The Rundown: Cubs Backup Options at SS, Six-Man Rotation When Lester Returns Saturday, Verlander Still on Radar

Everything was going so well that we weren’t even waiting for the other shoe to drop. But when it did, the foot inside felt a little twinge and Addison Russell was scratched from his scheduled start for the Iowa Cubs. He’s back in Chicago to be reevaluated by team doctors with everyone hoping the soreness is nothing serious. Even if that’s the case, though, the Cubs could find themselves in something of a quandary.

Javy Baez has been a more than capable replacement at short and he’ll continue to be should Russell require more time on the shelf. However, not even El Mago has the ability to sub for himself. And since he’s the only legit shortstop left on the roster and the Cubs don’t exactly have a wealth of middle infielders they can call up on Friday when rosters expand, they need to find a way to spell him.

So where do they turn?

Ben Zobrist has started 196 games and played 234 at short, though he’s only logged 11 innings there in four games (no starts) since 2014. Nine of those innings came this season (including one last night) as Joe Maddon was forced to get creative after some late-game lineup changes, so it’s not as though it’s something they really wanted to do. Not ideal, but it’s an option.

Ian Happ has been taking grounders over at third base, which is kind of like short in that it’s on the left side of the infield. While this is another sub-optimal choice, we’re talking about a guy you want in the lineup as much as possible and from whom you might be willing to squeeze a few innings at an unfamiliar position. In that same vein, perhaps there’s one more possibility.

We saw third baseman Josh Donaldson play shortstop when the Blue Jays came to Chicago, so maybe Kris Bryant could slide to his left to handle a new position for a game. Selfishly, I just want to see KB there trying to turn a double play or do other short-specific things.

All things considered, my money would be on Zobrist to assume the role on a temporary basis should Javy need a break.

Lester’s back

We heard after Monday’s 47-pitch simulated game that how Jon Lester felt the next day would determine his path. Then we heard that the results of Wednesday’s 50-pitch side session would set the tone and that the Cubs would announce Thursday whether he’d make his Saturday start. Or, rather, the Saturday start that coincided with his spot in the roster that had been listed TBD.

Rather than wait for the page to turn on the day, the Cubs announced in the wake of their big win over Pittsburgh that Lester would indeed step back into the rotation this weekend. Rather than push Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen, though, they’ll be going with a six-man rotation for the time being.

The Cubs are in the midst of playing 20 games in as many days and the expanded rotation allows them to ease Lester into action. His second start back would come next Friday at home against the Brewers, after which a September 11 off-day means they could resume a standard setup and still give the lefty five days off before starting again in the finale against the Mets at home on September 14.

Cubs still talking to Tigers about Verlander

Jon Morosi tweeted Tuesday that interest in Justin Verlander had picked up and that another team had emerged to rival the Astros in the possible pursuit of the pricey starter. Said mystery team could very well be the Cubs, who Bruce Levine reports “have remained in constant conversations” with the Tigers since rumors started flying back in July.

It doesn’t sound like there’s much urgency to the talks, even though Friday is the deadline for newly acquired players to have postseason eligibility. Not only have the Tigers not been in any kind of rush to unload their iconic pitcher, but Bob Nightengale tweeted that they see an August trade as “highly unlikely.” There’s no way a team gets him just to make a few September starts and the Cubs may have lost a lot of appetite for a big splash after recent developments in their current rotation.

Jose Quintana looked really rough at the start of Wednesday’s game but then settled in and stifled the Pirates over the final five innings of his outing. Then we got the Lester news shortly after the conclusion of that game. So the Cubs are back to full strength as far as their starters go and they’ve got a little more confidence in the makeup of the top four among that group.

But as Levine notes, the Cubs’ interest may not simply be a matter of instant gratification. Between their lack of prospect capital and reluctance to part with members of the 25-man roster in the heat of a playoff push, a deal probably makes more sense in the offseason. We’ve noted before how they’d easily be able to absorb Verlander’s contract, and adding him over a relatively short period of time might be more desirable than taking on a longer-term free-agent deal.

Considering his play of late, Montgomery is making a strong push for rotation candidacy next season. Between his minimal contract (not arb-eligible until 2019) and Quintana’s pittance, Verlander could slot in to fill out the rotation. Rather than look at his salary as some sort of albatross, the Cubs might rationalize it by averaging the cost for three of their starters. Four if you count Kyle Hendricks and what will still be a low number following an arbitration raise.

We should know by the end of the day whether any of the ubiquitous rumors surrounding the veteran flamethrower will come to pass during the season.

More news and notes

  • Ian Happ became the fastest Cub ever to hit 20 home runs, reaching the milestone in his 89th game and breaking Kyle Schwarber’s mark of 97 games. Happ also became the sixth Cub to hit 20 homers this season, another club record.
  • The Cardinals sent mild shockwaves through baseball when they traded Mike Leake to Seattle for A-ball infielder Rayder Ascanio and $750K in international bonus pool money. The Cards will also pay $17 million of the $55 million remaining on Leake’s deal. Some see this as St. Louis punting on the season, though Leake has been brutally bad in the second half and this helps to clear space for some of their young pitchers. Case in point, they are promoting righty Jack Flaherty from AAA to start Friday’s game.
  • It sounds like Bryce Harper may not make it back from his knee injury during the regular season, if he’s able to return at all this year. He’s reportedly not even close to running after suffering a bone bruise and strained calf.
  • Justin Grimm gave up back-to-back singles to open his inning of work for the Iowa Cubs last night, but the first of those was caught stealing before Grimm struck out two. Hey, no home runs! He was originally scheduled to pitch today, but rain in the forecast pushed that appearance up. Expect Grimm to be activated Friday when rosters expand.
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