Cubs

Ice in his veins: Addison Russell stunning Cubs with calm demeanor

Ice in his veins: Addison Russell stunning Cubs with calm demeanor

Ask Joe Maddon about Addison Russell and an uncontrollable smile creeps along his face.

Ask Joe Maddon about Addison Russell's potential and his eyes get a sort of glossy look in them.

The Cubs manager gushes about nearly all his players, but he speaks about Russell a bit differently.

Maddon is a wordsmith, but even he has to be running out of different ways to talk about the 22-year-old shortstop.

After an infield single in the Cubs' loss to the Pirates Sunday, Russell is now working on a nine-game hitting streak. 

He has 13 RBI in those nine games and drove in nine runs in his last four starts before Sunday. Russell is on pace for 122 RBI and 86 walks.

Look up any "clutch" stat and Russell is excelling in that category. So what makes him so different?

"Just a slow heart beat," Maddon said. "If you talk to the kid anytime, he's always suavecito. There's nothing really hurried about him. He's just got a great way about him.

"Again, he's gonna keep getting better. Everybody's liking when he's doing good. I'm here to tell you: He's gonna get better."

Maddon pointed to Friday's game when Russell moved past a bad swing-and-miss at a pitch out of the zone to deliver the crucial blow to the Pirates - a three-run homer off Francisco Liriano. 

Russell followed that up with a two-run shot into the teeth of the wind Saturday.

The Pirates outfielders took a combined one step on the two homers - no doubters.

That power potential is something Maddon has been talking up since spring training, continually pointing to Russell's strong hands and youth (players don't typically hit their power peak until 26-27 years of age). 

Russell said he feels more confident this year at the plate and is working to get pitches he can drive and do some damage with.

That calm demeanor - that "slow heart beat" - is not anything new to the second-year rising star.

"It's been that way my whole life," Russell said. "It doesn't mean that I don't get nervous or anything like that. It's just I don't show a lot of emotion out there."

Russell is comfortable in that skin and is developing a reputation as a "clutch" player 174 games into his big-league career.

"I think that's his personality," veteran second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "He's very calm. He's very focused and I think when he gets up to the dish, I say he's got ice in his veins. 

"He's not getting too hyped up there. He's ready to do the job and have a good, quality at-bat. He's just gonna continue to get better. Any struggles that he has, even at this time, it's just because he's young. He's just gotta get that experience."

While most players - especially young guys in their sophomore season in "The Show" - tighten up in high-pressure spots, Zobrist has watched Russell play without fear, whether it's with two strikes, two outs or the game on the line.

Maddon mentioned Russell's approach unprovoked two separate times throughout the weekend, talking about the shortstop's pregame routine when he's a self-described "loner."

"He's got great aptitude and he's a great listener," Maddon said. "Those are two wonderful qualities to have as a young person trying to get better in your profession."

Count Cubs ace Jake Arrieta among those at the forefront of the Addison Russell Fan Club thanks to his defense, which included a diving snare of a line drive in Sunday's game.

"I'm always impressed with Addison," Arrieta said. "Whether he's hitting .320 or not, his defense shows up every day. He's capable of some pretty special things when he's on the field.

"He's swinging the bat really well. A couple big home runs. It's just a matter of time before he really comes into his own at the plate. We've seen it in spurts. He's such a young player and to see the promise already from him is pretty incredible."

If you ever wanted to know Russell's ridiculous potential, just look at how Cubs players and coaches constantly talk about how much more is left in the tank.

This about a guy who has an OPS over 1.000 through the first 15 days of May.

"The sky is the limit for that guy," Zobrist said. "He's an incredible athlete. He's strong, he's quick. He's got all the tools to be a fantastic player.

"He's already making those adjustments. It's because he thinks along with the game. He's not just assuming it's gonna happen. He's making the adjustments and he's working hard.

"It really irks him when he's not playing the way he's capable of. He's got all the intangibles that you have to have on top of the physcial aspect. He's just gonna get better."

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com'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, MLB.com 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 MLB.com).

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 MLB.com'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 MLB.com 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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.