The Addison Russell era is over in Chicago.
A winter of change continues to swirl as the Cubs opted to move on from their embattled infielder ahead of Major League Baseball's non-tender deadline Monday night. The Cubs did not tender Russell a contract, making him a free agent.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein released a statement in conjunction with the Russell move:
We decided to non-tender Addison Russell today simply because the role we expected him to play for the 2020 Cubs was inconsistent with how he would have been treated in the salary arbitration process.
In the year since we decided to tender Addison a contract last November, he has lived up to his promise to put in the important self-improvement work necessary off the field and has shown growth as a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a citizen. We hope and believe that Addison’s work and growth will continue, and we have offered our continued support of him and his family, including Melisa.
In the last year, the organization has also put in the important work necessary to bolster our domestic violence prevention training for all employees, all major league players, all minor league players and all staff. We also offered healthy relationship workshops for the players’ partners and provided intensive, expert domestic violence prevention training for player-facing staff. This heightened training and our increased community involvement on the urgent issue of domestic violence prevention will continue indefinitely.
We wish Addison and his family well.
The Cubs tendered a contract to their other arbitration-eligible players (Albert Almora Jr., Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Ryan, Kyle Schwarber). The team also non-tendered left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen, who fought his way back from injury to make his MLB debut in September.
2020 was supposed to be Russell's third year in arbitration and MLB Trade Rumors projected his salary figure at $5.1 million. That's an awful lot of money for any team to pay an infielder who posted just a .699 OPS in 2019 and has a career .704 OPS in over 2,200 plate appearances.
Simply put: Russell's play on the field has underwhelmed recently, not even taking into account the off-field domestic violence issues that led to a 40-game suspension in 2018-19. He is still capable of playing elite defense, but he made too many mental mistakes on the basepaths and in the field and eventually earned a demotion to the minor leagues in late-July.
For a Cubs team already in a tough spot financially, that $5.1 million projected figure is far too much to pay a defensive-minded infielder with serious offensive/focus questions and off-field baggage (though, by all accounts, Russell has lived up to the standards the Cubs set for him away from the ballpark).
The Cubs also don't need Russell to play Gold Glove defense at shortstop because they have Javy Baez capable of holding down the position and providing both elite defense and offense as a core member of the roster.
There's still a chance the Cubs sign Russell back on a lesser deal, but this feels like the end of his time in Chicago. It's clear his career could use a fresh start somewhere else and he's no longer a vital player on the Cubs roster.
With the emergence of Nico Hoerner, Russell has been deemed expendable. Hoerner came up in the middle of a pennant race last September when Russell was hit in the face with a pitch and the rookie wound up sparking the team and impressing with his energy, contact-oriented approach and defense at shortstop.
Hoerner may well begin 2020 in the minor leagues, but he's already proven he can serve as an emergency shortstop in the event of another Baez injury and Hoerner figures to play a key role in the second base picture next season either way.
The Cubs also added Zack Short to the 40-man roster this fall, representing even more middle infield depth beyond Baez, Hoerner, David Bote, Daniel Descalso and Tony Kemp.
Russell is set to turn 26 in January and never really lived up to his enticing potential with the Cubs. The 11th overall pick of the 2012 draft, the No. 3 overall prospect in the game in 2015 (Baseball America) and the centerpiece of the Jeff Samardzija trade with Oakland, Russell burst onto the scene in Chicago as a key piece of the surprise 2015 Cubs team.
He hit 21 homers and drove in 95 runs in 2016 and came through with a number of clutch hits in the World Series run that fall, including a grand slam in Game 6 of the World Series. But he's never been able to find that offensive level again, hitting just 26 homers with 104 RBI and a .689 OPS in the 322 games since the championship campaign.