At the stroke of midnight, news broke that Russell, the system’s No. 2 prospect and the No. 3 prospect in the sport, acquired last summer with Billy McKinney in the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland, was coming up from Triple-A Iowa to play second base alongside Starlin Castro.
Russell is one of the very best prospects in the game, and long-term he’s expected to be a shortstop. Playing second base in the majors doesn’t adjust that future. He got some reps at the position in the past Arizona Fall League, and had seen more time there in his first few games with Triple-A Iowa, hinting at the possibility that his major league debut could come sooner than expected.
From his days with the A’s to his time with the Cubs, the 21-year-old Russell has always seemed polished beyond his years. He plays shortstop with grace and skill, takes quality at-bats, understands the strike zone and displays the kind of leadership skills more commonly seen in veterans.
He combines those outstanding qualities with a powerful set of tools, including bat speed, average power, speed and defense that rate at least plus, and an above-average throwing arm, albeit with a slight hitch in his motion.
A hamstring tear limited him to just 13 games with Double-A Midland before the trade last summer, but he immediately rewarded his new club when he got to Double-A Tennessee. In 50 games with the Smokies, Russell hit . 294/.332/.536 with 11 doubles, 12 homers and 36 RBIs.
He’s made a ton of contact during his time at the upper levels, too, drawing just 18 walks and striking out 57 times in 75 games at Double-A and Triple-A.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The Cubs are not calling Russell up to ride the bench. That much is certain. Bryant batted cleanup against James Shields in his first game (a matinee, no less), so expect Chicago’s newest wunderkind to see immediate action. He’ll presumably slide into the everyday second base role, pushing Arismendy Alcantara and Jonathan Herrera either into utility roles or back to Triple-A.
If you’re a fantasy owner, especially one who missed out on the game’s handful of elite shortstops, Russell’s callup represents a second chance. If he shows the same tools as he has in the minors, he’ll immediately become one of the top players at the position, behind obvious exceptions like Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki, Toronto’s Jose Reyes, Boston’s Hanley Ramirez (while he’s still eligible) and Washington’s Ian Desmond.
There’s a new wave of shortstops on the horizon, and Russell’s promotion is the first sign that it’s about to crest.