Cubs

Opening Day or not, Dempster needs fast start with Cubs

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Opening Day or not, Dempster needs fast start with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Its not that the Cubs werent working hard before, Ryan Dempster said, before making an observation that pretty much sums up the entire organization.

Theres extra motivation any time you have new bosses, Dempster said. You want to make a good first impression. I think its only human nature, so I know a lot of guys have been pushing themselves to do the best they can.

Dempster is two months shy of his 35th birthday and will make 14 million in the final year of his contract. President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer want to build this team around young players under club control.

Dempster who threw two innings and gave up one run in Mondays 8-7 loss to the Oakland As at HoHoKam Stadium doesnt want to look into the future.

All of those pieces fall into place if you just go out there and do your job, Dempster said. The easiest thing for me to do is just focus on my job, and thats preparing in between starts and every fifth day to go out there and do the best job I can of being mentally and physically prepared to pitch.

Dempster could be getting the ball on April 5 at Wrigley Field against the Washington Nationals. Matt Garza would be the other logical candidate to start Opening Day.

Manager Dale Sveum said a decision will come within the next week, and acknowledged the symbolism behind it: Yeah, that all goes into it, theres no question about it. Who had the better year, the matchups, the leadership, whos been here the longest (and) the longevity of a career.

That could favor an established veteran like Dempster, who drew the assignment last year and put up a 9.58 ERA in his first six starts, part of a month he said hes already forgotten.

(Dempster said) he had an unbelievable spring training last year where he had unbelievable command of his fastball, Sveum said. That might have got him in a little bit of trouble because he mentioned he wasnt using his secondary pitches maybe as much. He was so caught up in having great fastball command, he didnt really work on his offspeed stuff in spring training last year.

Dempster was a little more evasive: Thats a really strong possibility. I never really thought of that. Ive been working on everything this spring. My offspeed stuff is already ahead of where it was last year.

Dempster managed to rebound and finished at 10-14 with a 4.80 ERA. He accounted for 21 quality starts and more than 200 innings. His run support (3.90 average) was the lowest on the staff. There were also times where it seemed obvious he was left in one or two batters too long.

There are all kinds of ways you can make stats look how you want them to look and use excuses, Sveum said. The bottom line is he knows hes better than he showed last year and I think hes on a mission to prove that.

Coming off a down season and heading into a contract year and with new management charting every pitch it shouldnt be hard to find motivation.

Theres a bright future on the horizon, Dempster said, but theres also a bright future right now. There are a lot of good players in here. We got to go out there on the field and be about it, not just talk about it.

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here:

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."