Background: The A's took Russell in 2012 with the 11th pick out of Pace High School in Florida. He quickly established himself as one of the top middle infield prospects in baseball, ranking 22nd on BP's top 101 prospects by the following spring, and seventh before 2014. The A’s moved Russell last July, along with Billy McKinney and Dan Straily, for Jeff Samardjiza and Jason Hammel, and after a relatively slow start he posted a .868 OPS in Double-A Tennessee. He ranked as the top prospect in the Cubs Top Ten this winter, and no. 2 overall in the BP 101.
Scouting Report: Russell’s best assets—both at the field and at the plate—are his hands. The 21-year-old does an outstanding job keeping his hands in to control the barrel, and they get through the zone quickly to create plus bat speed with excellent plane. He’s not passive at the plate by any means—and will jump on the first pitch if it’s what he was looking for—but he’s also not allergic to walks and doesn’t end at-bats by swinging at pitches out of the zone.
There’s also some loft to his swing, and again, because he does such a good job with his hands, he rarely gets tied up and he can create extension. I wouldn’t expect huge power totals, but 15-homer seasons are well within reach, maybe more in peak seasons. He’s not a plus runner—closer to average than above-average—though he gets rave reviews for his smarts on the bases.
There have always been some who believed Russell won't stick in the middle of the diamond long term, but I’m not one of the skeptics. No, he’s not an elite athlete, but his instincts are outstanding, and with excellent footwork and quality hands he puts himself into position to use his above-average arm. Is there a chance he’ll have to move to third base at some point? Yes, but I think that’s a ways off. I’ll be curious to see how he handles second base because there is some difference in the footwork—particularly handling the double play—and he made the move across the diamond just four days ago, in anticipation of this call-up. But he’s such a smart player that I doubt there will be much need for an adjustment period.
Immediate Big League Future: There aren’t many guys who have no obvious weaknesses, and that’s what you get in Russell. He has nowhere near the offensive upside that Bryant offers, but there’s a chance he has two 60 tools in his hit and power tool, and he’s certainly going to be a competent fielder at second base—assuming that’s where the Cubs are going to put him for the majority of the season. I picked Bryant to be my ROY because I didn’t think Russell would be up this early, but it wouldn’t shock me one bit if Russell snuck off with the hardware. —Christopher Crawford
Fantasy: As someone drawn to players who are young for the level, I’ve always been taken with Russell, who debuted in rookie ball in the middle of the 2012 season and played his way to the Low-A Midwest League by season’s end as an 18-year-old. He spent 2013 improving his defense at shortstop while hitting .275/.377/.508 in the California League. Russell has seemingly answered every question about his game in his young professional career, which might be why the Cubs believe he’ll handle the move to second base with aplomb despite lacking experience at the position. Offensively, Russell projects to be a .280+ hitter with plus power and enough speed to steal 10-12 bases over a full season at his peak. While it looked like Russell might have a tough time carving out regular playing time coming into this season, he wasn’t just called up to sit on the bench. He should be owned in all leagues, including shallow mixed formats.
While Russell might eventually become a fantasy stud, there's no guarantee he'll succeed right away. He's playing out of position, which can affect other facets of a young hitter's game, as we saw last year with Xander Bogaerts when he moved to third base. The Cubs plan right now seems to be handing second base to Russell, but Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara are still only a phone call away and Russell is just a few months over the legal drinking age. It wouldn't shock anyone if the Cubs end up playing musical chairs at the keystone this year.
In keeper leagues, Russell is worthy of the top waiver priority. This is not a situation where you can wait and see; this is the time when you have to make a call on Russell one way or another. In deep mixed and NL-Only redraft leagues, it's going to take a healthy chuck of your FAAB money to acquire Russell, so if you need middle infield help, don't be afraid to go up to the $40-45 range. This would be even more advisable in keeper leagues, where the benefits can certainly stretch far beyond 2015. In redraft formats, though, make sure you gauge the league and remember which owners you're dealing with. People get very excited about young players when they're called up, but nobody wants to trade for a struggling rookie. It’s something to keep in mind while you're bidding on Russell because that big bid someone in your league dropped on Baez just to see him hit .169 was a mistake.
That’s not to say that Russell is comparable to Baez, as he doesn’t have as much swing-and-miss in his offensive profile. If Russell were to hold a starting role for the rest of the season, I’d project him to hit .270 with 12 home runs and 10 steals. Those aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, but it’s not too shabby for a 21-year-old getting his first taste of the majors.—Nick Shlain
- 90th percentile: .285/.349/.464, 4.1 WARP
- 50th percentile: .239/.298/.390, 1.5 WARP
- 10th percentile: .195/.246/.317, -0.4 WARP
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