[Ed. – Yes, I know the Padres are reportedly looking for a shortstop, and I know where folks’ heads are going to go. We’ll get to the potential trade rumor portion of this stuff later. This is the more general, and more concrete side of things. For now.]
Although the decision to send him to the minors to start the season didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Kris Bryant decision did, and although his Spring performance wasn’t quite as eye-popping, Addison Russell turned a lot of heads in March. Russell hit .317/.349/.488 in the Cactus League over 43 plate appearances this year after just turning 21. More important than the statistical small sample, Russell passed the eye test for everyone who gazed upon his surprisingly polished skills. He looked calm at the plate. He looked smooth in the field. Even Joe Maddon was at a loss for what to say Russell needed to work on in the minors.
Not that sending Russell to the minors was a surprise or the wrong move. He hasn’t really played at AAA yet, and hasn’t played much above A-ball. Russell missed a lot of time last year with a hamstring injury, and getting him into a rhythm in the minors to start the year makes plenty of sense.
Plus, there’s the other thing. The three-time All-Star at shortstop for the Cubs thing. The 25-year-old team-friendly contract thing. The Starlin Castro thing.
As great as Russell looked in Spring Training – and, let’s be honest, it’s just Spring Training – there was never a realistic thought given to displacing Castro at this time to accommodate Russell. Castro is the Cubs’ starting shortstop for a reason. He’s one of the Cubs’ best players on the big league roster right now. If he can play average defense at short (which is right about where he usually is), then his bat makes him hugely valuable there. And, at 25, he’s still got upside.
The question, however, is going to be what happens if and when Russell demonstrates that he’s ready to help at the big league level, which could come as soon as a couple months from now. Who goes where? Who stays? Who goes?
Maybe an injury will sort things out. Maybe Javier Baez never comes back, and maybe Kris Bryant goes to left field, and, thus, maybe it’s plenty easy – even desirable – accommodate both Castro and Russell in the infield later this year. Or maybe, for all his recent smoothness, Russell’s best long-term position isn’t even shortstop (Kiley McDaniel, for example, is not convinced.)
I don’t think anyone should be pushing Castro out the door just yet. He’s the guy who’s shown he can do it at the big league level. But, as the season goes on, this issue will come up. The Cubs may already be opening up some flexibility, noting that Russell will primarily play shortstop at Iowa, but will also eventually see time at second base.
In the meantime, we’re going to see plenty of external evaluations, like the one Buster Olney just did. He hears from some that Russell is ready to contribute in the big leagues already, and the Cubs’ best team might be one where Castro is playing third base or is traded.
For me, I don’t have a strong opinion on the best approach just yet. Everyone (which includes other infielders like Baez and Bryant) is presently accommodated, and everyone involved should be getting plenty more data over the coming weeks and months. The Cubs can see how everyone performs, where the needs and opportunities arise, and go from there when there’s no choice but to make a decision.
So, although I don’t think it’s appropriate to push in one direction or another just yet, I do think Russell is going to make this a very legitimate conversation very soon.