Russell, who just turned 21, is likely to start the year at AAA Iowa, where he’ll hold down the shortstop spot until such time as his services are needed at the big league level and/or he dominates so thoroughly that the Cubs simply cannot afford to keep him in the minors anymore. While it’s far from certain that Russell will make his big league debut in 2015, there’s a solid chance he could make his way up sometime near midseason. It’s also plausible that he’ll get a full year at AAA.
It’s also far from certain where Russell will play when he does reach the big leagues. He told Andracki that he takes versatility as a point of pride, so if the need to move off of shortstop arises, he’ll be ready. Of course, a big part of the reason Russell is consistently ranked as a top 5/10 prospect in baseball is because everyone agrees he could be an average or above average defensive shortstop in the big leagues, which makes him incredible valuable when you consider the offensive upside. Still, with Starlin Castro at short, Javier Baez/Arismendy Alcantara at second, and Kris Bryant likely to be the near-term future at third, it’s up in the air how this will all play out. Here’s hoping everybody mentioned absolutely kills it, leaving the Cubs with an impossible decision.
Almora, who turns 21 in April, is likely to start the year patrolling center field at AA Tennessee, where he finished the 2014 season. In Andracki’s piece, he talks to Cubs Farm Director Jaron Madison, who says last year’s struggles will likely prove a benefit for Almora’s development. We know that Almora was dealing with some approach adjustments, which seemed to kick in at the tail end of his stay at High-A, and the Cubs decided to further challenge him at AA. And a challenge it was – Almora hit just .234/.250/.355 in 144 plate appearances there, infamously walking just twice.
Given the adjustments he was working on, I’m reluctant to be too hard on any one part of Almora’s offensive game (and the defense is still fantastic, by all accounts). I do think it’ll be interesting to see how he looks in the early going in 2015, though. He’s got a great natural swing, and excellent contact ability (his 16% K rate at AA was actually huge spike up from his marks at the lower levels, and obviously is still not particularly high). Still, he’ll have to focus more on pitches he can drive (he’s got plenty of strength to have some power in his game), which will offer an increase in walks as a natural byproduct.
As with Russell, there a relatively wide range of possible outcomes for Almora in 2015. Because of his advanced defense, he could actually wind up a near-big-league-ready player by the end of 2015 if the offense comes along (in which scenario, he probably wouldn’t spend too much time at AA, and would come up to AAA Iowa by midseason), and could look like the Cubs’ future in center field starting in 2016. Alternatively, the offensive adjustments could take a while longer, and, given his youth, the Cubs may elect to give Almora a full year at AA.