Russell recalled, makes 2019 debut with Cubs

Strop to IL, while Montgomery returns; Zobrist on personal leave

May 9th, 2019

CHICAGO -- appeared more relaxed on Wednesday afternoon, seated on an elevated bench in the Cubs' dugout and surrounded by reporters and television cameras. His answers were not nearly as monotonous and repetitive as they were during his first press conference early in Spring Training.

Given the serious nature of Russell's return to the Cubs, who recalled the infielder from Triple-A Iowa prior to Wednesday's game against the Marlins, every word he utters and movement he makes will understandably be under the microscope. Russell recently completed a 40-game suspension for violating MLB's Domestic Violence Policy and knows that there are fans who did not want him to wear a Cubs uniform again.

"Somewhere along the line, we have to be responsible for things that we're not proud of doing," Russell said. "And we have to serve that time. I served that time. Whether it's backlash or being suspended, it's been tough. That's just one of many things that I had to go through through this whole process, is feeling that heat, being put down in that low part and serving out that time. It's not fun. It's not fun at all.

"But, I think where I feel like my heart is getting bigger is when I have validation from my friends and family and teammates. That really makes this whole process a lot easier."

Given Javier Baez's strong play as Chicago's everyday shortstop, Russell rejoined the Cubs as a second baseman and was slotted into the eighth spot of the starting lineup in Wednesday night's 3-2, 11-inning win over Miami. It marked his first game at Wrigley Field since Sept. 16 of last season. In the third inning, Russell led off and was greeted by a mixed reaction from the crowd. There was applause and some cheers, but a heavy dose of boos could be heard. He struck out in his first at-bat and finished 0-for-3 with a walk.

In a lengthy press conference prior to Wednesday's game, Cubs president Theo Epstein said that Russell did not deserve to receive a warm reception from fans.

"He doesn't deserve to be met with an unconditionally warm welcome and with open arms," Epstein said. "I think he will receive an appropriate response, and that's something he needs to take responsibility for, to process, to handle the right way and to grow from. I think it's all part of the process. He knows it's a long road back to earn peoples' trust, whether that's the organization, most importantly, the people in his life on a daily basis, his teammates, and then the fans.

"It's not something that you get back easily. It's something that he has to earn. Because of the work he's put in, he's still a part of this organization, and I think that buys him a chance to try to earn peoples' trust back."

As part of Wednesday's moves, the Cubs placed reliever on the 10-day injured list with a left hamstring injury and activated lefty (left lat) from the IL. Versatile veteran was granted a leave of absence and placed on the restricted list due to undisclosed personal reasons. There was no immediate timeline for Zobrist’s return.

Russell was suspended last October (retroactive to Sept. 21) following allegations of physical and mental abuse by his ex-wife, Melisa Reidy. After the club opted to retain the shortstop over the offseason, Epstein stressed that the organization was going to address the issue of domestic violence not only with Russell and his family, but within the entire organization.

Behind the scenes, Russell has followed the mandates set forth by MLB as part of his treatment plan, while also going through his own counseling outside of the league's requirements. The Cubs made domestic violence training mandatory for every team employee (players and otherwise), and Epstein noted that the club is also working with local organizations (Family Rescue and the House of Good Shepherd) to raise awareness on the topic and provide donations and resources, too.

"This is not the end of the line," Epstein said. "We're not looking for any sort of recognition for this work. I just think it's appropriate for us to be held accountable with the decision that we made not to cut ties with Addison, but to give him a conditional second chance in the hopes of becoming a small part of the solution. That's something that we should be held accountable for and we need to be transparent."

Throughout the process, Epstein has reiterated that nothing has been guaranteed to Russell, though Wednesday's promotion shows that the club has been encouraged by his off-field progress over the past several months. Epstein has noted multiple times that the team has also maintained contact with Reidy throughout its decision-making process on Russell.

"And I'm not just taking Addison's word for it, either," Epstein said. "I've remained in touch with the people who are important to him, the people who are in his orbit, including Melisa. And I've received a lot of positive testimonials about Addison's growth to this point, the improvement in his coping skills and emotional control and his communication skills, his engagement as a father. So, there are positive signs to this point.

"He has the majority of the work ahead of him. He has a long road ahead of him. This rehabilitation process is long. For a lot of people, it's life-long."

The Cubs tendered the 25-year-old Russell a contract on Nov. 30, and then avoided arbitration with the infielder on Jan. 11 with a one-year contract that included a base salary of $3.4 million (plus available bonuses). Russell was reinstated from MLB's restricted list on May 2, but was optioned to Iowa to continue to garner plate appearances, while playing both shortstop (66 1/3 innings in eight games) and second base (30 2/3 innings in four games).

In 12 games with Iowa, Russell hit .222 with three homers, 13 RBIs and an .824 OPS in 45 at-bats.

Over parts of four seasons with the Cubs, Russell has hit .242 with 51 homers, 230 RBIs and a .704 OPS in 533 games. While he has maintained an elite defensive presence at shortstop, Russell has seen an offensive dropoff in the past two years. He hit .250/.317/.340 in 2018 for Chicago and has turned in a 79 OPS+ (indicating he has performed 21 percent below league average) over the past two seasons combined.

Russell admitted that there were times he doubted he would step foot in Wrigley Field again as a member of the Cubs.

"A lot of thoughts have crossed my mind. That was just definitely one of many," he said. "I'm happy that I have this second opportunity. And I'm looking forward and still improving as a person."