one he left.

"Any time you've been on the home side and come back as a visitor it's different," said Lester, who had eight strikeouts, and allowed two runs on nine hits.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

"I enjoyed pitching here. I wish it turned out a little different but I was with a good team and great fans. It's unbelievable to come here as a home player as opposed to a visitor."

Soler, out since June 6 with a hamstring injury, celebrated his return to the majors with his home run in the first inning off A's starter Dillon Overton (1-3).

That capped a four-run burst by the Cubs that included Fowler's fifth game-opening home run this season.

Soler also reached on a fielder's choice and scored on Baez's double in the third. Jason Heyward added an RBI single in the inning to help extend Chicago's lead to 7-0.

"I wasn't feeling any pressure, I just wanted to put a good swing on the ball," Soler said through an interpreter. "I was a little bit frustrated being out at least two months but I just wanted to keep the positive attitude and come here and try to do my best."

Brett Eibner, called up from the minors earlier in the day, homered against Lester leading off the sixth for Oakland. Marcus Semien added an RBI single.

ROOKIE ROUGHED UP

Overton allowed seven runs in three innings but suffered his third consecutive loss. The rookie left-hander is winless since beating the Los Angeles Angels in his major league debut June 25. "Believe it or not I was actually hitting my spots better tonight," Overton said. "They were just hitting everything I threw. You're going to have days like that You just have to work with it and keep grounded."

TRAINER'S ROOM

Cubs: Maddon said the plan is to ease Soler back in and get him some defensive work in the outfield before the team faces another NL team on Aug. 11. ... RHP Joe Nathan was designated for assignment. The 41-year-old was 1-0 in three appearances with the Chicago.

Athletics: Jed Lowrie was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of a bunion on his left foot. ... RHP Jesse Hahn also went on the DL with a strained right shoulder. ... RHP Andrew Triggs was called back up from Triple-A Nashville along with Eibner.

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?

cubs_podcast_offense_slid.jpg
USA TODAY

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: