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James Russell has chance to blossom with Sean Marshall gone

As reliever last seasJames Russell had 2.19 ERA strikeout-walk ratio better than 3-1. As starter he went 0-5 with 9.33

As a reliever last season, James Russell had a 2.19 ERA and a strikeout-walk ratio of better than 3-1. As a starter, he went 0-5 with a 9.33 ERA. | Eric Christian Smith~Getty Images

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Updated: April 2, 2012 9:53AM

MESA, Ariz. — James Russell was back home in Texas, kicking back on the couch with his dad during the holidays, when he found out about Cubs teammate Sean Marshall.

‘‘We were flipping through channels, and then all of a sudden we see Sean got traded,’’ Russell said. ‘‘It was a big surprise. Big topic of conversation right there.’’

Big career change for the left-handed reliever, too.

That possibility isn’t lost on Russell and his dad, two-time All-Star pitcher Jeff Russell.

The Russells spent a lot of time together over the winter, playing golf as often as possible and talking baseball even more often.

‘‘Any time I’m with my dad, it’s hard to not talk about baseball, and just seeing all the moves that happened with us this offseason, it gave us a bunch to talk about,’’ James said. ‘‘Once we saw Marshall traded, I knew that it kind of opened some things up for me.’’

Marshall (2.26 ERA and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 2011) was one of the top three left-handed relievers in the majors last season. Much of his value came in his ability to set up the closer, regardless of righty-lefty matchups.

That value was underlined when the Cincinnati Reds gave up a young starting pitcher (Travis Wood) and two prospects to acquire him. The Reds signed Marshall to a three-year, $16.5 million deal Monday.

‘‘It’s a lot to ask anybody to fill the shoes that Marshall filled,’’ Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio said. ‘‘The guy had an exceptional year. Now, is that something to shoot for and strive for? Yeah. And [Russell] has that kind of ability.’’

The experience? That’s another matter, Bosio said.

But as the Cubs try to grow into a contender again, Russell could find himself on a corresponding curve. That could make him a key part of any success the new front office engineers.

He opens this spring firmly established as a reliever, thanks to a 2.19 ERA and a strikeout-walk ratio of better than 3-1 last year.

As a starter? That’s another matter.

‘‘I mean, 0-5 with a 9 [actually, 9.33 ERA] isn’t the way you want to write it up,’’ Russell said. ‘‘But I still took a lot of positives from it.’’

To be fair, Russell was forced into an ill-timed, if not ill-fitting, starting role because of injuries early last season.

If nothing else, his ability to have success after a rough start might speak to a mind-set as strong as his power repertoire.

‘‘His dad and I played against each other,’’ Bosio said of the elder Russell, who was a starter-turned-closer, ‘‘and this kid’s got the same kind of genes.’’

The turning point for James’ season last year came in Boston, when he was forced into another start by yet another injury (to Matt Garza).

Two nights after pitching three innings of relief, he started and pitched into the fifth. He took a shutout into the fourth before loading the bases and giving up two runs before escaping.

A home run by Jarrod Saltalamacchia leading off the fifth ended the start.

‘‘But it was a learning ­experience,’’ Russell said. ‘‘I felt like I pitched well starting there.’’

An even bigger turning point might have come that day flipping channels in ­December.

‘‘I don’t know if I can replace Sean, per se,’’ he said. ‘‘His stuff, I mean, he’s above and beyond. But I have no doubt in my abilities that I could do it.’’

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