Imagine you’re in a self-induced nightmare scenario in which you could only choose Addison Russell or Javier Baez to play for the Cubs. Who would you take?
It’s a fascinating question, particularly based on where the argument was before the start of the season. Russell was the obvious choice, right? He was better on defense and was going to be like Hall of Famer Barry Larkin with the bat as well, at least according to the man who traded him. Baez was the 30% strikeout man who was boom-or-bust with absolutely no in-between.
Yet here we are at the in-between because what the big-swinging Baez has done this season from an all-around perspective is insanely impressive and it’s put the issue in the spotlight. Truly, would you trade Javier Baez straight up for Addison Russell right now?
Let’s get the similarities out of the way first. Both are plus defenders and both play in the dirt. They are on the same service-time contracts and will be free agents in 2022 and both still have a lot of room to improve down the road. I think it’s fair to say neither has reached his ceiling yet.
The case for Baez is that he’s the better all-around player, today. At 23 years old, he’s slashing .274/.309/.427 with four home runs and a sparkling 19.5% strikeout rate (lower than the league average of 21.1%). His approach at the plate still isn’t the best (only three walks on the season), but this is quite the improvement from his 41.5% K-rate in 2014. Last season he showed progress as he lowered it to an even 30% over 80 plate appearances. But 19.5% this year? That’s absurd progress.
If Baez’s walk rate rises to his career average of 5.1% (fair warning: that’s kind of a small sample and he’s currently at 2.4% against a league average of 8.4%), he becomes a balanced player who is capable of hitting 20 home runs, making solid contact at the plate and playing plus defense in the infield. That’s an untradeable player, and Baez might be that right now. Pretty crazy to think about (and it makes you wonder if he should be playing more).
With the stats he’s put up this season, Baez has been worth 0.8 wins above replacement. If you extrapolate that over the season, he’s about a three-win player in a limited role.
The case for Russell starts with him being a year younger and having a defensive edge at shortstop (though I’d Baez the nod at third).
In 216 plate appearances over 53 games this season, Russel’s slashing .232/.319/.353 with four home runs. You can tell just from watching his at-bats that he just has a better eye and approach at the plate, but the 23 walks and a 10.7% BB-rate drive that point home. He did drop his strikeout percentage to 26.4%, a couple of points lower than last season’s figure.
Overall, Russell has been worth 1.1 WAR and is on pace for about a 3.5-win season. And that’s with a hundred or so more plate appearances than Baez.
In terms of luck, Baez’s improved results could just be due to a small sample size, but his .315 BABIP isn’t screaming regression in terms of his hits. Besides, the strikeouts were always his biggest issue. Russell isn’t getting unlucky either as he sports a .308 BABIP, down slightly from last season.
Russel’s best case for beating out Baez remains in the power potential of his bat. With his advanced approach at the plate, he can be more productive if he lowers his own strikeout rate and adds some muscle. Becoming more of a home run threat will also help draw more walks as pitchers become more careful with him. He could be a beast, but it is fair to note that Baez doesn’t need to develop his power and Russell’s may never be fully realized.
Okay, so who do you take?
For my money, I’m still sticking with Russel. I just think he’s going to keep getting better and better and his approach at 22 years old is so good. On top of that, I haven’t seen enough of Javy yet to know for certain that his changes will stick. I think they will, but if I had to choose between the two, Russell is my man.
Either way, this battle is really close and it’s going to be exciting to watch these two perform for many years to come. Baez was an oft-rumored trade candidate this past offseason and Russell was the incumbent shortstop for an NLCS team. Now they are both playing at a high level for the best team in baseball and we can all be thankful we don’t have to choose.
But if we did…who would you take? Sound off in the comments and let us know where your heart lies.