No return date for Dexter Fowler, but Cubs can't wait to get him back

No return date for Dexter Fowler, but Cubs can't wait to get him back

Dexter Fowler has missed the last 14 games. And the Cubs have lost 10 of them.

While there are plenty of other reasons the Cubs have recently made fans sweat with ugly sweeps at the hands of the Cardinals and Mets and dropping three of four to the Marlins, Fowler's absence is among the most glaring.

The center fielder and leadoff guy is in all likelihood going to be voted into the starting lineup for the National League All-Star team, but when he finally returns to the Cubs' starting lineup remains a mystery. The updates that came Monday from Fowler and manager Joe Maddon regarding the center fielder's hamstring injury fell more into the speculation category.

"I can’t put a time on it," Fowler said. "It feels good. It’s getting better, it’s getting better fast. That’s a good sign. I can’t really look toward the future."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

When Fowler initially went on the disabled list two weeks ago, it was billed mostly as precaution. He wasn't expected to need the full 15 days. But 15 days later, Fowler remains on the DL, and he might remain there a few days more, too.

What was certain Monday was that he'll go on a rehab assignment. When that will happen, however, was also unknown.

"He needs a day or two of rehab, getting out and playing. We don’t know when that’s going to be yet," Maddon said. "It’s not impossible to think that it can be by the end of this week. But it’s a day-to-day thing. He’s getting better, he’s feeling well. Obviously he’s motivated to play in the All-Star Game, that’s a big part of it. I understand that. We’ll just play out the rest of the week and see where it takes us. But there’s no definitive game strategy right now."

So if Fowler is one of three starting National League outfielders when the All-Star rosters are announced Tuesday, will he get a chance to play in the game?

Again, unknown.

"The thing with him is health. Maybe coincidentally you would send him out on those two days anyhow to play rehab, and it just happens to be before an All-Star Game. That would all be more coincidence more than we’re trying to push for him to play in an All-Star Game. That wouldn’t be it at all," Maddon said. "This might be the right time to do it. And then you know that he’s fine, and he goes (to the All-Star Game) and plays a couple innings out there, gets a couple at-bats, comes back and plays. I don’t know, this is all conjecture. But you don’t want to have the timing interfere with what you would have normally done anyway."

[MORE CUBS: Maddon expects Kris Bryant to be fine after scary outfield collision]

Here's what is a definite, though: The Cubs want Fowler back, and they could use him back in a big way. Again, his absence isn't the only reason the Cubs are experiencing a downturn from their white-hot start to the season. But losing an All-Star leadoff man has its obvious repercussions.

Fowler has led off every game he's started this season and posted a spectacular .290/.398/.483 slash line with 41 runs scored, 19 doubles, seven homers and 28 RBIs. Since his departure from June 18's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a variety of Cubs hitters have led off, with Ben Zobrist taking over the role on a consistent basis of late.

And while Zobrist's numbers in the leadoff spot are similarly strong — .286/.394/.500 slash line — it's taking Zobrist's bat out of the middle of the lineup that's causing the offense to sputter at times, per Maddon.

"Zo’s done a great job in the one-hole. He’s done a really good job," Maddon said. "I think that there’s an argument to be made it’s been kind of equal. But then you don’t have Zo somewhere else. That’s the issue. So I think either one of those two guys do a wonderful job (batting leadoff). But when you’re unable to utilize Zobrist in a different spot, obviously because Dex isn’t there, that’s where I think the impact has been felt more than anything. Getting Dexter back is important."

So will Fowler go on rehab this week? Will he be back with the Cubs this week? Will he play in the All-Star Game? Or will none of that happen until after the All-Star festivities?

The Cubs' answers to all of those questions are the same: "We'll see."

But the answer to whether they want and need Fowler back is different. The answer is a resounding yes.

"I thought we could hold serve," Maddon said of the time without Fowler in the lineup. "We’re not far below .500 since this has all been going on, we just had a bad series in New York. You go three out of four in Miami, get yourself righted in Cincinnati, and then have a tough weekend. I’m fine. I don’t think there’s any reason to overestimate anything. We definitely want to have Dexter back, no question."

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.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: