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."