The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

Mr. Underrated: Pedro Strop just keeps doin' his thing

Mr. Underrated: Pedro Strop just keeps doin' his thing

The Cubs have had four different closers over the last three seasons.

Beyond Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, Brandon Morrow and Hector Rondon, they've had a handful of other pitchers who could be "the guy" if an injury befell the back end of the team's bullpen — guys like Carl Edwards Jr. or Koji Uehara or Steve Cishek or even Justin Wilson.

Somehow, Pedro Strop always seems to get overlooked. 

The 32-year-old veteran has been one of the more underrated relievers in the game since he came over as "the other guy" in the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. 

After two shutout innings Saturday in St. Louis — a ballpark and a team that has haunted him in the past (7.04 ERA, 1.76 WHIP at Busch Stadium, even after Saturday's outing) — Strop now has a 1.93 ERA and 1.07 WHIP on the 2018 campaign.

Overall, he's 16-18 with a 2.68 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 332 strikeouts in 285.2 innings in a Cubs uniform. He has never finished a year in Chicago with an ERA above 2.91.

Since the start of the 2014 season (his first full year with the Cubs), Strop ranks 21st in baseball in ERA among relievers, just behind guys like Cody Allen and Kelvin Herrera and coming in ahead of pitchers like Roberto Osuna, David Robertson and Greg Holland. In that same span, he ranks 13th in baseball in appearances (278), more than stud relievers Kenley Jansen and Andrew Miller.

This year, Maddon is using Strop more than ever, as he's on pace for 71 innings, which would represent a career high.

Even despite the consistency and regular season numbers, Strop still found himself outside Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust during the 2016 playoff run. However, that was more due to a knee injury that sidelined him to end that regular season, leading to a bit of rust entering October.

Pitching in a Cubs uniform on the postseason over the last three years, Strop has only allowed 7 hits in 16.1 innings, sporting a 2.20 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 19 appearances.

What's led to that consistency?

"I think it's routine," Strop said. "Be professional in what you're doing, even when the day doesn't go well for you. OK, it's in the past, keep looking ahead and just try to do better whenever you get back in there. Stuff like that.

"Little things can change the whole thing. I'm really mentally tough to walk away when things are bad. I think that's been a huge part of me being consistent — just let everything go and keep going."

Strop has admitted he hasn't always been very good at letting the bad stuff go.

The only reason he was even available in the deal five summers ago was because he had posted a 7.25 ERA in 29 games in Baltimore after looking like one of the game's bright young relief stars the previous two seasons (2.34 ERA).

Strop has spent a lot of time learning from other veterans in his career and has now gotten to the point where he's now one of the seasoned, wise vets in the Cubs bullpen, lending counsel to younger guys like Edwards.

"I've been learning a lot and I think [the mental aspect] is a really important part, especially for relievers," Strop said. "You don't have as much time to be thinking about bad outings. You just gotta put it away and get back in there the next day.

"I don't want to say starting is easier, but when you have a bad outing as a starter, you have another five days to put everything together in bullpens and stuff. But as a reliever, you gotta be ready the next day."

Should the Cubs trade Addison Russell for Manny Machado? Umm...no

Should the Cubs trade Addison Russell for Manny Machado? Umm...no

Twitter is abuzz with the sound of Manny Machado trade propositions.

There's no harm in that. It's everybody's right as a sports fan to come up with their own ideas for trades — no matter how crazy — and debate proposals with other fans.

But not all trade ideas are equal, of course.

In his recent column for The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal came up with a package for the top teams in baseball to acquire superstar infielder Manny Machado from the Baltimore Orioles.

From a Cubs perspective, Rosenthal suggests a package of Addison Russell, Mike Montgomery and a prospect for Machado.

Um...no.

Russell-for-Machado straight up is enough to give me pause, but I can at least wrap my head around why that might make sense for the Cubs.

Adding Montgomery and a prospect, however, pushes the trade over the edge into "no way" territory if all the Cubs are getting back is Machado.

For starters, Machado is set to be a free agent after the 2018 season and right now, seems intent on exploring the open market. Why wouldn't he want to? He won't get a $400 million contract like Bryce Harper may be reeling in, but Machado is still one of the very best players in baseball and should be able to fetch $200 million if he so desired.

Any Cubs trade for Machado would signal some sort of all-in notion for 2018 and prompt "World Series or Bust" expectations.

Why would the Cubs need to go that route and feel such urgency? They're positioned to contend for at least the next three years, but the championship window is probably open longer than that. 

The Cubs have been viewing a 7-year stretch of contention for years and discussed that same notion just last week at the MLB Winter Meetings. 2018 only represents Year 4 of that 7-year stretch.

Yes, the Cubs gave up Gleyber Torres (a Top 5 prospect in the game), Adam Warren (a useful swingman arm) and a pair of minor-leaguers for only a half-season of Aroldis Chapman 18 months ago, but that helped end the 108-year championship drought and the 2016 team was just one piece (a dominant closer) away from going over the hump.

The 2018 Cubs are not only one piece away from climbing over the hump if that's the package it takes to acquire Machado.

It would create a short-term pitching need, as Montgomery is currently slated for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Even if the Cubs add another starter, Montgomery is the first guy up if there is an injury to any of the five rotation arms and in the mean time, he's a very valuable bullpen arm as both a long man and in shorter outings. 

Oh yeah, and Montgomery is not a free agent until after the 2021 season.

A Russell-for-Machado straight-up swap would make more sense, but still not an ideal situation for the Cubs' long-term plans.

If you sat here and told Cubs fans in December 2016 that their favorite team would deal Russell in a package for just one year of Machado, they'd probably laugh. And that was when Machado was coming off back-to-back years of Top 5 finishes in AL MVP voting.

Now both players are coming off down years, though they're still so young (Machado turns 26 in July; Russell turns 24 in January).

Russell has not yet lived up to his potential, but he's also only been in the league three years and last season was marred by a foot injury and off-field issues.

It's worth noting Machado needed three big-league seasons before he became the player he is today.

Here are Machado's stats after his third MLB season (2014):

.278/.324/.431
.755 OPS
12 HR
32 RBI
38 R
354 plate appearances
2.3 WAR (Fangraphs)

And here are Russell's stats after his third MLB season (2017):

.239/.304/.418
.722 OPS
12 HR
43 RBI
52 R
385 plate appearances
1.4 WAR (Fangraphs)

Machado is still clearly the better player and he was only 21 in his third season, but it helps illustrate the fact it took him several seasons before he realized his potential, too.

Getting rid of Russell right now would be selling low on a player who was considered one of the top young stars in the game just one year ago.

Dealing Russell — who is under team control for the next four seasons — for only one guaranteed year of a Top 10 player is a great short-term move, but doesn't hold the same appeal long-term.

There is something to be said for auditioning Chicago and the Cubs' young core to Machado as the team tries to work out an early extension, but I guarantee he knows all about both factors even though he's playing his home games in Baltimore.

The Cubs sell themselves right now and the organization surely would have a lot to offer Machado next winter once he hits the open market. And if they wanted to deal Russell before then, they could do so to fill other long-term needs on the roster.