Cubs

What win over Phillies and Vince Velasquez says about Cubs as contenders built to last

What win over Phillies and Vince Velasquez says about Cubs as contenders built to last

PHILADELPHIA – Pitching goes poof. That fundamental belief drove the Cubs during their rebuilding years, factoring into so many franchise-altering decisions made by Theo Epstein’s front office.
 
The Philadelphia Phillies watched Vince Velasquez throw two pitches clocked at 86 and 87 mph on Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park – and then walk off the mound with one out in the first inning.
 
The Phillies called it right biceps soreness for Velasquez, the talented pitcher acquired from the Houston Astros in the Ken Giles trade that came together during the winter meetings. This gave Andy MacPhail’s organization another reminder about the unpredictability of pitching – within the final 30 hours before making the No. 1 overall pick in a draft without any obvious franchise players. 
 
The Cubs simply wore down the Phillies during an 8-1 victory, showing why they are off to the majors’ best start (41-17) since Lou Piniella’s 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 games – and have a built-to-last foundation that should be able to withstand the inevitable MRIs.
 
After throwing seven scoreless innings against the Phillies, John Lackey listened to a reporter who relayed the initial Velasquez diagnosis and said: “A lot of times that’s code for elbow.” 
 
“A guy with that kind of upside,” Lackey said, “you definitely don’t wish that on anybody.”
 
At the age of 37, Lackey is a Tommy John survivor who hasn’t lost his edge and definitely knows how to set up and attack hitters, limiting the Phillies to three singles and finishing with eight strikeouts against zero walks.  
 
At a time when the price of pitching is skyrocketing and nine-figure contracts look like awful investments, the Cubs locked up Lackey with a two-year, $32 million deal that looks like a bargain in this market. Lackey is now 10-for-12 in quality starts, allowing two earned runs or less eight times and putting up All-Star-caliber numbers (7-2, 2.63 ERA) behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.       
 
“When you’re looking around as a free agent, that’s one of the reasons you come here – the talent base is really good,” Lackey said. “They’re really young and it’s something that can be together for a long time. I only got a few years left, but for a guy like ‘J-Hey,’ that’s a selling point, for sure. This is a team that can be good for a long time.”
 
The Cubs gave Jason Heyward the biggest contract in franchise history, guaranteeing $184 million to a 26-year-old Gold Glove outfielder, adding him and Lackey to a 97-win team and taking them away from the St. Louis Cardinals.  
 
The emphasis on defense helped Lackey in the first inning when Albert Almora Jr. – the sixth overall pick in 2012 and the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration – caught a flyball on the move in left-center field and made a one-hop throw to beat Odubel Herrera to home plate and execute the momentum-shifting double play.
 
Without Velasquez, the Phillies (29-31) would have trouble containing this offense. Kris Bryant crushed a two-run homer off Andrew Bailey in the sixth inning that generated an exit velocity of almost 107 mph and traveled 432 feet into the left-field seats. Two batters later, Ben Zobrist drove his eighth home run over the center-field wall.
 
Where Bryant (14 homers, 43 RBI) has anchored this lineup, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft developing into an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year, the switch-hitting Zobrist (.436 on-base percentage) has given it a different dimension and a veteran presence in the first season of a four-year, $56 million contract.  
 
The Cubs have stockpiled so many position players that Javier Baez can go 4-for-4 with three RBI – and develop a reputation as one of the league’s best defensive infielders – and still not have an everyday job.   
 
“You’re starting to see the teams with better records built like that,” Heyward said. “That’s the way it goes. When somebody goes down, somebody else is ready behind (them) to come in and contribute. (When) guys need days off, those guys contribute. In pinch-hit spots, they contribute. It just makes everybody’s job easier for the long run.
 
“You just understand it’s going to take a 40-man roster if you want to go out and accomplish what you’re trying to get done and win a World Series.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

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.