CHICAGO — After making the controversial decision to tender a contract to infielder Addison Russell last December, the Cubs enter Monday’s arbitration deadline with more questions to answer.
Does Russell have a shot at being the everyday second baseman in 2020, and if not, is it worth paying him $5 million or more to be a part-time player?
Russell is one of seven arbitration-eligible Cubs who must be tendered a contract by Monday night, along with Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Ryan.
With the exception of Russell, the rest are nearly assured of being tendered a contract, even if some of them may be on the trade market this winter. Bryant is projected to make $18.5 million in arbitration, according to MLBTradeRumors.com, while Baez should receive $9.3 million.
Russell also was in danger of being non-tendered last year when he was serving his 40-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic-violence policy. But Cubs President Theo Epstein opted to give Russell a second chance, tendering a contract while Russell underwent counseling and treatment, prompting criticism from some fans and media.
Russell eventually signed a one-year, $3.4 million deal with $600,000 in bonus incentives and met Epstein’s criteria to return to the Cubs after his suspension ended in early May. Russell reported to the Cubs on May 8, just as Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence to deal with family issues. Russell was inserted at second base, with Baez having taken over as the full-time shortstop.
But Russell struggled at the plate, particularly with his power numbers, and was demoted to Triple-A Iowa on July 24, shortly after making several mental mistakes in a game against the Padres, including being thrown out twice on the basepaths. Russell also hurt his cause by admitting to ESPN that he needed to become “more familiar with the signs,” an inexcusable mental error for someone with his experience.
The Cubs brought Russell back up in mid-August, optioning Almora to Iowa. But he played sparingly because of Zobrist’s return and tepid offensive numbers, hitting .217 with seven RBIs in 69 at-bats through Sept. 8, when he was hit in the head by a 94-mph fastball from the Brewers’ Adrian Houser. Russell stayed in the game and even stole second but was removed the next half-inning and eventually placed in the concussion protocol.
But he didn’t play the rest of the season and wound up hitting .237 with a .699 OPS in 82 games. The Cubs were satisfied with the way Russell handled himself after the suspension, but the weak offensive production, combined with the focus issue, make his return questionable.
Russell’s concussion, which occurred after Baez’s season-ending broken thumb, prompted the Cubs to make an emergency call to Double-A infielder Nico Hoerner, who performed well enough down the stretch to make the Cubs think about bringing him back in 2020.
Epstein said last month at the general managers meetings no decision has been made on Hoerner, a first-round pick in 2018.
If the Cubs non-tender Russell, they could make Hoerner or David Bote the primary second baseman or find one via trade or free agency. The Cubs reportedly have interest in the Royals’ Whit Merrifeld, who would also solve their leadoff problem. They’d have to pay hefty price in any deal, as they did three years ago when they acquired closer Wade Davis from the Royals for outfielder Jorge Soler, now one of the game’s elite sluggers.
After all the speculation about massive changes ahead, the Cubs haven’t made any significant moves to date. But few other teams, besides the White Sox, Braves, Padres and Brewers, have made any headline-making moves thus far. The annual winter meetings begin next Sunday in San Diego, so the hot stove league figures to heat up.
The White Sox faced a decision on whether to non-tender Gold Glove winning second baseman Yolmer Sanchez. But they released him last week to open up room on the 40-man roster. They’re expected to tender contracts to their remaining arbitration-eligible players: Carlos Rodon, James McCann, Alex Colome, Evan Marshall, Leury Garcia and Evan Marshall. Colome is projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to get a one-year, $10.3 million deal.