With Manny Machado possibly in play, Addison Russell finds allegiance fleeting

The awkward part of the Manny Machado-to-the-Cubs chatter is what’s not being discussed: What happened to Chicago’s love affair with Addison Russell?

Machado is the superstar who is likely to be traded this season because the Orioles stink and because they’d like to get some value for their 25-year-old shortstop before he walks away via free agency.

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Russell was going to be a fixture at shortstop for 10 years-plus when the Cubs acquired him from Oakland in a 2014 trade. Although that’s still possible, he has hit .242, .238, .239 and .261 in his first three-plus seasons in the majors. You can’t teach that kind of consistent mediocrity. He has shown power in the past (21 home runs and 95 RBI in 2016), but it wasn’t until Wednesday, in his 33rd game of the season, that he hit his first homer of the year. He is a good shortstop. Good, not great.

Addison Russell

Addison Russell hasn't quite reached his ceiling yet with the Cubs. | Tony Dejak/AP Photo

All of that is why the Cubs might be interested in Machado, a two-time Gold Glove winner (as a third baseman) and three-time All-Star who averaged 35 home runs and 92 RBI the previous three seasons. It’s true that their possible interest would be more about acquiring Machado than it would be about getting rid of Russell, but if Russell were the player the Cubs thought he was going to be when they acquired him, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

What has occurred with Russell is what often occurs with young players. The Cubs and their fans fell in love with the idea of Russell more than Russell himself. He was young and young-looking (read: cute), a 2012 first-round draft pick and, best of all, controllable in terms of his contract. What was there not to love about that?

Because the acquisition was made by team president Theo Epstein, who had many more right decisions than wrong ones in his career, the scouting report on Russell became something much more: He was going to be the franchise’s first big-time shortstop since Ernie Banks, he would play in multiple All-Star games and the world would reside at his feet. Again, that could still happen, but so far, his trajectory isn’t following the storyline.

There are Cubs fans who still love Russell, though fewer of them. He’s only 24, but three full seasons in, you see what you see and you know what you know.

Cubs fans threw themselves at Russell because he was supposed to be great. He ended up being a part of something monumental: a World Series title. Because of it, his profile has been huge. When Russell arrived, Epstein said he was everything you’d want in a baseball player. As time went on, it became apparent he wasn’t even the best shortstop on the team. Javy Baez was, but once a myth has been created, it’s hard to un-create it.

One of the hallmarks of professional sports, built so much on hype, is that a man who looks bigger than life one moment can, a short time later, look human. And we — the media very much included — don’t have a lot of time for human or average or mediocre. We’re looking for great. So are the Cubs, which would explain why they’d have interest in Machado and why they’d be willing to part ways with someone they loved to death only a few years ago.

Choosing Yu Darvish over World Series star Jake Arrieta in the offseason was Epstein’s first harsh reminder to Cubs fans that this is a cold business. Watch how quickly people throw themselves at Machado if the Cubs are able to pull off a trade.

This might be the best time to deal Russell. He still has a good reputation, he’s still young and he still has time to become the star he was supposed to be. Surely, there are teams that think highly of him. If the Cubs are lucky, one of them is the team with orange and black in its uniform.

Rebuilding franchises are looking for young players and contracts they can control. Russell will have three years left on his contract after this season. By that time, perhaps Baltimore will be good again.

The true believers will argue that this kind of scenario is exactly what Epstein had in mind when he was tearing down the Cubs and building them up again. It’s about using your assets to get something better, they’ll say.

No one is asking those true believers to remember how they defended Russell at every turn or how they dismissed Baez as unworthy of discussion as the Cubs’ full-time shortstop. But it would be interesting to watch them embrace Machado the way they did Russell not too long ago and see if there’s any self-consciousness involved. Somehow, I doubt it.

Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.