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Addison Russell on track for majors

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PITTSBURGH – No longer do you need to wonder if Chicago Cubs prospect Addison Russell is going to make his major league debut this year -- that question is so March -- it’s just a matter of when.

The usually honest Joe Maddon didn’t dissuade anyone from thinking Russell is next up on the prospect train from Triple-A Iowa, especially now that he’s seeing time at second base. It just so happens the Cubs have a huge hole at that position, at least offensively. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Cubs second basemen rank 29th in baseball with a .135 batting average and dead last with a .355 OPS going into Monday night's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“You never know where the need is going to be on the major league level,” Maddon said before the game. “(We’re) being a little bit more proactive regarding prepping him for a need that might be open here.”

After Javier Baez was sent to the minors and subsequently went on bereavement leave, the Cubs were left with a choice between Tommy La Stella, Arismendy Alcantara and spring invitee Jonathan Herrera. La Stella is hurt and -- if you can believe it -- Maddon likes the journeyman Herrera’s game the best right now.

“He’s been playing pretty well, I think,” Maddon said. “You just don’t look at his batting average. A lot of good at-bats. He’s playing pretty really well at second base. I just think he’s playing pretty well, that’s why he’s getting the preponderance of the starts right now.”

But “pretty well” is a relative phrase at this point. Herrera is hitting only .182, but that’s still better than Alcantara’s .077.

“I’m swinging at bad pitches,” Alcantara said Monday. “I have to have better selection at home plate.”

Herrera said this is a good opportunity for him.

“I’ve been in this situation before in my career,” he said. “I just try to do the little things and play my best.”

Some thought earning a ninth-inning game-winning hit against Cincinnati recently might get Alcantara moving in the right direction. It didn’t. Meanwhile, Russell is hitting .300 at Triple-A after breaking up former Cub Scott Baker’s perfect game with a single in the final inning of a doubleheader on Monday afternoon. And he was electric during spring training, both with his bat and his glove.

“You think his bat may be ready to play, you have to get him a position to play,” Maddon said. “You could surmise it that Russell might do that (come up to play second) but it’s not a lock. It’s a matter of expanding his infield horizons.”

Like any team, the Cubs never like to promote a player only to demote him later, so it might simply be too early to make a switch now. Remember, Russell had only 258 at-bats in the minors last season due to an injury. A couple of hot games, and Herrera’s or Alcantara’s numbers could look better as well.

But the writing is on the wall. Russell is coming, most likely as soon as he gets a better feel for playing second base. Like most observers, Maddon believes learning how to turn a double play from there instead of shortstop is the biggest adjustment for a newbie at second. But it’s not the only one.

“I think the final point people don’t consider is the road map,” Maddon explained. “The GPS. Where am I supposed to be when things happen?”

Maddon cited Alex Rodriguez wondering the same thing while playing first base for the Yankees. The manager praised those on his current roster -- including Herrera and Alcantara -- on some of the finer points of the game, such as baserunning and having that GPS in the field. But if there is any prospect who has the instincts to deal with a position change quickly, it’s Russell. He’s everything a manager wants in a young player.

And he could be here soon.