Two years ago, Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was in the midst of a break-out campaign at the plate. In his second full season at the big league level, the then 22-year-old middle infielder posted what has been his best offensive season to-date. Across 151 games, Russell clubbed 21 home runs and drove in 95 runs, logging an OPS of .738.
That season, which resulted in Russell’s first All-Star Game selection and a 19th place finish in the National League MVP voting (tied with the likes of Noah Syndergaard and Christian Yelich), validated the decision by the front office to trade Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees the offseason prior.
With Russell’s solid offensive campaign and postseason grand slam in 2016, it looked like the Cubs would have a solid option, both offensively and defensively, at shortstop moving forward.
Since that break-out season, things have not continued on the same path for Russell as injuries limited him to just 110 games in 2017, a season in which he posted 12 home runs and just 43 RBI while watching his OPS-plus fall to a career-low 84.
Russell’s offensive game was not the only thing to take a step back in 2017. After committing 14 errors across 1,262.2 innings during the 2016 season, Russell logged 12 errors in just 808.1 innings, dropping his fielding percentage to .969.
With injury concerns and off-field issues seemly behind him coming into the 2018 season, the hope was Russell would return to his 2016 self. Despite a higher batting average this season (.265 after back-to-back years of posting a sub-.240 mark), Russell has continued to struggle in every facet of the game. First, Russell’s once 20-plus home run potential has turned into a .365 slugging percentage mid-way through August, a number that is anchored by zero extra-base hits this month and the lack of a home run since June.
Even without power numbers, players can survive in the game, especially middle infielders. However, Russell owns a second half batting average of .237 and has already grounded into four double plays since the All-Star break after doing so just three times in the first half of the season. To make matters worse, Russell is sporting an OBP since the break of .284, a number created by his lowly second half walk rate of 6.2 percent and strikeout rate of 21 percent.
Offensively, we have seen Russell go through peaks and valleys throughout his rather short big league career. However, the youngster’s defense has always been there to pick him up and help carry him through the rough offensive stretches. Now, in his fourth season with the Cubs, Russell is becoming a defensive liability. Already, Russell has matched his career-high in errors committed with 14. That number was set back in the aforementioned 2016 when Russell logged over 1,200 innings at the shortstop position. This season, Russell has recorded just 873 innings at the position, while his 14 errors are tied for the third most by a shortstop in the major leagues. To go along with that, Russell’s .966 fielding percentage not only would be a career-low if it holds, but it currently ranks as the second lowest by a shortstop this season behind only Marcus Semien.
Room Needs to be Made for David Bote
Earlier this week, I wrote that David Bote is due for more playing time in 2019 if he keeps up his current streak of solid play. One of the ideas I floated to get Bote moved involved next season was trading Russell, baring injury, and moving Javier Baez to his more natural position of shortstop, leaving a rotation of Bote and Ben Zobrist at second base.
On paper, this makes a ton of sense. Currently, Bote is slashing .333/.417/.531 in almost 100 plate appearances while at the same time playing error-free baseball across three different infield positions. While it’s unlikely Bote will keep up this kind of play offensively, he has looked very solid on the defensive side of the baseball, already making many sparkling plays like this one on Wednesday afternoon.
Oh, you didn’t know? pic.twitter.com/AYP2MGjZo2
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 15, 2018
That play, even though it came at third base, shows the athletic ability of a guy who has demonstrated an unrivaled work ethic since breaking into the show.
A move to incorporate Bote into the mix moving forward would likely hamper Russell’s playing time. As stated above, the obvious move is to slide Baez to shortstop and give Bote some increased reps at second base. Baez is far-and-away a better defender than Russell and a move to shortstop would showcase his cannon of an arm. On the offensive side of things, slotting Baez into short would drastically upgrade the fire-power of that position. Baez is in the middle of an MVP-caliber season in 2018 and only continues to better himself at the plate, something Russell seems unable to do at the moment.
If the Cubs were to make this move, the likely course of action would be to trade Russell. Earlier this season, Russell’s name was floated in Manny Machado trade rumors before he ultimately landed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The return for Russell would not be an earth-shattering haul considering the numbers outlined above. Instead, a fringe bullpen piece could be only thing the Cubs can get for Russell who will be entering his first year of arbitration after making $3.2 million this season.
The Problem That Creates
Trading Russell would, unless the Cubs get back a less version of the youngster, effectively leave the club with one major league ready shortstop in Baez. There is little question about Baez’s capabilities with playing the position but that would hamstring the Cubs if the injury bug bit or Baez needed a day off.
Even though the Cubs have large amounts of depth on their current big league roster, they really do not have a sure-fire back-up plan if Russell were to be traded. It’s for that reason, at least in part, that the Cubs have been reluctant to trade the middle infielder. Still, with his struggles at the plate and in the field reaching a peak level, something needs to be done.
The Solution to the Problem
Remember, with Russell off the roster in a theoretical 2019, the need is for a back-up shortstop that would need to play the position only the event of a Baez injury or a scheduled off-day. With that being said, let’s look at a couple of options the Cubs would have next season.
Of course, the most likely step would be to take care of the problem without having to sign anyone during the offseason, spending the least amount of money possible. Luckily, the Cubs have some in-house options.
Bote, who has been already mentioned as primed for more playing time in 2019, has experience playing shortstop in the minor leagues. In fact, prior to his extensive stay in the majors this season, Bote had racked up 117 innings at the position at the Triple-A level, committing only one error in the process.
All told, Bote has logged 363.2 professional innings at shortstop in the Cubs’ system, making him a possible back-up option down the road.
In addition to Bote, Zobrist has vast experience at shortstop in his more than ten-year big league career. The veteran has racked up 235 appearances at the position, with 99 of those coming during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 campaigns. Innings-wise, Zobrist has logged over 1,700 frames at shortstop in his career, the third most innings he has recorded at any position thus far in this career behind second base and right field.
At the minor league level, the Cubs have stashed away Mike Freeman. Freeman, who was brought in last season as extra depth when Russell hit the disabled list with a foot injury, logged 54.2 innings at shortstop in 2017. Back in the minors and currently at Triple-A, Freeman has logged 396.2 innings at the position so far while hitting a solid .264.
On the outside looking in, there are slated to be ten shortstops on the free agent market this winter with five of them making below $2 million this season. Of that group, none of them make sense offensively, seemly limiting the Cubs’ options to those players already on the roster or in the minors.
As far as juggling roster spots go, keeping the back-up plan to an in-house option would limit roster shuffling and avoid the front office having to make tough decisions on fringe roster guys.
All-in-all, Russell can not be left to flounder at the plate or let continued to make bad plays on defense. What was once a promising young star has turned into a liability both at the plate and in the field, making a bad combination that should spell the end of Russell’s time on the North Side.
Here’s to hoping Russell can turn things around because he was an important part of the Cubs’ run in 2016. However, if he can’t turn it around, I don’t think the front office will have a hard time pulling the trigger on a trade or another radical move that would open up more playing time to guys that are producing.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Beyond the Box Score