One year ago today, Addison Russell was making a name for himself in the Oakland Athletics’ organization, exhibiting a skill set impressive enough to get scouts believing he could become a full-time player by 2015. Well, it appears they were right — just not for the Athletics. Late Monday night, the Chicago Cubs sent a shock wave through the baseball world when they announced Russell was being called up by the team and would make his MLB debut Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates — only four days after top prospect Kris Bryant got the call. Russell will wear #22 with the club and make his MLB debut batting ninth.
Russell went into the 2014 season ranked as the #14 prospect in the game by Baseball America and was the key return piece for the Cubs when they traded their ace Jeff Samardzija to Oakland last July. His improvement became evident when he was tagged as the fifth-best prospect in baseball by MLB.com and the second-best in the Cubs’ system. With Javier Baez‘s lackluster production, the Cubs had an opening at second base and Russell appears to have claimed it. Despite only playing five games there this season with the Iowa Cubs, Chicago believes Russell is ready for the big league challenge.
At just 18 years old, Russell burst onto the prospect scene by slashing .369/.432/.594 in three levels of low minors in 2012. After being traded to the Cubs, he hit .294/.332/.536 in 50 games while in Double-A. Unlike Bryant’s guaranteed call-up, Russell’s ETA was up in the air coming into the 2015 campaign. The Cubs’ logjam of middle infielders was a prominent topic in Spring Training with trade rumors swirling around All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro. Now two weeks into the season, Castro’s improvement defensively and mature demeanor has earned immense praise for the 25-year-old and given him the job security he should have never lost in the first place. In just 11 games in Triple-A this year, Russell made it impossible to keep him down. He hit .318/.326/.477 in 46 plate appearances with a home run and nine RBIs.
With all the hype surrounding Bryant and the fact that he has spent less than a year in the Cubs’ organization, Russell is a bit of an unknown to some Cubs fans. They know he’s supposed to be good, but how good? The middle-infield prodigy has an explosive bat with good speed and is expected to produce solid averages as well as having above-average power for his position. The defense won’t be worthy of Gold Glove consideration, but he should more than hold his own at a new spot in the infield. One obstacle will be building a chemistry with Castro up the middle on the fly as the two — other than sporadic time in Spring Training — have never played together. He should showcase good plate discipline made evident by his low strikeout rate — he has only fanned 229 times in 1087 plate appearances since debuting in 2012. Walks are an issue; however, he only earned one free pass while in Triple-A this season.
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It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to believe Russell may be the second baseman of the future for the Cubs. At his peak, he could flirt with 20 stolen bases and 20 home runs in just a few seasons with an above-.300 batting average. With that type of production combined with Castro’s hitting, the Cubs could have one of the best double-play combinations in the game. Not to mention Anthony Rizzo and Bryant manning the corners — Chicago could conceivably have the best infield in all of baseball within a year or two. The hype is real.
The Cubs’ starting infield are all 25 years or younger currently with Russell becoming the youngest active player in the National League at 21 years old. For years Theo Epstein was adamant in imploring his fans to be patient. One of Epstein’s favorite lines was telling the media he would not give the fans a “cookie” just for the sake of calling up one of the prized prospects, but rather wait until they could have the whole meal.
The main course is here, Cubs fans. Bon appétit.