MILWAUKEE – Addison Russell has become a billboard for The Cubs Way, how a franchise slowly built a playoff contender and then suddenly became one of the hottest teams and best stories in baseball.
The Cubs believe Russell is ready for October, even if he was born in 1994 and thinks of the 2007 Boston Red Sox as the first playoff team that really caught his attention as a kid growing up in Florida.
Russell is in position to become the fifth-youngest shortstop to ever start a playoff game, according to FanGraphs, with Edgar Renteria – a World Series hero for the 1997 Florida Marlins – being the only one younger in the last 40 years.
But at 21 years and almost nine months, Russell hasn’t shown any signs of being overwhelmed by playing a marquee position for an iconic team in a major market.
“Hopefully, emotions will be calm,” Russell said. “It will still be a little anxious, a little nervous. I think that’s good.”
Russell’s fast-track development helps explain why the Cubs will be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game on Wednesday night at PNC Park.
“He’s in his own little cocoon right now, which I kind of dig,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s got the blinders on – in a good way. And he’s just playing baseball as he knows how. He does it the right way. For me, he does everything the right way.”
For Theo Epstein, dealing Jeff Samardzija on the Fourth of July last year signaled the end of his front office going into seasons planning to be trade-deadline sellers.
The assumption was the Cubs would have to get a big-time pitching prospect in return, but Oakland A’s general manager/“Moneyball” architect Billy Beane made an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Going for the position player made sense for an administration that has used four first-round picks on hitters – including Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber – and planned to overpay for pitching (Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal).
Chairman Tom Ricketts called the Samardzija trade an “inflection point” for the organization, essentially the last of the holdover shorter-term assets that needed to be moved – a clean break from the past and a look toward the future.
When the Cubs promoted Russell in late April and made him their everyday second baseman – after only 14 career games on the Triple-A level – it showed the front office thought this team had a chance to win now and would act aggressively.
When the Cubs demoted Starlin Castro in early August, Russell handled it in a way that didn’t disrespect a three-time All-Star shortstop, part of a larger story about this team’s unselfish nature and the rookies who didn’t let all the hype go to their heads.
“There’s definitely a lot of things I had to learn on the fly,” Russell said. “Just playing with these guys in spring, I knew that we had a good thing going, from the pitching that we have to the young talent (to) the veteran guys that have been here (before). (We) can play.”
Super-agent Scott Boras described his client as an “old soul.” Russell, who has a fiancé, Melisa, and a newborn son, Aiden, had to agree with that scouting report.
“I just really chill,” Russell said. “I’m just kind of observant. I don’t really say much. But I’m watching. I’m gathering information.”
That’s reading swings, analyzing defensive positioning and collecting intelligence on pitchers. Or posting a video of the team’s foggy postgame celebration/dance party/lightshow on his Facebook page.
Russell went into Game 162 leading the team – and ranking seventh in the league – by seeing 4.12 pitches per plate appearance. Baseball-Reference rated him as a 3.5 WAR player. A recent ESPN survey ranked him fourth in Defensive Runs Saved – at second base and at shortstop. His 13 homers, 29 doubles and 54 RBI got overshadowed at or near the bottom of a deep lineup.
“Beyond everything you’re seeing, it’s his respect for everything around him,” Maddon said. “He respects where he’s at, who he’s playing (and) what’s come before him. He respects everything. And I think that’s going to be a big part of his success.
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“Because you’re never going to see him get ahead of himself or think he’s got it licked or whatever. He’s always going to maintain this method that you see right now.
“It’s not just about hits. You can see the force in his swing. You can see him being on time against all kinds of pitches. You can see him laying off of some breaking balls right now.
“But at his age and his point of development…think about a year or two years from now and what it’s going to look like. It’s going to be really good.”
That’s why the Cubs believe they are built to last, whether it’s one-and-done or a long playoff run that keeps Wrigleyville rocking throughout October.
“Anything that it takes to come out on top,” Russell said, “I think that we have the type of team to do it.”