By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (CBS) — It was a year ago at this time that Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo touted his belief that an MVP was in shortstop Addison Russell’s future, and that bold statement may not be so far fetched after all.
A bigger offensive role may be in store for Russell in 2017. While Ben Zobrist will open the season as the team’s cleanup hitter, Russell could fill that spot as the year progresses. The 23-year-old Russell is coming off an All-Star season in which he hit .238 with 21 homers, 95 RBIs and a .738 OPS.
With a little more patience at the plate and experience, Russell can improve and take the next step toward making Rizzo look like a baseball savant with his prediction.
“Batting in that four-hole, I am more than happy to sink into that spot,” Russell said after hearing his name attached to that lineup slot. “It is definitely cool batting after Rizzo. To be in that top four or top five is pretty cool.”
On a team with several MVP candidates, Rizzo explained why he views Russell so highly.
“He was very raw at first,” Rizzo said. “He had all of the tools. You could see that right away. It is fun to watch him play. Over our playoff run, Javy (Baez) gets all the praise for his flashy play. Javy is fabulous. You see Addie make crazy plays look easy, just like Javy.”
Manager Joe Maddon is watching Russell with the intention of moving him up in the lineup this spring. For now, it appears Russell will hit fifth most days.
“Hitting where he has, there are a lot of on-base guys in front of him,” Maddon said. “I think it’s repeatable. He probably took advantage of his opportunities better than most. You look at his inexperience and you don’t want to project that. I really do think it is in there. You can possibly permit yourself to go there. You could conceive that. You shake his hand, you see his batting practice. He is a strong-handed guy. The strong-handed guys, that is what they do. They really play this game well.”
Russell had 135 strikeouts and 55 walks last year. He’s now ready for the next challenge.
“The power is there,” Russell said. “I want to cut down on strikeouts and move my walks up a bit. It just comes by getting your pitch. I have a skill set, and I am just trying to perfect it. The big guys who hit the 30 home runs, that power is there. They work really hard at it. I believe one day I will be there too. It is just progression. It’s just progression for me. I am getting there.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.