Cubs

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Cubs

Around this time last year, the Cubs bumped Starlin Castro off shortstop and strengthened their up-the-middle defense with Addison Russell’s sense of calm and explosive athleticism. That decision helped catapult a borderline wild-card team toward 97 wins and the National League Championship Series.

Could the Cubs take off again by moving Russell into the middle of their order? It’s already happening, with the Cubs going 13-6 since the All-Star break and last year’s rookie No. 9 hitter starting to establish himself at fifth or sixth in Joe Maddon’s lineup matrix, where only Anthony Rizzo (78) and Kris Bryant (68) have driven in more runs than Russell (65) this season.

“It brings out the best in him,” Maddon said. “He’s taken advantage of all those opportunities. I feel really good about him up there when something is going on. He gives you his best at-bat.

“For the most part, he chases less. He’ll accept his walks more often. He does a lot of good things when there’s folks on base.”

[MORE: How Oakland helped redirect Jon Lester and turn Cubs into contenders]

Russell is quiet, even around teammates, with super-agent Scott Boras describing his client as an old soul, even at the age of 22. Inner confidence helps explain why Russell has put up an .822 OPS with runners in scoring position and notched eight game-winning RBI this season, finishing tied for second in the NL with 22 RBI in July.

 

Russell is seeing 3.94 pitches per plate appearance, on pace to finish with almost 20 homers and coming off what could be the first of several All-Star appearances. Around this time last year, people wondered how a young group would handle the pressure of a pennant race, forgetting that a kid born in 1994 doesn’t worry about the weight of the franchise’s history.

“We just want to play, man,” Russell said. “Go out there and prove a point. The players that we have are here to battle – and we’re trying to win it all.”

That motivation pushed Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane to give up Russell in the blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade on the Fourth of July 2014. There will be what-could-have-been reminders during this weekend’s three-game series at the Oakland Coliseum, but props to the A’s for trying to win, refusing to go into tanking mode and not being so obsessed with what Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus thinks of their farm system.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

That’s why you collect prospects – not for top-five placements in the minor-league rankings – but the chance to win a World Series. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein credited Beane for his bold, decisive move during the conference call after the Samardzija/Russell deal – and just gave up his best prospect (Class-A shortstop Gleyber Torres) and another former Oakland first-round pick (Double-A outfielder Billy McKinney) in the 4-for-1 Aroldis Chapman trade with the New York Yankees.

Epstein’s front office didn’t acquire a hitter at this week’s non-waiver deadline, believing in the lineup that got the Cubs to this point. Now a team with the best record in baseball (66-41) looks ready to take off again, with Russell helping power that engine.

“He’s just growing,” Maddon said. “That’s the beauty of development. The biggest thing I used to always really focus on in the minor leagues was: What did a guy look like in April? And then what does he look like in August? Did you see any real growth, development? The things you talked about and worked on in spring training and the first month of the season – do you see it as being better now?

“He’s the perfect example of everything’s gotten better.”