Cubs

No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs

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No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. - Addison Russell didn't go through the same physical transformation as Jason Hammel, but the 22-year-old shortstop still looks like a new person in Cubs camp.

Russell no longer looks like a rookie - on the field or off - and he proved it with a two-run shot onto the lawn in left field in the third inning of the Cubs' 3-0 win in the Cactus League home opener at Sloan Park Friday afternoon.

This year won't have a trial period where he will have to prove he deserves to be in the big leagues. Now he knows he belongs.

"Conversationally, he's much more confident," Joe Maddon said. "Easier to joke around with you. Just much more comfortable in his major-league skin.

"I love it. He knows he belongs here. He knows he's good here. He's in great shape. He was in fine shape last year; I think he's in even better shape right now.

"There's a lot going on in his personal life and family life, which is all positive. He's growing up a little bit."

[RELATED - Kawasaki Karaoke: Joe Maddon 'abhors' monotony in Cubs camp]

At times last season, Russell looked like he was pressing. After he made his MLB debut on April 21, Russell hit .226 with a .650 OPS before the All-Star break.

But he felt something clicked in the second half, as his OPS jumped nearly 100 points (.744) and Russell showed more power with eight homers and 13 doubles in 71 games.

The Cubs helped incorporate a leg kick into Russell's swing and he said that helped him get more power and drive the ball.

That power - which he flashed during Friday's win - also jumped out to Maddon last spring when he got his first up-close look at Russell.

"I didn't know he had that kind of power," Maddon said. "I'm watching him in batting practice right now - he's really strong.

"Last year at this time, we primarily talked about his defense, what a good kid he was, he'll be ready at some point, he's gonna help us, the shortstop of the future - all those kinda commentary.

"I did not know he had this kind of power. He's got real power."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Russell posted a career .520 slugging percentage in the minor leagues, with 30 homers in 178 games between 2013-14. Could that start translating in the majors in 2016?

Maddon has talked up Russell's defense at shortstop a ton (even saying Russell could be a Gold Glove contender), but it's the offensive side that has the Cubs manager excited.

"When I stand behind the cage and I watch him, two things stand out - how big and strong his hands are and then when he hits the ball, it makes a different sound," Maddon said. "So as he gets more acclimated to the major-league game, contact's going to be more consistent and more consistently hard.

"The improvements on defense are going to be more subtle. The improvements offensively are going to be more dramatic."

Part of Russell's comfortability level is also knowing all the guys in the clubhouse. Russell only spent about nine months in the Cubs organization before making his big-league debut.

He's also gotten to know the newcomers this season, like veteran second baseman Ben Zobrist who Russell immediately felt like he had a natural connection with.

[RELATED - 'Match made in heaven': Russell, Zobrist already clicking for Cubs]

Zobrist didn't use Russell's phrase - "a match made in heaven" - but he did gush about the 22-year-old's defensive ability at shortstop.

"Very, very extremely good, quick hands," Zobrist said. "Quick feet. His transitions [from glove to ball] are as quick I've seen. His athleticism is out of this world, too. The sky is the limit for him.

"It's a matter of him getting comfortable, finding out his style, getting the reps for this level, figuring out the way he wants to make extended plays because he's gonna have a chance to make more extended plays than other people will make just because his range is so good.

"I mean, it's impressive. He's still very young and he's got a lot of work to do to perfect this, but he's got all the tools that are necessary to be a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop."

Who knows if Russell will contend for a Gold Glove this year or not, but as far as the comfortability goes, he believes he's got that part down.

"Especially with a year under my belt, I feel a lot better coming into spring," Russell said. "You got these guys here that I played with and I grinded it out with here last year.

"It makes things a lot easier. Coming into the fieldhouse, it's definitely a lot more loose. I feel a lot more confident.

"It's both [comfortability and confidence]. Also just knowing I belong. I think I deserve to be here."

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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Former Cub Mark Prior 'likely' to take over as Dodgers pitching coach in 2020

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USA TODAY

Former Cub Mark Prior 'likely' to take over as Dodgers pitching coach in 2020

Mark Prior's big-league playing career unfortunately fizzled out due to recurring injury woes, but he's making a name for himself in the coaching realm.

With Dodgers current pitching coach Rick Honeycutt transitioning into a new role, Prior is expected to takeover the position starting next season.

Cubs fans know the story of Prior's playing career all too well. The Cubs drafted him second overall in the 2001, with Prior making his MLB debut just a season later. He went on to dominate in 2003, posting an 18-6 record, 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 30 starts, a season in which he made the All-Star Game and finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

However, Prior's season ended on a sour note, as he was on the mound during the Steve Bartman incident in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Prior exited the game with a 3-1 lead, but the Cubs surrendered seven more runs that inning, eventually falling to the Marlins 8-3 before losing Game 7 the next day. 

Prior struggled to stay healthy after 2003, eventually retiring in 2013 after multiple comeback attempts. While many blame his injury-riddled career on former Cubs manager Dusty Baker, Prior does not. 

While we can only wonder what could've been with Prior to the pitcher, it's good to see him still making an impact in baseball in some fashion.

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