On Friday, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Chicago Cubs promoted Kris Bryant to the major leagues. With the service time nonsense out-of-the-way, it was abundantly clear that Bryant was their best third baseman, so they summoned him from Iowa to help their team win. Today, the Cubs have also promoted Addison Russell from Triple-A, where he’ll join Bryant, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo to form something close to the infield of their dreams.
Unlike with Bryant’s promotion, however, this one didn’t appear imminent, nor has Russell necessarily forced his way into the big leagues. Whilst everyone agrees he is one of the best prospects in baseball, it is less clear that he’s finished developing in the minor leagues and is ready to step in and produce from day one the way Bryant is. In total, Russell has just under 1,100 minor league plate appearances and only 321 of those have come above A-ball.
He was excellent in Double-A last year, hitting for power and making contact, but his walk rate eroded, a perfectly natural thing to expect from a 20-year-old facing advanced pitching for the first time. That trend has continued in his first few games of 2015 in Triple-A, as he’s drawn just one walk in his first 47 plate appearances. Of course, a middle infielder who can hit for some power and avoid striking out already does enough to justify his spot in a lineup, so even if Russell is still a bit too aggressive, that doesn’t preclude him from being a productive player this year.
His ability to help the Cubs will likely come down to how much contact he can make against big league pitching without much high level experience. Russell has only been called up because Arismendy Alcantara hasn’t been able to make the necessary adjustments, turning his 23% strikeout rate in Triple-A into a 32% rate in the majors.
Both ZIPS and Steamer have bullish projections on Russell’s power but they were similarly optimistic about Javier Baez last year and that didn’t work out so well. Russell doesn’t have Baez’s contact problems but he is a reminder that a poor approach at the plate can invalidate just about every other offensive tool a player has.
The projection systems were in love with Kris Bryant – projecting him as a +4 WAR player even before he was promoted. Forecasts for Russell aren’t as bullish, seeing him as a little below average player with plenty of risk. However, with Tommy La Stella hurt, Addison Russell may very well be the Cubs best option right now but he shouldn’t be lumbered with the same expectations that Kris Bryant has.
Russell is a top prospect, of that there is no doubt, and he may well be the team’s best option in the short-term even if he could have done with more seasoning in the minors.. However, like Baez and Alcantara before him, there are reasons to think that this might not go very well, at least initially. That would be entirely normal for a player of his age and stage of development.
The Cubs, though are trying to make a challenge this year and it’s worth taking a shot to see if Russell is more ready than might be assumed. If talent trumps experience and he turns into a quality regular player, they pick up an extremely valuable upgrade in their pursuit of a postseason birth. It’s absolutely worth a shot, even if it doesn’t work and they end up sending him back down to Iowa.
What shouldn’t happen is that Addison Russell is lumped together with Kris Bryant just because they were both called up in the same week. Bryant didn’t belong in the minors and was probably ready at some point last year. The Cubs have the incentives there to choose 2015 wins over Russell’s development but his promotion should come with guarded hope rather than the jubilation that came with Bryant’s arrival.
It might work, it might not. Bryant’s replacement of Mike Olt is clearly a massive upgrade, Addison Russell is more of a flyer. As we saw with Baez and Alcantara, major league pitching is pretty good at exploiting flaws that aren’t ironed out in the minors.
Long term, Addison Russell is probably going to be one of the best middle infielders in the game, either at shortstop or second base. Just don’t count on it happening now.