Ian Happ

Cubs down on the farm: Updates on Mike Montgomery, Ian Happ and Addison Russell

Cubs down on the farm: Updates on Mike Montgomery, Ian Happ and Addison Russell

Cubs fans have been keeping a watchful eye on the Iowa Cubs, as the Cubs Triple-A affiliate has been rehabbing some of the more notable, injured big-leaguers.

In Iowa’s two-game stand against the Nashville Sounds, pitcher Mike Montgomery, as well as shortstop Addison Russell and utility player Ian Happ made notable contributions in an eventful day for Iowa.

In game one of the series, Montgomery picked up the loss despite a solid outing. He went four innings, giving up only 2 hits and 2 walks, with 5 strikeouts.

Alec Mills came in relief for Montgomery and tried to lock the game down, but things were back and forth in the tight affair. Ian Happ did his best to put the team on his back, hitting a three-run homer to bring the club within two runs. Big league-rehabber Addison Russell went 0-for-3 in game one against Nashville, as the Cubs fell 7-3 .

In the second game, the Iowa Cubs had an incredibly explosive offensive showing, doing enough damage to draw a franchise-record 14 walks.

A huge reason for the large number of walks was the pure display of power from the Iowa lineup. The Cubs clubbed four home runs and also hit two grand slams in a historic, 15-run, 18-batter first inning.

Despite Russell starting off the evening slow--going hitless in three at-bats in the first game--he woke up in the second game against Nashville, going 2-for-2 with a home run, two walks and 3 RBI. Iowa’s splitting of the two-game series against the Nashville Sounds brings their record to an impressive 14-9, but the most important takeaway is that there was some encouraging progress shown from the likes of Montgomery, Happ and Russell, who can be officially reinstated on Friday, May 3.

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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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A look back: Chronicling Cubs Opening Day lineups during Theo Epstein's tenure

A look back: Chronicling Cubs Opening Day lineups during Theo Epstein's tenure

ARLINGTON, Tex. - When the Cubs bat in the first inning against the Rangers Thursday afternoon, it will mark Year 8 under Theo Epstein.

Obviously it's been an up-and-down journey in that stretch, with the "ups" coming the last few years, as the team has averaged 97 regular season victories, made three appearances in the National League Championship Series and, oh yeah, won a World Series and ended a 108-year championship drought.

In these past eight years, Epstein has certainly put his mark on this franchise and that is evident in the Opening Day lineup from year to year, shining a light on how much the roster has changed along the way.

Who knows what 2019 has in store for the Cubs, but this marks the fourth straight Opening Day with World Series or bust expectations for the franchise.

The Cubs will kick off their journey with the following lineup: 

1. Albert Almora Jr - CF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - SS
5. Wilson Contreras - C
6. David Bote - 2B
7. Ben Zobrist - DH
8. Jason Heyward - RF
9. Mark Zagunis - LF
P - Jon Lester

That's not all that surprising of a lineup, especially when it was announced last week Ian Happ was sent down to the minor leagues to work on some holes in his swing. All winter and spring, one of the questions surrounding this team was where Happ would play, where he would hit in the lineup and how Joe Maddon would dole out playing time for all these young players yet again.

All those questions are answered now, in that the bench is a little more set than it was before - Mark Zagunis and David Bote both profile well as backup/role players. 

Here's how the Cubs lined up on Opening Day each of the seven years prior in Epstein's tenure:

2018 @ MIA

1. Ian Happ - CF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Kyle Schwarber - LF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Jason Heyward - RF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Jon Lester - P

It's amazing to look back at this lineup and see that the No. 8 hitter wound up finishing second in NL MVP voting, but rewind a year ago and Baez was still figuring things out. Heading into that Opening Day against the Marlins, Baez had just a .255/.300/.427 career slash line (.727 OPS) in 1,267 plate appearances and was coming off the first 20-homer season.

In fact, heading into 2018, it was Contreras - not Baez - that was the favorite pick for underrated Cubs MVP contender as the young backstop was coming off his first full season in the big leagues and hit 21 homers with 74 RBI in only 377 at-bats. He actually was a popular choice by Maddon to "protect" Rizzo and Bryant in the lineup, spending the latter part of 2017 at cleanup and beginning 2018 in the same spot before his late-season fade and Baez's ascension.

It's also interesting to see Russell hitting sixth on Opening Day. Fast forward a couple months and he was already starting to get phased out as a full-time player due to his ongoing hitting woes and throwing errors long before he was suspended for the domestic abuse investigation.

Last spring, Happ was tabbed as "the guy" for the leadoff spot and it looked like a brilliant choice when he sent the first pitch of the season into the right field bleachers and gave the Cubs the earliest lead they've had in franchise history. However, it was all downhill from there, as Happ wound up earning only 12 more starts in the leadoff spot the rest of the way.

On top of all that, it's funny to look back now and think Zobrist wasn't even in the Opening Day lineup during a season in which he built a strong case for Comeback Player of the Year and hit over .300 for the first time in his career. But he was slowed by a back injury in spring training a year ago and was coming off an injury-riddled 2017 season in which he hit .232 with a .693 OPS.

2017 @ STL

1. Kyle Schwarber - LF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Ben Zobrist - RF
5. Addison Russell - SS
6. Jason Heyward - CF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Jon Lester - P
9. Javy Baez - 2B

Ah, the Schwarber Leadoff Season. The Cubs tried to mold Happ in the leadoff role in 2018 and it didn't work out. The same happened in 2017 with Schwarber after a winter/spring of touting his fit in the role. 

Other lineup nuggets worth mentioning: Russell's spot in the lineup was even higher, which made sense at the time given he drove in 95 runs in 2016; Baez was the No. 9 hitter *below the pitcher* the year before he became an MVP contender; and Contreras was hitting below Heyward and in front of the pitcher a few months before he went on an insanely hot offensive stretch and finished the year hitting cleanup.

Also, I had forgotten about Zobrist in the cleanup spot, which is where he spent a lot of 2016 as protection for Bryant and Rizzo. The veteran switch-hitter didn't have a very good 2017 season, but a wrist injury played a major role in that (as did back-to-back seasons of playing into November on World Series runs).

2016 @ LAA

1. Dexter Fowler - CF
2. Jason Heyward - RF
3. Ben Zobrist - 2B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Kris Bryant - 3B
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Jorge Soler - DH
8. Miguel Montero - C
9. Addison Russell - SS
P - Jake Arrieta

Heyward's first Opening Day in a Cubs uniform and he was hitting second...with Bryant fifth and Rizzo fourth. It's hard to imagine any time where Bryant or Rizzo hit in this Cubs lineup without either guy hitting at least as high as No. 3 and a guaranteed trip to the plate in the first inning. Heyward spent a lot of time in the 2-hole early in the '16 season, which made sense given he had a .353 career OBP entering the season. Nobody knew he was in the midst of a year in which he'd post just a .306 OBP and .631 OPS.

This is also the last Opening Day Contreras did not start behind the plate, with Montero getting the nod a couple months before Contreras came up to make his big-league debut.

The Cubs lineup looked absolutely dominant in this game, scoring 9 runs off the Angels pitching staff on 11 hits (including a Montero homer) and 7 walks. On a more sour note, this game was only a few days before Schwarber and Fowler collided in Arizona and the former went down with a devastating knee injury and didn't return until the World Series. But hey, that story had a happy ending...

2015 vs. STL

1. Dexter Fowler - CF
2. Jorge Soler - RF
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Starlin Castro - SS
5. Chris Coghlan - LF
6. Mike Olt - 3B
7. David Ross - C
8. Jon Lester - P
9. Tommy La Stella - 2B

Look at this: back-to-back years with the same leadoff hitter. It's understandable Cubs fans are still dreaming about Fowler's presence atop the batting order with how much stability he brought to the position. But it's also worth pointing out Fowler had a .232 batting average and .308 on-base percentage in his first half-season in a Cubs uniform in 2015 before turning it on after the All-Star Break (.389 OBP). 

In general, this lineup really does not have the look of a team that was about to win 97 games and make a run to the NLCS. Obviously things looked quite a bit different once Bryant and Russell were called up in mid/late April, unseating Olt and La Stella from the starting lineups. And then Schwarber coming up midseason certainly helped, too.

Side note: Remember how often Coghlan hit third for this 2015 team? He made 36 starts in the spot and posted an .848 OPS in the role. (A big part of why he hit third was it made it easier for Maddon to give him a couple at-bats and then switch him out for matchups late in the game or a defensive upgrade during the time when Coghlan was playing second base.)

This was also Lester's first appearance - and Opening Day start - in a Cubs uniform after signing a megadeal the winter before.

2014 @ Pirates

1. Emilio Bonifacio - CF
2. Junior Lake - LF
3. Starlin Castro - SS
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Mike Olt - 3B
6. Welington Castillo - C
7. Nate Schierholtz - RF
8. Darwin Barney - 2B
9. Jeff Samardzija - P

Just...wow. Really tough to believe the Cubs were ticketed for the postseason just a year after running out this Opening Day lineup. It's only been five years, but Lake, Olt, Schierholtz and Barney are all out of baseball and Bonifacio just signed with the Tampa Bay Rays on a minor-league deal after spending 2018 playing in independent ball.

Meanwhile, Castillo is on the South Side, Castro is playing for the Marlins and Samardzija is in the Giants organization. Only Rizzo remains from this 9-man group.

2013 @ Pirates

1. David DeJesus - CF
2. Starlin Castro - SS
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano - LF
5. Nate Schierholtz - RF
6. Welington Castillo - C
7. Luis Valbuena - 3B
8. Brent Lillibridge - 2B
9. Jeff Samardzija - P

Raise your hand if you remember the Brent Lillibridge era. I completely forgot that guy made an Opening Day start for the Cubs at any point.

But hey - Luis Valbuena alert! He was one of a few fun names in this lineup, including Soriano's last year in a Cubs uniform and DeJesus' second - and final - season on the North Side a few years before he became our colleague at NBC Sports Chicago. 

Fun fact: Samardzija was dominant in this game, tossing 8 shutout innings with 9 strikeouts before Kyuji Fujikawa picked up the save. The Cubs scored 3 runs off Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett - including Rizzo's two-run shot in the first inning - to pick up the victory.

2012 vs. Nationals

1. David DeJesus - RF
2. Darwin Barney - 2B
3. Starlin Castro - SS
4. Alfonso Soriano - LF
5. Ian Stewart - 3B
6. Jeff Baker - 1B
7. Marlon Byrd - CF
8. Geovany Soto - C
9. Ryan Dempster - P

I totally forgot both Byrd and Soto were in the first season of Theo's tenure on the Cubs team and I actually completely forgot Stewart was even a thing. 

Castro is the only player in this group that is not only still in the big leagues, but still in professional baseball in *any* capacity. Jeff Baker got the nod at first base while Anthony Rizzo Watch was picking up steam in the minor leagues. 

Looking at that lineup, it's not really a surprise this team lost 101 games, but hey, it did help lead to Kris Bryant.

The Cubs also gave Dempster an Opening Day start four months before they dealt him to Texas...for some dude named Kyle Hendricks who just signed an extension to remain in Chicago through at least the 2023 season.