The Complicated Legacy of Addison Russell
Addison Russell is no longer a Chicago Cub. The team declined to tender him a contract, so he is now a free agent. As Theo Epstein put it "simply because the role we expected him to play for the 2020 Cubs was inconsistent with how he would be treated in the salary arbitration process." He was likely going to make 5 million, a lot for someone who couldn't even stay in MLB level last year.
Addison Russell was once a blue-chip prospect. Coming over in the Jeff Samardzija trade in July 2014, he was supposed to be a key cog for the team. In Tom Verducci's bestselling book "The Cubs Way", this trade was talked about as one of the pillars of success, on par with the Lester signing, Rizzo trade, and Arrieta trade. He was to be an anchor of the middle infield for years to come.
Addison Russell's career started off well at age 21. Russell was called up April 21 and spent the rest of the year in the big leagues. He put up reasonable numbers in 2015, a .696 OPS overall that was good for a 91 OPS+. He struck out way too much but showed a little pop with 29 doubles and 13 home runs. His glove was steady and solid, and he looked like a reliable big league contributor.
Then in 2016, Addy established himself as a clutch hitter, racking up 95 RBIs. His slash line was .238/.321/.417 overall, good for a 94 OPS+. His glove got better, with 19 rDRS and a stable .975 fielding percentage.
The highlight of the year was two clutch NLCS home runs that helped ice the Dodgers. Off the field, he married his longtime girlfriend, Melisa Reidy. Quite the year!
2017 was a disappointment. He was hurt, only playing in 101 games. His rDRS dropped, as did the fielding percentage. His OPS was .722, down slightly from the year before. But he got some benefit of the doubt because when you are hurt, it's hard to perform. June of that year, he was accused of domestic violence, and his wife filed for divorce.
2018 was another step back. His OPS plummeted to a career-worst .657/ 76 OPS+ overall. Defensive metrics dropped across the board. He was then suspended September 19th, and done for the year. He also had a 3rd child with a new girlfriend, at just age 24.
2019 was a disaster, beginning with a 29 game suspension. Even when eligible to return, he was left in the minors as the Cubs would not really need him at that point. He eventually came back on May 8th, however combined with poor performance and missing signs, Addy was sent back to the minors in July. His stats rebounded slightly but were still overwhelmingly disappointing for someone who showed such promise in years 1 and 2.
Early on, I had high hopes for Addison Russell. With his great glove, he never had to be a fantastic hitter to have a lot of value. But his offensive upside was there. I often compared him to the great Barry Larkin. Here's what those stats look like side by side:
Russell came up a year younger than Larkin. He also looked a lot better offensively than Larkin did by year 2. Russell didn't have the same speed or on-base skills as Larkin, but the power numbers were a little bit better.
These were stats I used to hope for the future. A great fielding shortstop with 30 home run potential should be an annual all-star candidate. Larkin had a 162 game average of .295/.371/.444, 15 HRs and 71 RBI. Addy might never have become a middle of the order hitter, but should be a dangerous lower-order threat. Larkin became an annual all-star at year 3 and was an annual MVP candidate from years 5-11. I was licking at the chops for Russell to have a similar career arc. Russell did finish 19th in MVP voting in 2016, a major achievement for how loaded the field was that year.
Unfortunately, 2016 was the peak. There were injuries and questionable personal life choices. His stats bottomed out as he went through severe slumps.
Then there is the domestic violence issue. I'm not sure how else to describe it as anything other than completely disappointing. You never want the player getting suspended for such a heinous act to be on your team. It's embarrassing to think that you rooted for such a person. It happened and he served his time. Part of me was hoping he'd grow from such a big failure, and use it as motivation to turn his life and career around.
Sadly, we saw the opposite. 2019 was his second-worst year in professional baseball. Then somehow he forgets signs and mumbles his way through apologies. Sometimes our failures are springboards to bigger and better things, but other times they unravel us and cause us to spin. After overcoming the impossible task of winning a World Series, I had higher hopes for Addison Russell.
I have this Chicago Tribune headline photo framed in my house. It's one of the most famous images of the champions. Note how Addison is front and center. Somehow, he found a way to tarnish his legacy from the highest of highs captured here. I thought it would always represent something happy. But it's taken on more meaning now. It's a warning to all you little leaguers out there, to maintain high standards of character.
Addison: Will play again at the big league level. Perhaps some rebuilding team with nothing to lose brings him on in hopes that a fresh start can reclaim his potential. He's only 26, after all. Perhaps Oakland brings him back. Or Miami tries to use him as a dice roll.
Cubs: There's a bigger gap at middle infield. The Cubs need a solid starter at second base. Addison was just not that guy anymore. Additionally, if Javy Baez goes down, the depth is very thin. Not that you can just replace an MVP level middle infielder, but I think a quality backup is in order. One of Javy's initial strengths was being shifted around the diamond, and it's tough to not have that anymore.
As Pronk noted, Addison Russell was a pillar as framed to tell a story in the Verducci book “A Cubs Way”. And after I saw the tweet on December 2, 2019, that he was no longer a Cub, the first thing I did to remember Addison was to go back to that book and read the Addison Russell section.
I think I went back to that book in a way to find some answers, some hints, maybe even in my mind, I wanted to rewrite history a little. I still remember the day I originally found out about Addison Russell’s domestic violence allegations. My friend and I had tickets to a game that day, it was the Ben Zobrist bobblehead day. We got there extra early as I tend to do on bobblehead days. So, we had a lot of time to sit in our seats and stare out at the field and think. I can’t remember if it was me or my friend that finally broke the ice about the Addison subject. But we both had the same reaction, in that we really didn’t know how to react. We were shocked. Sad. Uncomfortable. It suddenly felt a little emptier in the Cubs portion of our hearts.
I don’t want to rewrite my own fandom and say that I never liked the guy. In fact I once left work early to go to an autograph signing of his at a Wrigleyville bar. I have an Addison Russell gnome that I found on eBay in 2016. It doesn’t look anything like him, but this was 2016, I was Cubs crazy and I wanted a little piece of everyone on the team. Maybe that’s why it hurt so much to hear the news. I gave him a little piece of me in return back then.
So what did Verducci have to say about Addison Russell?
“The hair on Epstein’s arm nearly stood on end”, notes Verducci after Billy Beane reveals that Addison Russell was a possibility in the Samardzija trade. Theo Epstein was excited because he’d originally scouted Russell in the 2012 draft. (Ultimately they drafted Albert Almora instead).
“In reviewing their original reports on Russell, the Cubs had no questions about his character.”
“Epstein had obtained the four high-impact, high-character everyday players he graded as essential to fielding a championship team”.
No easy answers from Verducci. Just a bunch of what-ifs…what if Toronto hadn’t pulled out of wanting to trade for Samardzija? What if Javier Baez hadn’t struggled in the 2015 Spring Training? What if Addison Russell never hit his wife?
Would I be writing this blog post and waxing poetic about Addison Russell’s greatest hits and not get a cringe and eyeroll response to that choice of words? Because Addison Russell was an RBI machine. He did have some great timely BASEBALL hits. In 2016 he lead MLB with 9 bases-loaded hits. HECK, HE HIT A GRAND SLAM IN GAME 6 OF THE WORLD SERIES!!!!
As Pronk pointed out above and Staci pointed out here, Addison Russell is bad at baseball. So maybe this was the inevitable end anyways. Theo Epstein isn’t really a god. One of his pillars was bound to crumble. I guess I just hope that Addison is a good teammate and a good father and a just a good person going forward. Good luck, Addison.
I think I've said enough at this point about Addison's baseball career. What Pronk and Brooke have said are completely true--we all dreamed on Russell before his off-field actions came to light and our perceptions of him were completely shattered. Whether his personal demons impacted his baseball development or this is who he would've become as a player is irrelevant at this point--if this was his trajectory without the DV allegations, the entire fan base would've been fine with his non-tender at his projected 2020 salary levels, and we all would've moved on.
I also think I should add something personal here--I was a victim of the same type of emotional abuse in my early 20's that Russell admittedly subjected Melisa Reidy to during their marriage. When it happens to you, oftentimes you keep quiet for fear of the backlash you might get (and of course, that no one will believe you anyway), the man gets to move on with his life and you get to live with the emotional scars long past the relationship's expiration date. It's not an "unfortunate incident," a "mistake," or any of the other descriptors ascribed to what happened with Russell--it's an extreme character flaw. A mental health issue. And it's not something you can just say, "OOPS!" about and then think the person will just turn around and be different.
A lot of women like me are baseball fans, and showing us that MLB cares about character over baseball talent matters. I also believe men like Russell can change if they truly want to, but it's not a overnight process, and maybe not something that can be done under a spotlight while millions of people adore him and tell him how great he is. Like Brooke, I hope he gets it together for his children and those around him.