Draft Day Dilemmas: Is Addison Russell a sleeping giant?
The Cubs' young shortstop gave Fantasy owners mixed signals during his rookie season. Al Melchior makes a case for investing in Russell as a top eight option at his position.
For the literal-minded or pun-minded, let's get this out of the way. Addison Russell is not a sleeping Giant. He's a sleeping bear Cub.
For those inclined to take the figurative interpretation of this blog post's title, I've already provided a partial answer in my Breakouts 1.0 column, where I tout Russell's developing power and potential for more frequent contact. It's only fair to point out that Russell has some serious downside to go with his upside, and given that I have him ranked sixth among shortstops in Rotisserie value and eighth in points leagues, he deserves a deeper dig into both the pros and cons.
While I'm impressed by the power that Russell showed for much of the second half at age 21, his ability to make the most of his power potential is compromised by his challenges in making contact. Russell had the highest swinging strike rate of any qualifying shortstop and the 14th-highest rate for all hitters in 2015. While whiffing was a problem for him all season, Russell did make significant progress in another area that could have a huge impact on his production. His first-pitch strike percentage in the first half was 64.8 percent, which was well above the 2015 major league mark of 60.9 percent (per FanGraphs). After the All-Star break, his rate fell to 57.8 percent, which was bested by only three qualifying shortstops.
Given that Russell compiled a .568 OPS and .094 Isolated Power after falling behind 0-1, and major leaguers as a whole put up a .609 OPS and .119 Iso after an 0-1 count, it doesn't bode well for his power or overall production if he falls behind early. In having gone from being well-below-average to well-above-average in his first-pitch selectivity, Russell improved in a critical area not long after getting his first exposure to the majors.
Even with that progress, Russell didn't dominate the Fantasy shortstop rankings in the second half. In terms of Fantasy point and Rotisserie production, he lagged behind Yunel Escobar and Jedd Gyorko, and his slash line (.259/.318/.427) was nearly the mirror image of Marcus Semien's (.259/.322/.420). For 2016, Russell should finish well ahead of the likes of Escobar and Semien, given his place on the developmental path and his good fortune of hitting in a Cubs' lineup that should provide ample run production opportunities.
So what makes Russell worth considering as a top 10 shortstop, and possible even a top six shortstop? To understand that, we have to go back to his biggest area of risk: his whiff rate. Making contact was far from a problem area for Russell in the minors, especially during his time in Double-A and Triple-A. For a brief time during the middle of last season, he started making more frequent contact, and over a 27-game stretch starting on June 30, he struck out in 19.1 percent of his plate appearances. He also didn't hit for power during that stretch (.070 Iso), but over his next 31 games, Russell posted an eye-popping .276 Iso while striking out in 30.4 percent of his plate appearances.
These are small, cherry-picked samples, but given the skills he showed in the minors, they could be indicative of an impending breakout in which Russell combines power-hitting with fewer swings-and-misses and strikeouts. The question Fantasy owners will face on Draft Day is whether banking on this breakout is worth a sacrificing a pick as early as Round 10. At this point, your likely alternatives are a declining Jose Reyes, an equally-unproven Jung-Ho Kang returning from a serious leg injury or a hard-to-read Ian Desmond. Russell's upside exceeds that of each member of this trio, and in a Rotisserie league, I could see taking him over Francisco Lindor if I need power more than speed.
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