Another "wave" of talent comes ashore for the Cubs tonight as shortstop . . . .errr, second baseman Addison Russell has been promoted from Triple-A Iowa tonight after only 11 games there this year (and 14 total at that level). To make room for Russell on the 25-man roster, Arismendy Alcantara was optioned to Iowa and to make room on the 40-man, Mike Olt was placed on the 60-day disabled list.
Russell immediately moves into the starting second base job, a position he has played only five times in his professional career. Only 21 years old, he knocks Bryce Harper out of his three-year reign as the youngest player in the National League. Russell has All-Star potential, but what can we expect to see out of Russell, both this year and in the years to come?
I can't say that I was surprised by the Cubs calling up Addison Russell for today's game because the team had been making noises along those lines for a couple of days. But just last month I predicted that Russell would stay in Iowa at least until the All-Star Break. So what changed? I'd say it's a matter of desperation. Tommy La Stella got injured, Alcantara has struggled badly and Javier Baez is off on bereavement leave, although he has his contact issues even if he were active at the moment. That left Jonathan Herrera to handle the second base duties and he's still Jonathan Herrera. Over the past three years that would be enough, but the Cubs have shown enough so far this season to make the front office believe that the Cubs are contenders for a playoff spot this year. Russell isn't in the majors so much to win ballgames as he is to make sure whoever is playing second base doesn't lose them.
But make no mistake about it. Russell is an elite prospect. He should be able to combine solid on-base skills with a ton of doubles and at least double-digit home runs in his prime. He's shown tremendous improvement defensively at shortstop. When he was drafted, many scouts thought he'd have to move to third base in the majors. Few think he can't be a plus defensive shortstop today, even if he's going to play second base for the Cubs. He's not a burner, but he could add in double-digit steals every season if his legs stay healthy. The comparisons to Barry Larkin are a bit overblown because Russell strikes out about twice what Larkin did, but like Larkin, Russell's all-around skill set makes his a threat everywhere on the diamond. Russell also carries himself with a certain maturity (far beyond his years) that is reminiscent of Larkin as well. Plus, he and Larkin are pretty close to the same size. So while Larkin is more an absolute ceiling than an actual comp, it's not a ridiculous comparison.
Or at least that's what we hope he will be. In reality, I wouldn't be shocked if once La Stella gets healthy, Russell gets sent back to Iowa. When you look at the pre-season projections for Russell this season, you don't see an All-Star. In fact, you see a guy who only stays on the field because of his defense. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system projects a .239/.298/.389 season for Russell. The ZiPS system is only slightly more optimistic at .243/.302/.404. To be fair, these systems are working with incomplete information as Russell only played 68 games last season because of a torn hamstring when he was in the Athletics system. But when you look at other top prospects who have been promoted over the past couple of season, many of them struggled. Mike Trout hit .220/.281/.390 in his first crack at the major leagues. Manny Machado was a little better at .262/.294/.445. Both of these players improved in their second seasons, but it is not uncommon for even an elite prospect to struggle in his first crack at the majors.
Could Russell outperform those two stars? Certainly. Despite how young Russell is, he's older than both Trout and Machado when they were promoted. He's got the talent to be an All-Star now, even if he doesn't really have the experience yet. But Russell isn't like Kris Bryant, who was probably ready to play in the major leagues last season. In a perfect world, Russell really would be down in the minors until the All-Star Break. But the Cubs don't have that luxury.
But the Manny Machado comparison is striking. Both were superior defensive shortstops in the minor leagues (although Machado was better than Russell) who got moved to different positions because their teams, both with postseason hopes, had competent shortstops but had a hole at another spot in the infield. Russell has a bit more power and could hit for a little better average, but Machado and Russell both had similar contact and walk rates down in the minors. If Addison Russell could be a healthy version of Manny Machado, then that's better than anything the Cubs have at the moment for second base. And if he can repeat Machado's rookie season, then Russell should be in the majors all year.
Of course, the other issue is that he's playing a position where he has no experience. Machado moved to third base with no experience and did great, but he was at least playing on the same side of the diamond, facing the same way. As Russell says in this interview with the Des Moines Register, everything is backwards at second base and all the angles are different. Russell looks and says he's confident he can handle playing second base, but we won't know until he takes the field. Expect a few bumps in the road defensively as the position is not yet instinctive to Russell.
For the organization, this move indicates that the Cubs are going for it all this season without (so far) sacrificing any of the future. The next "waves" in the minor league system are Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora, and if Theo Epstein and company think either one of them can help the team win later this season, they'll be here. With Schwarber, that might mean sacrificing, at least temporarily, the dream of making him a catcher. But Schwarber will likely be ready to hit on the major league level shortly and Almora is already capable of being a superior defensive center fielder, even if promoting him might slow his development at the plate.
As far as Starlin Castro goes, I don't think this means anything in the short term. Castro's future will be determined by Castro. For now, he's the shortstop and I don't see that changing this season. But Castro's performance on the field will determine whether he stays at shortstop long-term for the Cubs, flips positions with Russell and becomes a second baseman or gets traded out of the organization. If Castro can help the team, it really doesn't matter how Russell performs. There will be a job for him in Chicago.
But getting back to Russell, it's impossible to know what he will do in the majors. Again, he has the talent to be an all-star, if not the experience. He could end up back in Iowa in a month. Or he could be a key member of the Cubs push for the playoffs this season. Theo Epstein has decided to find out.