Cubs

This is nice for Cubs, but Jon Lester signed up to win World Series

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This is nice for Cubs, but Jon Lester signed up to win World Series

PITTSBURGH — This is why the Cubs gave Jon Lester $155 million guaranteed — to pitch in big games, give their young players more confidence/attitude and ultimately lead this team into October.

Lester took care of business in Tuesday night’s 2-1 Game 2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, salvaging a split of this huge doubleheader at PNC Park. He pumped his fist at the end of this complete-game performance — and then quickly came down from the emotional high by the time reporters surrounded his locker.

Sure, this is nice. The Cubs reduced their playoff magic number to 12 and stayed within four games of the Pirates for home-field advantage in the National League’s wild-card game. But Lester earned two championship rings with the Boston Red Sox, so in terms of expectations for the first season of this six-year deal megadeal ...

“When I signed here, I envisioned winning a World Series,” Lester said. “Not just playing September baseball. Hopefully, we can get to that point and we can talk about that a little more.”

[MORE CUBS: Scott Boras knows what 20 wins could mean for Cubs and Jake Arrieta]

That looks more realistic when the Cubs have Lester or Jake Arrieta on the mound, a 1-2 playoff punch that might be as good as any other combination in the game.

Manager Joe Maddon noticed Lester still throwing 94 mph in the eighth inning, and the lefty got Andrew McCutchen and Aramis Ramirez to swing at first pitches in the ninth for two quick outs. Lester froze Francisco Cervelli with a 94-mph fastball — his 111th pitch — to end the game with his ninth strikeout.

“This is what he does,” Maddon said. “He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It’s not a surprise.”

In the moment, the Cubs (83-61) needed Lester (10-10, 3.38 ERA) to give the bullpen a break and stop a three-game losing streak. Big picture, the franchise needed someone to anchor the rotation and set an example for being a professional and handling the big stage.

“(I) prepare the same way (for) an April start as I do in September or October,” Lester said. “If there’s a magic formula or whatever, I think everybody would try to share that with all your teammates. I don’t know. I always feel better the second half of the year, both with stuff and physically.”

[MORE CUBS: How Theo Epstein would fix the wild-card format]

Since Lester’s issues with throwing over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo and controlling the running game have been so publicized, it’s only fair to also mention that he initiated a 1-3-4-3 to pick off Starling Marte, ending the third inning.

“He picked himself off,” Lester said. “He tried to sneak one, and the infield did a good job (with) that rundown. He’s such a good athlete. He can turn and move and he’s fast.

“As far as other teams and all that stuff and all the other things that have gone on this year, I’m not too concerned about it. I’ll continue to try to vary my looks and holds.

"And I may surprise you guys one day with just like an Andy Pettitte move over there — and maybe surprise Rizz a little bit, too.”

Lester doesn’t appear to get defensive or too stressed out, and the Cubs also looked much sharper defensively in Game 2, whether it was Kris Bryant crashing into the right-field wall to make a leaping catch or shortstop Addison Russell gliding to his left and flipping the ball to Starlin Castro to start a key double play that limited the Pirates to one run in the seventh inning or Javier Baez seemingly getting to everything over at third base.

That’s what the Cubs will need if they return to this beautiful waterfront stadium on Oct. 7 in a win-or-else situation. Arrieta and Lester can take it from there.

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.

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.

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.