“He could be out the rest of the year. He could be back. I don’t know.”
That’s what Joe Maddon had to say to CSN about the Cubs starting, but injured, shortstop Addison Russell, and his chances of returning to action after being sidelined with plantar fasciitis in his right foot back on August 3rd.
And while Maddon’s comments are far from a doomed prognosis (there’s a whole lot of uncertainty baked in there), he did mention that he thought he’d have Russell back for the entire month of September – a scenario that nearly was, before Russell re-injured his foot in a Minor League rehab game and went back on the shelf. Now, Maddon is simply beginning to prepare for life without Russell for the rest of 2017.
More specifically, he’s trying to figure out what to do at second base and shortstop late in ball games. “Javy [Baez] has shored up that [shortstop] spot really well,” Maddon said via CSN Chicago and The Chicago Sun Times. “My bigger concern right now would be in the latter part of the game, where do you want to go at second base, based on who’s available.”
Indeed, while we’ve all been pleasantly surprised by Baez’s quick transformation into a sure-fire everyday player, his absence elsewhere (as depth and a defensive sub) has left a glaring hole at second base. For now, it sounds like Maddon will lean on Mike Freeman as a late-inning defensive sub, which, okay – his glove is supposed to be perfectly fine up the middle, so that’s good. But I don’t think I have to explain how much of a difference there is between a Baez-Freeman double-play combo and a Russell-Baez combo.
Meanwhile, Ben Zobrist, Ian Happ, and Tommy La Stella will continue to see starts at second base.
And if your weekend wasn’t already shaky enough, it sounds like Maddon isn’t the only one hearing some pessimistic forecasts on Russell. According to teammate Anthony Rizzo, Russell’s “chances of coming back are kind of growing slim now.” It’s not entirely clear whether he was simply speaking to the calendar or offering something he knows, but he was sure to hedge it with a “The feeling is that it’s not season-ending for anyone. But clearly the script has flipped since the end of August, when Russell was expected back any day, and it’s definitely been for the worse.
But where does this really leave us?
Well, for one thing, I very much think the Cubs can and will take this division without Addison Russell. They’ve already been playing well without him and have built a 5.0 game lead in the Central.
Moreover, Ben Zobrist, Tommy La Stella, and others have filled in admirably at second, while, as we’ve discussed, Baez has been a saving grace at short. There’s more risk than usual and far less depth, but knock-on-wood, they can make it the distance with this group.
HOWEVA, what happens when they get to the postseason?
The Cubs infield takes a massive hit in a short series without the combination of Russell and Baez up the middle, and anyone who watched the playoffs last season can attest to that. Russell should theoretically be healthy by the time the NLDS begins on October 6, but there’s always a chance that he’s not (he was supposed to come back in early September, after all). And even if he is physically ready to play, Maddon isn’t sure he can just jump right back into short: “I just don’t know where he’s going to be when he shows up. It’s going to be hard to just say automatically: ‘Here, you go play shortstop.’”
Maddon went on to add that it would obviously be great to have them both on the field at the same time, but it doesn’t really help anyone if Russell isn’t actually ready to do that. And with the Minor League seasons all ending, he may not have an opportunity to ramp up in the best way possible.
So all in all, this isn’t great news and the Cubs are already preparing for the worst. Happy Friday.