An organization that has always preferred college talent over high school players early in the draft, the Oakland A's shifted gears this June with the selection of shortstop Addison Russell in the first round. The move has paid huge dividends, as the Florida native has excelled against much older competition across three minor-league levels this season.
Russell's meteoric rise will end with Burlington and the Midwest League playoffs, at least for the 2012 season, a level in which he's posted a triple-slash line of .310/.369/.448 in 16 games.
The shortstop has adjusted quickly to a league that can be difficult at times for first-year professionals. He will carry a seven-game hitting streak into the postseason. Never mind that he won't turn 19 for another four months.
"School was definitely my number one priority, but the A's offered me a once in a lifetime opportunity that I had to take," said Russell, who was the 11th overall selection in the draft.
"I just wanted to get into the system really quick and see what pro ball was about as soon as I could so I could have a better grasp of it. The daily grind of baseball is something I live for and I'm glad I got started where I did.
"They put me in the system pretty fast and I got to meet a whole bunch of players in Arizona and Vermont. Now I'm here in Burlington, Iowa, and it's been a fun process. I like what I'm doing so far and am looking down the road and seeing how it's going to work out for me."
Russell dominated the competition in the Arizona Rookie and New York-Penn leagues, and he was promoted to full-season ball on August 23rd, just two months removed from the amateur draft.
The 6-footer put up video game-type numbers in rookie ball, reaching base nearly 50 percent of the time with a 1205 OPS and six homers and 29 RBIs in 26 games. The torrid start to Russell's career continued at short-season Vermont, where he posted a triple-slash line of .340/.386/.509 in 13 games.
With little more to prove at those levels, Russell was presented the challenge of Low-A ball, where he'd be playing alongside and competing against players several years his senior.
Russell is taking a simple approach to the plate, yet one that has allowed him to perform consistently on the field.
"I'm just taking it an at-bat at a time, a play at a time and a pitch at a time," Russell said.
"You have to take it to heart. If you mess up in one at-bat, you can't let that affect your next at-bat or your glove in the field. You just try to perform at the level that you know you can.
"Offensively, going by the way the games are called [in the rookie league], if I saw a first-pitch fastball that was semi-close to the strike zone I was hacking. But if they tended to throw balls at first, then I would work the count deep and either walk or get a good pitch to hit on 3-1 or 3-2. I've had pretty much the same approach here that I had in Vermont and Arizona."
Russell has also shown the capability of staying at shortstop for the long-term, something scouts questioned leading up to the draft.
"I definitely feel like I should stay at shortstop and there's no reason for me to go to third," Russell said. "I'm not that big anymore. I'm down to 185 to 190 pounds, move quickly, have good range and a good arm. I have good perception at shortstop, so I don't see me moving anytime soon."
It's obvious that Russell takes great pride in his ability to remain at shortstop, as evidenced by his training regimen leading up to June's draft.
"It definitely changed in the weight room," he said. "I couldn't put on 45s on the bar and bench or squat as much as I could, so I basically kept the light weight and got a lot of reps in the gym just strengthening those muscles but not bulking them up.
"My diet also changed a lot. It wasn't as high protein and more salads and chicken. I ran and did Yoga, a whole bunch of Pilates stuff and cycling classes. It all worked out in the end for me."
Russell has succeeded thus far mainly on his talent and instincts for the game. His first extensive instruction from A's coaches won't come until the fall Instructional League. The Arizona camp is something Russell is looking forward to.
"I would like to learn more about the game," he said.
"I'm trying to be a sponge. Since I got the honor of being promoted twice, I'm trying to soak up everything I can and try to learn more about the game. In the real world, I think knowledge is power. If you know a lot about the game, you're going to be successful at this level."
The biggest obstacles facing Russell to date are of the off-the-field variety. Living out of a hotel for the better part of two months and playing in three minor leagues has required a level of discipline for the youngster.
"Living on my own has been the biggest adjustment," Russell said.
"I live in a hotel room and have to walk to the field every day. Definitely the age difference between the guys is a big thing. At first it was a little intimidating, but they throw the ball and hit the ball just like you. I'm just taking it day by day."