MIAMI – In a different rookie class – or just on a different team – Addison Russell might be one of the most celebrated young players in baseball.
Instead, the Cubs’ second baseman might be the best player to debut in the last year that nobody outside of Chicago has heard of.
He can thank teammate Kris Bryant and Bryant’s immense shadow for that. And Russell does.
“It’s been pretty easy just being able to sit back and relax and not have all the attention from the media,” said Russell, 21, who’s the second-youngest player in the National League by roughly a month. “I get less attention, but that’s perfectly fine with me. I’m kind of a quiet guy. I keep to myself.”
Meanwhile, Bryant winds up on billboards, shoots a commercial on the eve of his debut and does ESPN pregame shows with Bryce Harper.
Surely, there’s at least a small part of Russell that wants to be that guy, wants that kind of recognition for his role in the upward direction of this young Cubs team.
“No. Not at all,” he said firmly. “Not at all.”
If you have to look close to see what Russell has done for the Cubs, mostly from the No. 9 hole, since his April 21 debut, it’s worth the look.
After opening his career with 11 strikeouts in his first 19 at-bats, he snapped a five-K skid with a three-run double to help beat Cincinnati on the road and has looked more like the fluid, competitive hitter that made the Cubs drool at the chance to acquire the elite shortstop prospect from the Oakland A’s in that Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade last July.
“His first week he looked like he was just trying not to make waves, playing a little bit tight,” team president Theo Epstein said. “His swing didn’t have its normal looseness and the bat speed that comes with it. And he was a little robotic in the field.
“Then there comes a point where every player sort of takes a deep breath and relaxes and lets their natural ability come out.”
Not usually this quickly.
Since that 2-for-19 start, Russell is hitting .272 with a .474 slugging percentage, entering Wednesday’s series finale against the Marlins in Miami.
He ranks second on the team with 12 doubles, and even with a high strikeout rate, he’s a dangerous enough at-bat that manager Joe Maddon moved him up in the order to protect the big hitters when Jorge Soler was lost to an ankle injury Tuesday.
“Oh, my God, unbelievable,” said Cubs hitting consultant Manny Ramirez. “He’s awesome. And great defense.”
That’s the other thing: Russell, who spent his pro career at short until five days before debuting in the big-leagues at second, has been a sometimes spectacular, sometimes mistake-prone work in progress at his new position. It’s admittedly an area where he has struggled at times to adjust.
“What I like about Russell is every time he comes to the park, he knows what he wants,” Ramirez said. “He’s focused on what he wants to do and he goes and gets it. You don’t have to tell him, `Hey, be here early, do this, do that.’ He’s always on time. He’s unbelievable.
“And he can play shortstop, too.”
Many believe that’s where he’ll end up long-term for the Cubs. Others have suggested third base could be in his future. Six weeks into his major-league career, he’s already answering questions about that (he’ll do whatever the club wants and is more than fine with third).
None of it’s getting in the way of his hitting.
In fact, while Bryant was getting all the oohs and aahs for cracking the new left-field video board with a homer last week against the Nationals, it was Russell who drove in the game-winner with a walk-off double – after a pair of hits earlier in the game against two-time All-Star Jordan Zimmerman.
And it’s not lost on him, or those around him, that he’s had success in recent weeks against big-shot pitchers like that – including Lance Lynn, Matt Harvey, James Shields and Max Scherzer.
“Your confidence definitely goes up when you get a hit off those guys,” he said. “And it’s cool, because you grow up watching these guys and wondering what it’s like to face them, and then you finally do. It’s kind of humbling. You see how far your journey has come. But for me it’s just starting.”
If Russell had stayed with Oakland – where he was the A’s top prospect – he was projected to be in the big leagues even earlier, as the A’s Opening Day shortstop. It’s a trade A’s officials won’t admit they regret, but their shortstop these days is the unremarkable former White Sox infielder Marcus Semien.
“I believe I would have had a good shot to make the team out of spring training in Oakland,” Russell said. “But being in this organization and getting called up a little later, I think it’s worked out beautifully. There’s no regrets. There’s no nothing. I’m happy.
“This right here is awesome.”