SAN DIEGO – After an unsolicited nine-month sabbatical from the Cubs, veteran reliever James Russell has returned just in time to see things he’d never experienced with the team that drafted him in 2007.
A sea of new faces in the clubhouse, for sure. But more than that the kind of roster movement less than 40 games into a season that suggests the front office might be starting to believe this upbeat, six-week start to the season might not be a mirage.
“Definitely there’s a sense of urgency,” said Russell, who was traded to Atlanta last summer and then re-signed by the Cubs after the Braves released him out of spring training.
New manager Joe Maddon’s young and remodeled team has a long way to go to prove it’s for real – starting with a weeklong West Coast trip that opened Tuesday night in San Diego.
But a flurry of six roster moves to open the week – including Tuesday’s trade of catcher Welington Castillo to the Seattle Mariners — had the clubhouse buzzing as the trip opened, and wondering what comes next.
“We’ve got a really special team,” Russell said. “We’ve got to go out there and do our job and win games and prove to everybody else that we’re not a joke or we’re not just blowing smoke.”
Maddon said trading away Castillo – which seemed inevitable once the Cubs acquired a pair of veteran catchers in December – was all about firming up a bullpen that has been a shaky work in progress much of the season.
With 2014 lights-out rookie Neil Ramirez on the DL with a shoulder injury for a length of time nobody seems to know, adding a hard-throwing reliever such as two-year big-league right-hander Yoervis Medina became a priority.
The move followed the move of left-hander Travis Wood from the rotation to the bullpen over the weekend, with Tsuyoshi Wada, 34, activated from the disabled list Tuesday to fill Wood’s rotation spot, starting Wednesday against the Padres.
The Cubs also designed lefty Phil Coke for assignment, optioned right-hander Brian Schlitter back to AAA Iowa and promoted outfielders Mike Baxter and Junior Lake to better balance what had been a catcher-heavy bench (often made short-handed by carrying an extra pitcher).
“It’s really different,” sixth-year shortstop Starlin Castro said of the aggressiveness to improve an already good-starting club – in particular aggressiveness shown by a fourth-year front office that tanked its first three big-league seasons to rebuild the farm systm.
“The whole time that I have been here, that’s never happened,” Castro said. “I think they [believe] we’re ready.
“This is only the beginning.”
Imagine if the Cubs had been able to close the deal for free agent workhorse James Shields – who pitched seven strong innings for the Padres on Tuesday night, four weeks after beating the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“It was very close; it came down to the wire,” said Maddon, who was Shields’ first big-league manager, in Tampa Bay. “He and I talked often. I’m a big fan of his. WE had a great relationship in Tampa Bay.”
The Cubs offered to creatively structure a three-year deal worth $60 million; the Padres were able to sign him for four and $75 million. Sources say the Cubs went as far as the front office’s limited payroll flexibility allowed.
But even without Big Game James, the Cubs have exceeded early 2015 expectations enough on the field to inspire an urgency from the brass that has those in the clubhouse, such as Maddon, expecting the Cubs to add between now and the trade deadline.
“We just take care of our job on a daily basis, that will take care of itself,” Maddon said.