Addison Russell, Javy Báez Offer Study in Contrasts Saturday Afternoon

Addison Russell is not an effing savage in that effing box, nor is there any savagery in his baserunning or even his decision-making in general. And though he’s still just 25 years old, the man once dubbed “the next Barry Larkin” has way too much big-league experience to use youth as an excuse. After a forgettable display that saw him commit several mental gaffes, Joe Maddon certainly wasn’t letting the infielder off the hook.

“He’s got to straighten some things out,” Maddon said after the game. “He has to. There’s no question he does.

“We’ve talked about his baserunning in the past. We’re making too many outs on the bases, and we’re missing things on the bases that we can’t to be an elite team.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Maddon openly criticize Russell, which is not insignificant when you consider how intentional the manager is about protecting his guys. Maddon was clearly upset about the second baseman’s poor decision to throw home during the Cubs’ July 3 loss to the Pirates, but that was more or less an outright act of insubordination.

Saturday was more about Russell looking lost in various aspects of the game all afternoon. Like when he walked to lead off the 2nd inning and advanced on a David Bote single, breaking it down so quickly that center fielder Manuel Margot didn’t even have to think about throwing. Not that advancing to third was a realistic option, it just gave off a vibe of being a little disconnected.

Russell then failed to advance on what should have been a wild pitch, jumping toward third before stopping and jumping again, barely diving back to second in time to avoid the throw from catcher Austin Hedges. In a fitting turn, Russell again broke for third on an Albert Almora Jr. liner to left, allowing Hunter Renfroe to double him off.

Even though the ball was well-struck, the play was ahead of Russell and he should have gotten a much better read on it. With the way Renfroe had to run in on the ball, a miscue would have allowed Russell to score easily even without a big jump.

The very next inning, Russell lost a ball in the sun and turned a routine pop-up into a double. Though it was incredibly bright and those things are going to happen on occasion, the timing could not have been worse. Manny Machado‘s subsequent homer gave the Padres a lead that, while short-lived, they shouldn’t have had.

As if needing to fill out his own personal BINGO card, Russell threw his bat into the Cubs dugout while swinging through strike three in his 5th inning at-bat. It’s hardly the first time we’ve seen a bat fly from his hands, an infuriating phenomenon that seems to happen roughly once each game, but it was more darkly humorous this time given the circumstances.

I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions about Russell’s play and his future with the Cubs, but I’ll end this particular portion of the commentary by saying that he may need a change of scenery. Even if you’re one of the folks who feels the need to defend him based on his role in the 2016 World Series title, you have to admit that Russell’s carrying too much mental baggage to excel in Chicago.

And let’s be clear about this: That baggage is all his responsibility. Well, except that Theo Epstein offered to carry some of it when he and the Cubs opted to tender Russell a contract in keeping with their choice to be “part of the solution.” As commendable as that is — by which I mean wanting to find a way to eliminate domestic violence — things can still progress with Russell in a different uniform.

The Cubs are not getting sufficient offensive production from second base and they have needs in the outfield and bullpen as well. And with Russell’s athletic talent stifled by his poor choices and shoddy instincts, perhaps a move would be best for everyone involved. The guy plays as though he’s been dosed with cold medication, or perhaps something stronger, some of which could simply be the accumulated weight of inertia.

Part of the issue could be that Russell is playing alongside a man who operates with no such physical or psychological encumbrances. The eternal flame that is Javy Báez can make almost anyone look washed by comparison, but Saturday’s performance was a magnesium flair that turned his double-play partner into a flash shadow.

Like how he went 3-for-4, including the game-winning homer, and then added another top-tier tag to further an art form no one even knew existed three years ago. He’s like baseball’s Basquiat, coloring outside the lines and making the picture look better as a result.

“He’s a baseball player and you saw a lot of plays today that weren’t baseball plays,” Maddon said of Javy. “The game is clamoring for baseball players that know how to play this game. And he is one.”

It’s possible Maddon’s comment about players who know how to play the game had nothing to do with Russell, so we won’t pretend it did. Although I suppose that’s like a judge telling a jury to forget about testimony she just ruled out, isn’t it? Oh well.

About Javy, however, there can be no mistake. He’s not just the artist, he’s the work itself. He’s a human computer, like Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov had a baby and taught it to play baseball.

“He’s got the biggest hard drive, the most RAM,” Maddon gushed. “He’s got everything going on every day. He’s got great vision. What he sees in advance, it’s like the best running back. It’s the best point guard you’ve ever seen. It’s all of that as a shortstop.”

If you weren’t already aware of it, that’s Maddon taking out a billboard outside of Wrigley that says, “JAVY IS OUR SHORTSTOP, FOREVER AND EVER, AMEN.” Russell ain’t moving back, which means the defensive value he offers is capped. And that’s yet another reason that a change of scenery makes sense, since a team in need of a shortstop might be better able to utilize his skills.

We’ll find out in less than two weeks whether the Cubs prefer to continue along their current path to a solution or opt for a new solvent. Either way, they need to stir things up in order to avoid the kind of sloppy play that has characterized their otherwise hot second-half start.

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