MESA, Ariz. – Addison Russell noticed the coaches in the dugout looking strangely at him that hot July day last summer in San Jose.
“I was like, `Oh, man, I may have got traded,’ “ said Addison Russell, the best shortstop in the Cubs’ organization, according to some evaluators, and a top-five prospect in every major ranking.
“I was pretty surprised.”
Pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the American League West-leading Oakland Athletics. Russell, outfield prospect Billy McKinney and struggling pitcher Dan Straily to the Cubs.
Fourth of July.
For all the rocket’s red glare of Samardzija getting traded by the Cubs two days before he was named an All-Star for them, the big surprise eight months later remains that the A’s went so uncharacteristically all-in for rent-a-pitchers and gave up the organization’s top prospect – a kid they expected to be their starting shortstop this year.
“He’s as advertised,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “You hear all these different things, and then I came here and then you actually get to see it: `Wow!’ He is that.”
Russell hasn’t played a day in the big leagues yet, and McKinney is further away than Russell (Straily is already gone). But if the Cubs liked the deal in July, the optics only got better when Hammel returned as a free agent at a discount with the team actually trying to win this year.
“I wanted to be part of [the Cubs’ next phase], and obviously getting to see the guy that I got traded for, and play on the same team with him, is pretty cool,” Hammel said.
As the Cubs looked across the field this weekend at the A’s during a two-game Las Vegas series, it would seem an easy temptation to boast. Russell started at short for the Cubs Friday and delivered a double in two at-bats, plus a pair of walks (he’s hitting .462 this spring).
White Sox castoff Marcus Semien started for the A’s at short, where he’ll probably be on Opening Day, and went hitless.
Whether the Cubs “win” the trade will have a lot to do with what happens over the next few years; Russell’s going to be in the minors when the season starts.
What’s certain is that Oakland didn’t win it, the A’s fading out of first over the summer, being forced into a one-game wild-card playoff that they lost to Kansas City.
How do they not cringe at the trade now?
“Because we wouldn’t have made it to where we did without making those deals,” A’s assistant general manager said. “I mean, you never look back fondly on trading a player like Addison. But the reality is we only got to the wild card game, and we don’t get there without Samardzija, and Hammel and [Jon] Lester [later acquired from Boston for Yoenis Cespedes].
“In that respect we would absolutely do it again.”
It was an unusually bold, high-risk, high-stakes move, even for a front office led by gunslinger general manager Billy Beane.
“But we had a team where we felt like we were able to pinpoint some weaknesses that needed to be addressed,” Forst said, “and it would have been probably malpractice not to address them if we were capable.”
Meanwhile, the Cubs have an embarrassment of shortstop riches, if you believe prospect worshippers.
The only legitimate, established big-league one is a three-time All-Star who has yet to turn 25. (Despite wide and wild speculation he was not shopped by the Cubs after the Russell trade.)
The only question: Is there an even better one in the wings?
Ryan Theriot once brashly suggest if then-prospect Starlin Castro was good enough to take his job he should “come and get it.” Castro did – and has since repelled similar challenges from Junior Lake, Javy Baez and Arismendy Alcantara.
“He has tremendous talent,” Castro said of Russell, who lockers near him in the Cubs’ spring clubhouse.
Enough to force a position move for Castro?
“Whatever we have to do, we need to do what’s best for the team,” Castro said. “I can’t think right now about if I’m going to move to third, or if I’m going to move to second, because I don’t have that decision.”
As long as it helps the team get better and win, Castro says he’s fine moving anywhere. “Whatever has to happen, happens,” he said.
The soft-spoken Russell said even though he had a clearer, shorter path to a shortstop job in the big leagues with Oakland, “it’s a good time to be a Cub.”
“The challenge is just performing and proving that I can be an everyday starter at the big-league level,” he said. “The coaches are going to put me wherever they think I’m suitable to play. Whether it’s short, second, or third – the outfield – I’m looking forward to it, because if they want me at that level, [that’s where] I want to perform well.”