Photo: Perfect Game

Cubs' Russell amped for Year 2

Jeff Dahn

Published: Wednesday, March 23, 2016

  Addison Russell Rawlings Profile

MESA, Ariz. – On July 5, 2014, the Oakland Athletics boasted a record of 54-33 and that .621 winning percentage was by far the best among the major league’s 30 teams. Despite that, they held only a 3½-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West Division standings, and A’s general manager Billy Beane decided he needed to bolster his starting pitching in order to make a concerted run to the AL pennant over the season’s final three months.

Conversations began with the Chicago Cubs’ front office, including (PG is assuming) general manager Jed Hoyer and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, and a deal was struck. And on July 5, 2014, the A’s acquired starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs in exchange for major league right-hander Dan Straily and minor league prospects Billy McKinney and Addison Russell, both of whom were former Oakland first-round draft picks.

It was the Cubs’ acquisition of Russell, however, that made the trade such a bombshell. At the time of the trade, the 6-foot, 200-pound shortstop was considered the top prospect in the Athletics’ farm system. In an average of 61 games per season over four minor league seasons, Russell slashed .301/.377/.520 with averages of 10 home runs, 14 doubles, 40 RBI and 45 runs scored. He was projected to be on the fast-track to the major leagues, and those projections turned out to be accurate except he wouldn’t be wearing the A’s green and gold when it happened in pretty short order.

The 22-year-old Russell, an alumnus of the 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase and 2011 PG All-American Classic, made his big league debut with the Cubs on April 21 of last year. He eventually earned the starting shortstop job and wound up being a key cog for a Cubs team that won 97 regular-season games, a National League Wild Card game over the Pittsburgh Pirates and posted a 3-games-to-1 NL Division Series win over the rival St. Louis Cardinals.

This month marks Russell’s second Cactus League spring training camp with the Cubs and he’s feeling much more acclimated to his surroundings. That’s a good thing because manager Joe Maddon will be asking a lot of his young shortstop this season while the Cubs try to make their first World Series appearance since 1945.

“This is my second year with these guys and I’m getting to know them pretty well,” Russell told PG Wednesday morning from the comforts of the Cubs’ clubhouse at their 3-year-old spring training complex here. “We’re all excited, especially because this is a group that’s going to be together for a while, and just getting to know these people better and just watching them play, you know it’s going to be a good feeling moving forward.”

The Cubs’ run to a 97-win regular season and a spot in the NL Championship Series opposite the pennant-winning New York Mets under first-year skipper Maddon was almost other-worldly. They did it with one of baseball’s youngest everyday lineups, including 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, along with a lot of help of NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arietta.

Russell batted in 142 games last season – often in the No. 9 hole behind the pitcher – and delivered a slash-line of .242./.307/.389 with 13 home runs, one triple, 29 doubles, 54 RBI and 60 runs scored. He played the field in 147 games – 86 at second base and 61 at shortstop – and posted a combined .978 fielding percentage. In 11 games and 32 plate appearances this spring, he is hitting 8-for-29 (.276) with two home runs, five RBI and four runs.

“I always enjoy being down here,” Russell said of the spring training experience. “The last few weeks we’re looking just to refresh everything and get amped up for the season, and I think most of us are pretty much ready for the (regular) season to get going.”

The Cubs added some veteran major league talent to their roster during the offseason with the free-agent signings of right fielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist, right-handed starting pitcher John Lackey and centerfielder Dexter Fowler (who was with the club last year). Their additions bring a lot to the clubhouse in terms of maturity and attitude.

“The best thing is, they fit right in,” Russell said. “They’re great guys, they’re great ballplayers and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better.”

Before Russell was on this stage alongside All-Stars, Cy Young Award winners and ROYs, he performed on some pretty big amateur baseball stages. He is a veteran of 16 Perfect Game events, most of them tournaments while playing with Florida-based FTB Marucci.

He was also at the 2010 PG Junior National Showcase at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., the 2011 PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., and the 2011 PG All-American Classic in San Diego. At the height of his PG/high school career, PG ranked him the No. 20 overall national prospect in the much-heralded class of 2012.

“I’ve been working hard and it shows,” Russell said Wednesday. “But every day there’s a new goal and that’s kind of what I’ve kept in my head ever since I was an amateur. I was pretty fortunate to be able to experience San Diego and play in the Perfect Game All-American (Classic); it was pretty fun.”

The 2011 PG National Showcase and PG All-American Classic were a couple of star-studded affairs, even if a lot of people didn’t realize it at the time.

They featured Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft and the 2015 American League Rookie of the Year; Correa’s Astros’ teammate Lance McCullers, who also enjoyed a break-through rookie campaign in 2015; the Dodgers’ Corey Seager and the Rangers’ Joey Gallo, both of whom made their big-league debuts last season; and Lucas Giolito, the top prospect in the Nationals’ organization – maybe in all of baseball – who should debut this season. There was even Jameis Winston, the Tampa Bay Rays’ overall No. 1 pick in the first-round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

“I could just tell in amateur ball just by playing with guys like Correa and Seager and really all those other guys, they carry themselves a little bit different,” Russell said. “I knew that they were going to make a big impact on the game somehow and a lot of them already have; it’s really good to see.”

He noted that when playing in PG WWBA and PG BCS tournaments with his summer and fall outfit, FTB Marucci, everything was turned up a notch. The players’ athleticism and talent levels are off the charts, they’ve already developed the basic instincts required to play the game at a high level and everyone on the field is there only because they want to play against the best in order to become the best.

“FTB seemed to be the place where if you go to these (PG) tournaments you’re going to be playing the best,” Russell said. “Being with FTB gave me a chance to play with (Cubs prospect) Daniel Vogelbach, (Cubs prospect) Albert Almora, (top 2015 Indians’ rookie) Francisco Lindor and a few other really good players, and it was awesome. (Coach) Jared Goodwin does a good job running that team and I had a lot of fun playing with FTB.”

The A’s made Russell the 11th overall pick in the first-round of the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft right of Pace (Fla.) High School on June 4 of that year, and he signed and began what turned out to be a four-season minor-league career 11 days later on June 15. He immediately began climbing the minor league prospects’ charts, which made the events of July 5, 2014 all the more surprising. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the A’s collapse from the best record in baseball on July 5 to a season-ending record of 88-74 (.543), 10 games behind the division-winning Angels; they lost the AL Wild Card game to Kansas City.

And now, in his short time with the Cubs, Russell is already showing more signs of maturity, which should be expected of any young man in his early 20s, of course. Manager Joe Maddon has noticed the difference.

“Conversationally, he’s much more confident,” Maddon told Mark Gonzalez from the Chicago Tribune in a short notebook item posted online on March 2. “He’s easier to joke around with. He’s just more comfortable in his major league skin. That what going with him now; I love it. He knows he belongs here; he knows he’s good here. He’s in great shape (and) he was in fine shape last year.”

The Chicago Cubs’ spring training clubhouse here in Mesa has been high-energy all spring despite the fact the Cubs had the worst record in the Cactus League (7-13) before Wednesday’s games. On Wednesday, several players were spotted wearing T-shirts with an inscription on the back that read: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Opening Day is April 4 in Anaheim for an interleague game against the home-standing Los Angeles Angels, and that’s when the won-lost records will really start to matter.

“It all starts with the daily goals,” Russell said of the Cubs’ season ahead. “With Joe (Maddon), he drives into our brains that the present is definitely the most important thing, and he also always tells us to embrace the target. For us, with a lot of young guys in the organization and at the big league level, we just go out there and have fun.

“We’re not pressing too hard and we don’t want to buy into all the expectations, we just want to go out there and have some fun.”

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