19 for '19: How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?

19 for '19: How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?

For a long time this offseason, it looked like Addison Russell had played his last game in a Cubs uniform after he accepted a suspension for domestic violence.

That was a perfectly fine conclusion for many outside the organization — from fans to media members. It would also have been a preferred outcome of several inside the organization, Theo Epstein admitted last month.

Ultimately, Epstein and the Cubs chose to bring Russell back on a conditional second chance.

"I understand people who are critical of the approach we've decided to take," Epstein said in his spring training introductory press conference. "I have a number of people I trust and share things with and bounce things off — people who have moral compasses that I think are as good as they come, people who I really trust and respect — and I'd say about half those people really embrace the position we've taken. They think that digging in and trying to make a difference is the right way to go.

"And the other half think that we should've just cut bait and moved on. We do know that we send a message to our fans with every action that we take and that cutting bait sends a simpler, stronger message, but that digging in and trying to make a difference on all these different fronts, sometimes that's a little bit more nuanced and that can get lost in translation.

"I personally think we're doing the right thing. I understand people who are upset and think we should've just moved on. But I can at least pledge to those people that we're taking this on earnestly, that it's important to us, that they're not just words — they're actions and I will continue to be transparent with you and with our fans about everything that we're doing to try to attack this problem of domestic violence and that we will continue to hold Addison to an incredibly high standard or he won't play a regular season game as a Chicago Cub ever again."

It's been a little over a month since Epstein uttered those words and nothing has occured in that span to give any indication that Russell has not lived up to those standards set forth by the team. 

He still has to finish out his 40-game suspension handed down by Major League Baseball, but as of this writing, it seems like a foregone conclusion Russell will once again put on a Cubs uniform in a regular season game. 

His name was on the lineup card for the team's second game of Cactus League play and Russell has made 7 other starts since then — all at shortstop.

It's still unknown how fans — both Cubs faithful and opposing fans — will react to Russell when he returns. His first game at Wrigley Field will certainly be interesting.

Assuming he stays on the current path over the next six weeks, Russell's suspension will end somewhere around May 1, depending on how many rainouts the Cubs have in the first month-plus of the season.

If he does return, Russell will figure to be in the shortstop mix. The Cubs still consider him their best defender at the most premium position and it would also allow flexibility to move Javy Baez all over the infield and improve the team's overall defense.

Obviously his off-field issues have been the main topic of discussion in the last few months, but Russell's on-field struggles are worth mentioning, too, as we look ahead to a possible baseball fit. He's hit just .245 with a .687 OPS in the last two seasons while committing 29 errors in 230 games.

The way Joe Maddon and the Cubs utilized Russell last September is probably a clue as to how they may dole out playing time if he returns. 

Baez will likely start at shortstop against most right-handed pitchers, with some combination of Ben Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, Ian Happ and David Bote playing second base. Russell would be on the bench and can either come in late as a pinch-hitter or for defensive purposes to play shortstop and move Baez around. Russell would then be in line to start against left-handed pitchers, given he has had significantly more success against southpaws than righties the last two years.

From a strictly baseball standpoint, the main question would be whose spot Russell takes on the roster. If everybody is healthy, the Cubs currently have no position-player openings unless they opt to send Bote, Happ or another player down to the minor leagues. But that's a future problem for Epstein, Maddon and Co.

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

19 for '19: Is this the year young pitchers finally come up from farm system to help in Chicago?

19 for '19: Is this the year young pitchers finally come up from farm system to help in Chicago?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Is 2019 the year young pitchers finally come up from farm system to help in Chicago?

We're entering Year 8 of Theo Epstein's regime at Wrigley Field and Rob Zastryzny still has been the most impactful pitcher drafted and developed by this front office.

Zastryzny has 34.2 MLB innings under his belt, which leads the way for any pitcher selected in the seven drafts or signed on the international market by Epstein and Co. (Note: Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. are not included in this group, as they were both drafted by the Rangers, where they spent the first few years of their respective careers. But obviously both pitchers have been a huge part of the staff the last few years.)

Joe Maddon always says you could call this game "pitching" instead of "baseball" because of how important it is to have enough quality arms. But the Cubs have been forced to throw a bunch of money at their staff to fill holes instead of promoting from within with cost-controlled arms.

So when is that next wave of pitchers finally going to hit Chicago?

2019 looks like a strong bet to be the start of such a wave.

Top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay was considered as a choice to come up to the majors and start the second game of a doubleheader in Cincinnati, but the Cubs ultimately decided to keep him in the minor leagues. He later went down with a lat injury and didn't throw a pitch after May 29.

The 24-year-old right-hander is off to a slow start already this year as his spring was delayed by a side/back issue suffered in a bullpen right before the beginning of camp. He'll start the year with Triple-A Iowa, but he could potentially be the first arm called up if the Cubs need another guy in the bullpen. 

With last year's injury, the Cubs will undoubtedly be cautious with Alzolay this year, putting an innings limit of some sort in place (maybe around the 75-inning mark). So if he does get called up, a spot as a reliever seems to make the most sense

The ideal scenario for the Cubs might be to have Alzolay prove he can get big-league hitters out in the bullpen in 2019 and then pencil him in as part of the competition for the fifth starter's spot in the 2020 rotation (assuming Cole Hamels leaves after this season).

After Alzolay, the Cubs have a few other options who may make their way to Chicago in 2019.

Dakota Mekkes - a 2016 draft pick - has been dominant as a reliever while soaring up the Cubs system

James Norwood and Duane Underwood Jr. may be another options for the bullpen after each got a cup of coffee in The Show last season.

Dillon Maples wasn't an Epstein draft pick (he was selected in 2011 in Jim Hendry's final year as GM), but if he could become a reliable part of the big-league bullpen, that would obviously be huge for the franchise. He struggled with control again last year and has 2 walks in 4.1 innings this spring, but he's also struck out 9 of the 18 Cactus League hitters he's faced in Arizona to date.

Left-hander Justin Steele - a 5th-round pick in 2014 - may be an option to consider in the bullpen late this year and still could have a future as a starter.

If a bunch of injuries hit the rotation, Duncan Robinson could get the call this year. A host of other arms (Tyson Miller, Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton) could follow in late 2019 or after.

Again, the key words in every one of these scenarios are "could" and "may." And who knows how many high-leverage innings this group of young arms would work even if they made it to Chicago. 

At the moment, it doesn't look like any young pitcher will make that jump for the Opening Day roster. But if Pedro Strop is unable to get over this hamstring injury in the next couple weeks, that certainly creates an opening.

The overall state of pitching in the Cubs farm system is probably the best its been since Hendricks and Edwards came up, so better days very well MAY be ahead.

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

Willson Contreras lays down the truth on his 2018 season: 'I didn't deserve to have a good year'

Willson Contreras lays down the truth on his 2018 season: 'I didn't deserve to have a good year'

Willson Contreras entered 2018 with 40/1 odds of winning the National League MVP.

There was talk — including some of his own words — he could step up as the greatest catcher on the planet right now.

He was also Joe Maddon's clear choice to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter to begin the year, providing protection in the lineup to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

Yet he ended the season with an OPS 125 points below his 2017 mark and managed only 10 homers and 54 RBI in 474 at-bats a year after he clubbed 21 dingers and drove in 74 runs in 377 at-bats.

So what happened? 

The energetic 26-year-old catcher was brutally honest in talking about his game in a sitdown interview with NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull early in spring training.

Contreras admitted he slacked off on his pregame routine as the year went on.

"I used to get to the ballpark, like I did in 2017, and I'd usually get on the elliptical or bike or stretch or lift," Contreras said. "To be honest, I didn't lift at all [as 2018 went on]. I came out of my routine completely. I didn't deserve to have a good year last year. That's what I told myself. I've learned from it, I took it as inspiration and now I'm here."

Contreras actually began the year pretty well, hitting .279 with an .818 OPS and 31 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) in the first half. That was enough to earn him a trip to the All-Star Game as the National League starter, where he homered in his first at-bat off Chris Sale.

Things cratered from there, as he hit just .200 with a .585 OPS in the second half, with only 11 extra-base hits in 56 games.

Many have wondered if Contreras simply wore down physically because he was playing too much and didn't get enough rest. He caught more innings than anybody in baseball last year.

But he insists that wasn't the issue and didn't have any injuries last year that contributed to his downturn.

Contreras believes he simply got complacent.

"Everything is easy when you're going well, when you're not thinking too much and hitting homers and doubles with guys in scoring position," he said. "I was too comfortable last year, to be honest. It kills me — I was like way too comfortable. I talked to my family and my wife about this.

"I didn't do my best on my routine because the season before, I hit 21 homers and I told myself, 'OK, if you hit 21 homers one year, you can do it again next year.' But it doesn't work like that.

"This game taught me that you have to keep working hard like you did the last year and don't get too comfortable because you're gonna fail and fail and fail. We learn and we move on."

The day the Cubs' season ended last fall, players talked about how the group may have gotten complacent at various points throughout the year — a point Theo Epstein emphasized in his season eulogy the following day.

Contreras really owned up to that on his end and a few weeks after the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs, he got back to work. He knows working out and being in great shape doesn't guarantee him a good season in 2019 and he also understands he has work to do on the mental aspect of the game.

Maddon has preached to Contreras to "get back in the huddle" and bounce back after a bad moment instead of beating himself up about each little failure. 

"I tell him — and I mean it — he's the best talent there is out there at that particular position," Maddon said. "In 2017, the second half, before he got hurt, he was showing that. He absolutely was showing that. Then he becomes the All-Star National League catcher. The second half of last year was the anomaly moment that I really don't think you saw a great representation of him or anywhere near what he is. 

"We gotta get beyond that and I think we will. But it's the controlling of emotions and getting back into the huddle or moving on to the next play without having the previous play impacted."

One of Contreras' main goals for 2019 is to have more fun with the game. He believes he now has a better understanding that baseball is a game fraught with failure and wants to model his approach more like Ben Zobrist. The Cubs catcher admires the way the veteran goes about his business each day, regardless of his outing the night before.

Contreras also admitted he maybe got too caught up in his work as a catcher — defensively as well as calling a game and working with the pitching staff. 

"I know that I can be better," he said. "I know what I'm capable of on the field and off the field. I always reflect on myself — what did I do today? How much effort did I give on the game? How much effort did I give defensively? 

"I was so focused on my defense that I got too comfortable on the other side. It's a balance. You have to put the weight evenly and you have to worry about both sides."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.