Bernfield: Cubs' Russell may be setting himself up for future MVP nod
When the Cubs acquired Addison Russell in a trade for Jeff Samardzija in 2014, the story goes that before Athletics general manager Billy Beane hung up the phone with Cubs president Theo Epstein, he told him, "you just got Barry Larkin."
While Addison Russell isn't a Hall of Famer yet, the season he's putting together at age 22 lends credence to Beane's prediction.
Russell has played elite defense since the day he was promoted to the big leagues last season. His immediate defensive impact on the 2015 Cubs spurred Joe Maddon to give him the permanent shortstop job, replacing five-year veteran Starlin Castro.
Russell possesses tremendous defensive range, an excellent arm, and smooth and efficient mechanics. After a jaw-dropping diving stop last Monday night against the Padres, Russell's grace drew a comparison to another all-time great shortstop.
"Watch his feet and how he moves his feet," Maddon said. "Derek Jeter was like that, very simple. (Russell's) feet are spectacular. That's why he's so accurate. He's incredibly athletic."
While Russell dazzled on defense last year, he only showed flashes of his potential at the plate. He displayed patience, but struggled to produce consistent results. This season, he's proving that with his elite defense may come elite offense, especially from a shortstop. Entering the weekend, Russell ranked second in baseball among shortstops with 84 RBI, and his 19 home runs were the sixth-most among defensive captains, and his OPS ranked 10th. Those numbers put him on pace to hit nearly 25 home runs and drive in 108 runs.
Not bad for a kid who's just 22.
Russell is hitting his stride and gaining confidence as a batter. After his first All-Star Game appearance in July, the talented sophomore seems poised for more future hardware. Maddon is lobbying for Russell to win a Gold Glove.
"This guy on defense is getting to the point (where) there's no one like this right now," Maddon said.
If his ascent continues at the plate, he may also become a legitimate candidate to win the National League's MVP a few years from now.
While teammates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo appear on a collision course to finish first and second in Most Valuable Player voting this season, Russell's elite defense at a premium position combined with his offensive potential make him a good future bet.
"I have him pegged as an MVP," Rizzo said on the "Spiegel and Goff Show" on WSCR-AM in spring training. "I tell him every day. I have the biggest baseball crush on him since he got called up. The way he plays, the way he moves. I have him pegged to win the MVP one year for sure."
That year appears to be coming sooner than later. Russell is proving in just his second big league season he may just live up to the hype.
Maybe the Cubs do have the next Barry Larkin.
• Jordan Bernfield is an anchor and co-host of "Inside The Clubhouse" on WSCR 670-AM The Score. He also works as a play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter@JordanBernfield.