Cubs

19 for '19: How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?

19 for '19: How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?

For a long time this offseason, it looked like Addison Russell had played his last game in a Cubs uniform after he accepted a suspension for domestic violence.

That was a perfectly fine conclusion for many outside the organization — from fans to media members. It would also have been a preferred outcome of several inside the organization, Theo Epstein admitted last month.

Ultimately, Epstein and the Cubs chose to bring Russell back on a conditional second chance.

"I understand people who are critical of the approach we've decided to take," Epstein said in his spring training introductory press conference. "I have a number of people I trust and share things with and bounce things off — people who have moral compasses that I think are as good as they come, people who I really trust and respect — and I'd say about half those people really embrace the position we've taken. They think that digging in and trying to make a difference is the right way to go.

"And the other half think that we should've just cut bait and moved on. We do know that we send a message to our fans with every action that we take and that cutting bait sends a simpler, stronger message, but that digging in and trying to make a difference on all these different fronts, sometimes that's a little bit more nuanced and that can get lost in translation.

"I personally think we're doing the right thing. I understand people who are upset and think we should've just moved on. But I can at least pledge to those people that we're taking this on earnestly, that it's important to us, that they're not just words — they're actions and I will continue to be transparent with you and with our fans about everything that we're doing to try to attack this problem of domestic violence and that we will continue to hold Addison to an incredibly high standard or he won't play a regular season game as a Chicago Cub ever again."

It's been a little over a month since Epstein uttered those words and nothing has occured in that span to give any indication that Russell has not lived up to those standards set forth by the team. 

He still has to finish out his 40-game suspension handed down by Major League Baseball, but as of this writing, it seems like a foregone conclusion Russell will once again put on a Cubs uniform in a regular season game. 

His name was on the lineup card for the team's second game of Cactus League play and Russell has made 7 other starts since then — all at shortstop.

It's still unknown how fans — both Cubs faithful and opposing fans — will react to Russell when he returns. His first game at Wrigley Field will certainly be interesting.

Assuming he stays on the current path over the next six weeks, Russell's suspension will end somewhere around May 1, depending on how many rainouts the Cubs have in the first month-plus of the season.

If he does return, Russell will figure to be in the shortstop mix. The Cubs still consider him their best defender at the most premium position and it would also allow flexibility to move Javy Baez all over the infield and improve the team's overall defense.

Obviously his off-field issues have been the main topic of discussion in the last few months, but Russell's on-field struggles are worth mentioning, too, as we look ahead to a possible baseball fit. He's hit just .245 with a .687 OPS in the last two seasons while committing 29 errors in 230 games.

The way Joe Maddon and the Cubs utilized Russell last September is probably a clue as to how they may dole out playing time if he returns. 

Baez will likely start at shortstop against most right-handed pitchers, with some combination of Ben Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, Ian Happ and David Bote playing second base. Russell would be on the bench and can either come in late as a pinch-hitter or for defensive purposes to play shortstop and move Baez around. Russell would then be in line to start against left-handed pitchers, given he has had significantly more success against southpaws than righties the last two years.

From a strictly baseball standpoint, the main question would be whose spot Russell takes on the roster. If everybody is healthy, the Cubs currently have no position-player openings unless they opt to send Bote, Happ or another player down to the minor leagues. But that's a future problem for Epstein, Maddon and Co.

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

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AP

The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.