Cubs

The on-field ripple effects of Addison Russell's potential return

The on-field ripple effects of Addison Russell's potential return

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."

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

The stats don't lie: Pedro Strop is one of the best relief pitchers in Cubs franchise history.

No pitcher has come close to the 120 holds Strop has notched in a Cubs uniform (Carlos Marmol is second with 83) and he also ranks sixth all time in appearances, ahead of Fergie Jenkins and Ryan Dempster.

Strop even has a better ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.05) with the Cubs than Lee Smith (2.92, 1.25), who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. 

But at the moment, Strop won't have an opportunity to build upon those numbers as he enters free agency for the first time in his career following the final year of his $17.6 million extension he signed prior to 2017.

He hopes he'll get another chance in Chicago, repeatedly calling the Cubs clubhouse "home."

"I gotta say the Cubs are a priority [in free agency] and I'll work with them first and see if we can work something out," Strop said after the Cubs' final game of the season. "If not, then Plan B — whatever is best for the rest of my career. Right now, I just want to come back and stay home."

Anthony Rizzo is the only player who currently boasts a longer tenure with the Cubs and the team got together after the season finale in St. Louis to toast to Strop, Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon.

Maddon's departure was already official and while it's still possible Strop and Zobrist return, the Cubs wanted to pay tribute just in case this was the end for them, too. Strop called it an emotional and "sad" moment that he may have to leave the family he built in Chicago, but maintained hope that a reunion was in the future. 

The Cubs think so highly of Strop and his impact behind the scenes (especially on younger players like Javy Baez), Theo Epstein said last fall he hopes the veteran "can be a part of this organization when he's done playing."

Don't start lining Strop up for a coaching gig or a job as a special assistant in Epstein's front office. Not yet, anyway.

Still only 34, he believes he has something left in the tank and the final month or so of 2019 backs him up. Continued issues with his hamstring dragged down his overall season numbers (4.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but Strop seemed to find his rhythm again in September with a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 9 innings (though much of that work came in low-leverage situations).

In summing up his season, he wished he had been able to contribute in that way earlier in the year, but felt like he proved a lot in the final month. That could be a nice sales pitch to teams in free agency.

"If I'm starting a negotiation with the Cubs, it doesn't have to be that difficult," Strop said. "They already know what I'm capable of doing when I'm right and they know this is my house here. But I still don't know what's gonna happen."

The Cubs are undergoing a complete renovation of their bullpen this winter, with veterans Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brandon Morrow ticketed for free agency and Derek Holland and David Phelps likely to follow. 

Right now, it appears only Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are locked into relief spots for 2020, opening up a plethora of options. Kimbrel is a giant question mark after his debut season on the North Side and the other three just enjoyed breakout 2019 campaigns, so there isn't much of a track record there to trust.

There's plenty of room for Strop to come back, but will the Cubs come calling? Is it prudent to chalk up his struggles to the leg injuries and not just overall wear and tear that also saw Strop's fastball velocity drop nearly 2 full mph?

If the price is right, Strop could be a good low-risk/high-reward option for the Cubs to add some veteran depth to the bullpen. Relievers don't often become huge factors in the clubhouse chemistry of a team, but the Cubs have always fed off Strop's relentlessly upbeat attitude and brutal honesty.

Plus, he feels like he has some unfinished business with the Cubs next year.

"We had a contending team [in 2019]," he said. "Teams are getting better in our division. We gotta realize that and we gotta be honest that they're getting better. We just need to come back hungry and try to win. Just go out there, not thinking about whatever happened this year and just compete. We got the guys, we got the group. It's gonna be a really good 2020 Chicago Cubs team."