Even if the Cubs wanted to send Addison Russell back to Triple-A Iowa, they probably don’t have a good alternative at second base.
“Not right now, I don’t think,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But honestly I’m more than fine with Addison. I think he’s done great.”
This is the challenge of winning now — while still developing for later — when the Cubs are 46-37 after Tuesday’s doubleheader sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.
Russell came through with the clutch hit in Game 2 and admitted after a 5-3 victory that the confidence boost “means the world right now, especially against a team like that.”
This looked like the breaking point that usually happens to the Cubs against the Cardinals (54-30). Russell reached out in the seventh inning and knocked a ball up the first-base line that stayed fair for a game-tying RBI single.
“From my view, it looked like it went over the bag,” Russell said. “Off the bat, I thought it was foul, and then it had like a weird spin on it, and it just bounced over the bag.”
Frustrated Cardinals reliever Seth Maness got ejected. His replacement — Kevin Siegrist — fielded a routine grounder on the next play and threw the ball into left-center field, which helped the Cubs tack on two more runs.
The bottom line is the Cubs need Russell to produce.
Javier Baez can’t be the midseason answer at second base or shortstop when he’s sidelined with a fractured finger. Tommy La Stella hasn’t been the versatile infielder/valuable bench player the Cubs hoped for because a tricky oblique injury has limited him to only six at-bats all season.
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Gold Glove second baseman D.J. LeMahieu — a homegrown player the Theo Epstein administration overlooked and packaged in the Ian Stewart deal with the Colorado Rockies — just made his first National League All-Star team.
Gleyber Torres — the Venezuelan shortstop who showed up at No. 28 on Baseball America’s midseason prospect rankings — is only 18 years old and playing at Class-A South Bend.
So even if the Cubs somehow found a good deal for Starlin Castro and sold low on their All-Star shortstop, it’s not like this team is stocked with ready-made up-the-middle solutions.
“There’s a lot of talk about that, who’s going to move where,” Russell said. “I got dealt a pretty new hand with learning second base kind of on the fly. But I’ve grown to love the position. I’m confident at that position right now. And I’m just looking to get better."
Maddon wants to protect his players and push Russell questions into a big-picture analysis of how pitching and defense now gets all the shiny new toys. Offense is being suffocated with information overload, hot zones, instant scouting reports and defensive shifts.
“We won’t quit on (our young players),” Maddon said. “We talk about Addison a lot. (It’s) not only a new position, but then to cope with major-league pitching at the same time the birth certificate says he just turned 21. Not easy. Really hard to do. And then where the pitching is at right now makes it even more difficult.”
Russell hasn’t homered since June 17 — and the Cleveland Indians designated the pitcher who gave it up (Shaun Marcum) for assignment the next day. Russell has one extra-base hit in his last 19 games, his average falling to .227.
“I think he’s on the verge,” Maddon said. “I really do. I see a lot freer swing. I see a looser swing. He’s (starting) to not chase as often. The physical swing is wonderful.
“I have no problems with his approach, his swing, the bat speed, all that stuff. There are some things we’re talking about to get him to do a little bit better, but it’s going to happen. This kid is going to be really good.”
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No one doubts Russell’s natural talent, high ceiling or levelheaded demeanor. That’s why Epstein saw it as an offer he couldn’t refuse when Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane included his blue-chip prospect in last summer’s Jeff Samardzija deal. But we’ve all probably expected too much too soon from The Core.
“Sometimes we get a little spoiled when we get on a roll,” Epstein said. “I know I do. I start to evaluate us through the lens of what you want to see, instead of sometimes what you have. We have to recognize that we are young. It’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality.
“It’s kind of a delicate balancing act. You don’t want to use youth or inexperience as an excuse. (But) we have to constantly remember that a lot of these guys are 23 or 22 or 21. Even the veterans are 25. Not the most experienced (group) in the world.
“They’re gonna put themselves in slumps really quickly, and maybe have a longer time coming out of them, because this is the first time they’ve been through a lot of this stuff. The length of the season — in and of itself — is the first time they’ve been through something like that.
“It’s a testament to how mature they are — and how talented they are — that sometimes (we) can forget that.”
At a time when offense is down and the Cubs keep playing 1-0, 2-1 games, Maddon also mentioned how Russell grades out well with WAR (1.1), a metric that leans heavily on defense, figuring that a run prevented is as good as a run driven in.
Not the Cubs think it will be an either-or situation with Russell.
“The thing I loved is how he battled through that moment,” Maddon said. “He’s been struggling a lot. And he did not cave. He did not quit. And hopefully that’s going to really help buoy his spirits.”