Ex-Cub James Russell controlling only thing he can: Himself
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter August 2, 2014 1:42AM
Chicago Cubs relief pitcher James Russell delivers against the St. Louis Cardinals during the seventh inning of a baseball game on Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles)
When the Cubs traded him to the Braves on Thursday, James Russell had the advantage of being able to talk to his dad, Jeff, who went through the same thing on trade-deadline day in 1992.
Not that it made everything suddenly normal.
“It’s obviously a shock,” said Russell, who had been the most tenured Cub in the clubhouse, at least since Jeff Samardzija was traded July 5. “It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around it.
“I guess you can’t really worry about it. You’ve got to just worry about the one thing you can control, and that’s go out and play baseball.”
That’s what Russell did better than almost any reliever in baseball in recent years: play whenever the Cubs’ shaky pitching staff needed him. He was among the major-league leaders in appearances the last two seasons, and he never has been on the disabled list.
“My dad’s always taught me to just take the ball and be a gamer,” he said. “And that you can’t really make a paycheck by sitting on the training table, so you might as well go out there and earn your money and put food on your family’s table. Not everybody gets to be a professional baseball player, so you might as well go out and do it every day.”
As the Cubs’ third-year regime puts more distance on the previous regime with every trade, only shortstop Starlin Castro and catcher Welington Castillo remain from 2011.
Asked about putting their imprint on the organization by changing over nearly the entire inherited 40-man roster, general manager Jed Hoyer said it’s “certainly not something we talk about. It’s nothing we really pay attention to.
“And it’s not because we didn’t inherit a lot of good players,” he said. “Really, it’s more a product of service and age than anything else [related to arbitration and free agency clocks].
“James Russell is going to be a big part of a very good team, and certainly we didn’t seek to put an imprint on the team by doing that. If we felt like that, we never would have extended Starlin or talked extension with some of the other guys.”
Russell broke in under Lou Piniella in 2010 as the Cubs tried to extend a competitive window with a veteran lineup on a frozen budget. Three managers, two front-office regimes and four-plus losing seasons later, it’s a dramatically different team — and organizational structure and vision — that Russell leaves behind.
“It was different, just going through that little facelift kind of thing,” Russell said. “We thought early that we had a really good chance of having some good teams, and obviously it didn’t work out. And the next thing you know, we’re doing a merry-go-round with managers and moving guys every which way.
“It’ll be fun to see things kind of slowly stop and then pieces get added and watch things kind of take their course here.
“All the stuff that you hear about the young guys in the minor leagues, you hear it for a reason. You know they’re going to be good. There’s a reason everybody gets that much coverage. It’ll be fun to see them come up here and start contributing.”
Russell, who has another year of arbitration eligibility, talked about wanting to be a part of that transformation when asked about trade rumors in recent days and weeks.
Instead, he’ll join his first playoff race, much like his dad, who was a closer when he was traded from the Rangers to the Athletics in 1992 (in the deal that shipped Jose Canseco out of Oakland).
“That’ll be exciting,” he said, “something that I’ve never experienced. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of adrenaline and a lot of emotion. It’ll be fun. I’ll get to see what I’m made out of.”
Hoyer said the Cubs didn’t look to deal Russell on Thursday, but they needed to boost the value of the Braves’ haul to get a player the Cubs wanted.
“He’s a great competitor,” Hoyer said. “People talk about bloodlines in baseball, and obviously his dad was a great competitor. It’s genetic. You know he’s a guy who doesn’t scare off in a big moment. And I think he’ll be a great guy down the stretch in a pennant race. I think his stuff and his command will get even better because he is a competitor.”