Cubs ship former All-Star Addison Russell to minors to make room for Willson Contreras

The move sent a message rippling through the clubhouse that nobody should feel too comfortable as the front office looks to shake more performance from an underperforming team.

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Addison Russell.

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SAN FRANCISCO — Maybe October starts in late July?

Or maybe, after 4½ years in the big leagues, time’s up for learning your team’s signs?

The Cubs optioned former All-Star shortstop Addison Russell to the minor leagues Wednesday in an eye-opening move to make room on the roster to activate catcher Willson Contreras (foot) from the injured list. 

“It’s just good for [Russell], as much as anything,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the move was made. “At this point, with everything considered, we thought it was the best thing to get him back, to get some regular at-bats, to hopefully clear his head up a little bit, for running the bases, getting the signs, the focus returning.”

The move also sent a message rippling through the clubhouse, whether or not that was the intent: Nobody should feel comfortable as the front office looks for levers to pull and moves to make to shake more performance from an underperforming team.

“It’s weird seeing that happen,” teammate Kris Bryant said. “[Russell’s] been a big part of this. He’s been a big-league player for us for a long time. He’s had great moments here.”

The move came two days after the Cubs optioned Carl Edwards Jr. — the former shutdown setup man who pitched the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series — to the minors after just one appearance coming off the injured list.

“It goes back all the way pre-spring, and they’re holding to their word,” infielder David Bote said, referring to the front office’s message of “urgency” in 2019 after last year’s whiplash wild-card elimination. “You respect that. It doesn’t add anything because we’re already there with that. Every game, we’ve been there mentally.”

That doesn’t mean the Cubs don’t feel the heat — and another lost road series to go with a roster move like Wednesday’s only keeps the room toasty.

“I think it shows, too. After losses here, I think we’re taking it much harder than we ever have, which is a good thing,” Bryant said. “We’re motivated, and it sucks to lose the way we’re losing these last two games [Monday and Tuesday].”

Russell, who spent the first month of the season on the restricted list while he served a 40-game suspension for domestic violence, had struggled for more than a year by the time he was suspended. He never came close this year to the level of play that made him an All-Star and important postseason contributor in 2016.

Recent focus issues bottomed out over the weekend, when he had multiple mental lapses, including admittedly missing — and not always knowing — the signs.

Wednesday’s move came one week and two hours before the trade deadline. Russell, whom Maddon benched in the three days leading up to the demotion, has been a polarizing figure since the team elected to retain him through the suspension. Limited playing time and exposure to tough matchups have done little to kindle improvement.

“It wasn’t that we’re sending him out to send a message, necessarily,” Maddon said. “That wasn’t it. The message is we need to get him better, and when we do, it’s going to benefit him and us.

“The primary thing is to get Addison playing baseball like we know he can.”

For now that means playing every day at Class AAA Iowa. That makes Bote the backup shortstop and should lead to more playing time for veteran Daniel Descalso, who has struggled much of the season.

“Listen, [Russell] was so important to what we did several years ago, and we believe he’s doing to do that again for us,” Maddon said. “For him to be here playing like he can is the better deal for us and for him.

“It’s hard to imagine that, based on what he’s been doing and the time I can dole out to him, that he’s going to regain that form. So you’ve got to put him in the situation where he can.”

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