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Fixing what ain’t broke: Cubs risk distraction as Addison Russell nears return

Russell last week in Iowa.

SEATTLE — Addison Russell’s apparent imminent return to the Cubs looms like the omnipresent Pacific Northwest cloud cover as the Cubs spend the final two days of his domestic-violence suspension in Seattle.

The Cubs say they haven’t decided whether they’ll activate Russell to the big-league roster Friday, when he’s eligible, or option him to Class AAA Iowa. They won’t even say what position he would play if and when he returns — though his switch from shortstop to second base for a minor-league start Monday with Iowa suggests an answer to that one.

But barring an unexpected trade in the next few days, this much seems certain: The Cubs run the risk of fixing what ain’t broken anymore if they go ahead and drop Russell and his baggage into the middle of a team that has looked like a National League contender since its 1-6 start.

“I don’t think it will really be as big a distraction [for the team] as the stories that will be written about him coming back,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said of Russell, the one-time All-Star. “He’s coming to play baseball. We do a really good job here at just keeping it to baseball.

“He’s done everything that’s been asked from him and beyond, from what I’ve heard, to put himself in position to even be coming back into this clubhouse.”

The Cubs have invited blowback on their self-proclaimed “high character” ethos since trading for Aroldis Chapman in 2016, the year he served a 30-game suspension for domestic violence. And since November, all their talk and rationalization for keeping Russell through his 40-game suspension has done little to slow an even greater level of pushback by a vocal core of anti-Russell fans.

Russell is allowed one more minor-league game after Monday before his suspension is up, and the Cubs have two more days to discuss the next move. Beyond the team-character implications and the next round of public outcry, adding Russell into the middle-infield mix would mean even more outfield time for Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist — something manager Joe Maddon said was anticipated from the start.

But it would mean less time at second base for early-season stud David Bote.

And it also likely means pushing second baseman Daniel Descalso into the corner-outfield mix. He has played there in recent seasons but hasn’t done much prep work for it yet this year.

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How Russell’s return plays out in the clubhouse “is between Addy and his teammates,” team president Theo Epstein said. “I will say that everyone noticed he was working hard on his individual relationships with his teammates this spring. . . . There were moments in group settings where he took responsibility, as well, with his teammates.”

Epstein declined to go into detail.

If Russell returns to the Cubs when he’s eligible, it will be for the start of the first series of the year with the Cardinals. The Cubs’ rivals currently are playing well and jockeying at the top of the division.

Russell almost certainly will face another bank of microphones at a news conference, as he did during spring training with a cringe-worthy set of prepared answers. The team’s decision to turn down media interview requests this week in Iowa only heightens the potential for another such spectacle.

“This was the media plan laid out by the Chicago Cubs,” an Iowa Cubs spokeswoman said in an email to the Sun-Times when asked if it was Russell’s decision to decline interviews.

Even the veterans in the clubhouse don’t have much experience with cases as sensitive as this one involving a teammate.

But, Descalso said, “I think the guys we have in here are too professional to let that be a distraction. What goes on outside of this clubhouse is out of our hands. We’re not going to allow anything to become a distraction, no matter who tries to make it a distraction.”