Cubs

Why the Cubs once passed on Addison Russell

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Why the Cubs once passed on Addison Russell

WASHINGTON – If Addison Russell is so good, why didn’t the Cubs draft him three years ago?

It’s an interesting question with Russell making his first big-league start at shortstop during Saturday afternoon's 4-2 win at Nationals Park, and the Cubs holding the No. 9 pick on Monday night.

Russell didn’t remember having any contact with Cubs officials during his senior season at Pace High School in Florida. Instead, the Cubs targeted another prep player in a different part of the Sunshine State who was also being advised by super-agent Scott Boras. Albert Almora became the first player drafted here by the Theo Epstein administration, sixth overall in 2012.

Russell fell to the Oakland A’s at No. 11, got traded to the Cubs in last summer’s blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade and now goes to work as the second-youngest player in the National League (21 years and 133 days old).

This isn’t second-guessing the Almora selection, because the Cubs see him at Double-A Tennessee as their potential centerfielder of the future. It’s just another way to get inside the organization’s head on draft night, and wonder if Russell really is the franchise shortstop for a team stocked with middle infielders.

“Addison was a guy that we all were aware of,” said Matt Dorey, a national crosschecker at the time and now the amateur scouting director. “He wasn’t an unknown commodity. He was literally out of shape. There were a of lot concerns about where he would end up defensively.”

[MORE: Jorge Soler expecting a quick recovery from DL stint]

It’s hard to believe now, but Russell admitted he bulked up after his sophomore season: “I was like up to 225 at the age of 17.”

Russell – who came out of the same FTB program that helped develop Almora on the elite travel circuit – heard those concerns and felt his draft stock slipping.

“I took the initiative to lose that weight, so I’d come back strong for my senior year,” Russell said. “I wanted to play more shortstop to show off my athletic ability.

“I came back at 195 and just did what I did.”

If Russell didn’t become a top-15 pick, he planned to play at Auburn University, which is about three hours away from his home near Pensacola.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t like Addison,” Dorey said. “It was the fact that we had so much comfort with Albert’s track record. Our scouting process – especially for high school right-handed hitters – will always kind of start with: How much history do we have with the person and the player? And how much history do we have with that right-handed hitter facing high-level competition?

“As a staff, we had so much more comfort with how (Albert) had gone out and performed with Team USA since he was 15. He always really dominated elite competition.

“We got to know the makeup so well with Albert. It wasn’t that we had Albert’s tool set evaluated so much higher than Addison’s. I think we just felt like his floor was probably higher than Addison’s floor. Maybe this was a little bit more risk with Addison, probably just because of the body and not knowing exactly where he was going to end up defensively, at the time.”

[NBC SHOP: Get your Addison Russell jersey right here!]

That’s something to remember as the Cubs enter the final 48-hour window before making their big decision – and when the talking heads and Twitter experts break down the No. 9 pick.

“There’s a good lesson to learn,” Dorey said. “At the start of this year, everybody was complaining about how bad this draft was, and I kind of laughed.

“We could go back to drafts where – at the moment – we said it was just going to be the greatest draft (ever) and it ends up not being very good. It’s the nature of what we do, the nature of trying to project out on 17- to 21-year-olds, and how they’re going to handle a minor-league performance track that’s challenging, and ultimately how they’re going to make adjustments at the big-league level.

“It’s not an easy job. I look at it as an opportunity. Our staff looks at this year as a great opportunity, because there is a lot of depth. I challenge them from Day 1: Let’s go scout ‘em all, man. Let’s be relentless with how we approach our jobs.

“At the end of it, we’ll be able to look each other in the face and (say): We’re going to get a really good player, because we worked so hard and made sure that every stone was unturned.”

The guys Russell played against as a kid – projected top picks like Vanderbilt University shortstop Dansby Swanson and Louisiana State University shortstop Alex Bregman – are waiting for that phone call on Monday night, while Russell is already a starting second baseman in the big leagues, wearing a Cubs uniform and performing at Wrigley Field.

“That is crazy,” Russell said. “I was just informed that I’m not a prospect anymore. Somebody just tweeted me and was like: ‘Three more at-bats and Russell’s not a prospect anymore.’ Just so much time has flown by in three years, and they’re about to start on their professional careers, so it’s pretty cool.

“I’m glad they got me. We got a good thing going here.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times (5 intentional) in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 6 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."