Albert Almora Jr.

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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Ian Happ, Tony Kemp and the Cubs second base picture

ian_happ_2b_picture_story_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Ian Happ, Tony Kemp and the Cubs second base picture

Ian Happ's playing time has been more Jekyll and Hyde than the Cubs offense.

After being recalled from Triple-A Iowa, Happ started every big-league game he was around for in July but is still waiting for his first August start.

Happ has been the Cubs position player affected most by the trade deadline additions of Nick Castellanos and Tony Kemp, coming off the bench in six straight games after starting his first five contests on the last road trip. With the division race so tight, the Cubs aren't focused on production over potential and manager Joe Maddon said last week the time for development has come and gone this season. 

Happ hasn't seen any time at second base, working exclusive as an outfielder over the last two weeks. Yet Maddon and the Cubs insist the 24-year-old is still in the second-base picture moving forward.

"He and I have already talked about that," Maddon said Monday. "Happer's very adament that he feels comfortable at second base, so we're not afraid of that, either."

Maddon likes utilizing Happ as part of the Cubs' top defensive outfield late in games when they get a lead, moving him to left with Albert Almora Jr. in center field and Jason Heyward in right. 

But Happ continues to get his work out at second base and played 20 games there for Triple-A Iowa earlier this season. In spring training — before he was sent down to the minors — Happ was determined to be a part of the equation at second base for the Cubs, even texting Maddon over the winter.

However, at the moment, it's been Kemp and David Bote who have been splitting time at second base — a key defensive spot on the diamond for a team that has struggled to find consistency in that aspect all season.

Even in a part-time role, Happ has been contributing, with a game-winning homer Monday night and a single through the shift Sunday afternoon.

For his part, he's just happy to be here again after more than three months in the minors.

"It's great to be back with this group and just to be a part of it, to be able to help any way I can," Happ said. "This atmosphere, getting back to it, the difference is, down [in the minors], you're not playing in front of 40,000 people. You're not in the middle of a pennant race that matters, that is something that people care about.

"To get back to that, to get back to being a part of an organization that expects to be in the playoffs every year and expects to be competing for a championship, I missed that. That atmosphere is what we've been doing since I've been here for three years now and there's nothing better."

Beyond defense, the Cubs like Kemp over Happ at second base because of the former Astro's supreme contact ability. He's also turned heads already with his energy and enthusiasm, including a backflip on the field before each game.

"My brother always told a story about me being dressed in uniform at 7am for a 1pm game when I was little," Kemp said. "I've always loved the game and loved competing and I love watching people have success in the game. This game can beat you up — it's really hard mentally and physically — but if you can surpass that, you'll have fun in this game.

"Sometimes, you forget. Sometimes, you get to this level and people treat it like a job. But you have to keep going out there, having fun and having that little kid in you."

So how does the 27-year-old keep that little kid alive and well inside as he goes out and plays in the big leagues?

"You just have to go out there with a positive attitude every day," Kemp said. "Some days are harder than others. Some days are easier than others and that's just how it is. There's a lot of peaks and valleys, but if you can just remember why you started playing the game, then I think that's when that energy really comes out.

"It's just natural. It's just how I am. It's easy being around guys like this, because these are some of the best guys in the business to do it. Being a small part of it is fun and we're gonna have a fun run these next couple months."

The Cubs' patience in Jason Heyward is paying off in a big, big way

The Cubs' patience in Jason Heyward is paying off in a big, big way

Jason Heyward may be the answer to the Cubs' leadoff question.

We've said that several times about several different players over the last couple years, including Kyle Schwarber earlier this summer

But Heyward has really taken to his role atop the Cubs order and will get a chance to run with it.

He smacked the first pitch he saw in Sunday's game into the left-center bleachers for his second leadoff homer of the weekend. He then gave the Cubs the lead his next time up, roping a two-out triple into the right-field corner to plate David Bote.

He later drove in another insurance run in the sixth inning with an RBI fielder's choice groundout as the Cubs (60-51) put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep of their division-rival Brewers (57-56).

"Right now, he's leading us," Joe Maddon said after the Cubs' 7-2 win Sunday. "He's absolutely leading the offense right now. And even what he's done on defense, he's very much take charge out there. He's always interacting with people. Give the guy a lot of credit."

When he was first inserted into the leadoff spot for the Cubs' win in St. Louis last Wednesday, Heyward said he spoke to his manager about wanting a longer leash in the role to get used to it.

"I asked him to be patient with me and not move me out of there if it doesn't go perfect right away just cause it's an adjustment," Heyward said. "Every time's gonna be different. Some games, we're gonna have more spots where there's runners on base like today, which is nice and then there's some games it's not. 

"It's gonna be about going up there and putting up a good at-bat and obviously try to get on base, but just go up there and be satisifed with putting up a good at-bat."

Heyward came into this season with 132 starts as a leadoff hitter, so the role wasn't foreign to him. But after three difficult seasons at the plate to begin his Chicago career, he's been an offensive force all year hitting lower in the order and the Cubs were a bit hesitant to move him out of that spot in the lineup. 

However, Maddon said the decision to slot Heyward in as the leadoff guy was not "a whimsical thing" and admitted it's possible the Cubs keep him there for the rest of the year.

"It depends on if [Ben Zobrist] comes back and how that plays out, too," Maddon said. "If there's a need to put [Heyward] somewhere else if we have somebody that can actually [lead off], but for now, he fits the role as well as anybody that we have. And that's it. It's very pragmatic. It was simple. It's nothing complicated.

"When I talked to him about it, he smiled and said, 'of course.' But then, 'just be patient with me.'"

On top of his new offensive role, Heyward is also being asked to be essentially the Cubs' regular centerfielder, playing in the spot most days against right-handed pitchers.

Defensive metrics peg Heyward as simply an average centerfielder after he's won five Gold Gloves as a right fielder in his career, but those stats come in limited capacity and he's shown recently (diving catch Thursday in St. Louis, diving catch Sunday afternoon at Wrigley) he can handle his own at the most important outfield position.

"I told Theo right before the All-Star Break — he was complimenting me on playing right field, how well I was playing — I said, 'center field, I can do it, I just need some time,'" Heyward said. "Just trying to go out there and get better, regardless of where it is."

Heyward has been outspoken this season about how often Cubs defenders are moving around and he acknowledged the struggles of moving to a totally different position after essentially only playing right field for the last decade.

"Being asked to — kinda spur of the moment — go play center, it's different," Heyward said. "It's a different thing. But I'm gonna try to get better at everything and I'm gonna try to do the best I can for my group. This year, right now, it's center field."

Heyward playing center more allows new addition Nicholas Castellanos to play right field and keep Kyle Schwarber in left against righties (with Schwarber likely sitting often against southpaws). Even before the trade deadline, Heyward had been playing a good amount of center field this season (Sunday was his 37th start and 45th appearance there), but with Albert Almora Jr.'s offensive struggles (.691 OPS), this will become a more regular occurrence moving forward.

"J-Hey stepping up and being able to leadoff and play center field and embracing those responsibilities, it allows us to put the rest of the group in a pretty good spot," Theo Epstein said. "He's shouldered a lot for this team this year and he continues to do that. By embracing leadoff and getting on base up there this year just at the rate that he's done so far — .350/.360 on-base — and his ability to run the bases, that really helps this team.

"And obviously right field is his best spot, but as he's showed [recently], he's a more-than-capable centerfielder, especially when he's out there on a consistent basis. I think that's a really positive step and he's embracing that responsibility and allows other guys to get in a position to succeed, as well.

"So if we do what we expect to do over the next couple months, that's an important step and behind-the-scenes thing. Him embracing that responsbility is awesome."

That sounds a lot like August 2015, when the Cubs wanted to optimize their roster by flipping Starlin Castro and Addison Russell on the infield, moving the latter to shortstop. Maddon has looked at that move often in hindsight and pointed to the maneuver as one of the moments when the Cubs really started to ascend as a contender.

The Cubs can still utilize Almora in center and Heyward in right against left-handed pitchers — as they did Saturday — and they have the ability to bring in Almora off the bench as a defensive replacement late in games. That's especially true while Castellanos continues to get acclimated to the quirks of Wrigley Field (the sun on afternoon games, the wind, etc.). 

And after less than a week as Heyward's teammate, Castellanos has already noticed the impact the veteran has on this group.

"You can tell he's a guy that's locked in, likes to talk about the game," Castellanos said. "He's always watching — he's not only worried about his at-bats, but his teammates' at-bats. I like that. I like somebody I can sit next to, pick their brain about what they see — I can get feedback and things like that. He's good at that. He's a professional."