The resurgence of the shortstop position and a Chicago Cubs World Series championship captured by an historically young group made Addison Russell’s latest disappointing season stand out all the more. In fact, that unlikely trifecta made the idea of trading him more of a reality than the pulp fiction it was just a year ago. Although ways to improve the Cubs’ chances should be explored — yes, even trading Russell — I encourage you to be mindful of the (almost) 24-year-old’s value and trajectory.
Since 1945, only 18 shortstops under the age of 24 have accumulated more WAR than Russell (8.2). We’re talking about a group that includes retirees like Alex Rodriguez (No. 1, 22.5); Cal Ripken Jr. (No. 2, 22.4); Robin Yount (No. 8, 13.1); and Alan Trammell (No. 10, 10.3), as well as active players Francisco Lindor (No. 4, 16.5); Corey Seager (No. 5, 14.6); Carlos Correa (No. 6, 13.7); and Xander Bogaerts (No. 14, 9.7). It’s an impressive list for Russell (8.2 WAR) to be a part of, especially when we consider the injuries he faced last year.
WAR is limited, though, because it struggles to accurately quantify defensive value. As a result, Russell’s exceptionally impressive WAR could be an artifact, so to speak. Yet his prowess in the field is well-documented across several defensive metrics. His UZR/150 (that’s scaled to 150 games) of 13.0 is fourth best in MLB since his debut in 2015. And SABR’s Defense Index suggests that Russell is the league’s best defensive shortstop.
Despite its inherent shortcomings, however, WAR might accurately assign his value. While his stellar defense is a given, the main reason I encourage fans to be mindful of the shortstop’s future value is his reassuring development arc. If he continues to adjust effectively, his offensive production could propel the athletic shortstop’s value into the very top tier of MLB shortstops.
Russell entered the league looking like a player we’d barely recognize today. That 21-year-old who debuted at second base in Pittsburgh employed a sudden foot stride, high hands, and little rhythm to his swing. John Mallee soon nudged the shortstop to adopt a leg kick and lower his hands, both of which led to a more a batting approach with more rhythm and a second-half wRC+ of 101 in that rookie season.
Russell followed up an encouraging rookie year with an even better 2016 season. En route to his Game 6 World Series grand slam, the slick infielder continued to make noticeable changes to his swing, working with the depth at which he held his hands and the openness of his stance. All in all, though, Russell still produced a xOBA north of .330 as a 22-year-old and visually looked great at the plate by year’s end.
With nearly two seasons under his belt, expectations for Russell were high for 2017. And he fell flat. Shoulder and foot injuries hijacked his season and ultimately overshadowed the positive changes he made by the end of 2017, which contributed to an impressive batted ball portfolio in the latter half, and clutch hits against Max Scherzer in Game 5 of the NLDS and long-balls against the Dodgers in the NLCS.
Despite all the reasons to be encouraged by Russell’s offensive progression, uncertainty still clouds the shortstop. Will he stay healthy? Are the shoulder and foot issues chronic? Are consistent mechanical issues actually bad? Could his arbitration projections hamper future Cubs payrolls? All fair questions.
But here’s what we know about Addison Russell: His defense might be one of the most valuable commodities in MLB. Mechanical changes have been many and varied over the course of his career and have ultimately led to success by each season’s completion. He improved his contact by four percentage points since he debuted, while smacking over 20 homers in 2016. And only a handful of players have been as valuable as Russell through age 23 in MLB history.
Russell might look expendable in certain trade scenarios, but don’t let his most recent haunted, injury-riddled season make you think substantially less of his ability and projection.