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Periodically through the Spring Training season, I’m going to examine current news and events, action on the field and off, ADP and fantasy drafting trends. We’re calling it Grapefruit Juice, with the full understanding that the Cactus Juice world will also get its say. For the initial Juice, we start in Arizona, talking about Chicago’s super sophomore in the middle infield, the rather buzzy Addison Russell.
Let’s establish up front, I don’t have anything against the Chicago Cubs. Quite the contrary, in fact.
I grew up watching them on glorious WGN cable in the 80s, hoping for as many afternoon games as possible. I agree with the general consensus that Joe Maddon is the best manager in baseball, Theo Epstein is a brilliant executive, and the Cubs are on the short list of 2016 World Series favorites.
I pitched Jake Arrieta aggressively last year and will do so again this spring. Anthony Rizzo was my biggest ticket item in the recently-completed Puppet Show auction. I’ve fallen for Kris Bryant, like most rotoheads. There’s so much talent, and fun, on this roster.
That all said, there is another side of things from the fake baseball perspective. I’ve already stated my disdain for Kyle Schwarber’s expectant ADP. And in this piece, I’m going to throw a little cold water on Addison Russell, Chicago’s emerging shortstop.
The scouting mavens have been drooling over Russell for several years now. He was a consensus Top 5 overall prospect on the primary ranking boards entering last season (Baseball America had him third, Baseball Prospectus second) and he acquitted himself well as a 21-year-old rookie second baseman in the majors. The Cubs were so eager to get Russell settled in at his natural shortstop position, they traded Starlin Castro — yesterday’s hotshot shortstop — to the Yankees in December, almost a giveaway.
Russell already has a Spring Training home run, clouted in Friday’s win over the Angels, and he batted sixth in his debut. But keep in mind Russell is probably going to slot ninth when the season opens, and it might be hard for him to move out of that spot. And the difference between a leadoff spot and a No. 9 ticket is costly — last year we saw a gap of 138 plate appearances from the top of Chicago’s order to the bottom.
Consider the expected Chicago lineup on Opening Day. Tell me who you could see batting ninth if Russell is to get a better spot down the road.
Fowler and Zobrist are on-base machines and established veterans. The Rizzo-Bryant duo is a natural 3-4, and Heyward a nice fit in the No. 5 slot, keeping handedness balance. Schwarber’s power can’t be dropped too far in the lineup, or Jorge Soler, when he plays. And if you believe in the idea of paying dues (or keeping pressure off an inexperienced player), keep in mind Russell is the youngest regular on the club.
I wouldn't say the Yahoo ADP market has flipped for Russell, but his ADP of 162 is pricing in some expected improvement. Peruse some of the names just in front of Russell on the middle-infield board — Kolten Wong, Jhonny Peralta, Ian Desmond, Daniel Murphy. Brandon Crawford, coming off a 21-homer, 81-RBI season, costs about the same as Russell. It sounds like the early returns are a little pricier than I’d like.
Said another way, Russell is a fun pick entering 2016 — and I try to be careful with the expectant tags that come with buzzy but unproven players.
Although Russell hit a respectable 13 homers as a rookie, his .242/.307/.389 slash was nothing special (take note that ordinary players like Freddy Galvis, Didi Gregorius, Adeiny Hechavarria and Cesar Hernandez outearned Russell on the Baseball Monster value grid). He struck out 149 times in 142 games, stole a modest four bases on seven attempts. He’s certainly expected to be a plus bat at some point in the majors, but accept a major chunk of his prospect pedigree is tied to his defense. And glove work doesn’t matter all that much in our roto universe, so long as a player is credible enough to mark his territory on the field.
The pro-Russell pundits will mention his dual eligibility (second and shortstop, always fun), his nifty profile in the minors, and the idea that talented young players often will improve quickly, at tender ages. Bryant certainly crushed it in Chicago last year, and Schwarber was a blast in the second half. Maybe someone in the top part of the order will slump or get hurt. There’s no guarantee Russell is forced to bat at the bottom of this lineup all year, and heck, it’s going to be a deep lineup anyway.
Nonetheless, when I’m constructing my mixed-league roster plans, I sure want as many high-order players as I can get. And it seems like a little too much improvement is being expected from Russell right away. I’m not swearing off Russell as we get ready for the teeth of draft season, but i’m going to let the price come to me. And if I don’t end up landing him, so it goes. There’s a lot of depth on that middle infield board, don’t you think?
I welcome your intelligent disagreement, as always. Throw your tomatoes at me (or better yet, throw them into a deep dish Chicago pie). Let’s settle this thing in the comments.