Chicago Cubs: Healthy Addison Russell an X-Factor for Cubs

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 17: Addison Russell
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 17: Addison Russell /

Chicago Cubs shortstop, Addison Russell, mired in on-field, and off-field adversity in 2017, can regain X-Factor intangibles for Chicago if healthy.

Heading into the 2017 season, and his third, I thought Addison Russell was about to embark on a huge breakout year for himself and the Chicago Cubs. Potentially be a darkhorse MVP-candidate. He already had the stellar glove, but it was the bat that looked poised to bust out.

Glimpses of his 2016 postseason, and power during the regular season, appeared to foreshadow what could be ahead for the still just 23-year-old in his career.

Russell has continuously started seasons slowly, from an offensive perspective, so it was no real surprise when the same happened through the first month last season. But he never got going, as bothersome shoulder and then foot injuries lingered. Later the shocking revelation of domestic violence allegations surfaced in June.

Fresh start?

Nearly a year later, heading into a brand-new season, Russell seeks to begin anew. The offseason was not void of every and all rumor, which included ESPN’s Jesse Rogers suggesting the Cubs trade Russell for Baltimore‘s free-agent-to-be Manny Machado (Machado has 52 career games at shortstop at the major league level).

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As unlikely as that trade was, for a variety of factors, Russell will be in Arizona in less than a month with the rest of the Cubs for Spring Training and will be in Miami, come opening day, as the Cubs battle the Marlins.

One is good, two are great

Some will argue Javier Baez is the better shortstop, and it’s not an unwarranted theory. The Cubs are most lethal when Baez is at second base and a healthy Russell is at short. We saw the ill-effects of what life can be like when Russell is on the shelf, the bind the Cubs were forced into as Mike Freeman attempted to cover, and the resulting reinforcement of what strong, defensive depth provides.

Not only that, Baez, as good a shortstop as he is, is best at second when you know a Willson Contreras pickoff attempt seems to more than likely result in an out. In part because of Baez’s quick wrist-flipping tags.

The debate over whether Baez or Russell should switch positions was talked about on the Cubs Talk podcast. A panel of David Kaplan, Tony Andracki, Scott Changnon, Nate Poppen and Eric Strobel discussed the matter and made points that I have long believed.

Russell is steady of the two shortstops, making the routine grounder with ease. Baez is flashy, and he and his teammates seem to revel in the resulting energy Baez provides. Including making the awe-inspired dives and tag plays at second base. But then he might boot the routine grounder.

As it would be helpful for the Cubs, and Russell, if he gets off to a fast start offensively, and even raises the average a few notches — Fangraphs paints a decent projection — I’m specifically looking for at least the 2016 version of Russell. Healthy, and productive, most assuredly on defense.

One more thing. In 2017, though not playing enough to qualify, Russell had 15 Defensive Runs Saved in 110 games. That ranks second among every shortstop. Baez had one in 73 appearances.

Defensive efficiency

In 2016, Russell co-led all shortstops alongside Brandon Crawford with 19 DRS. Crawford won the gold glove, but Russell showed the promise that could complement Chicago’s middle defense for the next decade. Among every single player at the position, since 2013, Russell is third with 44 DRS. He hadn’t even made his debut yet. In 2015, his debut season, you will remember he was at second base for most of the year.

Since that season, Russell is ninth among all players, regardless of innings and position, with 44 DRS, and 14th with 25.9 Ultimate Zone Rating. As a qualified shortstop between 2016-17, Russell is second with 34 DRS, and top five among UZR (19.8).

Those 34 DRS between 2016-17 trails only Andrelton Simmons. And remember, Russell only appeared in 110 games at shortstop in 2017. Maybe Baez, with more games at the position, trends up or down. But you see how efficient Russell has been.

Looking ahead

One question with Russell, aside from his offense, and perhaps any potential fallout by MLB for the domestic violence investigation — though that seems unlikely at this point — is, assuming health, can he regain his defensive poise and promise?

Joe Maddon attributed injuries to his struggles in 2017.

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If Russell can field his position as well as 2016, the everyday implementation of Russell at short adds to the Cubs’ Defense Efficiency Ratio that ranked eighth overall in 2017. That defense was historically great, and No. 1, in 2016.

Otherwise, the luxury of Baez, and potential of Ian Happ at second might solve other positional logjams. And who knows, maybe then, a possible future addition of Machado is in play.