Cubs reliever James Russell wants to start
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter July 28, 2014 10:10PM
Updated: July 28, 2014 10:19PM
As the Cubs try to figure out what their starting rotation will look like next year — or even down the stretch this year — James Russell believes he has one solution:
The left-handed reliever hasn’t started since emergency duty in 2011, but he always has considered himself a big-league starter and says he can help fill the rotation voids created by the July 4 trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
“There’s still not a doubt in my mind that I could do it,” he said before the Cubs opened a four-game series against the Colorado Rockies with a 4-1 victory Monday night. “It’s just kind of whether or not the guys upstairs would let me do it. I ask all the time.”
The front office, which allowed Russell’s good friend Samardzija to try it in 2012, has been less receptive to others, including Russell.
But with rotation depth a pressing issue heading to the offseason, Russell sees a potential opportunity at this stage of the staff’s transition — if he’s not gone by Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline.
That’s a big if, considering several would-be contenders still seek relief help as the clock winds down to the annual trading rush hour.
“If we were to get a bunch of free-agent pitchers that were starters and bring them here, I could see a reason why I would stay in the bullpen,” he said. “If we don’t do that, I don’t see the harm in getting the chance. But it’s really not up to me.”
Russell, who was well-regarded enough out of the University of Texas in 2007 to command an over-slot bonus in the 14th round, was a starter coming up in the minors and has pitches to get right-handers out as well as lefties (righties are hitting .094 in 53 at-bats this year compared to .293 in 58 for lefties).
“It’s something I’ve done all my life, and I feel I could do it,” he said. “It’s just whether or not they need me in the starting role, I guess.”
Russell points to such examples as Samardzija, Ryan Dempster and Adam Wainwright, who have made the move successfully — all of whom did it at an All-Star level. And his dad, Jeff Russell, was an All-Star as a starter and a reliever during his career — albeit, going from starter to reliever.
Russell knows it’s a long shot. And skeptics point to 2011, when he struggled in an injury-replacement role.
Not that it was a bona fide chance to win a long-term job there, he said.
“It wasn’t handled too well,” said Russell, who was sent to the bullpen between starts and pitched on a schedule ranging from his sixth to eighth day between starts. “It was kind of taxing. I never really got to prepare like a normal starter would. But that was just kind of the situation we were in.”
If he stays with the Cubs and gets a chance to start, it’s a chance to increase at least mid-range value to the club.
“If I were to succeed, then nothing but good things would come out of it,” he said.
Even if he’s traded, it could mean a fresh set of eyes — and ears — the next time he lobbies his case.
“There could be a pitching coach somewhere that sees me as a starter,” he said. “Who that guy is, I don’t know. . . . But if I get traded, and they see that as a possibility, I’m all for it. . . .
“It’s just getting that chance and making the best of it.”