Cubs down on the farm: Updates on Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Carl Edwards Jr., Dillon Maples and Nico Hoerner

Cubs down on the farm: Updates on Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Carl Edwards Jr., Dillon Maples and Nico Hoerner

Before the Cubs even stepped foot inside Wrigley Field in 2019, they already had to dip into the minor leagues for some reinforcements.

Carl Edwards Jr.'s early-season struggles earned him a ticket to Triple-A Iowa and Mike Montgomery's strained lat created room for Allen Webster and Kyle Ryan in the big-league bullpen.

Both pitchers remain in Chicago and the Cubs have also shuttled Randy Rosario back and forth several times and given veteran Tim Collins a trial run in the big leagues, as well. 

And then there's Taylor Davis, who came up two weeks ago after Victor Caratini's hand injury. Davis did not start a game in that stretch and has just one at-bat, but Joe Maddon confirmed he will spell Willson Contreras behind the plate for at least one of the games in Arizona this weekend.

We already know depth matters in baseball, but this year, the Cubs' depth has been tested early and often. 

"It's gonna take everybody this year," Theo Epstein said. "This league really is a gauntlet. I think the team that's gonna come out of the National League or the team that's gonna win the National League Central is the team that gets the absolute most out of its depth and the development of certain guys."

Epstein said he and the rest of the Cubs front office and coaching staff are trying to get the most out of every player they have — not just the 25 guys on the current big-league roster.

Let's take a look at some of the recent news surrounding the most notable names in the minor leagues:

Addison Russell

Russell is currently on a seven-game minor-league assignment as his 40-game suspension for domestic abuse is coming to an end next week. 

He went 2-for-4 with a double, 3 RBI and a walk in his second game Thursday night, which followed his season debut in which he collected an RBI single and drew a walk. He played both games at shortstop, though the Cubs said he will move around and play some second base during this weeklong assignment. 

But that's the baseball aspect. There's also obviously the off-field part of the entire Russell situation, as he attempts to work his way back from the domestic abuse allegations that has dominated the news around the 25-year-old for the last half-year. 

When he made his debut with Triple-A Iowa Wednesday night, fans apparently gave Russell a big ovation, which is a very odd look, to say the least:

Will Cubs fans give him the same welcome if he returns to Wrigley Field when first eligible next Friday? Maddon said they haven't yet had those discussions with Russell about how Cubs fans might receive him.

"My conversation's been more about baseball and how he's feeling," Maddon said earlier this week. "He's feeling really well. I was talking to Bake — John [Baker] just saw him play in Arizona — he's hitting the ball extremely well. I know he's eager and anxious to get out there. 

"One thing at a time — just get him playing, see how that's going and then after that, we'll make our call. I'm certain we'll discuss those kinds of things with him prior to getting here. But for right now, it's been pretty much baseball-related conversations."

Epstein said Thursday there is absolutely no guarantee Russell comes right up to the big leagues when first eligible Friday. If the Cubs don't feel he's ready to help the team in Chicago, they can option him to the minor leagues and he does not have enough service time to refuse (players can refuse an option if they have five years of big-league service time). 

It's only two games and it's minor-league pitching, but Russell is certainly off to a good start baseball-wise and it's coming after positive reports on his play coming out of Arizona this spring. 

If Russell continues to make strides off the field and performing on the field over the next five days, will the Cubs give him the call? And if so, who goes down as a replacement?

Mark Zagunis will probably swap places with Russell if that scenario comes to pass, but there will still be plenty to be decided in the brewing shortstop controversy in Chicago between Russell and Javy Baez.

Ian Happ

The Cubs made the surprising move to send Happ down to the minor leagues at the end of spring training, giving the young switch-hitter the edict to work on his left-handed swing and cut down on strikeouts. 

Happ struggled initially, slashing only .214/.267/.375 (.642 OPS) with 22 strikeouts in his first 56 at-bats. But he seems to have turned a corner recently, as he's hitting .263/.440/.474 (.914 OPS) over the last week with only 5 strikeouts and 6 walks while playing center field and second base.

Maddon has been texting with Happ over the last couple weeks and believes Happ is in a good place mentally.

"Ian and I have been staying in touch," Maddon said. "We've been talking about different things. He's still making a couple minor adjustments, but he's feeling better about it, so he's actually doing better right now.

"He had 2 hits [Wednesday] night — 1 left-handed, 1 right-handed — and the exit velocities are indicated, so I can see he hit the ball hard, which is kinda cool."

Happ hit 39 homers and posted an .801 OPS over 875 plate appearances in his first two seasons in the big leagues. At some point down the road, the Cubs will need him in Chicago once again.

"I have a very strong belief that when I'm back, I'll be back to stay and I'll produce and do what I've done my entire career," Happ told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer last week.

Carl Edwards Jr.

Maddon said he's also been in contact with Edwards, who told his manager to let the big-league clubhouse know he's been watching and rooting for them as they've turned the season around following a 1-6 start. 

The Cubs sent Edwards down to Triple-A after he struggled in his first 4 outings of 2019 (6 runs, 5 walks, 2 homers allowed in 1.2 innings). He made a few appearances initially before hitting the shelf for over a week due to a cut on his hand.

Edwards returned Wednesday night and struck out a pair of hitters in a perfect inning of work. He's walked just 1 batter in 5 minor-league innings as he readjusts both his physical and mental mechanics. 

Unfortunately, Edwards has also had to deal with some off-field stress as Major League Baseball is looking into the racist message sent to him on Instagram

Nico Hoerner

The Cubs' top prospect got hit on the hand/wrist area with a pitch Tuesday night and was held out of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies lineup Wednesday and Thursday. But the injury isn't expected to be a long-term issue.

"Just a scare," Epstein said. "The initial tests came back and it's just a contusion."

Hoerner was hitting .293/.388/.483 before the injury and has more walks (16) than strikeouts (12) over his 31-game minor-league career since the Cubs made him their first-round pick last summer.

Dillon Maples

Maples has emerged as kind of a cult hero among Cubs fans the last couple years with eye-popping strikeout totals in the minor leagues to go along with a wipeout slider and a fastball that lights up the radar gun.

He has yet to turn it into success in the big leagues (10.97 ERA, 2.25 WHIP in 15 MLB appearances), but the 26-year-old is off to a good start alongside Edwards in the Triple-A bullpen.

After walking 3 and giving up a pair of runs in his first outing, Maples has since struck out 14 batters vs. 5 walks in 7.1 innings. He's recorded multiple whiffs in each outing this year and still represents intriguing depth if the Cubs need to dip back into the minors for bullpen help.

"He's been on a good little roll of late," Epstein said. "His last four outings — the results have been nice, but how he's doing it is important, too. He's been a little more assertive with his fastball, wanting to throw his fastball more, throwing it in the zone, getting good results with it to help set up his other stuff. 

"I think that's an important step in taking control of how he does things. It's a process. With the type of pitcher that he is, he's an extreme guy. He's got extreme, wipeout breaking stuff, extreme spin, his control can get extreme at times outside of the zone. You have to live with the whole package and be happy with the progress and know it's not going to be perfect every time. 

"He's on a nice little roll and deserves a lot of credit for putting the work in and not just relying on the things he can do, but challenging himself in the areas that are tough for him in order to make some longer-term progress. We're not gonna rush anything or get ahead of ourselves."

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Jon Lester's soccer career and other things to know about Cubs left-hander

Jon Lester's soccer career and other things to know about Cubs left-hander

Jon Lester is the best free agent addition in Cubs history, the guy who joined a last place club and helped push them to perennial contender status. He played a big part in the Cubs snapping their World Series drought, and even at 36 remains a durable, competitive starter.

Here’s a few things you may not know about the Cubs’ left-hander.

1. While playing in a soccer tournament in Italy at the age of 13, an Italian club approached Lester about playing professionally. He turned it down and the Red Sox drafted him five years later.

2. In August 2006, two months after making his MLB debut, Lester was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy in the 2006-07 offseason and returned to the Red Sox in July 2007.

3. Lester’s charity, NVRQT, works to raise awareness and funds to fight pediatric cancer. Lester was the Cubs’ 2019 Robert Clemente Award nominee for his charitable efforts.

4. In 2011, Lester was featured on a wine label produced by Longball Cellars. Proceeds from “CabernAce” benefited the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

5. Lester, an avid golfer, once shot an 81 at Augusta National, according to Golf Digest.

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Anthony Rizzo has no regrets over signing bargain extension in 2013

Anthony Rizzo has no regrets over signing bargain extension in 2013

Back in 2013, the Cubs locked up a 23-year-old Anthony Rizzo on a seven-year, $41 million extension — with two options that could make it nine years for $74 million.

Rizzo is a cancer survivor, and gaining financial stability was a big thing for him. Seven years later, the deal is one of the best in baseball from a team perspective, but incredibly below market value overall.

However, the big first baseman, who’s emerged as a cornerstone for the Cubs, has no regrets over his decision.

“I’ve had the freedom from 22, 23 years old to financially do whatever I want and play freely,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer. “And I’m going to be able to do financially whatever I want for the rest of my life as long as I don’t make poor choices.

“At the end of this contract, it’ll make a lot of money, and I’m playing the game I love.”

The Cubs shut down extension talks with Rizzo over the winter, and he said it never got to the point of discussing any numbers. He has “no idea” what the Cubs’ thinking was on shutting down those talks, too.

The two sides will likely talk extension again in the future, but until then, the Cubs have Rizzo on an absolute bargain of a deal.

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