Why Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready for playoff spotlight


Why Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready for playoff spotlight

MILWAUKEE – Addison Russell has become a billboard for The Cubs Way, how a franchise slowly built a playoff contender and then suddenly became one of the hottest teams and best stories in baseball.

The Cubs believe Russell is ready for October, even if he was born in 1994 and thinks of the 2007 Boston Red Sox as the first playoff team that really caught his attention as a kid growing up in Florida.

Russell is in position to become the fifth-youngest shortstop to ever start a playoff game, according to FanGraphs, with Edgar Renteria – a World Series hero for the 1997 Florida Marlins – being the only one younger in the last 40 years.

But at 21 years and almost nine months, Russell hasn’t shown any signs of being overwhelmed by playing a marquee position for an iconic team in a major market.

“Hopefully, emotions will be calm,” Russell said. “It will still be a little anxious, a little nervous. I think that’s good.”

[MORE: Cubs finish crazy season with 97 victories]

Russell’s fast-track development helps explain why the Cubs will be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

“He’s in his own little cocoon right now, which I kind of dig,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s got the blinders on – in a good way. And he’s just playing baseball as he knows how. He does it the right way. For me, he does everything the right way.”

For Theo Epstein, dealing Jeff Samardzija on the Fourth of July last year signaled the end of his front office going into seasons planning to be trade-deadline sellers.

The assumption was the Cubs would have to get a big-time pitching prospect in return, but Oakland A’s general manager/“Moneyball” architect Billy Beane made an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Going for the position player made sense for an administration that has used four first-round picks on hitters – including Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber – and planned to overpay for pitching (Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal).

Chairman Tom Ricketts called the Samardzija trade an “inflection point” for the organization, essentially the last of the holdover shorter-term assets that needed to be moved – a clean break from the past and a look toward the future.

When the Cubs promoted Russell in late April and made him their everyday second baseman – after only 14 career games on the Triple-A level – it showed the front office thought this team had a chance to win now and would act aggressively.

[RELATED: Dan Haren will retire once Cubs finish playoff run]

When the Cubs demoted Starlin Castro in early August, Russell handled it in a way that didn’t disrespect a three-time All-Star shortstop, part of a larger story about this team’s unselfish nature and the rookies who didn’t let all the hype go to their heads.

“There’s definitely a lot of things I had to learn on the fly,” Russell said. “Just playing with these guys in spring, I knew that we had a good thing going, from the pitching that we have to the young talent (to) the veteran guys that have been here (before). (We) can play.”

Super-agent Scott Boras described his client as an “old soul.” Russell, who has a fiancé, Melisa, and a newborn son, Aiden, had to agree with that scouting report.

“I just really chill,” Russell said. “I’m just kind of observant. I don’t really say much. But I’m watching. I’m gathering information.”

That’s reading swings, analyzing defensive positioning and collecting intelligence on pitchers. Or posting a video of the team’s foggy postgame celebration/dance party/lightshow on his Facebook page.

Russell went into Game 162 leading the team – and ranking seventh in the league – by seeing 4.12 pitches per plate appearance. Baseball-Reference rated him as a 3.5 WAR player. A recent ESPN survey ranked him fourth in Defensive Runs Saved – at second base and at shortstop. His 13 homers, 29 doubles and 54 RBI got overshadowed at or near the bottom of a deep lineup.

“Beyond everything you’re seeing, it’s his respect for everything around him,” Maddon said. “He respects where he’s at, who he’s playing (and) what’s come before him. He respects everything. And I think that’s going to be a big part of his success.

[NBC SHOP: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]   

“Because you’re never going to see him get ahead of himself or think he’s got it licked or whatever. He’s always going to maintain this method that you see right now.

“It’s not just about hits. You can see the force in his swing. You can see him being on time against all kinds of pitches. You can see him laying off of some breaking balls right now.

“But at his age and his point of development…think about a year or two years from now and what it’s going to look like. It’s going to be really good.”

That’s why the Cubs believe they are built to last, whether it’s one-and-done or a long playoff run that keeps Wrigleyville rocking throughout October.

“Anything that it takes to come out on top,” Russell said, “I think that we have the type of team to do it.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.