Cubs shake up roster, send Albert Almora Jr. to Triple-A and recall Addison Russell

Cubs shake up roster, send Albert Almora Jr. to Triple-A and recall Addison Russell

After the 2018 season ended in disappointing fashion — with the offense scuffling post-All-Star break — Cubs president Theo Epstein foreshadowed what could be in store for the team in 2019.

“We have to be an offensive force,” Epstein said. “We should be with the talent on our roster, but it's probably time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production. We need to do everything we can to produce offensively."

Friday, the Cubs made a move in the name of production: center fielder Albert Almora Jr. has been demoted to Triple-A, with Addison Russell recalled in his place.

Almora has provided stellar defense this season, but he’s largely struggled at the plate. In 321 at-bats this season, he’s hitting .243/.275/.396, though he does have a career-high 12 home runs. Granted, that career-high comes in a season where the baseball is flying out of the ballpark more than ever.

While one can say that Almora’s struggles this season don’t represent a large sample size, they actually date back to last season. Over his last 162 games, he’s hitting .243/.278/.368, walking just 20 times in 473 plate appearances.

The Cubs demoted Russell to Triple-A following a series of mental lapses on the field. In a game against the Padres on July 20, Russell got thrown out on the basepaths twice, lost a popup in the sun and let another one drop due to miscommunication with Almora. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was blunt in his assessment of Russell after that game.

"He’s gotta straighten some things out," Maddon said on July 20. "He has to. There’s no question. I’m not going to stand here — he’s got to, we’ve talked about his baserunning in the past. 

"… The baserunning, there’s some things there — we’re making too many outs on the bases and we’re missing things on the bases that we can’t to be an elite team."

Following Russell's demotion on July 24, Epstein admitted that the Cubs needed more out of the infielder, specifically in terms of his focus.

"Yeah, I think we had hoped that Addison would've put things together by now and be playing at a higher level, at his accustomed level," Epstein said. "He just went through a stretch where we needed a little bit more out of him in terms of his focus and his attention to detail and to get locked in.

"I think that can still happen, but we all felt it was the appropriate move to let him do that in Iowa and see if that part of his game can get a little bit better."

Russell certainly locked in with Iowa; in 15 games following his demotion, he hit .333/.413/.647 to go along with four home runs and 13 RBIs. So, the Cubs not only are getting a player who's focused and producing as of late, but also one who seems to have a fresh sense of confidence.

Demoting Almora has several ripple effects on the Cubs position player group. Since the Cubs acquired Nick Castellanos, Jason Heyward has been manning center field on a frequent basis. Almora’s demotion means that Heyward will see more time in center.

Ian Happ, whom the Cubs also demoted to the minor leagues this season, will also see time in center field with Almora in Iowa. Having Happ play center will allow Heyward to play his natural position in right field from time-to-time, with Castellanos playing left field.

With how Russell has been hitting, he should be the No. 1 everyday second base option. The position has been a revolving door for the Cubs this season, with Ben Zobrist, David Bote, Tony Kemp, Daniel Descalso, Robel Garcia, Happ and Russell each seeing time there. Of course, Russell has to produce at the big league level for this to become reality. 

At the very least, though, he gives the Cubs a legitimate backup shortstop behind Javier Báez. With Russell in Iowa, the Cubs were forced to use Bote as Báez’s backup. With all due respect to Bote – who is a solid defender at second and third base – he’s not a regular shortstop, which came up big in Thursday's loss to the Phillies. 

Having Russell back gives the Cubs two true shortstops, and they could choose to start him there on occasion to get Báez rest.

Cubs bullpen inches closer to full strength

After Thursday’s disastrous ending, the Cubs bullpen took a major step towards getting back to full strength on Friday. The team activated Brandon Kintzler (right pec inflammation) from the injured list, sending James Norwood to Triple-A in a corresponding move.

Kintzler has emerged as the Cubs’ most reliable reliever and key late-inning arm this season. The 35-year-old holds a stellar 2.33 ERA in 49 games (46 1/3 innings), striking out 40 batters compared to just 10 walks. His stint on the injured-list corresponded with closer Craig Kimbrel (knee) and Steve Cishek (hip) also hitting the shelf, leaving the Cubs thin on late-game relievers.

Kimbrel and Cishek aren’t expected to be out much longer, and it’s plausible that the two could be activated in the next couple of days.

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Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

All it took was one swing from Matt Carpenter on Thursday to tarnish Craig Kimbrel’s return from the injured list while simultaneously denting the Cubs’ playoff hopes.

With the Cubs and Cardinals tied 10th inning, Carpenter hit an absolute no-doubt home run deep into left center field, giving St. Louis a 5-4 lead that they never relinquished.

“[The pitch] just ran back over the plate, and he drops the barrel at the bottom of the zone really well and put a good swing on it,” Kimbrel said postgame.

The Cubs activated Kimbrel Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list. And, really, outside of the Carpenter at-bat, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.

Carpenter’s home run was sandwiched between two strikeouts — one with a fastball, one with a knuckle curveball. Still, Thursday’s loss is a gut-punch for the Cubs, as it drops them to four games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central and a game back of the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot.

It also doesn’t help that the Cubs erased a three-run ninth inning deficit, which allowed them to get into extra innings in the first place.

“It’s frustrating,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to get back out there and our team battled til the very end. We needed that, and [I’m] pretty disappointed in myself to go out there and give up a home run like that.”

Some way wonder why Kimbrel was pressed into action the same day of his activation. The answer to that, is simple: If not now, then when? With nine games left in the regular season, Kimbrel needs to be pitching.

“Physically I felt great,” Kimbrel said postgame. “The balls coming out of my hand good. I just made a bad pitch.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon echoed a similar sentiment about Kimbrel’s condition on Thursday.

“I was very encouraged, from what I saw yesterday," Maddon said pregame. “I thought he looked pretty normal, and again, when you talk to the guy conversationally, it’s very upbeat."

If Kimbrel sat out Thursday’s game, many would call out Maddon for not using his $43 million arm. Plus, the longer the closer sits, the greater chance there is of him getting rusty.

“If we can get on the field, we’re gonna do everything we can to get out there and help this team win and try and put us in a position to get into the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “We’re getting down here til the end. We still got a lot of games.”

Nine regular season games remain for the Cubs in 2019. Kimbrel summed up the latest, as big as any yet, as well as one can.

“Tonight was a big game for us,” he said. “We really needed it. [The] season’s not over, we still got a lot of games left. But it definitely would’ve helped. I wish I would’ve pitched a little better.”

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Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

The story could not have followed a more perfect trajectory:

Injured star (Anthony Rizzo) makes a miraculous recovery, hits a big home run in a huge game and helps will his team to victory.

Except for the last part. 

After suffering a nasty-looking ankle injury in Sunday's game, Rizzo was announced as the Cubs' leadoff hitter and first baseman about 20 minutes before first pitch Thursday night and hit a game-tying homer in his second trip to the plate.

It was the only offense the Cubs were able to muster against Jack Flaherty, but they pulled off an epic comeback in the ninth inning — with Javy Baez scoring the game-tying run in his first action since Sept. 1.

That was quickly erased with Matt Carpenter's go-ahead homer off Craig Kimbrel in the top of the 10th inning and the Cardinals went on to win 5-4 and bury the Cubs 4 games back in the division.

But nobody's pointing the finger at Rizzo, who has spent the last four days in a walking boot and was unable to even put weight on his right ankle up until Wednesday when he retired his snack-filled scooter. 

Joe Maddon was planning on being without one of his most important players until the moment Rizzo was out in left field, running and jumping on the grass

Rizzo didn't even know he was going to be able to play until that moment, either.

"You get the questions of waiting a couple more days, but we don't have a couple more days," Rizzo said. "We gotta win now. And I love this team...I love playing. That's what I want to do. It's what I love doing — playing baseball, especially for this team that we're fighting at Wrigley Field in late September to go to the playoffs and that's where all the magic happens."

He exited the game after the fifth inning and immediately went back into the training room to continue treatment. He received a cortisone shot Monday and otherwise has been religiously following the "RICE" treatment plan (rest, ice, compression, elevation), with help from the Cubs medical staff at the ballpark and his wife — "Nurse Emily" — at home.

"I kept saying, 'this ankle doesn't stand a chance,'" Rizzo said. "It's still obviously sore, but it was good enough to play."

Rizzo walked into and out of the Cubs press conference room without the boot and said he felt "good" and was hoping to play Friday, though he admitted he would be smart and let the team know if he was unable to suit up.

Quite the turnaround from a guy who stood at his locker Monday afternoon with his right knee bent and resting on the scooter (which did not yet have tassels or a horn or snacks at that point) and the Robocop-like boot on his ankle. 

"Honestly, when I told you guys [Monday] 'I'll let you know in a few days,' I did not think in a few days I'd be doing this," he said. "I had a positive mindset — 'It's gonna take me three days. Watch, it's gonna take me three days.' And everyone was just kinda like, 'no way.' I believed I was healthy and I am."

Still, even with the made-for-Hollywood return, the Cubs will wake up Friday morning out of a playoff spot for the first time since April 30. 

Thursday could've been an epic, season-altering comeback, but instead, the Cubs are forced to find a way to move on after another gut-punch.

At least they now have Rizzo, Baez and Kimbrel back in the fold, even if they're not all 100 percent.

"It's just all hands on deck," Rizzo said. "We have to win and I think guys want to win and are pushing themselves. Everyone is banged up this time of the year, so it's just mind over matter, really."