There’s a lot of excitement about the Cubs’ acquiring toolsy shortstop Addison Russell, who is at or near the top of a couple of major prospect lists; and while I’m excited along with everybody else, it still sticks in my mind that, not very long ago in 2012, when the new front office conducted its first June player draft on behalf of the Cubs, we drafted sixth, while Oakland took Russell at #11. We could have just picked Russell and not had to trade for him. Of course, we would have lost Almora to another team in that scenario. In effect, then, we traded Samardzija for Almora. Announced in that way, the deal would not have been as exciting.
I have to wonder whether the Cubs weren’t motivated to make the deal for Russell by the fact that they really liked him in 2012 but didn’t want to undercut Starlin Castro by selecting a shortstop as the first pick agreed upon by the new brain trust. Castro, after all, was the only player in the organization (with the possible exception of Samardzija) whom they considered a keeper. Russell and Almora were both drafted out of high school, and both hit well in their first full seasons in 2013, but Russell did it at A+, a level higher than Almora, and he also notched 17 homers and 21 SBs. Almora is not a base stealer; and while the Cubs believe he will develop more power as he matures, the same could be said for a kid who hit seventeen dingers in high-A at age nineteen.
In any event, if my hunch is correct that they preferred Russell on the day that they claimed Almora, the Cubs’ troika of Theo, Jed and Jason must have been kicking themselves over the past year, and must really have felt like putting a match to a few fireworks when they sealed the Samardzija-Russell deal on July fourth.
As to any worry about undermining Castro, they likely stopped caring about that when Javier Baez put up 16 homers and 24 SBs in 2012 at nineteen, and 37 HRs (with 20 SBs) in the following season at two levels including double A, without being asked to play an inning at second or third. Nor has Baez played anywhere but short this year at AAA. Even before the recent trade, the Cubs had two official shortstops of the future, with Baez’s future likely to win out if for no other reason than that he is a more instinctive defender. Aside from his glove, Baez’s power is such that fans, I among them, will pay to see him swing and miss. Fresh off his third all-star game appearance, Castro will bring a huge haul of pitching that might turn a group of upstart Cubs into contenders next year.
Throwing Russell into the mix means that they can trade Castro over the winter without having to worry much about Baez failing his first test in the majors. Since Baez is a Wilken pick with more swing-and-miss (or less “control of the strike zone,” as Jason McLeod likes to say) than they prefer, they may not quite trust him with a position that Castro would have handled satisfactorily for a decade. Russell is now insurance against a wrong decision about which shortstop-of-the-future to keep and which to shed. Assuming that Baez and Russell both fulfill their promise, a decision between those two shortstops can at least be deferred for a year or two. Believing as he does in the fungibility of baseball talent, Theo tends to avoid moving shortstops around to other positions, since they lose value in the shift, and as a result the value of the team’s total assets shrinks.
Today, in the aftermath of Samardzija-Russell, the players who emerge as the “keepers” from the group that was inherited by the new regime in late 2011 are likely to be Baez and Alcantara.