Heading into the 2012 draft, the book on top Athletics prospect Addison Russell is that he would hit, and hit he has. Playing as the youngest player in the High-A California League, the 19 year old shortstop got on base and hit for power like a first baseman, knocking out 17 home runs and posting a .377 on base and .508 slugging percentage. Granted, California is notoriously a hitter’s league, but regardless, teenage middle infielders aren’t supposed to post wRC+s over 130. This wasn’t a fluke either; as Oakland fans may remember, Russell posted a .369/.432/.594 slash line across three levels in 2012, his professional season.
Not even the Athletics could have predicted success of this nature when they drafted Russell 11th overall two years ago, but they are certainly taking it in stride. Impressed by his performance, the A’s front office gave Russel three games at Triple-A to close out 2013 and GM Billy Beane announced earlier this offseason that Russell will start 2014 in Double-A, “at the lowest.” From there, Beane excitedly announced, “anything can happen,” implying that Russell could be playing in the majors by next summer.
But where he will play on the Oakland diamond and how his minor league stats will translate at the game’s highest level still remains up for debate.
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Although many scouts raised serious questions about Russell’s ability to stay at shortstop when he was drafted, most of those concerns have been dispelled in the two years since. Russell may be slightly big for the position, but he has incredibly soft hands and a strong enough arm to compensate for any deficiency in range.
That said, Russell’s skill set should play equally well elsewhere on the infield, particularly at third base, and the Athletics may need him at a position other than shortstop. Oakland already has a high performing shortstop, Jed Lowrie, who has consistently graded out as an above average defender over the course of his career. Russell might be capable of playing short every day, but it remains to be seen whether he would be anything more than average and the A’s, a contending team in a competitive division, don’t have time for any experiment.
Meanwhile, breakout stars from last year, second baseman Eric Sogard and third baseman Josh Donaldson, could both rather easily revert back to their mediocre pre-2013 forms. Such an event would create openings on the infield and Russell could find himself bordering shortstop instead of playing it, at least in the short term.
Wherever he plays, though, he should hit. The only glaring hole in Russell’s game is his propensity to strikeout as he struck out in 23% of his plate appearances last season, but even that is only 4.5 percentage points above major league average. That should lead to a slightly deflated batting average, but little else, while his walk rate – 12.1%, 3 points above major league average – should let him maintain a stable on base percentage. The walk rate is also indicative of strong pitch recognition and approach at the plate, which should serve him well as he advances to the highest level.
Manager Bob Melvin told reporters this morning that Russell had only a slim chance of breaking camp with the big league club, but that should not be discouraging in any way. Oakland was never going to bring up their premier prospect to start the year, and miss out on a year of team control; just the fact that Melvin is talking about it shows how high the A’s front office is on this guy.
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to close out 2013