Addison Russell could be the poster child if the 2015 Cubs are ahead of schedule.
Deep down, Russell probably would have considered this a good year if he stayed healthy and productive at Triple-A Iowa, got a September call-up and put himself in position to make the 2016 Opening Day lineup.
“No, I didn’t see any of this stuff,” Russell said. “I really wasn’t even expecting to be up in the league this year. It just kind of goes back to my work ethic. I just try to get better. The Cubs gave me this opportunity. I’m just trying to take full advantage of it.
“It’s been a hard year, (but) things are looking up.”
No doubt, the Cubs have felt the growing pains and understand they aren’t a lock for the playoffs yet. But after Saturday’s 6-3 victory over the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, it would only take a 23-24 finish for the Cubs to reach 90 wins.
White Sox fans will have to get used to the idea of seeing Russell, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler for years to come. That group of rookies doesn’t even include Anthony Rizzo, a National League MVP candidate who just turned 26 and could remain under club control through the 2021 season.
This is the baseball nightmare on the South Side: The Cubs morphing into a perennial contender at a renovated Wrigley Field and becoming the game’s biggest story.
It’s misleading to say the Cubs are now a season ahead of schedule in Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration. There have been so many recalibrations between the franchise’s financial situation, three different managers in three seasons and the unpredictable nature of scouting and player development.
“I don’t think it’s quite that simple,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I do feel like this year was always a little bit of a land of uncertainty. You don’t know what to expect when you have effectively four rookies that are playing every day. You don’t know how well these guys are going to come along.
“It doesn’t surprise me what these guys are doing. But I think us expecting them to do it would have been probably a little bit unfair. So I don’t believe in the year-too-early (idea).
“We’re playing good baseball right now. But expecting these guys to produce at this level – at this age – would have (been) unfair to them.”
Russell is still just 21 and has only 14 Triple-A games on his resume. He was playing at Double-A Tennessee at this time last year after that blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade with the Oakland A’s.
Russell is now the everyday shortstop for a legitimate contender that has won nine games in a row and 15 of its last 16.
In front of a sellout crowd on Saturday night, Russell sparked the Cubs with a two-out double in the third inning, driving a ball into the left-field corner and scoring on Dexter Fowler’s double down the right-field line to make it a 1-1 game.
Russell drove a two-out, ground-rule double over the left-field fence in the fifth inning, scoring the go-ahead run from second base when Schwarber singled into right field (after the White Sox decided to intentionally walk Fowler). As Russell slid into home plate, his left foot just beat the tag from White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers.
“You can just kind of see the fire in (our) eyes,” Russell said. “We all want to compete. We all want to win. We’re trying our best to make a big impact on this team. We’re just trying to do the small things, make the routine plays and just help the team win.”
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Russell basically learned how to play second base on the fly this season and handled what could have been a difficult situation with Starlin Castro moving off shortstop.
“You just have to dust off the cobwebs,” Russell said. “I think that’s my natural position. I believe that I can be even better there.”
Remember when the narrative became the Cubs eventually hitting the rookie wall?
“We definitely have to step it up,” Russell said. “We’re competing right now. That’s all we need to try to do – give 110 percent. Some days you’re not going to feel good. But you just have to push through it and do what’s best for the team.”