Since signing his pro contract with the Oakland A's last June, Addison Russell's ride through the minor leagues has been a smooth one. The then-18-year-old hit a combined .369/.432/.594 in 55 games split between Rookie ball, short-season A and Low-A last year and then starred during the A's fall Instructional League. The A's rewarded Russell's performance last season with a non-roster invite to big league spring training, where Russell continued to draw raves from coaches and scouts.
The consensus top prospect in the A's system in on a fast track, as the A's have pushed him to High-A for the start of the 2013 season. At only 19-years-old, Russell is the youngest player on the Stockton roster by more than three years.
The Ports are off to a fast start this season, winning their first four games and hitting 12 homeruns in those wins. Russell, however, is dealing with a little bit of early season adversity. He twisted his ankle on Friday night, although he was able to stay in the game. However, on Saturday, Russell tweaked his back during infield practice and that injury has kept him out of the last two Stockton games.
Before injuring his back, Russell had collected two hits in eight at-bats over two games as the Stockton lead-off hitter. The Florida native had walked twice and had struck-out four times. He is currently listed as day-to-day.
Although pretty much everything went right for Russell during his pro debut season, he doesn't expect the 2013 season to be easy and comes into the year with a strong understanding of the daily ups-and-downs of a full professional season.
"I've just got to take it day-by-day. At the end of every day, I just want to think, ‘today I gave it my all. I put it all out there,'" Russell said just before the start of the regular season. "There are going to be days where I don't get a hit and there are going to be days where I strike-out, but there are going to be days when I do get hits. I just want to lay down in bed and say that I tried my best today."
One of the main reasons the A's felt Russell was ready for an advanced league like the California League is that they believed that he was mature enough to handle the challenges that come from playing at a higher level.
"I think it is pretty much the general consensus that Addison is in the right spot," A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman said at the end of spring training. "There is never 100 percent certainty in any decision, but you look at his make-up and what you see as his ability to recover from failure, and he seems to fit all of the categories of someone who can handle temporary failure or adversity."
Russell is the youngest position player to suit up on Opening Day for the Ports since Daric Barton debuted for the team in 2005. Like Barton at that time, Russell will have all eyes on him while he is with Stockton, given his standing as the organization's top prospect. Russell acknowledges the media attention can't be blocked out completely, but he insists that it has no impact in his preparation.
"I've got people that Tweet me that stuff and it's kind of hard to ignore those things these days," Russell said. "It's kind of fun to look at, but it doesn't fog my judgment of what I need to focus on in the long-run."
Russell had the opportunity to preview his future this spring when he had a stint in major league camp. He was the youngest player invited to big league spring training in all of baseball. While Russell indicated that the big league games themselves weren't too different from what he is used to, he learned a lot about what separates big leaguers from those in the minor leagues.
"I believe that the big league guys are more consistent with everything they do," Russell said. "They put more pressure on guys like me who are trying to get up there to be more consistent."
Once Russell was sent back to minor league camp, he had an opportunity to reconnect with his two fellow 2012 A's first-round draft choice, Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson. Russell, Robertson and Olson debuted together last season with the Arizona Rookie League A's and they quickly formed a tight bond. While all three have started the season in different places (Robertson is finishing his rehab of a knee injury at extended spring and Olson is with Low-A Beloit), they all still remain in close contact.
"The relationship that I have with them is really, really close. We act like we have grown up together since we were little kids," Russell said. "Since we were all three high school picks, I think we can all relate and it makes us that much stronger.
"If we see one person do good, it makes us want to do that much better. So there is also a competitive level [to the relationship]. We are just trying to make each other better and, off the baseball field, we set each other straight."
Russell also gathers strength from his family, who he credits with providing him the foundation he has needed to achieve what he has on and off the field thus far.
"We're a tightknit unit. My family and I have a relationship that I don't think anyone could really understand because we are just so close and then again we pick on each other," Russell said. "It's a love-hate relationship. It's a happy-go-lucky relationship … We've been very, very close since day one."
Once Russell is healthy enough to return to the Stockton line-up, he will re-join a group that has come out of the gates red-hot. The Ports currently lead the California League in runs scored, homeruns and team OPS. With so many Ports swinging the bat well, Russell shouldn't feel any pressure to carry the team by himself, an ideal environment for a player as young as Russell.