Russell's callup shows Cubs mean business
Showing trust in handling of prospects, club demonstrating 'full-steam-ahead' approach
PITTSBURGH -- Addison Russell is a shortstop. He's always been a shortstop. At every level of baseball he's played in his life, he's been considered one of the best shortstops in that particular league. Until recently, there was little reason to seriously believe his big league debut -- a moment that, regardless of Russell's young age, has long felt inevitable -- would come anywhere other than shortstop.
And then one day in New Orleans last week, Russell's Triple-A manager tapped him on the shoulder late in a game that would go to extras and gave him the news.
"After this game," Marty Pevey said, "we're going to work at second, if that's cool with you."
Five days later, Russell was in the big leagues. As a second baseman.
It can happen just that fast with these Cubbies.
For all the grief this organization took over its no-brainer business manipulation of Kris Bryant's service time, the bottom line is that, at this juncture in a season still very young, the Cubs are pulling absolutely no punches when it comes to putting the best possible Major League product on the field.
Infield injuries to Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella, abysmal April stat lines from Arismendy Alcantara and Jonathan Herrera and a tragic death in the family of Javier Baez helped set into motion the successive callups of Bryant and Russell that had people in baseball buzzing from the North Side to here on the North Shore, where the Cubs outlasted the Pirates, 9-8, on Tuesday night at PNC Park.
Sure, Russell, like Bryant before him, took an 0-fer with three strikeouts in his debut, but it mattered not on a night in which the Cubs' offense -- sparked early by an opposite-field double by Bryant on a pitch very few human beings could drive the other way -- just kept coming. For months now, we've talked about the wave of young position-player talent this team has been compiling and what a separator it can be in a sport starved for runs. To see it in living color -- or, as manager Joe Maddon put it, to see "theory and reality coming together" -- is a beautiful thing.
It doesn't mean the Cubs are instant favorites in the National League Central.
It doesn't mean Bryant and Russell are guaranteed to avoid the big league bumps and Triple-A return that has tripped up many a Major Leaguer (Mike Trout among them).
But it does mean the Cubs are serious about the here and now.
They could have played the "Super Two" game with both of these guys, delaying these promotions until some point in June. Particularly, they could have held firm on the 21-year-old Russell as a shortstop, blocked by Starlin Castro and getting the Triple-A development time he missed with last year's hamstring issues.
Instead, they trusted their scouting, trusted their instincts and, more than anything, trusted that this 2015 club is worth supporting at every turn.
"It's kind of nice to see an organization have trust in in those players and see the same things that we see," veteran catcher David Ross said. "It's always that question when you're in an organization that has not had a lot of success recently. Are you really trying to win? Are you doing the things on a daily basis that is all about winning, not just about developing players? All I've seen here is full steam ahead. We're going to bring up the guys who are deserving to be Major League players and ready to be Major League players and put that product on the field and learn to win as we go."
This is undoubtedly a learning experience for Russell, who had all of five games at second base under his belt when he got the fateful phone call from Pevey late Monday night. Granted, Russell has spent time all around the infield in workouts and the Arizona Fall League, but, as is the case in every other facet of the game, the big leagues are just different.
That doesn't mean Russell can't handle it. In fact, the Cubs front office figures that while Russell might have more offensive growing pains at this level than does Bryant, his glove instantly makes them a better defensive club, no matter how little experience he has at the keystone. An infielder's world turns on its axis when he makes the move from one side of the second-base bag to the other, but Russell should have the footwork and awareness ("that road map kind of stuff," as Maddon put it) to make it work. To wit: On the first ball hit to him, in the sixth inning Tuesday, Russell made a nice play charging in and fielding a Jung Ho Kang bouncer that took a tough hop.
Batting in the nine-hole -- thanks to Maddon's stat-aided, against-the-grain pitcher positioning in his batting order -- puts a lot less pressure to produce on Russell than Bryant, one of the rare rookies to come out of the womb batting cleanup.
The pressure, ultimately, will be on the Cubs' decision-makers. It's going to be interesting to see how they handle their infield logjam once La Stella is healthy and once Baez and Alcantara are producing at Iowa the way the organization expects. For his part, Castro has looked particularly motivated by Russell's pending presence so far this season, showing a newfound aggressiveness on the defensive end and telling reporters he no longer wants his defensive exploits to be "a joke."
The main takeaway from all of this is that the Cubs are no longer a joke. They are obviously not a club without warts, and chief among them are Jon Lester's early issues after a dead-armed spring. But this is a team now fielding three legitimate Rookie of the Year candidates in Bryant, Russell and the criminally overlooked Jorge Soler, who is the most polished of that group. This is a club making every effort to shore up even short-term weaknesses, quickly dipping into one of the most (deservedly) hyped position player prospect stashes we've seen in some time.
A week ago, Russell was still a full-time shortstop whose Major League path appeared blocked. Now, he's a big leaguer. Things can change in a hurry in this game.
Just ask a Cubs team that has quickly become legit.