MESA, Ariz. — Nearing the beginning of his third season as the Cubs’ starting shortstop, 23-year-old Addison Russell sees no reason
why he can’t take a large step toward becoming one of the premier players in baseball.
Already an All-Star and a World Series champion, Russell has targeted one area of his game above all others for improvement in 2017.
‘‘Definitely baserunning,’’ he said. ‘‘I think I can get better at baserunning. I think it would take my game to the next level.
‘‘All facets, from rounding the bag to taking the lead to knowing who’s playing where and who’s on first, second, third. Also, knowing when to go first to third, second to home. The ball is hit in the hole, and you read it. And instead of just staying on second, you make a hard turn for third. Stuff like that.’’
Russell didn’t have any major baserunning blunders last season that he can recall, but he knows he left some opportunities out in the dirt. And he can’t help but feel he took zero meaningful steps in a part of the game he once was expected to be pretty good at: stealing bases.
He tried to steal all of six times last season and converted five of those attempts. As a rookie in 2015, he stole four bases in seven tries.
Heading into that season, a Baseball America scouting report noted Russell’s ‘‘good first-step quickness’’ and pegged him as a player who could steal upward of 20 bases a season. That sort of production could inject extra juice into a team that stole only 66 bases (in 100 attempts) in 2016, well below the National League average of 93.
‘‘I know the speed’s there,’’ Russell said. ‘‘It’s just a matter of anticipating when to steal and reading that pitcher and getting comfortable on the basepaths. That’s the goal right now.’’
But should it be? Stealing bases clearly hasn’t been an emphasis of these Cubs, who have a lineup full of professional hitters. Dexter Fowler, no longer with the team, led the way with 13 steals last season. Javy Baez had 12, Jason Heyward 11, Kris Bryant eight and Ben Zobrist six. All but Zobrist have the ability to go significantly higher. It doesn’t mean they’ll try.
‘‘As far as [Russell] wanting to steal bases, it needs to be situationally based,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘He’s not just going to go out there on a nightly basis and try to steal one base. Is it the right matchup? Who’s the pitcher? Who’s the catcher? What part of the game are we in? All those things.
‘‘So I like situational base-stealing being more of the concern right here. If we can pick out the right situations for him and he learns how to do that, it could be very helpful.’’
Translation: Russell won’t have a green light. The running game will happen mostly at the discretion of Maddon and his staff. With the Cubs, pretty much everything comes down to the game plan.
That’s not to suggest Russell doesn’t have a voice in this, too. The more he studies, the more he learns, the likelier it becomes he’ll be turned loose. If that’s important to him — and it appears to be — then it certainly bears watching.
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