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Cubs newcomer Russell ‘humble and hungry’

CHICAGO – In the eighth inning Friday night against Northwest Arkansas, Midland Rockhounds manager Aaron Nieckula felt his trainer tap him on the shoulder.

A text message from A’s management carried news about prized shortstop Addison Russell that traveled quickly from Oakland to the visiting dugout in Springdale, Ark.

“He said, ‘Did you hear Russell got traded?’” Nieckula recalled Sunday. “I was like, wow. I decided to wait until after the game to tell him.”

As Nieckula congratulated the Rockhounds after their 6-0 victory, he asked Russell – the last one smiling in the handshake line – to step into his office. Double-A players know that usually means an invitation to upheaval. Russell’s antenna was up.

“I asked Addison if he knew why he was in here and he said, ‘I’ve heard some rumors,’” Nieckula said. “I said, ‘It’s true, you’ve been traded to the Cubs.’ It was surreal. He just sat there, but took it well.”

Not that Nieckula would recognize Russell, 20, reacting not so well to anything. His manager at Class A Burlington and Double A, Nieckula described Russell as a cerebral player, who keeps his emotions intact, but blends in well enough to have enjoyed once dressing in leather pants and a ‘70s retro shirt as part of his rookie initiation.

“He is mature beyond his years and doesn’t ride that emotional roller coaster,” said Nieckula, a Fenwick High graduate who played baseball at Illinois. “He was stone-faced when I told him. He might have been caught off-guard, but he’s excited to play for a good organization.”

Suffice to say Russell felt no more excited to join the Cubs than team President Theo Epstein was to acquire him, outfielder Billy McKinney and pitcher Dan Straily for starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The deal immediately turned the A’s into the American League team to beat, and the Cubs into early favorites for the 2017 National League pennant.

Epstein executed the trade that could define his tenure 4 weeks before the July 31 deadline because A’s general manager Billy Beane made Russell available – and before Beane changed his mind. Yes, the Cubs still lack pitching depth, but Epstein always can purchase elite arms closer to when his team looks ready to contend.

“There was no pitcher available even close to the caliber of player that Addison Russell is,” Epstein said.

In getting three A’s, Epstein ascended near the top of the class of baseball architects. Cubs fans looking at their new list of highly ranked minor league prospects feel like newlyweds seeing blueprints of their first home.

No starting pitcher ever has welcomed being relieved more than Samardzija, who sought a fresh start to win now instead of later. The Cubs offered Samardzija a fair 5-year, $85 million deal, but the guy who never had more than nine victories in a season rejected it, seeking a salary north of $20 million. Good luck getting that from the frugal A’s.

If the organization had a spare $100 million, the A’s wouldn’t be stuck playing in Coliseum – the one stadium that might make Samardzija miss Wrigley Field. By the time Samardzija hits free agency in 2015, maybe he will think $17 million per season sounds good. Objectively, projecting Samardzija as an ace in the American League carries as much risk as predicting Russell will be a star.

Russell impressed Nieckula off the field as much as on it, showing up early like an unknown prospect with something to prove. Without knowing the Cubs’ plan, Nieckula expected Russell in the majors “sometime next year,” based on his progress.

“Cubbie Nation is getting a fine young man ready to work his tail off,” said Nieckula, 37. “He’s humble and hungry. Even though the sky’s the limit, he’s very coachable.”

If the Cubs asked Russell to switch positions, for example, Nieckula believes he would accept a move and excel given his athleticism. Isn’t discussing whether Starlin Castro, Javier Baez or Russell will be the Cubs’ long-term shortstop more fun than debating Samardzija’s worth?

“Shortstop is his best position, but he easily could transition to second or third,” Nieckula said. “Wait till you see this kid.”

Nieckula, who lives in Yorkville, Ill., offers offseason baseball clinics around Chicago, and youth players often ask about the best prospects he coached in nine seasons as a minor league manager. Since 2012, his answers include Russell.

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