I have written fairly extensively about most of the Cubs biggest prospects over the past few seasons. Unless you’re new to the site, you know I am sky high on Jorge Soler, am deeply concerned by the strikeout rate of Javier Baez, and consider Kris Bryant to be the best healthy prospect in baseball (until Byron Buxton heals up, that is). Today, though, will be a little different. I’ve written about Addison Russell a few times, but this edition of Prospects Progress will be the first time I have taken a longer, more in depth look at the Cubs’ infield prospect.
If you’re new to Prospects Progress, this is an annual offseason series that focuses on players at all levels of the minors. Each article will take one prospect … maybe a big name you instantly recognize, and maybe a fringe guy you haven’t heard of … and will spend some time looking at his numbers, his risk factors, and how he projects to fit into the Cubs’ future. [Previously: Kris Bryant.]
Addison Russell, SS
Born: January 23, 1994
Acquired: Acquired from Oakland in the July 4, 2014 trade.
I have to be honest with you; I had a tough time developing this article. My usual pattern is to look at the recent numbers for a player, talk about the positives, point out any red flags, and then project a likely course for the upcoming season.
Russell doesn’t fit that pattern. There are no red flags.
Well, there is a sort of a vague, kind of reddish scrap of flag-like cloth to talk about, but nothing significant. Russell has the cleanest stat sheet I have seen out of a major prospect (other than, perhaps, Soler, but Soler had recurring injury concerns (at least, he did when I last wrote him up)). His slash line with the Smokies reads .294/.332/.536; nothing wrong with that. His ISO of .242 was good for third in the league (200 PA minimum). He struck out just 17.1% of the time, an excellent rate for a power hitter, and even stole a pair of bases to go with his 12 Tennessee home runs.
Even better, he did all this while just twenty years old. Not only was he one of the best prospects in the Southern League, he was one of the youngest.
If I were to grumble somewhat about Russell’s campaign as a Cubs’ farmhand, I would point at his walk rate: 4.4%. That’s the not-really-a-red-flag I mentioned earlier. It isn’t a bad rate, exactly, but it isn’t good either.
Of course, he walked at a 14% rate in 57 PA while in the Oakland system before the trade (sample size alert), and in over 500 plate appearances in High A in 2013 he walked at a rate of 12.1%, so there is plenty of reason not to worry. Factor in his age (again, 20 is quite young for Double A) and that his overall production was right up there with the best hitters in the Southern League last year*, and any concerns about the walk rate start to fade.
*Well, right up there with the best hitters not named Bryant, anyway. As good as Russell was, his OPS was still 300 points behind his probable future teammate, and he trailed Bryant by 79 in wRC+. [Brett: ELL OH ELL.]
Is there a way to explain the drop in walk rate with the Smokies? Possibly. A change in coaching philosophy could do it, and the move out of the hitter friendly Texas League probably helped as well. Regardless, I do not think it is something we need to worry about. Russell is going to struggle from time to time as he adjusts to the more advanced pitching further up the ladder and that pitching adjusts right back, and those struggles may be a little more pronounced due to his young age, but I see no need for long term concerns over his bat. If he continues to show a greatly depressed walk rate as we head into mid-summer we may rethink that.
But, for now at least, optimism can rule the day. A twenty year old infielder who is hitting with the best bats in Double A tends to make optimism easy to come by.
There is no reasonable scenario in which Russell is blocked at the major league level. I know Mets fans will be heartbroken to read it, but the Cubs do not have to trade Russell, nor trade another infielder to make room for Russell. Russell’s bat should be good enough that he would be productive playing anywhere on the diamond.
Almost anywhere. He has never played a professional game at catcher, so that position is out. And he isn’t a pitcher, so we can of course scratch that spot. Other than that, the field is pretty much open to him. I’m not sold on his ability to play above average defense in center, but I’m not convinced he can’t either. I have no doubts about his ability to stick at shortstop and to play very well there, though. Moving to either second or third would provide no serious obstacle. A transition to left or right field might take a touch longer given that he would have to learn read balls off the bat at some rather different angles, but I suspect he would be up for it.
In terms of fitting him into the Cubs’ major league lineup one day, I think the easiest answer would be to slide Bryant off of third and into left and to add Russell to the hot corner. There really is no wrong answer, though, and I look forward to many friendly debates among Cubs fans as to whether the Cubs could have squeaked out an extra half a win with a slightly different set of defensive assignments.
I expect Russell will open 2015 with the Iowa Cubs and will stay there at least into mid-summer. Before the year is out, though, I fully expect Russell to be playing on the infield in Wrigley. Given the success he has enjoyed at a young age and the very solid stat sheet he has to build on, the sky is pretty much the limit as far as his future potential is concerned. If you want to dream on an all-Cubs All-Star infield one day in the next few years (and why wouldn’t you?), Russell is definitely a guy with the potential to help make that happen.