Sure, the Chicago Cubs sent out their two biggest trade chips this weekend, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be other moves to be made in July. Setting aside the (small) possibility of a prospect swap or a shortstop deal, there are a number of interesting pieces left on the Cubs who could get some attention (and there’s still the matter of those international bonus slots).
One of those pieces is lefty reliever James Russell, whom Peter Gammons says was mentioned “very often” this weekend as a trade possibility. I mentioned Russell on Saturday when the Angels dealt for Diamondbacks lefty Joe Thatcher (and outfielder Tony Campana). That deal is likely to be relevant to the lefty relief market, and it was good to see the Diamondbacks get some relevant, if not super-sexy, prospects in return.
Russell, 28, is in his second year of arbitration, making $1.775 million. It’s a reasonable sum for a lefty reliever, and he comes with an extra year of team control.
On the year, Russell sports a sparkling 2.22 ERA, which is undoubtedly aided by an unsustainable .209 BABIP and an 82.6% LOB rate. For a guy striking out just 20% of the batters he faces, Russell has been lucky that more runs haven’t scored off of him (probably in part thanks to his effective fellow bullpen-mates). Russell’s walk rate is a touch high right now, too, at an even 10%.
But let’s look at what Russell is supposed to do: get lefties out. On the year, lefties are hitting .250/.327/.455 against him. Wait, that’s … not good. How’s he got such a low ERA? Well, it’s because righties have done absolutely nothing against him: .116/.229/.146. And you wonder, is this new? Has he always been a reverse split guy? And the answer is nope. Prior to this season, Russell had been hit fairly well by righties in his career, but had dominated lefties.
So, what’s up? Is he working in a new pitch that’s brutal on righties? Is it just a small sample fluke? When a lefty starts improving his performance against righties, often you look for an increasing reliance on a quality changeup. Russell’s got a good one, but he’s using it no more this year than in the past.
Best I can tell, this is just a sample size fluke – after all, we’re talking about just 24.1 innings total on the year. That’s not even three games’ worth of innings.
The good news on Russell is that, lately, he’s been nails: since May 13, Russell has an 0.55 ERA and a 2.25 FIP. His 4.05 xFIP is the product of his not having given up a homer over that stretch (and he’s not really a groundball guy, so the homers will come from time to time). His K rate is slightly up over that stretch (20.6%) and his walk rate is way down (6.4%).
All in all, Russell has recently become pretty much the guy he always was: a decent lefty reliever who won’t kill you, and can be used in later innings, at least situationally.
Given the Cubs’ impending wave of bullpen talent, I think we’ll see Russell moved at some point this month of there’s any interest. Based on what Gammons is hearing, and Russell’s recent performance, there should be.
Don’t dream on an enormous return for Russell, but it could be a relevant prospect, or maybe even a competitive balance pick, once those become eligible to be traded late next week. Or, packaged with another complementary piece, perhaps the Cubs could get something fairly nice.