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."

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.