A suspended player is eligible to begin a rehab assignment one week prior to the conclusion of his suspension, which is why Addison Russell is joining the Iowa Cubs Wednesday. He can officially be activated to the Cubs’ 25-man roster as soon as May 3, when they return from a western swing to face the Cardinals at Wrigley.
An immediate activation seems a bit strange for several reasons, not the least of which is that other middle infielders are currently playing very well. The Cubs have also said throughout this entire debacle that Russell’s return is “conditional,” though they’ve never been explicit about what that means other than saying that the shortstop has been “compliant.”
Were I inclined to parse semantics, I’d say that particular word conjures thoughts of someone who’s going along to get along or who’s acquiescing rather than making proactive changes. But that’s surely just me being pedantic and probably isn’t indicative of anything other than Russell very literally complying with the rules of his prescribed program.
Whatever the source of his motivation, Russell’s return to the active roster is certain to set off a PR crap-storm. Inevitable as that reality is, it can still be postponed even if the Cubs have already determined that it can’t be avoided altogether. Because Russell has three minor league options remaining, the Cubs could simply keep him in Iowa as he rounds back into baseball shape. But earlier rhetoric and a recent article seem to indicate the organization will just rip the band-aid off.
In a piece for USA Today that reads more like a favor to Scott Boras, who represents Russell, or the Cubs, Bob Nightengale painted a picture of a contrite ballplayer who’s rediscovered the joy of the game during his banishment. While that’s certainly possible, the column’s tone didn’t come across as all that dissimilar to Russell’s overtly scripted press conference back in February.
Amid the heavy-handed redemption narrative that invoked Tiger Woods’ recent Masters win was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it note that seems to reveal Russell’s hasty return.
Russell will be eligible to play his first major-league game on May 3, when the Cubs face the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. It’ll be Russell’s first major-league appearance since Sept. 19, 2018.
In case you’re not up on your contractions, “it’ll” is a mashup of “it” and “will,” which is not exactly speculative. Perhaps this is merely a matter of word choice and not at all indicative of a decision that has already been made. Or it could just be that Nightengale is taking thing for granted and making assumptions, though you’d think he’d have hedged any actual guesswork with something like, “When Russell returns…”
If the Cubs indeed plan to have Russell in uniform on May 3, I have to say I don’t understand what in the hell they’re thinking. And I’m only talking about the baseball side of things, though that’s certainly not the only reason for the Cubs to take their time.
While the issues of domestic violence that led to Russell’s suspension have been and should continue to be discussed (yes, even if he’s “served his time”), I want to focus instead only on what happens between the lines. I do that not to minimize or avoid the scourge of DV, but because the Cubs have already made it clear that they’re bringing Russell back. As such, the organization has stated plainly that it has chosen to accept the consequences of Russell’s continued employment in Chicago.
So that brings us back around to the baseball side of things, where Russell’s career .704 OPS and 88 wRC+ — league averages since 2015 are .735 and 97 — doesn’t outweigh what would be, at best, a modest defensive upgrade at short. Russell supplanting Javy Báez then means Javy displacing Ben Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, and David Bote to some extent.
Unless the Cubs intend to demote Bote, who was just extended and boasts an .835 OPS with a 124 wRC+, adding Russell means subtracting an outfielder. No big loss there, to be sure, but the roster balance tips a little too heavily toward the infield at that point. And if Russell falters, what then? He could be sent back down, but that’s just fishing the band-aid out of the trash and trying to slap it back in place.
Then there’s the notion that it might be in everyone’s best interest for Russell to spend a little more time acclimating to the game again. There’ll be significantly more pressure and competition in the Pacific Coast League than the Arizona Rookie League, but not even the most raucous evening in Des Moines can match Chicago.
And it may take more than a week to prep for that leap since, by Russell’s own admission, the time away from the spotlight has done him well.
“I feel like overcoming this challenge has made me much more self-aware,’’ Russell told Nightengale. “It has taught me to slow things down, reflect, and be a better person. It’s given me a lot of insight on what kind of person I am, and what my goals are moving forward. I can sit back and play baseball, and still reflect and be thankful for the life I live.”
Even as someone who has frequently chided Russell for being disingenuous, I have no reason to doubt the general veracity of those statements. It makes sense that a quieter lifestyle in a more controlled environment would allow for greater…compliance. But even if his growth over the last few months is legitimate, that doesn’t mean he should just be thrown right back into the fishbowl of Chicago, along with all of its attendant pressures and temptations, as soon as possible.
Whether it’s because they truly want to be part of the solution or they simply chose to rehabilitate Russell’s image in order to improve his trade value, the Cubs have a decision to make here in the next week. Or maybe they just need to announce the decision they’ve already made. Either way, they’re going to have to own the fallout rather than just paying it lip service.
I just think they might want to consider putting that purchase on a layaway plan rather than choosing to own it now.