For good reason, Cubs Insider often avoids much coverage of negative off-the-field activities of Chicago Cubs players. This makes sense. When it comes to nightlife, player’s personal relationships and PED use, it can be a hazy world of inexact rumor and supposition.
I played baseball into my Division I college years and researched a book on one corner of PED culture. So I know far more about the dimmer side of sports than most general fans ever desire to know. After all, most fans just want a cognitive dissonance-free entertainment break from their workaday and family responsibilities.
So this piece will not go into the issues surrounding Addison Russell’s administrative leave. Evan Altman is already covering that quite well. And if you want further insight into Russell’s nightlife proclivities, just check out Red Line Radio’s most recent podcast starting at roughly the 26:30 point. Just note, their podcast features barroom language not suitable if co-workers or children are around.
This piece focuses solely on team challenges if Addison Russell’s absence continues through the playoffs and into next year. I am in no way encouraging Major League Baseball or the Cubs to factor this into any investigations or discipline. But there’s no question the Cubs are a weaker playoff team without a defender like Russell on the roster. In my opinion, it even makes winning another World Series an extreme long shot.
I covered some of this in my piece earlier this year about Silver Slugger shortstops versus Gold Glovers. To summarize, no team has won a World Series with a shortstop who has won a Silver Slugger Award in his career but not a Gold Glove. Further, among teams without a Gold Glover at shortstop, only one team in the last 40 years has won a title with a shortstop who posted a negative Defensive Runs Saved (DSR) figure in that year.
That lone exception was Oakland with Walt Weiss in 1989. However, this was an outlier year as Weiss was very much a plus defender on two other A’s World Series teams. (Note: the Yankees also won titles in some seasons when 5-time Gold Glover Derek Jeter posted negative DRS marks.)
This is quite relevant as both Javier Baez and free-agent-to-be Manny Machado have negative DSR and dWAR numbers at shortstop. Thus they very much fit the mold of ringless offense-first shortstops like Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada.
Now this World Series drought for Silver Slugger-only shortstops will certainly be broken at some point; it’ll have to happen if both World Series teams feature a poor fielding shortstop. For instance, the Red Sox’ Xander Bogarts falls into this category. So if the Red Sox face either the Dodgers or a Russell-less Cubs, the drought finally ends. (For a variety of reasons, I don’t pick the Red Sox to win the AL pennant. This includes how jam-packed the AL playoff bracket is with great teams.)
For the Cubs, the defensive drop-off will not just be at shortstop. It’s also the overall diminution of middle-infield defense moving from the plus-plus combination of Russell-Baez to the subpar Baez-Daniel Murphy pairing. Combine this with Willson Contreras’s shaky pitch framing and blocking abilities, and the team is not as strong up the middle as usually needed to win a World Series.
For next year, a solid argument can be made that Baez would improve his shortstop technique given more time there. However, one would not expect his lapses on routine plays to suddenly disappear and for him to master all finer technical aspects of the position.
The same applies to Machado, whose mistakes at shortstop have lessened this year with more playing time. But he still looks like an athletic third baseball freelancing at shortstop. For my tastes, I only want the Cubs signing Manny Machado if he agrees to move back to third base. This would also necessitate Kris Bryant agreeing to move to a corner outfield position.
If Russell isn’t with the Cubs next year, I also prefer Baez staying at second. This means bringing in a defensively strong shortstop, even if his bat is just average. While every team prefers having an All-Star two-way shortstop like Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Brandon Crawford, or Corey Seager, modern teams can definitely contend with glove-first shortstops. This includes the Royals’ Alcides Escobar in 2015 and Oakland’s Marcus Semien and the Brewers’ Orlando Arcia this year.
But now we are getting ahead of ourselves. With or without Russell, the Cubs still have a division to clinch and postseason to tackle this year. And this on-the-field drama is probably more than enough to occupy most fans.