Cubs’ Decision To Non-Tender Russell Comes A Year Late

Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs
Getty Images

After doubling down and offering a contract to disappointing shortstop Addison Russell last off-season, the Cubs have opted not to make the same mistake twice. But with that decision comes the harsh reminder that baseball is, first and foremost, a business.

According to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cubs’ decision to non-tender and move on from Russell had little to do with his off-the-field history of domestic violence. Theo Epstein said in a statement on Monday that Russell was meeting their expectations of accountability, but that the money he would command in arbitration had grown beyond his role with the team.

“We decided to non-tender Addison Russell today simply because the role we expected him to play for the 2020 Cubs was inconsistent with how he would have been treated in the salary arbitration process,” Epstein said.

“In the year since we decided to tender Addison a contract last November, he has lived up to his promise to put in the important self-improvement work necessary off the field and has shown growth as a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a citizen. We hope and believe that Addison’s work and growth will continue, and we have offered our continued support of him and his family, including Melisa (Reidy).”

It's not fair to say that the Cubs did the right thing for the wrong reasons, because to do so would imply that Russell didn't deserve to be released on his baseball chops alone. His performance on the field the last few years was nothing short of lackluster. But the team also didn't do the right thing for all the right reasons, which many fans find both disappointing and unfortunately consistent.

Heading into 2015 with the Cubs, Russell was ranked the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Prospectus. To put that into perspective, Kris Bryant was ranked No. 5 by the same publication that year. Both players arrived as rookies in 2015, helping lead the Cubs to 97 wins and their first appearance in the NLCS since 2003.

A year later, Russell played a major role in the team's first World Series championship since 1908. But another year later, he was struggling at the plate while dealing with serious allegations of the mental and physical abuse of his then-wife, Melisa Reidy.

At the end of the 2018 season, Russell was suspended following an MLB investigation into claims made by Reidy. That suspension would stretch into the 2019 season, leaving the team with a decision to be made about whether to tender Russell a contract. Despite the dismal on-field production, the off-the-field baggage and a suddenly limited budget, Epstein and the Cubs chose to give him one more try.

The polar opposite of the Russell story is that of Javier Báez, who has replaced him at shortstop and emerged as the type of player many observers had once projected of Russell. Báez finished second in the National League MVP voting in 2018, and over the last two seasons he has a .865 OPS with 63 homers in 1,206 plate appearances. Báez makes fewer mistakes at shortstop now than in years past, and his strong throwing arm sets him apart from others at the position.

Despite Russell's reputation early in his career for his slick fielding skills and range at short, Báez is now clearly the superior fielder. Russell may have better range, allowing him to get to a few groundballs that Báez may not reach, but his below-average arm precludes him from consistently firing the ball to first base for the out.

This is to say nothing of Russell’s other shortcomings on the diamond. His 2019 low-light reel included admitting to not knowing the signs — which resulted in a demotion to Triple-A — and a crushing decision to throw home late in a game in a misguided attempt to cut down the tying run.

And so with Báez as a reliable replacement, the Cubs really deserve no praise for non-tendering Russell. The move comes a year too late and, if you believe Epstein, for baseball reasons only. It's maddeningly consistent for a front office that went and acquired Aroldis Chapman in 2016 following his domestic violence suspension. New manager David Ross hasn't been shy about expressing fond feelings for Chapman as a person, which is an entirely different level of gross.

When Epstein acquired Russell from Billy Beane's Oakland A's back in 2014, the young shortstop came with top-prospect billing and the rumor that Beane thought of Russell as the next Barry Larkin. Those were big shoes to fill for a 20-year-old with only 13 plate appearances at Triple-A.

In 2019, the Cubs paid Russell $3.4 million to play in 82 games, posting a .237/.308/.391 slash line with a 79 OPS+. Overall, the 25-year-old has a career OPS of .704 with an 86 OPS+. Barry Larkin? Not even close. Those numbers are more reminiscent of former Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez than the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer.

It's hard not to wonder how surprising all of this would be for a baseball fan living under a rock since 2015. Báez, who was historically bad in his first stint in the big leagues in 2014, is an MVP candidate that Epstein would be wise to sign long-term. Russell, meanwhile, is nothing more than a disappointing former high-ceiling prospect that the Cubs gave up on a year too late.

">

After doubling down and offering a contract to disappointing shortstop Addison Russell last off-season, the Cubs have opted not to make the same mistake twice. But with that decision comes the harsh reminder that baseball is, first and foremost, a business.

According to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cubs’ decision to non-tender and move on from Russell had little to do with his off-the-field history of domestic violence. Theo Epstein said in a statement on Monday that Russell was meeting their expectations of accountability, but that the money he would command in arbitration had grown beyond his role with the team.

“We decided to non-tender Addison Russell today simply because the role we expected him to play for the 2020 Cubs was inconsistent with how he would have been treated in the salary arbitration process,” Epstein said.

“In the year since we decided to tender Addison a contract last November, he has lived up to his promise to put in the important self-improvement work necessary off the field and has shown growth as a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a citizen. We hope and believe that Addison’s work and growth will continue, and we have offered our continued support of him and his family, including Melisa (Reidy).”

It's not fair to say that the Cubs did the right thing for the wrong reasons, because to do so would imply that Russell didn't deserve to be released on his baseball chops alone. His performance on the field the last few years was nothing short of lackluster. But the team also didn't do the right thing for all the right reasons, which many fans find both disappointing and unfortunately consistent.

Heading into 2015 with the Cubs, Russell was ranked the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Prospectus. To put that into perspective, Kris Bryant was ranked No. 5 by the same publication that year. Both players arrived as rookies in 2015, helping lead the Cubs to 97 wins and their first appearance in the NLCS since 2003.

A year later, Russell played a major role in the team's first World Series championship since 1908. But another year later, he was struggling at the plate while dealing with serious allegations of the mental and physical abuse of his then-wife, Melisa Reidy.

At the end of the 2018 season, Russell was suspended following an MLB investigation into claims made by Reidy. That suspension would stretch into the 2019 season, leaving the team with a decision to be made about whether to tender Russell a contract. Despite the dismal on-field production, the off-the-field baggage and a suddenly limited budget, Epstein and the Cubs chose to give him one more try.

The polar opposite of the Russell story is that of Javier Báez, who has replaced him at shortstop and emerged as the type of player many observers had once projected of Russell. Báez finished second in the National League MVP voting in 2018, and over the last two seasons he has a .865 OPS with 63 homers in 1,206 plate appearances. Báez makes fewer mistakes at shortstop now than in years past, and his strong throwing arm sets him apart from others at the position.

Despite Russell's reputation early in his career for his slick fielding skills and range at short, Báez is now clearly the superior fielder. Russell may have better range, allowing him to get to a few groundballs that Báez may not reach, but his below-average arm precludes him from consistently firing the ball to first base for the out.

This is to say nothing of Russell’s other shortcomings on the diamond. His 2019 low-light reel included admitting to not knowing the signs — which resulted in a demotion to Triple-A — and a crushing decision to throw home late in a game in a misguided attempt to cut down the tying run.

And so with Báez as a reliable replacement, the Cubs really deserve no praise for non-tendering Russell. The move comes a year too late and, if you believe Epstein, for baseball reasons only. It's maddeningly consistent for a front office that went and acquired Aroldis Chapman in 2016 following his domestic violence suspension. New manager David Ross hasn't been shy about expressing fond feelings for Chapman as a person, which is an entirely different level of gross.

When Epstein acquired Russell from Billy Beane's Oakland A's back in 2014, the young shortstop came with top-prospect billing and the rumor that Beane thought of Russell as the next Barry Larkin. Those were big shoes to fill for a 20-year-old with only 13 plate appearances at Triple-A.

In 2019, the Cubs paid Russell $3.4 million to play in 82 games, posting a .237/.308/.391 slash line with a 79 OPS+. Overall, the 25-year-old has a career OPS of .704 with an 86 OPS+. Barry Larkin? Not even close. Those numbers are more reminiscent of former Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez than the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer.

It's hard not to wonder how surprising all of this would be for a baseball fan living under a rock since 2015. Báez, who was historically bad in his first stint in the big leagues in 2014, is an MVP candidate that Epstein would be wise to sign long-term. Russell, meanwhile, is nothing more than a disappointing former high-ceiling prospect that the Cubs gave up on a year too late.

Follow me on Twitter.

I am a freelance journalist and a baseball contributor at Forbes. My work has also been published at NBC Sports Chicago, The Athletic, the Sporting News, Bet Chicago, an...