Cubs

Cubs attempting to return to normalcy with Addison Russell

Cubs attempting to return to normalcy with Addison Russell

For now at least, the Cubs and Addison Russell are ready to move on.

Social media lit up during the Cubs-Marlins series finale Wednesday night as Russell's estranged wife, Melisa, posted an Instagram photo and called him out for infidelity. The incident took a hard left turn when a commenter claiming to be Melisa's close friend accused Russell of domestic abuse.

The Cubs got out in front of the story and told Russell to stay home from the ballpark Thursday while the 23-year-old shortstop also released a statement calling "any allegation I have abused my wife is false and hurtful."

Russell was back at Wrigley Field Friday and though he was not in the starting lineup against the Colorado Rockies, he was active and available off the bench.  The Cubs never ended up getting him in the game during a 5-3 loss.

There has been no indication Major League Baseball's investigation into the matter has concluded, but for now, the Cubs and Russell will try to get back to business as usual.

"We just talked to him about taking [Thursday] off," Joe Maddon said before Friday's game. "We were anticipating he would be back here today. We left it open but, 'yes, if you want to come back today if everything feels good.' 

"I talked to him last night — he sounded really good. He sounded very clear, very directed and that's a good thing. He's back. We'll utilize him as normal... We're not gonna run away from the opportunity to play him. 

"So again, it's just normal patterns. It's good to have him back. I had a great conversation and it seems to me that maybe mentally, he's in a little bit better place."

Russell was in the Cubs clubhouse Friday morning and met with the media some three hours before first pitch. He refused to discuss the off-field matter, preferring to focus on "baseball questions."

Russell refused to attribute his on-field struggles — .209 average, .626 OPS — to his issues away from the ballpark.

"There's periods of times where you're struggling, you're scuffling and sometimes you stink," Russell said. "I know that being young in the major leagues is gonna come with a lot of adversity. I'm here for a reason — it's because I'm good."

He said he has been working with Cubs hitting coach John Mallee on getting his foot down sooner and attempting to simplify things and get back to "ABC baseball."

Russell admitted spending a day away from the field was difficult given that the ballpark is his home and where he feels comfortable.

But he also seemed to welcome the opportunity to recharge mentally and get back on track in what has clearly been one of the toughest years of his life, both on and off the field.

"I think everything is a learning curve and you tackle those adversities day by day and you overcome those and it's only going to make you a better player, a better person at the end of the day," Russell said. "I'm happy that I got that day mentally to just relax.

"You just get back to your inner thoughts. What were you doing whenever you're successful is kinda like what I was thinking. You get back in those positive thoughts and I think positive things start happening."

Before the social media-induced storm Wednesday night, Russell had spent the last week-and-a-half as part of a timeshare with Javy Baez at shortstop.

The two young players were rotating starts at the position, freeing up Russell to do more work with Mallee off to the side while still getting regular game action to try to work through his struggles.

Russell was an All-Star in 2016 and is among the best defenders in baseball at any position (he's currently tied for second in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved behind only Colorado's Nolan Arenado). But he said he is all for sharing the shortstop job with Baez in an effort to help the 30-29 Cubs find their rhythm.

From the Cubs' perspective, Maddon just wants to treat Russell like normal.

"It's all I know how to do, man," Maddon said. "I really have a lot of respect for everybody that I work with. I had a good conversation with him. I don't think we should change anything about how we do interact with him right now."

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have reportedly made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

According to MLB Insider Robert Murray, the Cubs have reached an agreement with right-hander Daniel Winkler on a one-year deal.

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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