Whether he admits it or not, there’s no doubt Addison Russell has heard the footsteps. It’s kind of hard not to when they’ve gone from the distant thunk of logs on the hot stove to the staccato clack of Manny Machado’s cleats on the clubhouse walkway.
“As far as the trade rumors, if it happens, it happens,” Russell told the media (you can subscribe to The Athletic here) prior to the first half of Saturday’s twin bill. “But I really don’t pay them any attention. The only time I really even hear about them is the media bringing it up to me.”
Yeah, so that’s cool and all, but it’s really hard to believe it’s true. I mean, it’s possible Russell is the only person in the Cubs’ orbit who hasn’t been privy to the talk. Theo Epstein addressed the rumors in more of a roundabout way on 670 The Score and Tom Ricketts spoke with the Sun-Times about his willingness to spend big on potential acquisitions.
And while both instances involve the media, it’s kind of a thing when team execs and ownership are discussing this stuff. Not only is there an elephant in the room, but people are openly speculating on the size of said elephant’s tusks and how assumed constraint has kept it in the room for so long. That part’s got to reach even the man who claims he has remained on the other side of the door.
“This is a great organization,” Russell said. “The Cubs have stuck with me whenever I went through a lot of things. I think that would be sad if I had to leave, but I’m really thankful for the Cubs, for giving me an opportunity to play.”
I think we all know what “a lot of things” means and, gosh, that’s certainly one way to put it. Not that Russell could really be expected to be more explicit, but the rhetoric here just seems really detached and like he’s sort of resigned to whatever cards fate may deal him. Which speaks to Russell being keenly aware of the situation at hand, and as more than just some sort of third-party observer.
His awareness of the situation is evident in his play since the rumors were reignited, as though he’s stepping to the plate trying to prove something. Russell would surely deny it, but his performance has improved dramatically in the time since his name started coming up in trade talks again.
The precocious shortstop got off to a decidedly slow start, posting a .205/.301/.274 slash with a .260 wOBA and 59 wRC+ through his first 83 plate appearances. Five doubles stood as his only extra-base hits. That was as of April 25, when the reports of the Cubs’ continued interest in Machado surfaced. Anybody wanna guess what he’s done in the subsequent 79 plate appearances?
Nothing crazy, just a .324/.405/.471 with a .380 wOBA and 141 wRC+ buoyed by a homer, a triple, and five doubles. For those of you who don’t really understand stats, jumping over 100 points in pretty much every category is kind of a big deal. And even though we’re talking about smallish samples, the comparative periods are nearly equal.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, though, and the spike in his performance could just signal a natural correction after a slow start. After all, he’s still only 24 years old and hasn’t nearly reached maturity as a hitter. Probably not as a person, either, though we don’t really have hard statistics for that.
So is Russell really oblivious to what’s being said or is he simply able to compartmentalize the reports and their implication on his career? It’s surely the latter, though it the results are fine for the Cubs regardless. Either they’ve got a young hitter who’s starting to live up to the lofty expectations that have accompanied him since well before his MLB debut or they’ve got a worthy stand-in for an even more elite player.
But if Russell’s able to set all the scuttlebutt aside and his production remains at such a high level, does trading him really make sense? Many will point to his three remaining years of club control beyond 2018 as evidence of his superior overall value over what would quite possibly be a half-season rental of Machado. And that’s fine, though it’s taking too narrow a view of the situation.
Machado is making significantly more than Russell this season, but that’s not an issue because a trade of the two would not push the Cubs beyond the competitive balance tax threshold. As for the control, you also have to consider how the Cubs view those years in terms of cost and value. While Russell is only making $3.2 million this season, he is in line for some pretty significant raises through three arbitration years.
And even though he’ll still be making far less than either Machado or that other top-tier free agent the Cubs might like to pursue this winter, Russell’s relative value will decrease as his salary grows. We’re really splitting hairs here, as a team with the Cubs’ growing revenue streams shouldn’t be worried about $10 million here or there, but it’s a matter of weighing all the options when it comes to maximizing this current competitive window.
That could mean bringing Machado in for half a season and then either trying to extend him or letting him walk in order to pursue Bryce Harper. Should they succeed in either of those endeavors, that player’s resultant salary would be sort of “discounted” by as much as $10-15 million the Cubs would not be paying Russell. As over-simplified as this is, the point is that a trade can’t be viewed as simply three years of team control for a rental.
At the core of this whole thing is a desire to put the Cubs in the best position to win, both this year and in the future. I’ll be honest, I don’t really know what that is at this point. All I do know is that what helps the Cubs most right now, in the finite present, is Addison Russell playing like he has over the last few weeks. Whether that continues over another few weeks and beyond the trade deadline, however, is something we’re going to keep hearing about.
Or you could just make like Russell and try to ignore it.