While it’s not a majority opinion in any sense, there are definitely those who believe that the long-term future of the Chicago Cubs at shortstop lies in the hands of Javier Baez, rather than Addison Russell. There is, frankly, a legitimate element of this that stems from Russell’s reported issues away from the field, but it’s also likely more about the skill set that Baez possesses, rather than an indictment of Russell’s. Nonetheless, after an offseason in which there were whispers of the Cubs moving positional depth in order to upgrade pitching, Russell is here to stay for the foreseeable future, leaving the position in his hands.
It hasn’t exactly erupted into a full-scale debate, but there are those who favor a potential trade of Russell, or at least a move to second base with Baez supplanting Russell at short. It’s probably no surprise that this debate has gained some steam, as Baez’s star continues to rise and Russell comes off of a down year in which defensive metrics didn’t favor him, as he battled some health problems and off-field allegations.
Russell finished the 2017 season with a FRAA of only 3.4, which represented a decrease from each of the two previous years. He went for a 4.4 figure in 2015 (a season in which he logged more innings at second base than at short) and a 3.6 mark in 2016. The defensive side, in addition to some woes at the plate, was certainly a factor in his WARP falling from 3.8 in 2016 to only 1.7 last year. FanGraphs had his UZR at 4.4, which was down a full 11 points from the 15.4 mark he had turned in in 2016. This was a sharp fall that received a lot of negative attention, even though Baez didn’t really have the defensive output to supplant him there, with an overall FRAA of -7.4 and a -0.9 UZR per 150 at shortstop.
Those who favor moving on from Russell at the position tend to point to his issues that exist primarily on the throwing side of his defensive game. Russell had an even dozen errors last season at shortstop, only two fewer than the previous year when he appeared in 47 more games. Of those errors, 10 were of the throwing variety. Now it’s important to note that Russell had some arm issues that limited him at the plate, as well as in the field. If he was able to strengthen the shoulder, as has been indicated, many of those throwing issues could be mitigated.
Additionally, focusing on Russell’s supposed shortcomings in the field largely ignores his successes with the glove. Despite the throwing miscues, FanGraphs still had Russell at 15 Defensive Runs Saved in 2017, the second-highest total among shortstops with at least 800 innings. That gives him 34 for the last two years combined. His Revised Zone Rating, which essentially measures the number of balls hit into his zone that he converts into outs, came in at .818, the third-highest among the 23 shortstops on the list. It’s a less-utilized category than most defensive metrics, but it does paint a favorable picture of him nonetheless. Both his FRAA and his UZR factored into the top ten among that group.
If anything, looking at Addison Russell’s total body of work in the field actually strengthens his argument over Javy Baez at the position. While Baez does a lot of things that are unquantifiable or just downright unbelievable, there’s a tendency for erraticism on his part, especially on the throwing side from shortstop. Russell had the same issues with his arm last year, but if his shoulder is as strengthened as it is rumored to be, that could be an easy fix for a player that has made his mark with his defense more so than anything else.
As appealing as moving Russell might sound for some, it’s extremely difficult to justify any sort of move given the likely defensive repercussions that would result. Despite a down year in a number of ways, Addison Russell still represents one of the best shortstops in baseball when it comes to matters of the glove. If his arm comes back around, then the Cubs’ infield could very well be in as good a shape as they were in 2016. Now if we could only do something about his bat.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki–USA Today Sports