When the Chicago Cubs trade Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics last week, they gained a nice return, adding shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney, right-handed pitcher Dan Straily, and a player to be named later. With the Cubs sitting at 39-52 entering play Friday, there was little reason for the club to hang onto Hammel, an impending free agent who wouldn’t be worth a qualifying offer, and Samardzija, who had another year of team-control but likely would have been very pricey in his final year of arbitration.
The Cubs added a 25-year-old starting pitcher in Straily who won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season. While Straily struggled a bit this season, he has proven that he can get major league talent out, logging 157.1 innings for the A’s in 2013 while finishing 4th in AL Rookie of the Year voting. McKinney has been moved aggressively, jumping to High-A as a 19-year-old this season, and he has shown some nice power (though the California League could be responsible for some of that) and on-base skills considering that he is 3.7 years younger than others in his league. Both could be very interesting pieces for the Cubs down the line, with Straily likely to pitch at some point after the All-Star break in Chicago.
However, neither of those players possess the talent and potential of Addison Russell. Russell, who was recently ranked 4th among my mid-season top 50 prospect list, was drafted 11th overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, has moved quickly through the minors, jumping to Double-A in 2014 at the age of 20 (4.6 years younger than others in his league). Jason Parks, of Baseball Prospectus, said this about the Cubs’ new shortstop:
Addison Russell has the most well-rounded profile at the shortstop position in the minors, with above-average chops in the field (including double-plus hands), and impact potential with both the hit and power tools. Russell has lost half a season to injury, but could challenge for the top spot in the minors with a strong second half.
Parks isn’t alone in the Russell love, though:
Russell has established himself as one of the best shortstop prospects in baseball and erased any concerns about his long-term future at the position. He has the hands, range and arm strength needed to make stunning plays in the field. Russell uses the whole field to hit, and his quick hands enable him to make consistent hard contact. He has surprising pop and could develop above-average power in the future. He isn’t a speedster, but he gets the most out of his solid speed, and he’s aggressive on the base paths.
Rich Wilson of Prospect361.com says:
Every time I’ve seen him play, he screams “Star”. He’s athletic with a great hit tool and bat speed that should produce 20 home runs. There’s also speed in his game and a 20/20 player at shortstop should be in the cards.
Russell’s trade to the Cubs has actually improved his prospect stock, as he’s more likely to stay at shortstop than future teammate Javier Baez and therefore ranked higher.
Beyond the Boxscore’s Daniel Schoenfeld recently focused on how the Cubs have utilized one-year deals the last two offseasons in acquiring middle-tier starting pitchers and moving them prior to the trade deadline:
They are incurring minimal risk to acquire high upside potential by focusing their efforts on finding players they consider undervalued by the market and signing them to fleeting deals at mid-range money. The Cubs thus take a relatively small gamble on assets that carry the upside of the prospect of being flipped in the three months before the deadline for far more value than they paid.
Indeed the Scott Feldman signing, which led to the deal with Baltimore last year for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, and Hammel signing have worked out nicely if the Cubs are going to look at players as stocks, but when are they going to stop acquiring the wrong kind of talent for their never-ending push to bring a title to the “Windy City”?
For how great Russell could be, the Cubs have a few things stopping him from being great for them:
1. Starlin Castro, just 24 years old, who is signed through 2019 (with a $15 million team option for 2020 that has a $1 million buyout). From 2015 through 2019, Castro is guaranteed $43 million and he is a shortstop. While he struggled in 2013, Castro is now an All-Star for a third season, all before the age of 25.
2. Darwin Barney has struggled offensively since his rookie season (2011), which still wasn’t all that great (.666 OPS). However, the 28-year-old is an elite defensive second baseman, and he is under team-control through the 2016 season. The Gold Glover is making $2.3 million this season and he could be a non-tender candidate, but considering his slick fielding capabilities, he isn’t completely without value in today’s offensively starved game.
3. Javier Baez was the Cubs “other” shortstop of the future. Also blocked by Castro, Baez didn’t really profile as a shortstop due to his anti-Barney efforts on defense. Baez had 44 errors in 2013, but he has just 11 in 80 games to-date in 2014. Still, Baez has power and bat speed that could make him an elite, All-Star level talent at another position. He was rumored to be going to third base, but…
4. Kris Bryant could be the long-term option for the Cubs at the hot corner. While his defense could be very Miguel Cabrera-like, he does have some athleticism and he deserves an opportunity to stick at third. Like Baez, he could fit in another position, such as an outfield corner, but if both Baez and Bryant are unable to handle playing third defensively…
5. Jorge Soler could be left without a spot to play long-term, as he isn’t really an option in center, where Albert Almora is the long-term answer, and he can’t play the infield. Soler, like Baez, has immeasurable raw power, capable of monstrous offensive production. He profiles as a future All-Star in right field, but he just needs to stay on the field in order to reach that potential.
6. Somewhere along the way, Arismendy Alcantara, a second baseman who recently moved to the outfield in Triple-A, will also need to find a spot to play for Chicago. He could replace Barney as early as this year, considering his recent promotion, which would make a position change for one of the other shortstops that much more difficult or confusing.
While the Cubs have so many options offensively for their potential future dominance, including first baseman Anthony Rizzo (signed through 2019 with team options for 2020 and 2021), they really do not have very many options to put on the mound. After trading two arms without gaining an elite pitching prospect back, Chicago is left with a group of incredibly gifted offensive prospects in an era where pitching and strikeouts are dominating.
Certainly, things could swing the other way for the Cubs and they could dominate opposing pitchers and outscore their competition, but they will still need a five-man rotation to give them some innings – the game won’t change that dramatically.
The cost saving methods of avoiding large contracts, drafting wisely, and spending internationally over the last several seasons could lead to the Cubs adding to their payroll by signing David Price, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, or other options who currently have deals set to expire after the 2015 season. However, there comes a time when the Cubs will need to develop their own pitching prospects or make deals that includes some of their gluttony of offensive talent to make it happen.
As nice as it was to add Addison Russell to the list of Bryant, Baez, Alcantara, Almora, and Soler, the Cubs needed pitching depth to try stockpile their system for a run in the future. There are only so many players who are like stocks. With more pieces for their future than the diamond can hold, they could be losing leverage in future deals, as clubs will know that they need to deal a “shortstop of the future”. If ownership and management are using the stock market logic, they have to understand risk, and adding Russell to the mix may not have been the smartest of moves for the pitching barren Chicago system.