Position by Position: Shortstop

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

Russell’s Grand Slam in Game 6 of the World Series (Sporting News)

When Addison Russell (presumably) makes the start for the Cubs on Opening Day at shortstop, he’ll be younger than Kris Bryant the day Bryant made his debut. Let that sink in. Kris has already won Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and a World Series. Russell still has two years to do all of that (although he’s already accomplished the last one)!

The reigning starting shortstop for the NL All-Star team does have some accomplishments of his own, however.

Russell, who was drafted 11th overall by the Oakland Athletics in 2012, quickly made a name for himself in the minors. In 2013, he was rated the #22 overall prospect by Baseball Prospectus, and in 2014, he made his way all the way to seventh on the list. Then, on July 5 of 2014, he was dealt with Billy McKinney and Dan Straily to the rebuilding Cubs for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija. He quickly made a name for himself, and got called up in 2015 at the age of 21.

In 2015, Russell slashed .242/.307/.389 in 142 games, and posted a 3.3 WAR. Not too shabby for a 21-year-old! There was definitely room for improvement, and improve he did. In 2016, he posted a slash line of .238/.321/.417, and a WAR of 4.3. He was the starting shortstop for the National League All-Star Game, and even received 5 points for the 2016 NL MVP, good for 19th.

With a career wRC+ of 93, and 66 defensive runs saved (44 at shortstop), Russell has been more of a defensive first shortstop in his first couple seasons. He’s a little below average with the bat (-9.5 batting runs above average), but makes up for it with his glove (28.7 fielding runs above average) at one of the hardest positions to play in baseball. His 95 RBI in 2016 may be a little deceptive, as hitting behind Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist definitely shows. If you believe in “clutch”, Addi has that too, putting up a .271/.342/.421 slash line in 244 high leverage situations in his career.

(Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Addi is one of four shortstops in MLB history to accumulate 5.0+ defensive WAR through age 22. The three others (Travis Jackson, Rogers Hornsby, Rabbit Maranville) all have a plaque in Cooperstown. That’s pretty impressive.

However, Russell is even more known for his postseason heroics in the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run. He joined Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb as the only players to drive in nine runs in the World Series before turning 23. He became the first player in Major League history with 6 RBI in a potential elimination World Series game (which he did in the first three innings of Game 6!). Those heroics even made him the sixth most Googled MLB player in 2016.

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So, what can Cubs fans expect from Addison Russell in 2017? Steamer projects him to slash .247/.321/.418, a 1 point improvement in the wRC+ category (going from 95 to 96). My personal biases expect a little more from him, because I’d expect his walk rate to improve with experience and his strikeout rate to drop. As for defense, I’d expect we’ll see more of the same excellence Addi brought in his rookie and sophomore seasons. He’s a permanent shortstop now, as opposed to his rookie season which he split between second and short. When looking at his spray charts from his first two seasons, you can definitely see his offensive improvements.

chart
(FanGraphs)
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(FanGraphs)

 

He’s been getting more hits to the left side, as he’s hitting it further into left field. However, a major source of doubles for Russell in 2015 came from hitting it into deep right-center, something he didn’t do much the following season.

It’s easy to be excited when talking about Addison Russell and his future, but what do the Cubs have behind him just in case?

Javier Baez, the Cubs’ super role player, looks to be lacking a starting spot in 2017. He’ll get the nod at short when Russell gets a day off, and if Russell is out for an extended period of time will likely take over the shortstop position. I bet a lot of teams would take Baez as a starting shortstop. Baez played 194 innings at short in 2016, and has played 494 innings there in his career, worth 1 DRS.

Kris Bryant, while he looks to be staying at third more in 2017, can handle shortstop if necessary for the Cubs. It’s obviously not his natural position, and he won’t be the defensive presence like Russell or Baez, but he could probably handle it. Bryant has played one inning at shortstop in his career, but did not handle any chances there.

Ben Zobrist, who looks to be the Cubs starting second baseman in 2017, can also man the shortstop position. He, like Bryant, likely wouldn’t be above average at the position, but Zo has surprisingly played 1766 innings there in his career, worth -10 DRS.

Addison Russell is the future of the Cubs organization at age 23, and it should be fun to see what he does for the North Siders in 2017.