Cubs' lineup puzzle keeps getting more complicated

CHICAGO -- If Joe Maddon, who played college football, could platoon the way his counterparts on the gridiron can -- offense, defense, special teams -- this would all be easy. But it's baseball, and even as his defending champion Chicago Cubs seem to be building toward a third straight playoff appearance, his lineup card problems are only getting worse.

The upshot: They're good problems, as always is the case when you have too many good players who are all performing well.

The Cubs shut down their archrival St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, riding 7 2/3 sterling innings from resurgent starter Kyle Hendricks to a 4-1 win. Chicago has taken the first two games of the weekend series and now leads the Redbirds by five games, with the pesky Milwaukee Brewers emerging as the closest challenger to Chicago's throne in the NL Central, sitting 3 1/2 games back.

This all happened over the span of about 29 hours, and if things had gone differently, the Cubs might be staring at an anxiety inducing one-game margin over the Cardinals or Brewers or both. Instead, Sunday's series finale now seems to border on must-win territory for St. Louis, and Chicago's trip to Milwaukee next weekend is looming larger and larger.

"The guys are definitely totally engaged right now," Maddon said. "I think part of it is the offense has picked up a little bit. Any time you're not hitting, you always appear to be flat. All of a sudden you see everybody having better at-bats, we're scoring some runs and you see everybody start to perk up. Beyond that, pitching drives the engine and Kyle drove the engine with the way he threw today."

For now, though, this weekend has been about the Cubs building their winning streak to five, having pounded opponents 51-17 in the process. It has been about stepping on the throats of their ancient foes. And it's about a roster that suddenly has more healthy, productive options that you can pencil into a starting lineup.

One of those options is highlight-reel center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who drew a start Saturday against tough St. Louis righty Michael Wacha and collected three hits, including two doubles, and drove in two runs. Almora is on a tear, having gone 7-for-9 with 10 RBIs over his past five games, and given his prowess in the outfield, he looks more and more like a player ready for a bigger role. Only problem is that the Cubs don't have room for another everyday player.

"Maybe he's doing so [well] because we're putting him in the right spots," Maddon said. "There's always that thing, too. [Ian] Happ had another big hit today. Happ is playing well. Jon Jay continues to do a lot of good things. [Kyle] Schwarber has got to play, also."

For Maddon, it comes down to matchups. But what if more and more of those matchups Maddon studies are starting to look like good ones for Almora? Where does that leave him and, for that matter, Schwarber?

"[It is a] nice problem trying to figure out the lineup every day," Maddon said. "We'll still try to make our best guesses every day and keep them all looking good, keep them all fresh hopefully for the remainder of the season into the postseason. I love what [Almora] is doing. What he's doing is not missing his pitch right now. It's not getting fouled off and he’s not taking it."

It's hard not to take a rear-facing snapshot over the emerging question of "Almora or Schwarber?" The defense is no contest. Since the beginning of last season, Almora has logged plus-2 defensive runs saved playing a premium position, while Schwarber is at minus-7 playing on the corner. And those metrics probably underestimate Almora's skills in the field by a good amount. With him in that spot, and someone like Jay, Happ or Ben Zobrist in left, the defense begins to recall the unit that last season was historically good.

But the flip side of that rear-facing snapshot is the offense. Almora is now hitting .299/.341/.442 to Schwarber's .207/.315/.452, and with his greater ability to put the bat on the ball, Almora's .824 OPS with runners in scoring position dwarfs Schwarber's .580.

"I've always said, it's not about me," Almora said, repeating an oft-expressed sentiment. "It's about the Chicago Cubs. We trust Joe to do whatever he's got to do to put us out there to win games. When I get an opportunity, I just go out there to try to help the team win."

When making lineup decisions, you're only using all of this history to make a guess on what is going to happen. And there is little doubt that Schwarber's upside at the plate is surpassed only by franchise cornerstones Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. For example, in FanGraphs' rest-of-season forecasts, Schwarber has a .810 projected OPS against Almora's .715. It's not an easy call as to whom to play regularly by any means.

Because the Cubs have as much positional versatility as any club in the majors, the outfield puzzle also grew more complicated Saturday because of the return of an infielder: All-Star shortstop Addison Russell. If Almora and Hendricks laid the foundation for Saturday's win, it was Russell who raised the roof with a signature moment in his young career.

Russell was activated after a 39-game absence because of plantar fasciitis but wasn't in the starting lineup. In the eighth inning, Russell came in to pinch hit, and when he was announced, the roar from the crowd at Wrigley Field sent chills around the Chicago dugout.

"That just goes to show what kind of fans we have," Almora said. "It's awesome. I got goosebumps when [Russell] came up to hit, first game back."

And that was before Russell lit into a Tyler Lyons pitch, sending it to the top row of the left-field bleachers and bounced it onto Waveland Avenue. Russell was smiling full-on by the time he hit first base as the crowd thundered with adulation, which lasted even after he returned to the dugout for a hearty round of back-slaps, and subsided only when Russell re-emerged for a curtain call. In other words, the fans seemed to be pleased he was back.

"That was a pretty special moment in my life," Russell said. "Walking up to the plate, I couldn't help but smile inside. I felt light. It was pretty fun. Sometimes I surprise myself, too. Definitely been working hard trying to prepare myself for the moment that just happened."

Russell remained in the game to play shortstop in the ninth while Cubs closer Wade Davis was nailing down his 30th save of the season. It was hard not to look around the field and notice the strength of the defense behind Davis, with Russell back at short, Javier Baez nudged over to second and an outfield configuration from left to right of Happ, Almora and Jason Heyward.

The ability of Happ and Zobrist to bounce from the infield to the outfield and back to join Schwarber, Jay, Heyward and Almora means that we'll continue to see a lot of in-game maneuvering from Maddon as different opposing relievers appear, which isn't anything new. But eventually, assuming the Cubs outlast the Brewers in the NL Central race, you'd expect to see some version of an everyday postseason configuration emerge. Not one that is set in stone -- with Maddon, it never is -- but one that at least answers the question of "What is the Cubs' best lineup?"

Right now, that's not an easy question to answer. And in a regular-season context, Maddon will continue as he has done: deploy players according to matchups, rest others as needed, etc. For one, Russell's foot problem isn't likely to be completely resolved for a while, so his time will have to be parceled out carefully.

"We're just going to have to manage it," Russell said. "Really not sure what the plan is moving forward. We'll make sure that there is a plan in place so it's the best way for me to stay healthy."

There is little question that the Cubs' defense looks special on paper with something close to Saturday's end-of-game lineup, with the exception that catcher Willson Contreras had been removed earlier for a pinch runner. But you've got to score runs, too, and the explosiveness of Schwarber's bat means that even with the strikeouts and the limited range in the field and the problems against lefties, he's going to get plenty of action.

However, with the return of Russell and Almora building momentum at the plate, the exact definition of "plenty" might be evolving. In any event, these are high-class problems, to borrow a description from Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, and the bottom line is that if everyone is playing well, there are no wrong answers. That is, unless somebody starts to rock the boat and Almora, for one, is not going to be that guy.

"It's not in my control," Almora said. "I could go to bed thinking about what's going on but, no, man, it's not about me. It's about the team winning games and we're doing it right now."