No Verlander, no Addison Russell? No problem, say first-place Cubs
As August slipped into September, the Cubs learned they won’t have Justin Verlander for the playoff run they’re planning this fall.
The bigger problem is they also learned they won’t have shortstop Addison Russell for most or all of the final month of the season.
“It’s next man up,” said reigning MVP Kris Bryant, who hit his 25th homer in a 6-2 victory over the Braves on Thursday night — and who seemed confident the Cubs have plenty left on the roster to finish off the National League Central race.
Russell suffered a rupture of the already injured plantar fasciitis ligament in his right foot during his minor-league rehab assignment this week, an MRI on Thursday revealed.
The team estimated recovery time “in the neighborhood of three weeks.”
The news came on the final day for teams to acquire players in time to be eligible for the postseason.
The Cubs had contact with the Tigers on big-ticket ace Verlander, the former Cy Young winner and MVP who wound up with the Astros in the final minutes before rosters locked in. One report said Verlander — who had full no-trade rights — waited that long to consent to the trade because he preferred the Cubs and hoped to give them time to make a deal.
Sources said the Cubs shied from $56 million owed the next two years to Verlander. And they didn’t have the quality of upper-level prospects in their system to compete with the Astros to drive the financial cost down.
Seeking depth at shortstop and elsewhere, the Cubs settled for a small trade with the Mariners that landed outfielder Leonys Martin and cash for a player to be named later or cash. Martin, who was playing at Class AAA for Seattle, won’t immediately join the big-league club; he’s considered defensive depth and speed off the bench.
Meanwhile, Javy Baez said he’s ready to handle short in Russell’s absence every day as long as Russell is out.
The rotation, which got an encouraging 6⅔ innings from Kyle Hendricks in the victory Thursday, gets another boost Saturday when Opening Day starter Jon Lester returns from two weeks on the disabled list (lat tightness/shoulder fatigue).
And manager Joe Maddon said he likes what he has — and how his team is playing — right now as he attacks September trying to build on the 3½-game lead the Cubs have over the second-place Brewers.
“I absolutely believe the ingredients are here,” Maddon said.
Even as their depth gets tested by covering the extended loss of Russell. The 2016 All-Star originally was expected to return in the next few days after missing the past month.
“We think we’re fine,” Maddon said. “My biggest concern would be Javy, moving through September. We’ve got to protect Javy.”
That means getting versatile veteran Ben Zobrist more reps at short and a start or two to spell Baez, he said.
It also likely means finding out quickly how well infielder Mike Freeman can handle the position once he joins the roster from AAA Iowa on Friday.
Freeman, 30, played 20 games for Seattle and the Dodgers this season before the Dodgers released him this month. The Cubs signed him to a minor-league deal Aug. 7, and he has played 11 games at shortstop for Iowa since then.
“We’re in September right now. I gained my rest during the whole season on the days when I didn’t play,” Baez said. “I’m not going to get tired.”
Hendricks, who has a 2.31 ERA in eight starts since returning from the DL, called the news of Russell’s extended loss “big in a way.”
“But that being said, we’ve had some guys fill in pretty well. Javy’s played unbelievable there,” he said. “We’ll definitely miss him, but hopefully this is a positive and he can come back in the next couple weeks and make a run with us at the end.”