Cubs' Russell takes game to new level

Second-year shortstop poised to show his power this season

Cubs' Russell takes game to new level

MESA, Ariz. -- Joe Maddon learned last season that Addison Russell was a solid defender, a good kid and the "shortstop of the future," but the Cubs manager wasn't prepared for the power. Russell didn't waste any time this spring flexing his muscles.

In the Cubs' second spring game, Russell smacked a two-run home run, the first by anyone on the team in Cactus League play. After hitting 13 home runs last season, Russell could be poised for a breakout season in 2016.

"It's something I wanted to show last year, but the style I played, I was a little more timid coming into the season," Russell said of his power. "It was harder for me to let it fly, especially making that move to second. It was a hard transition. At the end of last year, I felt that grip-and-rip type feel, and that's the point I want to get at early on in the season."

When Russell was promoted to the big leagues last April 21, he was inserted as the starting second baseman. Starlin Castro was the Opening Day shortstop, and the team had been rotating second basemen, starting Tommy La Stella, Arismendy Alcantara and Jonathan Herrera. On Aug. 7, Russell was moved to short to stay.

This year, with the trade of Castro to the Yankees and the addition of Ben Zobrist to play second, Russell no longer is the shortstop of the future. He's the Cubs' shortstop now.

"His range and quickness is off the charts," Zobrist said. "His work ethic is off the charts, his focus is off the charts. All he needs is time. That's really all he needs is time and experience."

On the first day practicing together, Russell said being with Zobrist was a "match made in heaven." Zobrist just has to keep up.

"He's so fast, and he gets to the ball so quick," Zobrist said of Russell. "He's really incredible, his quickness especially. For me, as I work with him up the middle, there's not much I can tell him other than let's make sure we get one. He's very polished on his own."

Zobrist is still getting a read on Russell's amazing range, knowing the young shortstop can cover a lot more ground. The two talk a lot.

"This is the most I've ever communicated with any shortstop I've played with in Spring Training," Zobrist said. "I think a lot of that is by design based on what we're looking at and where I'm playing right now, and also as far as the fact that they put us in every game together. That helps me get to learn him, learn his mannerisms in the game and how we can communicate best.

"It's been great working with him," Zobrist said. "It's really tough to point out some weakness because he has so many strengths. The biggest thing he needs is time and experience, and he'll get smoother and smoother and more and more polished as time goes on, and everyone will see what he's really capable of. He's got this special ability to make extended plays that other guys can't get to because of his range and athleticsm. It's going to be fun to watch."

Maddon protected Russell last season, batting him ninth behind the pitcher so he didn't thwart Russell's development. This year, Maddon is projecting Russell will hit higher in the order.

There's another part of Russell's development that Maddon likes.

"Conversationally, he's much more confident," Maddon said of the 22-year-old. "He's easier to joke around with. He's just much more comfortable in his Major League skin. I love it. He knows he belongs here; he knows he's good here. He's in great shape. He was in fine shape last year, and I think he's in even better shape now. There's a lot going on in his personal life and his family, which is all good. He's grown up a bit."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.