When the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for Addison Russell (plus some other goodies!), I started getting pretty excited for the 2017 Cubs. They had just drafted Kris Bryant, Albert Almora seemed like a surefire average CF, and the farm system as a whole looked ready to provide a steady stream of value.
It's a year early, and they are already here.
Many of the accolades fall on Kris Bryant, and rightfully so. In his first year in the majors, Bryant hit a Herculean .275/.369/.488, with 26 HR for good measure. In addition, he played a passable 3B (though I'm still wary of his long-term prognosis there with his penchant for leading Rizzo down the first base line) and a pretty good outfield. Still more of the accolades fell to Anthony Rizzo, a true candidate for MVP last year and likely many years afterwards. .278/.387(!)/.512 with 31 jacks will get you noticed by just about anybody. Kyle Schwarber was almost as impressive, with a .246/.355/.487 line and 16 homers in just 243 plate appearances (and a few balls that now orbit the Earth as satellites).
What's crazy is that I plan on making the case that Addison Russell will be better than them all.
Bryant, Rizzo, and Schwarber are all extremely young. Schwarber is 23, Bryant 24, and Rizzo is 26. Addison Russell was 21 years old last season – when Schwarber and Bryant were 21, they were terrorizing college hitters, and Rizzo was floundering in his first taste of the bigs. Russell looked fairly rough in the first part of his debut season, but was never as bad as Rizzo was in his first cup of coffee. Russell hit .242/.307/.389 last season – the league average SS hit .256/.307/.375. The league average SS is also a league-average defensive shortstop – Russell definitely isn't. Russell is already a top-6 or 7 defender at that position.
Russell was serviceable offensively last year, and if he never improves he'd be an above-average shortstop. There are 7 21-year old shortstops with an OPS+ between 85 and 95 since integration: Robin Yount, Edgar Renteria, and Alan Trammell among them. It's certainly possible Russell becomes Mike Caruso (47 OPS+ next year and out of the league), but it's more likely he becomes Yount (110) or Trammell (113).
It is sometimes forgotten that Russell was an offensive powerhouse in the minors. Russell hit .269/.369/.495 in A+ in 2013 – he was 19 and 4 years younger than the average hitter there. The only 20-and-unders ahead of him offensively in that league were some dudes named Maikel Franco, Byron Buxton, Javier Baez, and Delino DeShields Jr. (and he was younger than all of them). To summarize here, he is offensively an elite prospect, and just so happens to play elite defense at shortstop already.
If a SS has a season with an OPS+ between 110 and 130, he averages 4.2 WAR and is probably an all-star. If he has one between 130 and 150, he is basically Barry Larkin (who, while a good defender, is probably not as good a defender on the whole as Addison Russell). If you OPS+ above 150 for ANY season, you are either in the HOF, will be one day, or are Nomar Garciaparra. My point isn't that I think Addison Russell is going to have a season like these in 2016. My point is that shortstops with the potential to be above average hitters are rarer than you probably think (an average of slightly less than one SS season with an OPS+ 130 or above over the last 60 years). Most of THOSE are SS in name only and Russell isn't. We are crazy lucky to have him.
The last underreported facet of Russell's game is his power. We are spoiled by Bryant, Rizzo, Soler, Baez, and Schwarber (which is crazy that you can list a quintet of people that could hit 40 in any given season if you gave them 650 PA). Russell slugged .520 in the minors and hit a HR in 3.5% of plate appearances. That's 23 HR over a whole season, and he's growing into his power. Russell has flashed a lot of power in Spring Training (which is ST, but still), and reports from nearly everyone who has laid eyes on him have been glowing. It doesn't have to come together for Addison this year, but if it does…this lineup is going to be a fucking nightmare for opposing pitchers.
This team is so incredibly deep, that you can imagine a scenario in which Russell puts up 4 WAR this year and gets absolutely no attention from a national outlet. Don't make that mistake.