The Cubs have just started clicking as a team this season, but an off-field distraction looms next week.
After starting 1-6, this team has turned it around and woke up Thursday morning a season-high 2 games above .500.
A central figure in that turnaround is Javy Baez, who has not only duplicated his production after an MVP runner-up campaign, but actually seems to have taken another step forward and is firmly entrenched as a superstar.
So how could the Cubs turn around and disrupt Baez or the clubhouse with Addison Russell's suspension coming to an end next Wednesday?
There are many non-baseball implications with the Russell situation, including his development as a father of three children and a human being away from the diamond as he nears the end of his 40-game suspension for domestic abuse.
But there are also on-field ripple effects of Russell's return, including the shortstop controversy brewing.
Prior to his suspension, Russell was always atop the team's shortstop depth chart. There was some doubt along the way, but ultimately, it was Russell ahead of Baez with Baez moving around the infield as a utility guy.
But things are different now.
Baez has been phenomenal in every aspect of the game in the season's first month and has regularly displayed his exceptional arm strength and athletic ability while playing shortstop. This week alone, he made close to a dozen plays on the Dodgers from the outfield grass.
Last weekend, Joe Maddon called Russell one of the best defensive shortstops in the game and that's true — he is a gifted defender. But Russell doesn't possess the same arm strength as Baez (especially while dealing with right shoulder issues the last couple seasons) and Baez has not done anything to warrant moving him off the most important defensive position on the field.
"It's such a difficult decision and then to come to the conclusion, that definitely has to be considered," Maddon said Thursday morning. "Based on what [Baez has] done and his status among the group, but at the end of the day, you still have to make the decision that is best for the group and for the team. A couple years ago, we had to make a tough one when we took Starlin [Castro] off shortstop and put him at second and put Addy [at shortstop].
"It's not as clear-cut and easy as it may seem from a distance when you do talk to human beings and there is emotion involved and you have to consider that. But at the end of the day, you still have to make the decision you think is best for everybody involved. So this one has layers to it. It requires a lot of back and forth among all of us."
The Cubs have been talking about all the different scenarios, but haven't yet made a decision on how Russell would fold into the roster if he does earn a call-up next week. It's also unknown who will go down to the minors to make room for Russell, though Mark Zagunis could be the call as it stands right now.
Theo Epstein admitted Thursday morning the Cubs could still choose to option Russell to the minor leagues after the seven-game assignment is up next Wednesday, but right now, the whole organization is trying to take things one day at a time.
Russell played shortstop in his Triple-A Iowa debut Wednesday night, but the Cubs confirmed he will also see some time at second base over the next week.
If Russell returns to the roster — which isn't promised, Epstein said — there's no guarantee he'll immediately be thrown in as a regular starter. Over the last two years, Russell made 29 errors and posted only a .245 average and .687 OPS in 240 games.
Inserting him at shortstop and moving Baez back to a utility role is a risk. The second base tandem of Daniel Descalso and Ben Zobrist (and some David Bote) has performed well and who knows if breaking up the stability will disrupt Baez in any way.
"I think everyone recognizes how important [Baez] is as a central member of this team," Epstein said. "The energy that he provides, the things he can do on the field and the spirit with which he does them — how important that is to all of us, so he's one of our very most important players. I think there's a lot to be said for creating consistency for your most important players — creating reliability, putting them in situations where they know they're relied upon and can impact the game, reduce variables for them, that type of thing.
"But there are a lot of other considerations, too. That's not lost on anybody. Addison's gonna play some shortstop on his rehab. He's also going to play some second base. He's also not back yet. I think it's a question for another day, but Javy is obviously right at the very center along with some other crucial players in everything good that we do. Risking interrupting that if you don't have to would be a questionable move. That said, it's not the only factor."
Baez has not done anything to lose his status as the everyday shortstop, but from strictly a baseball sense, it would be advantageous to add another elite glove to the infield. Baez has never had any issue with moving around defensively in the past and regardless of Russell's status upon his return, nothing will keep the Cubs from putting Baez in the starting lineup every single day when healthy.
Inside the clubhouse, Russell's teammates have shown him nothing but support.
Epstein was asked if Russell will have to win back the trust of the clubhouse again when he returns, but the Cubs president said that's not his place to answer.
"That part of it is between Addy and his teammates," Epstein said. "I will say that everyone noticed that he was working hard on his individual relationships with his teammates this spring and he was a lot more open and engaged than he'd been in the past as part of his attempt to grow — not only most importantly as a person and as a father and a good member of society, but I think also as a teammate.
"He recognized there was room and need for growth there and then put a concerted effort in. I think there were moments where he took responsibility as well with his teammates. I think he recognizes the importance of it and has a desire to make things right with his teammates as well and gain their trust."