The Cubs essentially viewed Addison Russell as untouchable heading into this season, and winning two playoff rounds with him as their shortstop only reinforced that idea.
Russell didn’t generate the same Rookie of the Year buzz as Kris Bryant — and couldn’t match Kyle Schwarber taking aim at the Allegheny River and a Wrigley Field video board — but he showed he’s just as much a core player as those two power hitters.
Just ask manager Joe Maddon if the Cubs missed Russell’s presence during the National League Championship Series.
To be clear, the New York Mets never trailed during that four-game sweep and outplayed the Cubs in every phase of the game from start to finish. It’s not like Russell’s presence would have meant facing the Kansas City Royals in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
Russell — who had been sidelined with a strained left hamstring — couldn’t have stopped Daniel Murphy from turning the biggest games of his life into batting practice. Russell wouldn’t have intimidated that rotation — Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom — or lights-out closer Jeurys Familia.
But Javier Baez committing an error on a defensive shift on the second pitch set the tone for a sloppy Game 3 loss. And it underlined why the Cubs see the low-key Russell as their franchise shortstop and a stabilizing force for low-scoring games in October.
“Of course, we miss Addison,” Maddon said. “You look at the record that we had with him playing at shortstop. And this is by no means a negative towards Javy. But (with) Addison (it’s) the combination of what he does for us defensively and offensively. This guy could drive in a critical run and (it’s) just (his) understanding of what’s going on in the field. He really grew quickly this year.”
The Cubs had been a 59-48 team on Aug. 7 — when they benched Starlin Castro and moved Russell from second base — and held only a half-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card. The Cubs swept the defending World Series champs that weekend at Wrigley Field, finding another gear and finishing with 97 wins and the third-best record in baseball.
“In order to get our defense at the level we wanted to, we needed to move Addie over to shortstop,” Maddon said. “With that, Starlin was outstanding regarding how he accepted the new assignment, how he embraced the new role and how he’s made the adjustment to second base and (really) picked up his offense.
“That one particular move right there probably more than anything we did this year set us up for this moment — the fact that Addie has played it as well as he has, the way Starlin has embraced the other side of the infield (and) then the offense coming back.
“Maybe Schwarber showing up and combining with Dexter (Fowler) in the second half — that really did a lot to boost our offense. But I love the pitching/defense component, and I think that we tightened it up when we went and got Addie at short and Starlin eventually at second base. It kind of tightened things up — and I think we’ve played a better brand of baseball since then.”
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Russell graded out well at second base/shortstop in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (nine/10) and Ultimate Zone Rating (7.3/6.1), finishing seventh in the majors in defensive WAR (2.6).
During his age-21 season, Russell also finished with 13 homers, 29 doubles and 54 RBI in 142 games after his fast-track promotion from Triple-A Iowa in late April.
“For my standards, it’s not the best season,” Russell said. “But I did a lot of good things this season. I believe I had a decent season to look back on, just looking at how I struggled and then overcame that adversity.
“I know I got better this year. I know the things I need to work on to get better.”
For a team built on a shaky defensive foundation, Russell looks like the Opening Day shortstop in 2016 and beyond.