ST. LOUIS Starlin Castro watched the Cardinals get their rings and pointed at his chest.Its a pretty good energy for me, Castro said. Thats what I want to be one day, on this team winning the World Series. (It) makes me more aggressive. (I feel the) anticipation for working harder.Its hard to imagine how crazy this day would be at Wrigley Field. But if its going to come this decade sometime during the Theo Epstein administration their 22-year-old shortstop will almost certainly have to be in the middle of it.On Saturday morning, Dale Sveum wrote a reminder on the dry-erase board in the clubhouse: Ring ceremony, 11:30. The Cubs manager wanted his players watching in the dugout, to show some respect for the world champions.The Cubs stood there clapping as first-base coach Dave McKay who spent 16 seasons alongside Tony La Russa in St. Louis returned to their side after picking up his ring.The Cardinals won their 11th World Series title by capitalizing on mistakes and creating a sense of momentum. Clinching the wild card on the final day of the regular season after Atlantas epic meltdown reflected their style of play over the years.This was another snapshot in St. Louis. Castro committed an error to begin the fourth inning and the Cubs watched it morph into a 5-1 loss in front of 46,792 fans at Busch Stadium.Castros throw lifted Bryan LaHair off the bag, and the first baseman didnt land right. Sveum thought the shortstop had looked at Matt Holliday running down the line.Chris Volstad wasnt exactly rattled the next batter (Carlos Beltran) flied out to center but the Cardinals strung together four consecutive hits to take a 4-0 lead.Volstad wound up going six innings and gave up four runs (three earned). He didnt make any excuses about his routine the rain delay lasted almost two hours or his defense.(Castros) doing a great job, Volstad said. Theres no worries there. Hes got a powerful arm. Thats going to happen. Im going to make bad pitches. Thats just the way the game is.As much as the Cubs (3-6) would like to raise their game against the defending champs, they dont have much margin for error, and it really doesnt matter whos in the other dugout.You always have to play good games, Sveum said. I dont know if were going to pound the ball enough to make mistakes and give runs away.To close the gap on the Cardinals (6-3), the Cubs will need to see Castro continue on a steady upward trajectory. With the previous play still in his mind, he made another high throw to start the fifth inning and was charged with his fourth error of the season.Yeah, its very frustrating, because (Ive been) working hard in the Dominican and here, Castro said. That kind of thing (isnt) supposed to happen. Its the game everybody makes errors.If it happens one time, thats (OK). Two timesthat cant happen again. Sveum, who played shortstop in the big leagues, planned to have a talk with Castro. The manager understands how difficult the position can be, and noticed a slight mechanical issue around the wrist, but otherwise gave a pass.Those are still those mistakes you can work out, Sveum said. Its not something thats a major thing. But those are the things that, unfortunately, were still probably going to see a little bit.To put it in perspective, Castros hitting .371 with six RBI and woke up on Saturday leading the majors with six stolen bases. He intends to become a complete player.Thats what I want to do, he said, put everything on the same level defense, running, hitting.This is Year 3 for Castro, a pivot point that could preview what Cubs fans will see for years to come. He isnt weighed down by history. Everything still seems to be in front of him.Why not? Castro said. Keep playing together and I think one day theres going to be championships and a World Series.
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.
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: