Theo Epstein doesn't see a shortstop controversy for Cubs with Addison Russell nearing return

Theo Epstein doesn't see a shortstop controversy for Cubs with Addison Russell nearing return

Theo Epstein doesn't sense a shortstop controversy brewing in the final weeks of the Cubs season.

With Addison Russell on the cusp of returning, Epstein essentially shot down any talk of Russell moving to second base and keeping Javy Baez at short.

"Thought? Maybe. Formal discussions? Not really," Epstein said before Friday's 8-2 win over the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. "I think it's pretty well established with the body of work with this team — we're a good defensive unit when Addy's at short and Javy's at second.

"I don't think you can go wrong with how you throw those guys out there. But that's how we've been and that's probably how we'll be for the rest of this season."

Russell hasn't played since Aug. 2 with a foot injury and in his stead, Baez has emerged as a force for the Cubs both offensively and defensively. In those 39 games, Baez has hit .298 with an .866 OPS, clubbing eight homers with 26 RBI and 31 runs while playing nearly every inning at shortstop in that time.

But even with all those flashy plays, FanGraphs evaluates Baez's shortstop defense as -2 Defensive Runs Saved, while Russell is at +15 DRS on the year. By that one metric, Russell is the second-best shortstop in baseball, behind only Los Angeles Angels' Andrelton Simmons (+27 DRS).

Russell said his return against the Cardinals this weekend would be "ideal" but the Cubs aren't getting caught up with that timeline, knowing the young infielder needs to get through his Saturday workout without issue. 

And once Russell does return, the Cubs won't push him to the limits or let him play every inning of every game immediately. Joe Maddon confirmed Friday morning they'll work Russell in slowly as they have with dynamic catcher Willson Contreras.

So even if Russell immediately slots in at shortsto once he's back, Baez still figures to move over to the most demanding position on the infield on at least a part-time basis.

"Addy's availability is something we'll have to monitor," Epstein said. "Unfortunately this time of year, there's no place for a rehab assignment. We're gonna evaluate him tomorrow a little bit, decide how much he can play and if he'll be able to play nine [innings] right away as well. 

"We're gonna be mixing and matching no matter what."

Russell knows he needs reps and he's been taking swings in the batting cage and on the field while also taking grounders and running "pain-free," Maddon said.

If Russell returns late in the Cardinals series or early next week, that only leaves him with somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-13 games left in the season to gear up for the playoffs.

Not to mention the importance of those games, with eight remaining after this weekend against the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers.

"My confidence will build the more at-bats I get, obviously," Russell said. "But yeah, it's all about seeing as many pitches as I can, hopefully, before I get into a game. And then just take everything in that first game and build off that."

Assuming the Cubs do make the playoffs, would there be a question on if Russell would be active for the postseason with so little time to find a groove?

"No," Epstein said flatly. "If he's available, he would not be a tough call on a playoff roster.

"Just to clarify — if he's available, he's on the playoff roster."

'The Javy Baez Show' hits the All-Star Game, with El Mago taking his place among baseball's best

'The Javy Baez Show' hits the All-Star Game, with El Mago taking his place among baseball's best

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Asked not long ago how special Javy Baez is, Joe Maddon brought up another name: Jon Lester.

To paraphrase the Cubs’ skipper: When a player with the experience of Lester is raving about Baez, you know he’s something special.

It doesn’t take a lot to realize that Baez can do things on a baseball field that few others can. The man nicknamed “El Mago” is pulling a new rabbit out of his hat each and every game, it seems, leaving even those the closest to him consistently wowed.

And, yeah, Lester thinks pretty highly of his Cubs and National League All-Star teammate, saying Monday that Baez is the best infielder he’s played with during his big league career, now in its 13th season.

“I think he is, probably, the best infielder I’ve ever played with. That speaks pretty highly,” Lester said the day prior to the Midsummer Classic in D.C. “I’ve played with some pretty good ones: (Dustin) Pedroia, Mike Lowell, (Adrian) Beltre at third. These guys are pretty special defenders and players, and I think Javy’s athleticism makes him above and beyond those guys.

“How athletic he is, how he’s able to control his body. There’s times in the game where you feel like it’s almost going backwards for him it’s so slow. And the stuff he’s able to do at the plate, defensively, you guys all see that. He’s a special player to watch. I’m just glad he’s on our side and we get to do it every day.”

Baez’s breakout campaign has him in the MVP discussion at the season’s midway point. And he’s one of the stars of these All-Star festivities, a participant in Monday’s Home Run Derby and the NL leadoff hitter in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. While Cubs fans and observers have watched it all season long — Cubs teammate and fellow Derby participant Kyle Schwarber dubbed it “The Javy Baez Show” on Monday — these two days will put Baez on the national stage, one of the game’s biggest.

“I’ve seen him do some amazing things the past few years,” Reds second baseman and NL All Star Scooter Gennett said. “He couldn’t do anything that I’d be surprised (by). That’s just Javy doing some — what do they call him, ‘The Magician’ or whatever? — just doing some magic stuff. Nothing would surprise me. I’ve seen enough to be like, ‘Man, he’s extremely blessed and a really good baseball player.’”

“Javy is an electrifying player to say the least,” Houston Astros pitcher and American League All Star Gerrit Cole said. “Probably the most impressive thing outside of Javy’s glove work, which is just kind of magical in its own … I got to see him when he first came up and he knows how that first stint went in the major leagues and how he’s adjusted since he’s been there. And that’s probably the most important thing. He’s very flashy, he’s very flairy, which is great, is exciting, is attention grabbing. But his skill work and his talent is really what shines through, and he’s just a wonderful player and tough out.”

Though he paused, seemingly to take in the fact that Lester had such high praise for him, Baez himself said comparisons don’t mean much. It’s not a surprise from someone who has established himself as a unique talent not just in the current generation of ballplayers but perhaps throughout the game’s history.

“There’s a lot of comparisons with me. I just try to be myself, to be honest, out there, off the field, too,” Baez said. “There’s a lot of people who are scared to be them. I play the way I play because I do me. I do it the way I think. … I’m not trying to show anybody up. That’s the way I play, just me being me and trying to do the best for my teammates.”

The numbers and the highlight-reel plays have thrust Baez into the realm of baseball’s very best. His inclusion in the All-Star Game isn’t a surprise, it’s a necessity.

Baez said he’s hoping to learn a lot from this experience, and Lester, at his fifth All-Star Game, said the lesson should be a simple but important one.

“The biggest thing is — when I got my first All-Star Game, it makes you feel like you belong. It’s like, ‘I am pretty good,’” Lester said. “So I think to get rewarded for your hard work, to get to be able to do this, I think it’s kind of like the little pat on the back. Like, ‘Hey, good job.’ For me, it was like, ‘Maybe I am pretty good.’ It was like the big, eye-opening thing for me the first time I got to do this.

“Hopefully they (Baez and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras) see that, hopefully they feel like they are two of the best in the game and that just carries over to their game.”

Where Cubs and White Sox players will bat in All-Star lineup

Where Cubs and White Sox players will bat in All-Star lineup

The 2018 MLB All-Star Game lineups are out for the American and National League, and one former White Sox pitcher makes history.

Javier Baez, in his first All-Star appearance, was tabbed to lead off for the NL. Catcher Willson Contreras, also in his first Midsummer Classic, will hit ninth.

As for the White Sox, starting first basemen Jose Abreu is the lone Sox representative. He will bat eighth for the American League.

For both the AL and NL, the starting lineups look like this.

In a repeat of last year’s starting pitching matchup, the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and former Sox ace Chris Sale will oppose each other for the second consecutive season.

For Sale, this marks his third straight season starting the Midsummer Classic—a feat that hasn’t been done in over 50 years.