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Short story for Cubs this year involves serious glove interest

MESA, Ariz. – Addison Russell can be easy to overlook in a Cubs’ clubhouse teeming with big-money free agents from championship backgrounds and decorated young stars from the system.

But the soft-spoken shortstop with the understated personality could be making as much noise as a Kyle Schwarber parking lot shot by the time he shows what he can do in a full season as the Cubs’ shortstop this season.

His defensive metrics in less than two months at the position as a rookie attracted media Gold Glove chatter last fall, and that could be a season-long conversation now with his October hamstring injury behind him, an intense off-season of work under his belt, and two-time Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons traded out of the league.

“He’s absolutely a Gold Glove candidate,” said manager Joe Maddon, who repeatedly praised Russell last year for being a “no chrome” fielder and says now he has “subtle” improvements he can make. “A lot of times guys that might have a little bit of the flair for the dramatic get a lot of publicity – although he has that.

“The guy that really draws attention is [the guy that when] the ball is hit to shortstop you pretty much know it’s an out. You’re not holding your breath. He’s that guy.”

Which could make him as important to what the Cubs are trying to accomplish this year as any of the more heralded sluggers from his rookie class.

“That’d be really nice to win the Gold Glove, I’m not going to lie,” Russell said. “But when it comes down to it I just want to make the plays.”

If the Cubs had a significant weakness last season it was in overall fielding. The infield got better with an August decision to move Russell from second base to short and All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, eventually, to second.

Then Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward was added in the off-season, along with steady, versatile veteran Ben Zobrist – the new second baseman, who already has found an easy defensive rapport in early work with Russell.

“A match made in heaven,” Russell said.

“It’s a good situation for both,” said Maddon, who managed Zobrist for nine years and said Russell’s personality “will blend in well with Zo.”

Russell, at 22 still one of the youngest players in the majors, could be back in the No. 9 spot in the batting order this year, working on improving a .242 rookie season that included increasing power throughout the year.

Maddon said he expects an offensive jump. But if he hits no better than he did last year, the Cubs will get plenty out of the position as long as he’s at least as good in the field.

In less than two months at short last year, he had 10 defensive runs saved – about half what the league leaders had for the season.

He had nine alone in September – second at any position only to Heyward (10).

For now, Russell is focused on continuing to get to know Zobrist, keep up his conditioning (with extra attention on keeping his hamstrings strong), and prepare for his first full season in the majors.

But the Giants’ Brandon Crawford, a first-time Gold Glove winner at short last year, might have reason to look over his shoulder defensively this year.

“I’ll let [voters] decide who wins the Gold Glove, but that’d be pretty nice,” Russell said. “I just want to be the best I can to help out my pitchers.”