Cubs: Addison Russell gaining confidence as he gets back to playing his game


Cubs: Addison Russell gaining confidence as he gets back to playing his game

This isn't a video game anymore.

That 94 mph fastball from Clayton Kershaw is as real as it gets for Addison Russell.

The day after Kris Bryant was talking about facing pitchers who used to be on his Fantasy Baseball teams, the other high-profile Cubs rookie was discussing how he used to play with Kershaw and Zack Greinke on PlayStation in high school (which was only three years ago for Russell).

Now, he's facing them in person on back-to-back nights.

"It's pretty cool," Russell said. "Everyone knows [Kershaw] is a great pitcher. It's just kinda surreal being able to face him."

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Regardless of who he's facing nowadays, Russell is looking like a big-leaguer. He no longer appears to be the wide-eyed rookie just happy to be here.

More than anything, he's been patient at the plate, with eight of his 16 walks coming in June, a month in which he has posted a .366 on-base percentage entering play Tuesday.

In fact, in his last 23 games dating back to May 26, Russell is hitting .286 with a .368 OBP and .796 OPS.

"I think there's some development in there," Russell said of the consistency he's found at the plate. "It's also some of my approach. I'm seeing a lot more pitches, I'm taking my walks and it's working out."

Russell credits that approach with the results that are showing on the stat sheet. Part of the reason he found his name among the Top 5 prospects in the game is his advanced approach at such a young age.

"I'm just getting back to my approach," he said. "When I first came up here, it was just, 'I gotta get a hit. I gotta get a hit.' But now, I'm taking my time.

"I'm having a lot of patience at the plate and I'm letting my approach take care of itself."

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Joe Maddon has noticed. With the Cubs' usual leadoff man Dexter Fowler currently sidelined with a minor ankle injury, the question was posed to Maddon about the possibility of having Russell lead off for a game or two, instead of hitting in his typical No. 9 spot.

"I think Addison's doing really, really well where he's hitting right now," Maddon said. "... Addison's development is so important to me and to us. I'm not saying that he can't [lead off] - I'm not saying that at all. But I don't know what it would do to his comfort zone.

"Right now, his on-base percentage is getting to a really respectable area as his batting average continues to climb. You've seen him work better at-bats. He's taken those borderline pitches and not chasing as much.

"I just like what he's doing. I don't want to mess with him or his development."

Russell got another great moment for his development Tuesday night when he came up to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the 10th inning. Russell was up against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen - one of the nastiest relievers in the game - and fouled off pitch after pitch before grounding a ball toward first base on the eighth pitch. Adrian Gonzalez bobbled the ball at first, so the Dodgers were only able to get one out (the force at home), setting the table for Chris Denorfia's walk-off one batter later.

After the game, Maddon made a special point to discuss Russell's at-bat in the 10th and the type of effect it can have on the rookie in the future.

"I loved Addison's at-bat," Maddon said. "I thought it was a great learning experience for Addison."

At 21, Russell is one of the youngest players in all of baseball. Amid a sort of rookie awakening around the game, Russell has said he does not compare himself to fellow first-year players and just tries to go out and play his game.

He plays aggressive, making leaping and diving catches all over the outfield grass, manning the second base position like a free safety.

Russell - a natural shortstop - also says he's actually more comfortable at second base now, but took some ground balls at shortstop before Tuesday's game just to stay fresh over there, too.

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He insists the position change wasn't a factor for his initial offensive struggles.

"I kinda like to keep those two things separate," Russell said. "If I struggle at the plate, I can always rely on mmy defense. It's whenever both things aren't going your way, which is what happened to me pretty early on.

"You just have to get back to the fact that you're here for a reason. You've worked your butt off so far. Just believe in yourself.

"That's the biggest thing - just trusting myself and my ability."

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.