He supplanted the incumbent shortstop, a three-time All-Star who had once been pretty much the only reason to watch the Cubs. He hit two home runs before his fellow phenom, a veritable unicorn who was supposed to homer on his first swing and every third one thereafter. More importantly, Addison Russell wholly justified the Cubs’ decision to trade Jeff Samardzija back in July of 2014.
The funny thing about Russell taking over for Castro, however, is how people viewed their individual games and styles. Castro was always seen as a bat-first guy who needed to be a hit machine in order to make up for his black hole of a glove. Russell, on the other hand, was having a sub-par bat that was made tolerable by his wizardry with the glove. I’m not saying those views are correct, mind you, just that they persisted among a good number of fans.
What really hurt Castro over his tenure with the Cubs was inconsistency and the tendency to make incredibly boneheaded mistakes. The highly publicized and oft-repeated criticism from Bobby Valentine and Bob Brenly didn’t help either. Castro was labeled as lazy and a poor defender, neither of which were true. At the same time, he didn’t do himself any favors by booting routine grounders and forgetting how many outs there were in the inning.
Russell had been touted as the second coming of Barry Larkin, high praise that brought with it some incredibly high expectations, particularly when it came to offense. The Cubs rookie struggled at times to adjust to major league pitching, particularly in June and July. Many questioned how a kid who was only batting in the .220’s could possibly be a keystone of the rebuild, let alone push Starlin Castro out of position. Ah, but that was a very myopic view.
While it’s true that you’d like Russell to slash better than .242/.307/.389, it’s clear that he improved down the stretch, particularly after moving from second base to his more natural position. Though the rookie posted a season-long wRC+ of 90 (10% worse than a league-average hitter), he closed the season on a high note and closed with a second-haf wRC+ of 101. That adds a little credence to my observation that the kid just seemed to be getting it as the Cubs moved toward the playoffs.
From early in the season, I began calling Russell a doubles machine, as he just seemed to have the uncanny ability to drive the ball to either outfield gap. Sure enough, his 29 two-base hits ranked 11th among all MLB second basemen, despite the fact that all but one of the top 10 (Ben Zobrist, who actually played all over) had more at-bats than Russell. And, for what it’s worth, every one of those guys with more doubles had several years of experience under his belt.
But maybe we should compare Russell to shortstops, since that’s where he’ll make his living from now on. Only five players at that position, all of whom boast at least one more full season of MLB experience than the young Cub, hit more than 29 doubles in 2015. Perhaps I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, but I can easily see Russell lacing 40 or more doubles in a sophomore campaign during which he’ll be more familiar with both the league and his role on the team.
Let’s be honest though, Addison Russell’s biggest contribution to the Cubs is probably always going to be his glove, so much so that he need merely be an average offensive player to be an incredibly effective major leaguer. While players like Ben Zobrist or, if things proceed as they have so far, Javy Baez are prized for their ability to move seamlessly between various positions from day to day, Russell is the kind of slick-fielding shortstop who can anchor a team’s defense for years. Yes, he was able to provide elite D at two positions, but we’re not going to this kid moving around again.
Consider that Russell ranked 4th among all second basemen with 9 defensive runs saved and was 2nd in UZR with 7.3. And that’s a position at which he’d gotten just a brief primer in Iowa prior to be thrown into the fire with the Cubs. Not impressed? Okay, how about if I tell you that Russell ranked 4th among all shortstops with a DRS of 10 and 9th with a UZR of 6.1. Those latter stats were generated in only 471 1/3 innings, nearly 400 fewer than anyone above him on either list. It’s not hard to believe that logging a full season at short would mean seeing him atop all the charts.
All that said, there’s still a lot for Addison Russell to improve upon, namely hitting lefties. He’s really got to boost that .156 batting average and .527 OPS (44 wRC+) against southpaws moving forward. If he can do that, even just a little bit, this kid can really be something else. There aren’t too many players who can impact a game and season with their glove alone, but Russell is one of them. Thing is, he has the ability to be a special offensive talent as well. Now it’ll be up to him to make sure that potential doesn’t just remain such.
Final grade: B+