Cubs

Why Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready for playoff spotlight

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Why Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready for playoff spotlight

MILWAUKEE – Addison Russell has become a billboard for The Cubs Way, how a franchise slowly built a playoff contender and then suddenly became one of the hottest teams and best stories in baseball.

The Cubs believe Russell is ready for October, even if he was born in 1994 and thinks of the 2007 Boston Red Sox as the first playoff team that really caught his attention as a kid growing up in Florida.

Russell is in position to become the fifth-youngest shortstop to ever start a playoff game, according to FanGraphs, with Edgar Renteria – a World Series hero for the 1997 Florida Marlins – being the only one younger in the last 40 years.

But at 21 years and almost nine months, Russell hasn’t shown any signs of being overwhelmed by playing a marquee position for an iconic team in a major market.

“Hopefully, emotions will be calm,” Russell said. “It will still be a little anxious, a little nervous. I think that’s good.”

[MORE: Cubs finish crazy season with 97 victories]

Russell’s fast-track development helps explain why the Cubs will be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

“He’s in his own little cocoon right now, which I kind of dig,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s got the blinders on – in a good way. And he’s just playing baseball as he knows how. He does it the right way. For me, he does everything the right way.”

For Theo Epstein, dealing Jeff Samardzija on the Fourth of July last year signaled the end of his front office going into seasons planning to be trade-deadline sellers.

The assumption was the Cubs would have to get a big-time pitching prospect in return, but Oakland A’s general manager/“Moneyball” architect Billy Beane made an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Going for the position player made sense for an administration that has used four first-round picks on hitters – including Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber – and planned to overpay for pitching (Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal).

Chairman Tom Ricketts called the Samardzija trade an “inflection point” for the organization, essentially the last of the holdover shorter-term assets that needed to be moved – a clean break from the past and a look toward the future.

When the Cubs promoted Russell in late April and made him their everyday second baseman – after only 14 career games on the Triple-A level – it showed the front office thought this team had a chance to win now and would act aggressively.

[RELATED: Dan Haren will retire once Cubs finish playoff run]

When the Cubs demoted Starlin Castro in early August, Russell handled it in a way that didn’t disrespect a three-time All-Star shortstop, part of a larger story about this team’s unselfish nature and the rookies who didn’t let all the hype go to their heads.

“There’s definitely a lot of things I had to learn on the fly,” Russell said. “Just playing with these guys in spring, I knew that we had a good thing going, from the pitching that we have to the young talent (to) the veteran guys that have been here (before). (We) can play.”

Super-agent Scott Boras described his client as an “old soul.” Russell, who has a fiancé, Melisa, and a newborn son, Aiden, had to agree with that scouting report.

“I just really chill,” Russell said. “I’m just kind of observant. I don’t really say much. But I’m watching. I’m gathering information.”

That’s reading swings, analyzing defensive positioning and collecting intelligence on pitchers. Or posting a video of the team’s foggy postgame celebration/dance party/lightshow on his Facebook page.

Russell went into Game 162 leading the team – and ranking seventh in the league – by seeing 4.12 pitches per plate appearance. Baseball-Reference rated him as a 3.5 WAR player. A recent ESPN survey ranked him fourth in Defensive Runs Saved – at second base and at shortstop. His 13 homers, 29 doubles and 54 RBI got overshadowed at or near the bottom of a deep lineup.

“Beyond everything you’re seeing, it’s his respect for everything around him,” Maddon said. “He respects where he’s at, who he’s playing (and) what’s come before him. He respects everything. And I think that’s going to be a big part of his success.

[NBC SHOP: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]   

“Because you’re never going to see him get ahead of himself or think he’s got it licked or whatever. He’s always going to maintain this method that you see right now.

“It’s not just about hits. You can see the force in his swing. You can see him being on time against all kinds of pitches. You can see him laying off of some breaking balls right now.

“But at his age and his point of development…think about a year or two years from now and what it’s going to look like. It’s going to be really good.”

That’s why the Cubs believe they are built to last, whether it’s one-and-done or a long playoff run that keeps Wrigleyville rocking throughout October.

“Anything that it takes to come out on top,” Russell said, “I think that we have the type of team to do it.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.