The numbers tell us Addison Russell is one of the best shortstops in baseball. The “Holy sh—!”s tell us Javy Baez is one of the most exciting players in baseball. That has naturally led to some debate on who’s best suited for either side of second base, a conversation that has gained a little steam this offseason amid the dearth of actual news. Seriously, not since Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich has a fanbase been more concerned with players swapping positions.
Russell resumed his regular spot at the end of last season even after missing several weeks with a bum wheel and Joe Maddon was clear about his players’ roles at the time. And while Theo Epstein was adamant that the team agreed having Russell at short and Baez at second was the best option, he didn’t completely dismiss the idea of a switch when he addressed the media during his postmortem presser.
“There’s not one person in the organization who’s pounding the table to make the switch, or at least who will voice that opinion,” Epstein admitted. “But there’s also no one in the organization who isn’t sort of like thrilled when Javy is at shortstop and intrigued by what he could do on an everyday basis.”
It’d be a stretch to say he was venturing into ambiguity, but the Cubs’ baseball boss kind of opened the door just a crack right after he’d seemingly slammed it shut. He then reiterated those sentiments.
“So unless someone does stand up and not only pound the table, but make a really convincing case, that’s the way it’s going to be,” Epstein said. “But we don’t believe in anything hard and fast around here. And we’ll continue to evaluate it, continue to have those fun discussions about it, and we’ll see where it leads going forward.”
Maybe that sliver of doubt wriggled its way into Bruce Levine’s consciousness like a bit of popcorn kernel that you can feel with your tongue but can’t seem to pry free. He had mentioned on his Saturday morning radio show that a swap could be in the works at some point and he touched on it briefly in an appearance with Bernstein and Goff (Thursday, 1/4; hour 2; 48:15 mark) that was headlined by talk about the Cubs’ pursuit of a starter/leadoff hitter combo.
“I think (Russell’s) best position moving forward is second base,” Levine said. “If he stays with the team, I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear the possibility of a switch between shortstop and second base for Baez and Russell.”
Now, we need to make some important distinctions here, because I saw a few things circulating on Twitter and I want to make sure we’re very clear. The word “if” is used twice and Levine further qualifies things with “wouldn’t be surprised.” So this isn’t a matter of him making some kind of declaration about what the Cubs are planning to do, he’s just saying that the possibility exists. That’s really not much different from what Epstein explained.
And let me say again what I’ve stated here and elsewhere many times in the past, which is that I firmly believe Russell is the superior shortstop. In fact, I don’t think the comparison between him and Baez is particularly close in that regard. Because I’m sure he’s reading this with a furrowed brow beaded with sweat born of anxiety, I feel obligated to mention that our Brendan Miller adamantly agrees with me and has provided convincing numbers to back it up.
But — and it’s a big but, but I like big buts and I cannot lie — just for gits and shiggles, let’s pull on this string and talk for a moment about what might precipitate such a change with Russell and Baez. In addition to giving Brendan fits, I think it’s something at least worth exploring a little bit as we sit here with little else of note to consume our baseball-starved minds.
The first thing I’d like to do is dispense with the idea that a change in positions would come as the result of Baez being viewed as the best shortstop on the roster. That isn’t the case now and it doesn’t figure to be so anytime soon. Russell is only going to be 24 later in January and he’s about 13 months younger than Baez, so it’s not like anyone’s worried about Father Time slashing his tires tomorrow or something like that.
What is possible, though, is that the cumulative effects of Russell’s injuries grind him down to the extent that a move is necessary. While that would be highly disappointing to say the least, such a scenario is not at all far-fetched. Again, though, we’re likely talking about something that would take place years down the road. Russell’s youth allows him to play through and around many maladies, as we saw with both shoulder and foot ailments in 2017.
Should something do him in, the shoulder seems like the most likely culprit, particularly if chronic issues rob him of the arm strength necessary to make throws from the hole after a diving stop. Not known for the accuracy of his arm, a precipitous drop in the velocity of his throws might necessitate a move. Though foot problems could rob him of his range and cat-quick reflexes, it doesn’t seem as though the soft tissue troubles from last season will persist.
One other scenario, and it’s again unlikely, is that Russell outgrows the position. Levine talked about the shortstop being “built like a house” and having “shoulders like a linebacker,” which is very true. His frame could comfortably support quite a bit more than his current walking-around weight of two bills, though bulking up would likely strip some of the grease off of those lightning-fast jumps.
Such a situation would probably not be causal, but would be the result of a move to second base. What I mean is that Russell wouldn’t just get all buff and then suddenly find himself with Derek Jeter’s range and Chuck Knoblauch’s arm. If, however, some other catalyst pushed him to the other side of the diamond, Russell might see fit to go all Bret Boone and become more of a masher.
I’m sure there are some among you who truly believe that Javy really is the better shortstop and you are more than happy to pound the table for him. I mean, you’re absolutely wrong, but it’d be pretty boring around here if we all felt the same way. Thing is, until such time as someone in the Cubs organization starts pounding on that table and offers a compelling argument for a change, the people whose assessments matter all feel that Russell is the best fit at short.
So while there does exist a possibility that we could see a swap of the Cubs’ middle infielders, it would only come as the result of other developments. The most likely of those is the diminution of Addison Russell’s defensive prowess via injury or the general erosion of health, though that’s something that probably only happens over a period of years.
Wow, I wrote a lot more about that than I’d anticipated. Do either of you who made it this far think there’s any possibility of this happening? Is Levine talking out of school and just running with something that he’s fixated on or is there real merit to the idea he’s espousing? Maybe there’s some gray area in there. Have at it, the comments section is there for a reason.