Will Cubs Really Activate Addison Russell as Soon as Suspension Ends?

A suspended player is eligible to begin a rehab assignment one week prior to the conclusion of his suspension, which is why Addison Russell is joining the Iowa Cubs Wednesday. He can officially be activated to the Cubs’ 25-man roster as soon as May 3, when they return from a western swing to face the Cardinals at Wrigley.

An immediate activation seems a bit strange for several reasons, not the least of which is that other middle infielders are currently playing very well. The Cubs have also said throughout this entire debacle that Russell’s return is “conditional,” though they’ve never been explicit about what that means other than saying that the shortstop has been “compliant.”

Were I inclined to parse semantics, I’d say that particular word conjures thoughts of someone who’s going along to get along or who’s acquiescing rather than making proactive changes. But that’s surely just me being pedantic and probably isn’t indicative of anything other than Russell very literally complying with the rules of his prescribed program.

Whatever the source of his motivation, Russell’s return to the active roster is certain to set off a PR crap-storm. Inevitable as that reality is, it can still be postponed even if the Cubs have already determined that it can’t be avoided altogether. Because Russell has three minor league options remaining, the Cubs could simply keep him in Iowa as he rounds back into baseball shape. But earlier rhetoric and a recent article seem to indicate the organization will just rip the band-aid off.

In a piece for USA Today that reads more like a favor to Scott Boras, who represents Russell, or the Cubs, Bob Nightengale painted a picture of a contrite ballplayer who’s rediscovered the joy of the game during his banishment. While that’s certainly possible, the column’s tone didn’t come across as all that dissimilar to Russell’s overtly scripted press conference back in February.

Amid the heavy-handed redemption narrative that invoked Tiger Woods’ recent Masters win was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it note that seems to reveal Russell’s hasty return.

Russell will be eligible to play his first major-league game on May 3, when the Cubs face the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. It’ll be Russell’s first major-league appearance since Sept. 19, 2018.

In case you’re not up on your contractions, “it’ll” is a mashup of “it” and “will,” which is not exactly speculative. Perhaps this is merely a matter of word choice and not at all indicative of a decision that has already been made. Or it could just be that Nightengale is taking thing for granted and making assumptions, though you’d think he’d have hedged any actual guesswork with something like, “When Russell returns…”

If the Cubs indeed plan to have Russell in uniform on May 3, I have to say I don’t understand what in the hell they’re thinking. And I’m only talking about the baseball side of things, though that’s certainly not the only reason for the Cubs to take their time.

While the issues of domestic violence that led to Russell’s suspension have been and should continue to be discussed (yes, even if he’s “served his time”), I want to focus instead only on what happens between the lines. I do that not to minimize or avoid the scourge of DV, but because the Cubs have already made it clear that they’re bringing Russell back. As such, the organization has stated plainly that it has chosen to accept the consequences of Russell’s continued employment in Chicago.

So that brings us back around to the baseball side of things, where Russell’s career .704 OPS and 88 wRC+ — league averages since 2015 are .735 and 97 — doesn’t outweigh what would be, at best, a modest defensive upgrade at short. Russell supplanting Javy Báez then means Javy displacing Ben Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, and David Bote to some extent.

Unless the Cubs intend to demote Bote, who was just extended and boasts an .835 OPS with a 124 wRC+, adding Russell means subtracting an outfielder. No big loss there, to be sure, but the roster balance tips a little too heavily toward the infield at that point. And if Russell falters, what then? He could be sent back down, but that’s just fishing the band-aid out of the trash and trying to slap it back in place.

Then there’s the notion that it might be in everyone’s best interest for Russell to spend a little more time acclimating to the game again. There’ll be significantly more pressure and competition in the Pacific Coast League than the Arizona Rookie League, but not even the most raucous evening in Des Moines can match Chicago.

And it may take more than a week to prep for that leap since, by Russell’s own admission, the time away from the spotlight has done him well.

“I feel like overcoming this challenge has made me much more self-aware,’’ Russell told Nightengale. “It has taught me to slow things down, reflect, and be a better person. It’s given me a lot of insight on what kind of person I am, and what my goals are moving forward. I can sit back and play baseball, and still reflect and be thankful for the life I live.”

Even as someone who has frequently chided Russell for being disingenuous, I have no reason to doubt the general veracity of those statements. It makes sense that a quieter lifestyle in a more controlled environment would allow for greater…compliance. But even if his growth over the last few months is legitimate, that doesn’t mean he should just be thrown right back into the fishbowl of Chicago, along with all of its attendant pressures and temptations, as soon as possible.

Whether it’s because they truly want to be part of the solution or they simply chose to rehabilitate Russell’s image in order to improve his trade value, the Cubs have a decision to make here in the next week. Or maybe they just need to announce the decision they’ve already made. Either way, they’re going to have to own the fallout rather than just paying it lip service.

I just think they might want to consider putting that purchase on a layaway plan rather than choosing to own it now.

32 Comments

  1. You may be right, but you also have a strong bias (justified) against Russell. I say let him play in AAA and earn either the right to come back (play and behavior) or wait until a decent offer for him comes in. I would think teams like BAL or MIA would love to have a cheap shot at him…maybe DET too (I would suggest NYM, but I think that would be an even bigger problem for them to sell).

    1. That’s not different from what I’m saying. And the Mets brought in Jose Reyes, so it wouldn’t be a new thing for them.

  2. If I were the Cubs, I’d do pretty much what Ray suggests. The Cubs have stood by Russell, but now it’s time to part ways. Let him play at Iowa until a deal can be made. The Cubs don’t need nor should they expect much in return. With Bote and Descalso on the roster and Hoerner playing like a future star, Russell is totally expendable. The distraction that adding him to the roster would cause is not worth it. Leave him at Iowa until he can be traded, or simply release him and let him make his own deal. That would be best for everyone.

  3. With all due respect, you need to consider the complicated position the Cubs are in. They need to straddle a fence somewhere between “zero tolerance” and “we’ve got your back.” The messaging to the team is important, too. While they can’t condone the behavior at any level, they need to balance in their support for the truly regenerate. They can’t tell the players they don’t give second chances, and that they turn their back on the player for any misdeed, especially when that player is a client of an agent representing another Cub. Let’s just hope the front office has polled the clubhouse and has a good feel for the players’ mindsets.

    1. I’ve been very vocal the topic and have given it its due for several months. The Cubs are in a complicated position because they’ve chosen to be there, all I’m talking about in this instance is the timing of the matter.

      1. Yes, you have been very vocal. And I’m guessing you’ve never been in a position where you managed a department or company, negotiated labor contracts, managed finances, etc. Trust me, there are many balls in the air all at the same time. It’s easy to claim the moral high ground when you really have no skin in the game.

        1. This is a great post, one I’ve thought about quite a bit, and I’ve been in a position where I’ve managed or run companies. I’ve managed labor contracts and finances and I’ve worked in both union and non-union facilities.

          In the real world, these types of matters are contained to the individual, HR, and officers of the company. A leak could result in a lawsuit. Speculation is a slippery slope though let’s face it, rumors get spread and stories get exaggerated.

          But Russell is a celebrity with a very public life who was called out by his wife in a post that became viral almost immediately. That doesn’t happen to John Q. Public.

          Fans of baseball and the Cubs specifically can and should claim moral high ground, just as individuals do when Hollywood celebrities or politicians mess up in a like manner. It’s our dollars that keep them very lucratively employed and subsequently in the public eye. We ALL have skin in the game for that reason.

          Insight into those lives comes with with the territory. If we have the right to cheer for those individuals we certainly have the right not to.

          And then there is judgment and public perception. I believe in my heart that judging others is inherently wrong. And the line between judging the crime and the individual is so small it’s practically nonexistent in less heinous situations. But this isn’t a drug issue, or a DUI. We are talking about alcohol fueled verbal, emotional, and physical abuse to a woman and child. To judge the crime is in fact to judge the criminal if sufficient evidence exists. Russell admitted to everything to which he was accused.

          Does he deserve a second chance? I want to say yes, but what if that was my daughter who was abused at Russell’s hands?

          It’s hard for me to accept his apology, especially when Russell still seems more worried about what happens to his professional career than he is about his wife, his girlfriends, and his children. He has acted entitled through this entire process despite his expressions of remorse. I hear him. I just don’t *feel* him.

          1. I also have been in decision-making positions in organizations where actions I took affected lives. My point is that the situation is difficult and I trust that the Cubs will move in the best possible direction for all concerned without our input. No need to publicly litigate and intrude in a complex situation with simplistic solutions.

            The front office could easily lose the clubhouse and years of building trust and confidence among the organization if the choose wrongly. I hope they move the right way, whichever way that is. And I don’t feel I have the authority to judge.

          2. It’s not a matter of public litigation though I do agree with you. None of what we say will affect the organizational stance, and they’ve proved that.

            But where I do not agree is that someone other than Russell is affecting his life or livelihood. He made the poor decisions and frankly, he’s lucky his wife didn’t press charges and put him in jail. This always has, and always be, 100% on Addison Russell.

            And though the front office could theoretically lose the the clubhouse, as you say, it’s startling that Russell has bern as accepted as he has.

            Lastly – none of these are simplistic solutions. Again, the onus is on Russell the human being and Russell the player, which is Evan’s point. Russell is definitely eligible to return on May 3, and it looks like he will. But the front office said he’d have to earn that. I’m not sure I believe he has on either front, and certainly nobody has played themselves out of a job in this team.

        2. Not sure it’s a great idea to assume such things or to believe others don’t understand the multifaceted nature of these situations. And as the proprietor of a website focused solely on the Cubs, I do have skin in the game. I also made a simple clarification about the topic of my post, which dealt solely with the idea that the Cubs might want to wait a while to call him up.

          As much as I appreciate personal experience, I’m not a big fan of being condescended to.

      2. But since the made the decision to be there, it’s no longer complicated. If he gives every indication that he is no longer the same guy that did those bad things in the past and he plays well, then he will play. If he offends again, he’s gone and if he doesn’t hit MLB pitching it will be hard to fit him into the Cubs plans.

  4. Like it or not the Cubs need Russell on the team, and they are paying to do so. We are a -4 DRS from 2B which is 29th in MLB all by Decalso who can’t play defense worth a damn. Zagunis goes down for Addi and KB plays more OF like they are already doing. Even if Russell doesn’t start everyday he can shore up the defense at 2nd rather than having a soon to be 38 year old Zobrist. It also allows Javy to get a day of every once in a while.

    If you don’t Russell on the team going forward hope he does great and builds trade value, or hope he sucks and gets non-tendered.

  5. People deserve a second chance but not when they physically attack somebody. Hitting your spouse is not tolerated and by dfa ing Russell a message will be sent.

  6. I found it somewhat disturbing that he has a live in girlfriend and a child with her. Three children, three mothers.

  7. As a society we do give people second chances when they have done wrong. The Cubs had already invested in the player. This off season, with the full support of his ex-wife, they invested in the man. They not going to just released him now after keeping him all through his suspension. That said, he has minor league options left, so if he doesn’t prove in 7 games that he is ready to try MLB pitching, they can keep him in Iowa until they think he is… much like they are doing with Happ.
    If they bring him up and he doesn’t hit, then he likely will end up back at Iowa. If he hits well then he will stay with the Cubs.
    If he does well, he also becomes valuable in a trade if they do consider a trade… but a trade will depend on the Cubs getting something they need in return.

  8. First, I’d like to compliment all concerned with the level of discussion in this thread.
    It’s intelligent, well thought out, and, thankfully, with minimal emotion.

    I believe the decision has already been made; and it probably comes from the ownership side (Tom Rickets) determining what his upper management people can or cannot do.

    Secondly, they know far more about Russell then any of us do and what may or may not have happened.
    It also would not surprise me that the Boras people (his agent) have helped play a role in figuring out what should be done.

    I find it interesting that his 2019 contract was carefully crafted to allow Russell (more or lesss)

    to come out whole if he lives up to his end of the bargain — whatever that is.
    And, truthfully, it’s none of our business what that end is.
    It’s for the Cubs, Russell, and the Boras people to know that.
    And if they say he’s done that, that’s fine with me.

    No one
    benefits if Russell gets discarded on the baseball garbage heap.
    — not Russell, the women or his kids.
    Dad needs to be able to earn a livelihood which will allow him to support the youngsters.
    The severity of the MLB punishment suggests that they believe that whatever happened was milder than what happened with other allegations against others.
    Moreover, baseball, for PR purposes whatever reality is, had to lay down a punishment that would appease public relations needs.
    The Cubs, The Boras people understood that — and that had to be sold to Russell.

    He, apparently, has come to accept that.
    .

    Perhaps what may happen here is that Russell will be reactivated around May 3 and then some pretense will have him on the IL.
    That would allow him to spend additional time at Iowa honing his skills.
    And it would also keep his normal paychecks coming in.

    It is probably already scripted as to how this plays out;
    we’ll have to watch the show to discover the script.

    One more reason to keep tabs on the ICubs.

    1. They can’t IL him and have him play at Iowa. He’s got options left, so they’d use that route if he needed more time away from the team. And the idea that Russell’s actions were “milder” and that MLB suspended him simply as a PR move is not a good look.

    2. I agreed with you up to the IL suggestion. I wouldn’t put it past the Cubs for most players, but it’d be very transparent and heavy-handed to do so with Russell. If he lands on the IL, it’ll be for a legitimate injury, and it actually would cost him money – he has $100K roster bonuses for every 30 days on the ACTIVE roster, along with a $200K bonus for 150 days. If he’s on the IL or at Iowa, he’s losing up to $600K in bonus opportunities.

  9. “Parse”, “acquiescing” and “pedantic” all in the same paragraph? In a sports article, Evan? I appreciate someone who can write intelligently about the Cubs, without having to resort to monosyllables!

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