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Bernstein: Cubs' Addison Russell Off To A Special Start

By Dan Bernstein-- senior columnist

(CBS) Underappreciated amid the excitement over the Cubs' hot start to 2016 is the emergence of someone who could soon be counted among baseball's very best players, and for a while.

Big league careers don't often begin like that of shortstop Addison Russell, because being this valuable this soon and this young is difficult. After arriving via trade from Oakland in 2014, the 2012 11th-overall draft pick debuted as a 21-year-old rookie last season and finished the year with 2.9 Wins Above Replacement, per, with most of that number compiled due to his superior defense.

This year, the bat has caught up with the glove, and at just 22 years of age, Russell is already blossoming into something potentially formidable for years to come. He currently stands at 1.3 WAR over 32 games, which means that just playing at his current level over a full season could make him a 6-win player. If we project conservatively by assuming even some slight decline, we are still talking about a 5-win shortstop. That would mean that in the first two years of major league action, Russell would have already accounted for 7.9 career WAR.

Honus Wagner was 24 after his first two years, racking up 4.9 wins by the end of 1898. Alex Rodriguez was only 20 after two partial seasons, worth a total of -0.6 WAR. Cal Ripken Jr. had 4.2 career WAR two years in at age 22, Luke Appling was at 0.0 at 25, Derek Jeter was at 1.8 at 22 and Barry Larkin – a popular Russell comparison – had 2.1 WAR at 23 after his first two years.

Another name mentioned by baseball folks discussing Russell is Alan Trammell, who started with the Tigers as a 19-year-old in 1977. By the time he was Russell's age, he already had four years under his belt and had accrued a total of 6.8 wins (and his 63.7 career WAR deserved much greater consideration for the Hall of Fame, a discussion for another time).

For those jumping up and down screaming "Carlos Correa!", the Astros' young stud was a 3.3 WAR player in 2015, and defensive headwinds have him projecting to somewhere around that number once again this year, as he stands at 0.8 through 38 games despite batting .273/.381/.469. He also will be 22 at season's end but likely less objectively valuable than Russell.

Why Athletics general manager Billy Beane dealt Russell along with Billy McKinney for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija is baffling, yet another deal by Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer that vaporizes any hoary Brock-for-Broglio lamentation. Between stealing Russell and getting Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman in 2013, the Cubs are fully on the positive side of the historical market. (Not to mention the fact that Lou Brock is one of the very worst Hall of Famers at 43.2 WAR and an all-time overrated player who couldn't play a lick of defense and made his name doing something now understood to have little importance, another topic for some other time.)

This is all to say that Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Arrieta have received entirely deserved attention as the Cubs have risen to the game's elite level, but their star power shouldn't keep us from recognizing what's happening so quickly right in front of our eyes, as we watch Addison Russell developing into a great shortstop.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score's "Boers and Bernstein Show" in afternoon drive. You can follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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