Addison Russell was supposed to be the next Barry Larkin, or so went the apocryphal myth based on Billy Beane’s words to Theo Epstein after the Cubs and A’s pulled off a blockbuster trade in July of 2014. The 11th overall pick in 2012, Russell had the rare combination of power and fluidity that had many around the game pegging him as a future MVP. That talk would continue into the 2017 season, but the gilding had already begun to fade from the lily by then.
And now it’s completely off, as the Cubs have chosen not to tender Russell a contract for the 2020 season. He was projected to earn in the neighborhood of $5 million, a luxury the budget-conscious Cubs simply weren’t looking to carry.
Russell burst onto the scene in Chicago shortly after Kris Bryant in 2015, with the Cubs moving aggressively to augment their roster with young talent. After initially slotting in at second base in deference to Starlin Castro, Russell took over at shortstop in August of that first season and the future appeared to be set. He blasted 21 homers and drove in 95 runs in 2016, making good on all that MVP talk.
But what remained hidden from the public eye was Russell’s off-field behavior, the fullness of which wouldn’t come to light until 2018. Talk of his indulgence in Chicago’s nightlife and his dalliances with women had rarely gotten louder than a whisper before, though the Cubs approached him ahead of the 2016 season with requests to tone things down. The organization wasn’t aware of just how reprehensible his actions were prior to the revelations by his ex-wife, Melisa Reidy, though the tantalizing combination of talent and desperation has a funny way of blinding people.
That isn’t just about the Cubs, either, as a large number of fans continue to look the other way when it comes to Russell’s declining production since that breakout sophomore campaign. Despite the big box score numbers in 2016, he put up a perfectly pedestrian 95 wRC+ that says he was 5% worse than an average hitter. He has failed to post higher than an 85 wRC+ in any of the three seasons since and has hit just 26 homers in his last 1,091 plate appearances.
Injuries have also played a role in the erosion of his game, as Russell has played through issues with his shoulder, foot, and thumb during that span. Beyond the struggles at the plate, the physical maladies turned him into an average shortstop with a balky arm that frequently resulted in poor throws to first. That eventually led to him losing the shortstop job to Javy Báez, who became the MVP candidate Russell was supposed to be.
Even if we discount the domestic abuse allegations that led to a 40-game suspension and the offensive game that has been stuck in neutral for the last three years, Russell has not proven himself to be a trustworthy ballplayer. He has admitted to not knowing the team’s signs and said publicly that he believed he’d made the right play on an ill-advised throw home that literally everyone else paying attention to the game knew should have gone to first. A wooden spring training press conference replete with regurgitated talking points wasn’t a good look, either.
Russell being on the roster for another season wouldn’t have been good from a PR perspective, but Monday’s decision by the Cubs is easily justifiable purely from a baseball sense. His defensive prowess was largely mitigated by the move back to second and, even if he remains fully healthy, his baseball IQ hasn’t proven to be as high as other elite defenders. Then there’s the bat, which has remained inconsistent and has failed to develop in any meaningful way.
Russell now becomes a free agent, which is probably best for him as well as the Cubs at this point. While I have no problem whatsoever admitting my bias in this situation, I do genuinely hope Russell is able to grow as a human being. As trite as it sounds, that may mean getting away from his current comfort zone and establishing a fresh start with a new organization. There are obviously a lot of moving parts and several other people involved in that, so it’s not as simple as saying a change of scenery will fix things.
All we know at this point is that Addison Russell has played his last game in a Cubs uniform, leaving behind him a complicated and messy legacy that may never be fully sorted out. He’ll still have the chance to live up to his massive potential, it’s just that now he’ll have to try to be somebody else’s Larkin.