Cubs Don’t Believe Addison Russell’s Return Will Be Distraction

Update: Theo Epstein confirmed prior to Tuesday’s game in Seattle that the Cubs will option Addison Russell to Iowa on Friday. It was framed as a baseball decision, though Epstein did say Russell needs to continue working on his personal life off the field as well. No timeline was given for a call-up.

Though Theo Epstein said recently that nothing has been decided in terms of Addison Russell‘s return to the Cubs, all indications to this point have been that he’ll be back on Friday. The infielder has been in Iowa to rehab at Triple-A during the final week of his 40-game domestic violence suspension, during which time Javy Báez has further establish himself as a star.

Because Russell still has minor league options available, the Cubs could keep him in Iowa and postpone the inevitable media firestorm that will follow his activation. Or they could just board up the windows and brace for the bad weather that has resulted from Russell’s despicable behavior and the club’s choice to keep him around.

But it’s not just a matter of public relations and emotion, since the baseball aspect of any decision to call Russell up looms large as well.

“Javy is right at the center of every good thing that we do,” Epstein recently told 670 The Score. “Risking interrupting that would be a questionable move. That is not the only factor.”

Beyond El Mago, the Cubs have a whole cadre of middle infielders worthy of significant playing time. Even if you consider Ben Zobrist primarily an outfielder, the duo of David Bote and Daniel Descalso has proven quite dynamic in the early going. How valuable it is to add a below-average hitter whose plus glove will be largely stifled by his reduced role?

That role isn’t set yet, at least not publicly, but Russell getting a start at second base for the I-Cubs Monday evening suggests he won’t supplant Javy. Can you imagine the blow-back from that decision? Not only would fans question it, but you know the media would be hitting up Cubs players to find out their thoughts.

Which leads us to the idea of Russell’s general presence as a distraction. We’ve already seen how the whole “urgency” narrative got out of hand at the start of the season, and the general player response to Russell’s situation has left a lot to be desired to this point.

The distractions of both the media frenzy and the roster crunch will offer a stern test for the entire organization and it’s something we can only hope the front office has prepared for diligently. For their part, the players certainly feel as though they can compartmentalize everything.

“I don’t think it will really be as big a distraction as the stories that will be written about him coming back,” Anthony Rizzo told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Sun-Times. “He’s coming to play baseball. We do a really good job here at just keeping it to baseball.

“He’s done everything that’s been asked from him and beyond, from what I’ve heard, to put himself in position to even be coming back into this clubhouse.”

If ever there was a circumstance that called for that veteran leadership the Cubs have sought ever since David Ross retired, it’s this one. That’s a big part of the reason Descalso was brought in, and yes, we’re talking about Russell specifically. The former Cardinal and Diamondback offered positional redundancy and a strong clubhouse presence to help during and after the suspension.

And though Descalso is still somewhat new and has yet to play with Russell beyond this spring, he confidently echoed Rizzo’s views.

“I think the guys we have in here are too professional to let that be a distraction. What goes on outside of this clubhouse is out of our hands. We’re not going to allow anything to become a distraction, no matter who tries to make it a distraction.”

The whole “Us vs. Them” mentality isn’t necessarily a good look, as we saw with Dusty Baker‘s teams bristling at anything even mildly critical. At the same time, it can’t be argued that the players are going to have to deal with what comes their way as a result of events well outside their own control. That isn’t easy for athletes whose lives revolve around exerting their considerable will and skill to affect an outcome.

We’ll find out by Friday whether and how the Cubs have to respond to Russell being in Chicago, but the redemption narrative has already picked up steam. That’s to be expected, since the Cubs have chosen to be part of the solution by working with Russell through a process that involves counseling and, presumably, other personal improvement practices.

“I will say that everyone noticed he was working hard on his individual relationships with his teammates this spring,” Epstein said. “There were moments in group settings where he took responsibility, as well, with his teammates.”

Exactly what responsibility Russell has taken and how contrite he truly is we may never know. Certainly his spring press conference offered little proof that he was capable of anything other than rote memorization of a few lines. Regardless of how you feel about him at this point, I think we can all agree that we hope he really has or can become a better person.

And not because it means he can play baseball and help the Cubs or make more money to support his children. Russell being a decent human being is better for the people around him. His children and the women in his life don’t need a rich man, they need a good man.

My sincere hope is that Russell is able to be that man, but it doesn’t happen just by coming back from a suspension and not messing up publicly for a few months. I also hope the Cubs have adequately prepared their players and staff for the questions that are coming their way, because being part of the solution goes way beyond just helping one person to improve.

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