The offseason is almost here. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays are facing off in this year’s fall classic and I — as well as many other Chicago Cubs fans — are likely still trying to figure out what has happened to the Cubs not only this season but over the last four seasons. Why haven’t they won another championship with this core? The fall of Addison Russell is why.
For those who don’t remember, Russell was compared to Barry Larkin by Hall of Famer and Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg during Spring Training in 2016. He was supposed to be part of the ‘golden age’ of shortstops entering the majors at the time. Those shortstops included the likes of Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Seager.
“This guy is going to hit. If you shake his hand, he has huge paws. Watch him in BP, and it’s loud, and it’s far.”– Joe Maddon on Addison Russell
That’s high praise for someone who hadn’t proven a thing at the major league level yet. When you consider this hype after one season at the Major League level and then proceed to watch how things unfolded, it turned out to be more than a disappointment.
I hate to give Matthew Trueblood more publicity because, in my respectable opinion, he was what many on the internet call ‘clout chasing’ with this tweet on Monday morning.
Sending that tweet the day after the Bears improved to 5-1 should be illegal. However, outside of his take trying to ruin Victory Monday, it did further my mind into thinking what has gone wrong the last four seasons for the Cubs. Russell is the number one reason why the Cubs haven’t won.
The Cubs finished 92-70 the season after they finally broke a 108-year World Series championship drought.
They started the 2017 season slow, finishing the first half of the year at 43-45. The starting pitching took an unanticipated step back. Brett Anderson, who was signed in the offseason to fill the role Jason Hammel left, didn’t even make it to August after signing a free-agent contract with the Cubs in January. He was nowhere near worth the one-year, $3.5 million contract the Cubs handed him to be a back end of the rotation arm.
John Lackey led the NL with 36 home runs allowed and clearly the writing was on the wall for his career to come to a close.
I have no idea why I tweeted that but Lackey was a trap. For some reason, I always had faith in him but was almost always left disappointed. He was a great veteran leader but his performance was shaky when the Cubs needed him.
These two issues led to the Cubs completing the blockbuster trade with the White Sox, sending the organization’s top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to the South Side in exchange for Jose Quintana.
We’ve talked about this trade in-depth plenty and I encourage Cubs fans to go read fellow Cubs On Tap writer Brian Mischler’s piece where he wrote about this trade a few months back.
Quintana was solid in the second half of 2017 with the Cubs, posting a 3.74 ERA in 84.1 innings, finishing with 98 strikeouts and just 21 walks in his first season with the Cubs. It turned out to be huge at the time.
I’m pointing out the starting pitching in 2017 because it was the Cubs’ biggest flaw. The Cubs players’ salary for just the pitching staff including the bullpen was over $121 million, which led baseball. The starting staff’s quality start percentage (QS%) was 48 percent. In 2016, the Cubs QS% was tops in baseball at 62 percent.
They just didn’t get the same contributions from the starters as they did in 2016. Despite that fact, they still advanced to the NLCS where they eventually fell to the Dodgers in five games.
Even though the offense was able to carry the team, Addison Russell did very little with the bat.
After posting a 3.3 WAR, hitting 21 homers, and driving in 95 runs, and representing the Cubs in the All-Star game in 2016, Russell never came close to that height again. In fact, his weighted runs created (wRC+) in 2016 was 95, which is five percent below an average major league player. In the grand scheme, even in his best season, he was not even an average baseball player.
Russell combined for 3.4 WAR the next three seasons. He made base running errors. For the non-analytical readers, his batting average never skewed over .250. In 2015, he entered the league at 21 years old and took Starlin Castro’s spot at shortstop primed to man the position for the next 5-7 seasons. He lost it to Javier Baez three seasons later.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s our youngest player, but he might be the one we worry about the least.”– Theo Epstein in February 2016
Epstein is owed a great amount from Cubs fans and the city of Chicago but he was comically wrong about Russell. What may hurt the most for Cubs’ fans is he may have believed in Russell for too long.
What’s more frustrating for me is that I haven’t even got to the off-field problems yet.
In the middle of the 2017 season, Russell’s now ex-wife Melisa Reidy posted a photo on her Instagram account saying Russell cheated on her. In the comments, one of her friends said he domestically abused her.
It was not a long-term distraction, but no one forgets on the internet. It affected Russell’s play and it made fans wonder if the allegations were true despite no real evidence.
The MLB did an investigation and found nothing.
Russell finished with a .239/.304/.418 slash line, 1.5 WAR, and 85 wRC+ in 110 games. He was not a consistently productive player deserving of playing every day.
Considering the off-field problems and unproductive season that wasn’t much different compared to his 2016 campaign, it makes you wonder why the front office didn’t try to move him. At the time, his value still had upside. He was only 23 years old. Despite his offensive flaws, he was still a quality defensive shortstop.
Looking back on the situation, the winter after the 2017 season was when the Cubs should have moved Russell. They did not.
Heading into the 2018 season, the Cubs were primed for another deep playoff run after signing top-tier power arm Yu Darvish to a six-year contract. They added Tyler Chatwood to be one of their back-end starting rotation arms on a three-year contract. Darvish replaced Jake Arrieta, who moved on to the Phillies via free agency, and Chatwood replaced Anderson. With Quintana under control for the next three seasons, he slid in nicely to Lackey’s role as the team’s number four starter with what hoped to be number one or two starter-level production by season’s end.
It seemed the Cubs starting rotation and bullpen were set for the foreseeable future.
It was not. Darvish only made eight starts in his first season with the Cubs due to injuries. He made multiple rehab starts but experienced setbacks each time. Thankfully he has rebounded and you can read all about his resurgence here at On Tap Sports Net.
However, there is no doubt his first season with the Cubs was less than valuable. Chatwood was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball, leading the majors in walks (95) and walk percentage (19.3 percent) for starters who pitched 50 or more innings. His poor performance led to the Cubs trading for Cole Hamels near the trade deadline in late July.
Morrow injured himself in one of the most bizarre ways taking his pants off in June. He eventually came back and made a handful of appearances until he was put on the injured list at the end of July with an elbow issue. Morrow never played in a Cubs uniform again after originally signing to a two-year contract.
Cishek performed well in his role but was overused by the end of the season and it showed. Through August 31st, Cishek was excellent with a 1.90 ERA in 61.2 innings pitched. In September, his ERA shot up to 4.15 with a FIP of 5.70 over 8.2 innings. He struggled. Outside of Pedro Strop, every pitcher in the Cubs bullpen was inconsistent.
Despite all their unexpected pitching troubles, the Cubs still managed to win 95 games. No thanks to Russell, however.
Baez, as most remember, finished runner-up in the NL MVP voting, but most importantly overtook the shortstop position from Russell months prior due to Russell’s lingering injuries and inconsistent bat.
The division got better. The Brewers traded for superstar in the making Christian Yelich in the offseason and led the Brew Crew to their first 90-win season since 2011. As Cubs fans remember, Milwaukee defeated the Cubs in a ‘win or lose the division’ Game 163 at Wrigley Field.
Beforehand, in the middle of September, Russell’s ex-wife Reidy posted a blog on her Instagram page highlighting the trauma and abuse she claimed Russell inflicted upon her while they were together.
This was the kind of distraction the Cubs did not need in the middle of a division race, but some things are bigger than baseball. A story that began with someone’s claims in Instagram comments over a year prior with allegations against Russell were being brought to the forefront. Reidy described the abuse in an interview with WGN TV.
The last ten days of the 2018 regular season were filled with the Cubs going back and forth with the Brewers in the division race and Russell’s off-field problems. As soon as the blog was posted, Russell was suspended for the rest of the season by the Cubs. He finished the season with a .250/.314/.340 slash line, 1.4 WAR, and 80 wRC+ in 130 games.
The Cubs lost in the Wild Card Game to the Rockies, ending what should have been a more successful season. Despite loads of adversity with the starting rotation, the bullpen’s inconsistencies, and Russell’s off-field distraction, the Cubs had the best record in the NL for the majority of the season.
Russell’s distraction was almost a symbol of karma toward the front office for not acting earlier. They had every chance to move him prior to the regular season.
With a disappointing end to the 2018 campaign, it was time for the Cubs to shake things up on their roster. Except they didn’t.
To replace him, they signed Daniel Descalso and unfortunately, they kept Russell. He had no value left when considering the off-field problems and having little to no value on the field.
Before the season, he was suspended by the MLB for 40 games for violating the league’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy.
He was the talk of Spring Training at Cubs camp and was a distraction all season. It was not the attention the Cubs needed. Most fans wanted him gone over the offseason.
With this dark cloud, another negative presence entered the fold with the breaking story about Cubs part-owner Joe Ricketts, majority owner Tom Ricketts’ father.
The franchise had already taken backlash for signing Daniel Murphy mid-season in 2018 because of his homophobic comments made in 2015. Laura Ricketts, who is openly gay, OK’d the move to sign Murphy but it was still frowned upon by fans considering the neighborhood the Cubs play in and the fact they still rostered Russell.
All in all, the Cubs proceeded to do nothing about the negative attention that was brought to Wrigley Field. They didn’t bring Murphy back for the 2019 season but they justified bringing Russell back because they wanted to act instead of wave.
At least, that’s what they said. Maybe that is true and the Cubs’ ownership and front office did everything they could to help Reidy and Russell’s situation. But from the outside looking in, it did not feel that way and the entire 2019 season felt like there was a dark cloud over Wrigley Field.
Russell played in 82 games after his suspension, finished with a .237/.308/.391 slash line, .699 OPS, and 80 wRC+.
The Cubs missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Their second basemen combined for a .220/.301/.383 slash line. League-wide, they ranked 28th in batting average and 21st in OPS. Ben Zobrist missed most of the season due to his divorce with his now ex-wife. His absence turned out to loom large for the Cubs.
If the Cubs moved on from Russell earlier, maybe they would have won more games. Maybe they would have a mainstay at second base right now instead of a big gap heading into this offseason. Maybe if they moved Russell at the end of 2017, they would have been able to use the return for him in a productive way.
As it stands, the Cubs now enter the offseason with many questions regarding their offense despite winning the division in this weird year were all enduring. Many of their core players are coming off disappointing seasons, meaning their trade value has never been lower. The Cubs are in a tough spot. While I still think they are a contender in the NL Central, the prospect of winning another World Series seems unlikely, at least with this core.
Ironically, Epstein’s first draft pick as the VP of Baseball Operations, Albert Almora, was taken in the 2012 draft five spots ahead of Russell. Neither lived up to the Cubs’ expectations and looking back at the first round of that draft, the Cubs missed out on Max Fried, Lucas Giolito, Marcus Stroman, and Corey Seager.
Theo Epstein will always receive criticism for trades, free-agent signings, or draft miscues, but maybe the biggest problem we as fans should have is his belief in some core players for too long. Russell sits at the top of that list.