CHICAGO — There aren’t many teams that can lose their starting catcher and shortstop and not miss a beat, but the Chicago Cubs aren’t like many teams. They’ve had their struggles this season, but at the end of the day they have tons of talent across the board.
The news Wednesday afternoon that Addison Russell had suffered a setback in his recovery from a foot injury was offset by a 17-3 blowout victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, in which Russell’s replacement played flawless defense while adding a two-run double and scoring three runs. But everyone knows Javier Baez is a good player; the bigger storyline is who has been replacing Baez at second base while he fills in at shortstop, and whether they could pull it off in a playoff setting.
On Wednesday it was Ian Happ, who homered and had three hits. The day before, Ben Zobrist hit a home run to break a scoreless tie, and days before that Tommy La Stella carried the offense while playing second base. The Cubs have plenty to fall back on without Russell, just as they did without Kyle Schwarber last season.
“Have been working on a lot of stuff,” Happ said after the win. “Right-handed. Two-strike approach, left-handed. Be a little simpler and make some adjustments.”
Happ homered for the 20th time this season while also adding a single and double. The rookie even thought he had hit for the cycle for a moment, as he couldn’t tell if Pirates left fielder Starling Marte had caught a ball he hit that way in the sixth inning. He just kept running.
The Cubs will need more from Happ as well as Zobrist and even La Stella. With Baez entrenched at shortstop however much longer, manager Joe Maddon understands he’s turning to inferior defenders at second, though they’ve gotten the job done lately.
“When you have [Russell] and [Baez] out there it’s different,” Maddon said. “I can’t deny that. It’s different. The other guys have been fine. Happ hasn’t been challenged, Tommy hasn’t been challenged. … Overall, the second-base position hasn’t been challenged.”
Even if the Cubs have proper depth at second base, they certainly don’t at shortstop.
“You look at the shortstop position and Javy is doing a wonderful job, but after that it becomes different, so we were counting on [Russell’s return] to happen,” Maddon explained. “[Russell] getting back quickly, hopefully it’s not anything prolonged. That’s such an important position. Just imagine without either one of them out there. Very difficult to imagine.”
Of course, that’s worst-case-scenario thinking, which is the job of a front office. Could the team be looking for a shortstop, even as Chicago was in the process of finishing off a three-game sweep of the Pirates on Wednesday? There’s not much to rely on from the minors, while the deadline to add someone to be eligible for the playoff roster is midnight ET Friday. Zack Cozart of the Cincinnati Reds is a pending free agent, and Asdrubal Cabrera of the New York Mets is another name who could be of interest. At this point, the Cubs might just need a body — anybody — who can naturally play that position in case Baez needs a day off or gets hurt. Even a September trade isn’t out of the question.
The good news is the Cubs have plenty of offense these days to help smooth things over. They reached a few milestones in Wednesday’s 20-hit outing:
Became the first team since the 1998 Red Sox to score 15 or more runs in at least four games in one calendar month.
They’re the first team in history to have five 20 home run hitters all age 25 or younger.
With Happ hitting his 20th homer, they set a franchise record by employing six players with at least 20 in one season.
The 20 total hits were their most since May 14, 2014.
Yes, Russell will be missed, but the Cubs can survive just as they have in the short term without Willson Contreras and Jon Lester. More nights featuring 17 runs could help, along with some added depth at shortstop. But the front office still might have some work to do.