Now Cubs have to respond to the adversity and move on with or without Addison Russell: ‘Real life happens all the time’

Now Cubs have to respond to the adversity and move on with or without Addison Russell: ‘Real life happens all the time’

It’s probably too simple to say the Cubs played distracted on Thursday night at Wrigley Field. It’s also not really an exaggeration to suggest the defending World Series champs could be in crisis mode.

The Cubs held a brief team meeting before a 4-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies, getting an update on Addison Russell’s situation and a reminder on how to handle questions about domestic-violence allegations they don’t have answers for now.

This is unchartered territory, a third-party accusation on Instagram that has since been deleted, a relatively new Major League Baseball policy that gives commissioner Rob Manfred a lot of latitude and little precedent and the Cubs not knowing when their All-Star shortstop will return.    

“We have great clubhouse chemistry, but real life happens all the time,” team president Theo Epstein said. “Sometimes, it reaches the light of day, and sometimes it doesn’t. But there are serious situations that come up throughout the course of a season and right now we’re dealing with a very serious allegation.

“We’ll see where it develops. But, yeah, it’s not always just baseball in there. Everybody has a personal life. The real world happens every day to guys and they know how to deal with it and still play the game.”

Three-plus hours after the Cubs announced Kyle Hendricks would be going on the disabled list with a hand injury, the first-place Rockies jumped  their other Cy Young Award finalist from last year. Jon Lester watched ex-Cub DJ LeMahieu – a rare miss from the early days of the Epstein administration – launch a two-out, three-run homer into the right-field basket that gave Colorado a 4-1 lead in the second inning. This kind of night: Lester was informed that LeMahieu had hit only one other home run off a left-handed fastball within the last four years.  

“Baseball is a game of adjustments,” Lester said. “It’s a game that can be cruel to you at times and be really good to you at times. With Kyle doing down, all the stuff going on with Addie, you know what, that’s why we’ve got 25 guys and we’ll figure it out. You can’t worry about stuff you can’t control.

“The next guy will step in and hopefully fill that void. That’s all you can really do in this game. You can’t dwell on the negatives and you look forward to tomorrow.”

Even if the Cubs sound optimistic about Hendricks, there are now questions up and down the rotation, from how Mike Montgomery transitions out of the bullpen to where Jake Arrieta goes from here to how much John Lackey (5.12 ERA) has left at the age of 38 to if Eddie Butler can stick in the big leagues after failing with the Rockies.

Sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend now feels like ancient history for a 30-29 team near the beginning of a 30-games-in-31-days stretch between June 2 and July 2 that hasn’t even gotten into the 17 road games in five different cities yet.

“It’s all about depth,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You don’t win without depth. That happens on an annual basis. We’ve been pretty good regarding picking other guys up over the last couple years.

“These are the kind of things you have to expect during the course of the year.”

It would be foolish to write off the Cubs when they are only one game out of first place in a weak division. Javier Baez might wind up being a better shortstop than Russell and Epstein could trade for a big-time starter before the July 31 deadline.

But it’s also probably time to slow down the Cubs Way narrative about the organization’s emphasis on character and makeup after rationalizing Aroldis Chapman’s 30-game suspension under MLB’s domestic-violence policy and making that blockbuster trade with the New York Yankees last summer.

“I think they’re distinct at this time,” Epstein said. “With Aroldis Chapman, it was a player who had served his discipline and had undergone the disciplinary action through the program.

“He was somebody who we then spent a lot of time doing our own research on whether we thought he had grown from the incident and moved on and could be a productive member of our clubhouse and a good citizen while with the Cubs.

“This is an allegation by a third party on social media. They are distinct situations, but they both fall under the same general umbrella. And because the nature of the allegation is very serious, we are taking it very seriously.”

All the players can do is shrug their shoulders, get through the initial media wave and go back to work.

“We’re human beings,” said Anthony Rizzo, the face-of-the-franchise first baseman. “We’re put on this high level, but things happen off the field that usually don’t get this far to the media. Things are going on all the time, on and off the field. You learn to deal with it.

“I love Addison. We’ve had some really good memories together, but I don’t know. I love him here. I don’t know what’s going on outside of this.”

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

In the wake of the cheating allegations surrounding the Houston Astros, multiple parties have weighed in with their takes on the situation, and this includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish. He stated that this past season, he had noticed "weird behavior" from batters. Bleacher Nation then tweeted out a video showing Darvish stepping off the mound in a matchup against Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers, stating that he stepped off the mound because Yelich's "eyes move first...I'm not sure what he is trying to do."

Darvish then went on to elaborate that he wasn't trying to accuse the Brewers of stealing signs, rather that he was just stating what he had noticed in terms of batter behavior. Darvish made a minor grammar mistake, saying "your" instead of "you're" and when he responded to try to clarify that, it may have accidentally caused more confusion, as some mistakenly thought he was saying that Yelich indeed was stealing signs, but this was not the case.

That didn't stop Yelich from sounding off on Darvish with quite a harsh response, a response that was so harsh that some were shocked at the nature of it.

MLB free agent Josh Donaldson chimed in, humorously stating that he could definitely  use some help hitting off of Darvish and jokingly asked for what tips Yelich might have. 

Darvish then retweeted a few tweets that illustrated the point he was trying to make. 

Darvish also responded to Donaldson, saying that he doesn't think the third baseman needs any help hitting off of him either. 

At the end of the Darvish seems to be in a good place, and from his Twitter interactions, it is clear that he was not as upset or offended over the situation as Yelich was. 

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