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The Cubs should part ways with Addison Russell

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There are good baseball reasons to do so, as well as the ones you’re thinking of.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I write an article with this headline with some sadness, because when Addison Russell came to the big leagues in 2015 and had almost immediate success at age 21 it seemed as if the Cubs had a shortstop for the next decade. Things got even better in 2016, when he had the best season of his career, a 4.1 bWAR season in which he made the N.L. All-Star team, drove in 95 runs, finished 19th in MVP voting and hit key home runs in both the NLCS and World Series.

As you know, Russell is serving a 40-game suspension following a MLB investigation of domestic violence allegations by his former wife. 10 of those games were the final 10 of 2018, when he was on “administrative leave.” The other 30 will be the first 30 games of 2019. The purpose of this article isn’t to rehash this situation.

Beyond that, Russell’s last two seasons have been marred by injuries. 2018, in particular, was a bad year, despite Russell posting 2.0 bWAR. He hit just five home runs and posted a .657 OPS and 74 OPS+. The OPS figure was the worst in the major leagues by anyone who had as many PA (465) as Russell did. Wrist and shoulder injuries put him on the disabled list multiple times.

At The Athletic, Patrick Mooney summed up what’s happened to Russell to date, and how the Cubs are “assessing” the situation. Most of the article contains quotes from Theo Epstein’s season-ending news conference, but I was most struck by this sentence written by Mooney:

The Cubs understand that a conditional return would be controversial and unpopular and could backfire in a way that alienates fans and again embarrasses the franchise.

The word “again” is important there. The Cubs have brought in two other players by trade in recent years, Aroldis Chapman and Daniel Murphy, whose acquisitions were controversial, to say the least. There seemed to be a tacit understanding with both those deals that they were short-timers; both Chapman and Murphy were headed to free agency at the end of the season when the Cubs acquired him. The Cubs made no effort to retain Chapman and I do not believe they are going to make any effort to retain Murphy.

At the general manager’s meetings, Theo was further quoted on the Russell situation:

“It doesn’t necessarily,” Epstein said when asked why this process would have to be undertaken with Russell on the Cubs. “But look, this happened on our watch. It’s not like we signed a minor-league free agent and he demonstrated this behavior a month in and you move on from him. This is somebody that we acquired in Double-A, he grew up in large part in our farm system too. Especially with a high school kid, you’re a big part of a player’s development.

“We take credit when players grow up and experience great success on the field and off the field. We feel proud of being a part of that, playing a small role in that and providing the right kind of environment for that. So when a player has something in their life that goes the other direction or does something you’re not proud of, does that mean you should automatically cut bait and move on and have it be someone else’s problem or society’s problem? Or do you explore the possibility of staying connected with that player with the hope of rehabilitation including a lot of verification along the way. I think these are difficult things to wrestle with, but I’m not so sure that the answer is simply to cast the player aside and hope that someone else performs that work or that work takes place at all.”

Beyond all that, though, there has been a real regression in Russell’s baseball performance, granted, largely due to injuries. He is still fairly young in baseball terms; he will turn 25 in January. Yet there is no guarantee he will return to his previous level of performance, and as a second-year arbitration-eligible player who made $3.2 million in 2018, he is in line for a raise in 2019 despite his poor play. I’ve estimated his 2019 salary at $4.2 million and MLB Trade Rumors has it at $4.3 million.

Could they trade Russell, even with his injuries, poor play and 30 games of 2019 where he’ll be unavailable? I’d say maybe. Other teams could look at his age and previous good seasons and maybe offer a low-level pitching prospect or two.

But if that’s not the case, I think the Cubs should simply non-tender Russell. I keep coming back to this:

The Cubs understand that a conditional return would be controversial and unpopular and could backfire in a way that alienates fans and again embarrasses the franchise.

The Cubs don’t need that. They could start Javier Baez at shortstop in 2019 and have second base covered by a platoon of Ben Zobrist and David Bote. Since all three of those players are already under contract, non-tendering Russell would avoid that “controversial and unpopular move” as well as save a little bit of contract money. After 2019, when Zobrist’s contract is up, perhaps 2018 No. 1 pick Nico Hoerner might be ready to step in at second base for the Cubs.

This situation is something none of us thought would happen after Russell’s debut in 2015. Consider, though, that even if Russell is let go with no return, the trade that brought him to the Cubs has already produced quite a bit.

Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were sent to the Athletics July 2, 2014 for Russell, Dan Straily and Billy McKinney.

The Cubs re-signed Hammel as a free agent after the 2014 season and he had two decent years as a starter for the team in 2015 and 2016.

Straily (along with Luis Valbuena) was traded to the Astros for Dexter Fowler. I think you’d agree that one worked out all right.

And McKinney was included in the trade that brought Chapman to the Cubs, so McKinney produced some value for the big-league club in that sense.

But given all that’s happened with Addison Russell, I think it’s time for the Cubs to trade him if they can, non-tender him if they can’t. It’s the best solution for everyone involved; for the team, they can move on even if they give him the assistance Theo mentioned and for Russell, he can then get a fresh start elsewhere.