PHOENIX -- Addison Russell sits in front of his locker in the cramped Oakland Athletics clubhouse at old Phoenix Municipal Stadium, eating a sandwich before a recent spring training game, keeping to himself while the older players eat and play cards at two small round tables. While the Dodgers’ clubhouse in Glendale, Ariz., is vast enough to include a pingpong table with enough room to return one of Clayton Kershaw’s forehand smashes, the A’s barely have space for the clubhouse DJ to connect an iPod to the stereo sitting on an equipment bin in the middle of the room.
Russell is a 20-year-old minor leaguer in major league camp, a player scouts rave about, and fans and front offices dream upon. After acquiring and munching down a second sandwich, he eventually sits at one of the two small round tables and joins a card game.
"It’s my second year back and I feel more comfortable," he said. "I feel like I’m starting to get a good understanding of what’s going on here at camp, and I’m excited, having fun. I can’t wait for the season to begin -- seems like it’s going to start out on a good note."
Russell is an athletic, 205-pound shortstop with a polished defensive game, and a bat that projects to hit for average and some power. The 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Russell in on a quick path to the majors, projected to start the season in Double-A after hitting .275/.377/.507 at Class A Stockton as a 19-year-old. Keith Law rated him the No. 3 prospect in the minors. It’s possible Russell could be ready for the majors at some point this season, although the A's are well-stocked in the middle infield with Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto, and may not wish to start Russell's service time unless there's a rash of injuries.
Still, Russell is aware of the rankings and how he’s viewed. "Of course, you’re going to see that," Russell said, mentioning all the feedback he receives on Twitter. But he says it can be a dangerous thing if you swallow too much of the hype.
"As ballplayers, if we try to play up to the expectations, I think we may not play up to those expectations. Just play the game like we've been doing since we were 4 or 5 years old and have fun. That’s the kind of atmosphere that I think you perform your best in."
As for his major league timetable, he’s not worried about that. "I’m just going to go out there and perform and have fun and show people what I can bring to the table and to Oakland," he said. "There’s no rush; when that moment comes, I’ll be ready."
Third baseman Josh Donaldson’s locker is a couple spots down from Russell. "He’s athletic. Defensively, he looks pretty sound. Offensively, everything looks pretty good. His ability will only take him so far, but what I like the most about him is I seem him out there every day, working and he’s grinding and trying to get better. With that, I feel the future is very bright for him."
The last great generation of shortstops came up in the mid-'90s, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada all arrived between 1994 and 1997. Those four have combined for 1,446 home runs, more than 5,000 RBIs, more than 10,000 hits, 39 All-Star appearances and 25 top-10 MVP finishes.
Russell is part of a new group of shortstops who have the potential to once again stir up those heated debates we used to have about which player is the best. In his top 100 prospect rankings, Keith had Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox ranked second, Russell third, Carlos Correa of the Astros fourth, Francisco Lindor of the Indians sixth and Javier Baez of the Cubs seventh. While Baez has opened eyes with some monster home runs this spring, and Lindor is viewed as a defensive whiz, Russell has the all-around game that may eventually elevate him past the others. Entering Saturday's action, he's hitting .280 with three extra-base hits in 25 spring at-bats.
Russell’s bat exploded as the season progressed at Stockton, and he hit .319 and slugged .578 over his final 299 plate appearances.
"I like to work early in the count, but I also like to work deep in the count," he said. "Really, for me, it’s see ball, hit ball. I know that’s a cliché or whatever, but in my mind, I want to get something straight, but if I have to resort to hitting a curveball or changeup, then I’ll do what I have to do.
"I’m looking more for a location than a certain pitch. If I’m looking for a certain pitch, it could be that pitch but it could be in a different location, and I’ll take a bad swing."
In his write-up on Russell, Keith wrote about Russell’s aptitude for the game, and you can hear that in talking to him. He talks about his defensive positioning based on the count or the pitch, cheating one step this way or that, and watching the ball out of the pitcher’s hand to anticipate the location. Not bad for a player who had bulked up so much at Pace (Fla.) High School that he was playing third base.
"As a junior, I put more mass on," he admitted. "It was good weight, but I was too young to carry that amount of weight at that time." Russell scaled back down to 195 as a senior and showed scouts he could stick at shortstop.
There are no doubts now that he can stick there. The question now is when he'll be wearing green and gold in a game that counts.