Addison Russell feels like he's just scratching the surface of offensive potential with Cubs

Addison Russell feels like he's just scratching the surface of offensive potential with Cubs

In a lineup with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist, it may be the young shortstop that is the most intriguing hitter on the reigning world champs.

That's because Addison Russell could be just beginning to tap into his limitless offensive potential.

Bryant has already won an MVP award, Rizzo has emerged as one of the best all-around hitters in the game and Schwarber is an October legend even though he's only played 97 games at the big-league level (including playoffs).

But Russell — who just turned 23 in January — is still waiting for that complete offensive breakout.

Russell led all shortstops in RBI last season (94 while playing the position, one RBI came as a pinch-hitter) and clubbed 21 homers, but he also sported just a .238 average and ranked 11th among qualified shortstops in OPS (.731)

"I feel like I'm just scratching the surface as far as power and understanding what pitchers are trying to do and what situations," Russell said. "I'm trying to work each day and get better."

Whereas Russell spent almost all of last season hitting below the heart of the order (92 of his 141 starts came in the six spot or lower), Joe Maddon has written him in fifth in 10 of 12 games and as the cleanup hitter protecthing Rizzo in the other two contests.

Russell admitted seeing his name in the heart of the order has been a confidence boost in the early going of 2017.

"This year, I came in with the mentality that I feel like I'm a threat in the lineup," he said. "It's just important to get myself in good hitters counts, which I feel like is the key to success in the five-hole — getting a good pitch to hit. That's what I feel like I'm doing."

Russell looked on the verge of an offensive breakout heading into the weekend at Wrigley as even his outs were coming on a line, just hit right at outfielders.

But after striking out only four times in the first 10 games of the season, he's now whiffed on three of his last five at-bats ending with Sunday's loss to the Pirates.

In terms of finding consistency and avoiding slumps, Maddon points to the work between the ears for a kid like Russell who is still adjusting to big-league pitching and developing as a hitter.

"It's about what you're swinging at," Maddon said. "That's what you're thinking and you get in a rut and then you want to start changing things because you're not hitting well because you're swinging at bad pitches that nobody can hit.

"That's really what a slump boils down to for me. A lot of times, a guy will go through a bad moment, he'll go through all these adjustments, trying different things and if you look at the video pre- and post-slump, he looks exactly the same. He arrives at the same spot. It's just about what you're thinking. It really is."

Russell showed good patience at the plate as a 21-year-old rookie in 2015, drawing a walk in 8 percent of his plate appearances. But he also struck out 28.5 percent of the time.

Last year, Russell improved in both areas (9.2 percent walk rate, 22.6 percent strikeout rate), but a .277 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) hints his low average may have simply been the result of some poor luck.

The strikeouts and walks are what Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are paying attention to most when it comes to Russell's development.

"It's less strikeouts and more walks than he had last year," Maddon said. "If he's doing that, then he's really going to hit for some nice numbers overall. Batting average, home runs, his RBIs are pretty darn good the way it was.

"The numbers will increase as walks increase a little bit and strikeouts come down a little bit. Because he is so strong, everything else is gonna improve.

"I would bet at the end of the year, if you look at walks and strikeouts vs. last year, if they actually are improved in the right direction with one going south, one going north, you're gonna see closer to what he's capable of doing."

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”


Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

The COVID-19 pandemic finally caught up to the Cubs, who had their weekend series against the Cardinals postponed Friday after the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak worsened by three positive tests before the teams were scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night.

The Cardinals, who haven't played since last week because of an outbreak that now includes at least 16 players and staff, scrambled to test and retest personnel Friday as Major League Baseball wiped another series off their schedule.

Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday the latest players to test positive are outfielder Austin Dean and pitcher Ryan Helsley. The club announced Tuesday catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong recently tested positive.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago, had not lost a game on their schedule because of coronavirus issues.

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The Cubs (10-3) were scheduled to fly home from St. Louis Friday night and are not scheduled to play again until Tuesday in Cleveland. This weekend's series has not been rescheduled yet.

“Based on the information MLB has shared with us, postponing this series is a necessary step to protect the health and safety of the Cardinals and the Cubs,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a statement. “Therefore, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

“While it’s obviously less than ideal, this is 2020, and we will embrace whatever steps are necessary to promote player and staff wellbeing and increase our chances of completing this season in safe fashion,” he added. “We will be ready to go on Tuesday in Cleveland. In the meantime, we wish the Cardinals personnel involved a quick and complete recovery.”