Maddon Says Where Russell Plays ‘Still a Discussion We Have to Have’

Javy Báez finished second in the NL MVP race last season and he’s putting up markedly better offensive numbers while playing a more premium defensive position in 2019. But he could well find himself moved over to second base when Addison Russell returns, which could come as soon as next Friday when the Cubs face the Cardinals at Wrigley.

Activating Russell at the immediate conclusion of his 40-game domestic violence suspension ends is one thing, but installing him as the everyday shortstop is quite another. Or perhaps it’s not, since his bat alone hasn’t proven itself worthy of a roster spot. If Russell is to be added to the 25-man roster, it’s because the Cubs believe his elite glove will improve them to a significant degree.

That’s fine in a vacuum, but the complexities of the situation make it anything but binary. Not only is there valid doubt about whether Russell is actually a better shortstop than Báez, but adding Russell means taking playing time away from one of several other capable players. It also makes the team less likable, which should be an important consideration of ownership even if it doesn’t factor in the baseball decision.

One would think the Cubs have long had a plan in place for how they were going to handle Russell’s return, at whatever point that might come. From the sounds of it, though, they’ve simply kicked the can down the road a ways.

“That’s still a discussion we have to have,” Joe Maddon said after Javy’s three-run homer had keyed a Cubs victory. “We got to wait and see how well Addison does. I don’t want to make any jump-the-gun kind of thing without discussing in detail with the players themselves.”

Russell went 1-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs Wednesday night and he’ll have several more chances to show he’s ready over the next week. But is there realistically anything he can do to prove himself worthy of supplanting Báez?

After all, Maddon praised El Mago as one of the best shortstops in the game just a few months ago.

“Think about it — [Javy] might be the best overall shortstop in the league right now, if you want to grade it all out with his offense and defense and baserunning,” Maddon said toward the end of last season. “American League, there’s some competition on that side. Overall, he’s a top three, top five shortstop in all of baseball right now, even though he hasn’t played there a whole lot.”

The manager may be walking that back of late by tossing in some qualifiers when speaking about Javy’s improvements.

“Not many guys can do what he does,” Maddon said, per Patrick Mooney of The Athletic. “The arm strength, the range, the hands, if you’re a scout, sit there and watch this guy play, and then write down what you just saw. My God, I mean, it’s like a novella. You’re going to write all kinds of things in there. You’re going to write some negative stuff, too, about different things that you think are going to get better over time, which it has.

“Think about four years, five years now – a lot of stuff has really improved. Primarily, it’s just the mental mistakes that have really come down. I’ve always been good with physical mistakes. I’d say the primary difference between ’15 and now is fewer mental mistakes, because back then he was a mental mistake waiting to happen, just based on pure energy and youth. But he’s learned to control that a bit.”

It’s possible that I’m simply reading too much into what Maddon is saying here, but he seems to be tempering that previous effusiveness . While I’m open to the idea that my interpretation is being guided by bias, saying that a scout would write “some negative stuff” or tacking that “a bit” to Javy’s control over his mental errors strikes me as being a McGuffin.

In other words, Maddon may be setting up the Cubs’ impending decision, one they may have already made. If Báez is the best shortstop in the league, it’d make the decision to replace him quite curious. If, however, he’s still got room to improve, the move can be more easily justified. Of course, that justification requires a belief that Russell is a better shortstop.

The Cubs may choose to option Russell to Iowa once his suspension ends, either as a way for him to further prove himself or because they don’t want to reconfigure a roster that has looked quite good over the last two weeks. They may also activate the shortstop as a bench player and let him pick up time as a defensive replacement and platoon option.

Neither of those seems particularly likely, with the latter standing out as downright foolish. Then again, it’s not quite as foolish as adding Russell back to the roster as the everyday shortstop immediately after his suspension ends. The Cubs still have a week to announce their plans, though, and I’d wager they’ll wait as long as possible to do so.

Ed. note: Maddon said prior to Thursday’s game that Russell will probably play other positions, though he’s probably not capable of playing anything other than middle infield. You don’t want that arm at third base and the outfield surely isn’t in play.

Theo Epstein also acknowledged the possibility of optioning Russell to Iowa once his suspension ends, saying they’re still just taking it day by day.

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