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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."

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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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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