WASHINGTON – If Addison Russell is so good, why didn’t the Cubs draft him three years ago?
It’s an interesting question with Russell making his first big-league start at shortstop during Saturday afternoon's 4-2 win at Nationals Park, and the Cubs holding the No. 9 pick on Monday night.
Russell didn’t remember having any contact with Cubs officials during his senior season at Pace High School in Florida. Instead, the Cubs targeted another prep player in a different part of the Sunshine State who was also being advised by super-agent Scott Boras. Albert Almora became the first player drafted here by the Theo Epstein administration, sixth overall in 2012.
Russell fell to the Oakland A’s at No. 11, got traded to the Cubs in last summer’s blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade and now goes to work as the second-youngest player in the National League (21 years and 133 days old).
This isn’t second-guessing the Almora selection, because the Cubs see him at Double-A Tennessee as their potential centerfielder of the future. It’s just another way to get inside the organization’s head on draft night, and wonder if Russell really is the franchise shortstop for a team stocked with middle infielders.
“Addison was a guy that we all were aware of,” said Matt Dorey, a national crosschecker at the time and now the amateur scouting director. “He wasn’t an unknown commodity. He was literally out of shape. There were a of lot concerns about where he would end up defensively.”
It’s hard to believe now, but Russell admitted he bulked up after his sophomore season: “I was like up to 225 at the age of 17.”
Russell – who came out of the same FTB program that helped develop Almora on the elite travel circuit – heard those concerns and felt his draft stock slipping.
“I took the initiative to lose that weight, so I’d come back strong for my senior year,” Russell said. “I wanted to play more shortstop to show off my athletic ability.
“I came back at 195 and just did what I did.”
If Russell didn’t become a top-15 pick, he planned to play at Auburn University, which is about three hours away from his home near Pensacola.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t like Addison,” Dorey said. “It was the fact that we had so much comfort with Albert’s track record. Our scouting process – especially for high school right-handed hitters – will always kind of start with: How much history do we have with the person and the player? And how much history do we have with that right-handed hitter facing high-level competition?
“As a staff, we had so much more comfort with how (Albert) had gone out and performed with Team USA since he was 15. He always really dominated elite competition.
“We got to know the makeup so well with Albert. It wasn’t that we had Albert’s tool set evaluated so much higher than Addison’s. I think we just felt like his floor was probably higher than Addison’s floor. Maybe this was a little bit more risk with Addison, probably just because of the body and not knowing exactly where he was going to end up defensively, at the time.”
[NBC SHOP: Get your Addison Russell jersey right here!]
That’s something to remember as the Cubs enter the final 48-hour window before making their big decision – and when the talking heads and Twitter experts break down the No. 9 pick.
“There’s a good lesson to learn,” Dorey said. “At the start of this year, everybody was complaining about how bad this draft was, and I kind of laughed.
“We could go back to drafts where – at the moment – we said it was just going to be the greatest draft (ever) and it ends up not being very good. It’s the nature of what we do, the nature of trying to project out on 17- to 21-year-olds, and how they’re going to handle a minor-league performance track that’s challenging, and ultimately how they’re going to make adjustments at the big-league level.
“It’s not an easy job. I look at it as an opportunity. Our staff looks at this year as a great opportunity, because there is a lot of depth. I challenge them from Day 1: Let’s go scout ‘em all, man. Let’s be relentless with how we approach our jobs.
“At the end of it, we’ll be able to look each other in the face and (say): We’re going to get a really good player, because we worked so hard and made sure that every stone was unturned.”
The guys Russell played against as a kid – projected top picks like Vanderbilt University shortstop Dansby Swanson and Louisiana State University shortstop Alex Bregman – are waiting for that phone call on Monday night, while Russell is already a starting second baseman in the big leagues, wearing a Cubs uniform and performing at Wrigley Field.
“That is crazy,” Russell said. “I was just informed that I’m not a prospect anymore. Somebody just tweeted me and was like: ‘Three more at-bats and Russell’s not a prospect anymore.’ Just so much time has flown by in three years, and they’re about to start on their professional careers, so it’s pretty cool.
“I’m glad they got me. We got a good thing going here.”