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."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.