Cubs' future grows brighter with call-up of top prospect Addison Russell
The future is now for the Cubs. Just four days after calling up third baseman and top prospect Kris Bryant, Chicago is adding another highly touted minor leaguer to its already loaded infield, with shortstop Addison Russell reportedly on his way to the majors. Russell, who was ranked in the top five of Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus before the season, will join the Cubs as a second baseman, according to CBSSports's Jon Heyman, who broke the news of his call-up.
A 21-year-old righthander from Pensacola, Fla., Russell was the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Pace High School by the Athletics. He vaulted onto the prospect scene by hitting a combined .369/.432/.594 in 244 plate appearances across three levels of the low minors as an 18-year-old, earning a spot in the top 50 of BA (No. 48 overall) and BP (No. 22). He followed that up with a stellar .275/.377/.508 showing in '13, making him a top-15 prospect for BA and a top-10 player for BP, but a hamstring strain cost him virtually the entire first half of the '14 season. Nonetheless, Russell was the centerpiece of Oakland's trade with Chicago for Jeff Samardzija that July, and he hit a strong .294/.332/.536 in 50 games for the Cubs' Double A affiliate after being dealt.
Tabbed as the Cubs' second-best prospect by BA and as the organization's No. 1 minor leaguer by BP before the year, Russell hit .317/.349/.488 over 13 games in spring training but was sent down to Triple A to start the season. With Iowa, Russell went 14 for 44 (.318) with four doubles, a homer and nine RBIs; he was initially the team's starting shortstop but was moved over to second base for his last four games there. Considered an above-average defender at short—BP grades him as a 50 on defense on the 20–80 scouting scale—Russell's switch to second prompted speculation that the Cubs were giving him reps there to get him ready to take over the position in the majors, at least for the time being. Indeed, as FOX Sports's Ken Rosenthal reports, while Russell is now the team's starter at the keystone, Chicago still sees him as it shortstop of the future:
Of course, currently standing in Russell's way at shortstop is 25-year-old Starlin Castro, who still has four years and just over $37 million (as well as a $16 million team option for 2020) left on a seven-year, $60 million extension he signed with the Cubs almost three years ago. And given his relatively strong production so far (.311/.340/.400 in 47 PA heading into Monday night's action after a .292/.339/.448 showing last year), it's unlikely the Cubs would be interested in moving Castro right now, making shortstop a no-go for Russell.
Second base, however, is another story entirely. Chicago had hoped to go with 22-year-old prospect Javier Baez at second to start the year despite his horrific .169/.227/.334 line and 95 strikeouts in 229 PA in 2014, but Baez forced the team's hand in spring training by hitting just .182 and striking out in 21 of his 55 at-bats. The Cubs demoted Baez to Triple A and went with Tommy La Stella at second for Opening Day, but an oblique strain knocked him out of action after just two games. Since La Stella went down, Chicago has gone between Arismendy Alcantara and Jonathan Herrera at second, but neither has distinguished himself. Alcantara has only two hits in 26 at-bats and hasn't made a start since April 14, while Herrera has managed only four hits in 22 at-bats.
With Alcantara and Herrera struggling and Baez unavailable (he's been on bereavement leave since April 9 due to the death of his younger sister), the Cubs have apparently decided that Russell is their best option at second. It's hard to argue against that. He may only be 21, but Russell has hit well at every level of the minors so far while showing good plate discipline. As his scouting report on BP notes, Russell "should grow into [a] high-contact MLB bat that will hit for average and power," and BA grades his hit tool as a 60 on the 20–80 scale. And while calling up Russell this early in the season creates the possibility that he could eventually qualify for Super Two arbitration status, the Cubs delayed the promotion long enough to ensure that he, like Bryant, will be under team control for seven years instead of six.
If Russell can hold his own in the majors for the rest of this year (or for however long he's up), it will create some interesting scenarios for the Cubs down the road. As Rosenthal reported, Chicago wants Russell to be its shortstop long-term, but that will depend entirely on the team's ability (or desire) to move Castro either off the position or to another team. Should the Cubs decide to keep Castro at short and Russell at second, however, that could possibly close the door on Baez's career in Chicago. The team could also move Bryant off third base and into the outfield, shifting Russell to the hot corner and hoping that Baez can discover some plate discipline at Triple A this year.
Regardless, it's a good problem for the Cubs to have: too many talented young players and not enough positions for them. For now, Russell will take his reps at second, giving Chicago another enviable piece of what's shaping up to be one of baseball's most exciting infields, for this year and for the future.