Today was the deadline for teams to offer a contract for the 2020 season for players eligible for arbitration and the big news is that the Cubs declined to offer one to shortstop Addison Russell. Russell is now a free agent, able to sign with any other team.
Six other arbitration-eligible players were offered contracts: infielder Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, outfielders Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber and catcher Willson Contreras. In addition, right-handed pitcher Jharel Cotton, whom the Cubs acquired last week from the Athletics, agreed to a new deal for the 2020 season, avoiding arbitration.
Left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen, who was not eligible for arbitration, was also not tendered a contract for 2020. He also becomes a free agent.
Russell’s career in Chicago started so promising, but struggles at the plate and a suspension for domestic violence over the past two years meant that he was no longer a part of the Cubs’ plans, present or future.
Russell came to Chicago from the A’s in the Jeff Samardzija deal in July of 2014. He was one of the top prospects in Oakland’s system and he immediately became one of the top prospects in the Cubs system. After that 2014 season, Baseball America ranked Russell as the third-best prospect in all of baseball and second-best in the Cubs’ system behind Kris Bryant. Russell was expected to be the Cubs starting shortstop for a generation.
Russell made his major league debut at the end of April in 2015 and quickly became the starting second baseman. He moved over the shortstop midway through his rookie year as he and Starlin Castro switched positions. Russell did not hit as much as the Cubs might have hoped, but he did show good power with 13 home runs.
Russell was the Cubs’ starting shortstop throughout the magical 2016 season. He had his best year, hitting .238/.321/.417 with 21 home runs. He also provided stellar defense at shortstop. Russell made his only All-Star Game that year and he started all 17 postseason games in the Cubs’ playoff run.
Russell struggled with injuries in the 2017 season and he played in just 110 games. His power and defense were still there, but his strikeouts were rising and his on-base percentage dropped to .304.
The 2018 season was a bad one at the plate even by Russell’s lower standards. But it came to an abrupt halt in September when Russell’s ex-wife accused him of years of physical and emotional violence against her in their marriage.
Russell missed the first 29 games of the 2019 season, finishing out his suspension under MLB’s domestic violence policy. It was a controversial decision by the front office to bring Russell back, but team president Theo Epstein said he wanted to give Russell a second chance. Russell did not get into any trouble off the field, but on the field he simply was not very good. He lost his starting shortstop spot to Javier Baez and even ended up getting sent down to the minors mid-season.
Russell is still very good defensively, but the Cubs clearly did not think that a good-glove/no-hit infielder with a domestic violence suspension on his record was worth what the pay increase that he would get in arbitration.
In a statement, team president Theo Epstein said:
In a statement released by the Cubs, Theo Epstein says: "We decided to non-tender Addison Russell today simply because the role we expected him to play for the 2020 Cubs was inconsistent with how he would have been treated in the salary arbitration process."— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) December 2, 2019
Theo: "Since we decided to tender Addison a contract last November, he has lived up to his promise to put in the important self-improvement work necessary off the field and has shown growth as a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a citizen."— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) December 2, 2019
Theo: "We hope and believe that Addison’s work and growth will continue, and we have offered our continued support of him and his family, including Melisa."— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) December 2, 2019
With the release of Russell and Hultzen, the Cubs’ 40-man roster now stands at 36.