Addison Russell has the talent to produce one of the greatest seasons in KBO history if he stays in Korea beyond the reported one-year, $530,000 contract with the Kiwoom Heroes on Friday that will drop him into the middle of the 2020 campaign.
Should that happen, MLB teams might be tempted to bring him back to the U.S. despite the substantial allegations of domestic violence that led to a 40-game suspension last year. It would be another test of baseball’s long track record of granting extra chances to those who perform well enough on the field.
To that end, it’s pretty clear why Russell didn’t get a new MLB deal after being non-tendered by the Cubs this past offseason. He didn’t show enough offensive production to warrant the public relations risk or ethical concern of bringing him to a new team, batting .237 in 82 games after serving his ban in Chicago.
Russell’s stats will likely balloon in Korea and perhaps change the way MLB clubs perceive him. It’s easy to forget that he broke through to the big leagues around the same time as Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager with similar fanfare. He became an All-Star at 22. Even when he struggled at the plate last year, he remained a slick, above average middle-infield defender.
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While it’s difficult to gauge the level of talent in the KBO compared to MLB, it’s probably fair to place it around the Triple-A level. MLB rejects such as Jamie Romak and Aaron Altherr routinely slug more than 30 home runs.
There really isn’t a U.S. player like Russell who has jumped to Korea at this stage of his career. At 25, Russell is at the age many players are just settling into MLB competition. He has five big league seasons under his belt.
So, the former No. 11 overall MLB draft pick, who was once a consensus top-five prospect, could dominate his new digs. It will work to his advantage that attention on his domestic violence allegations are likely to be far less overwhelming than they were last year in Chicago. He also joins a club in the Kiwoom Heroes that is one of the better teams in the KBO.
The question then becomes whether MLB would grant him another opportunity, with a team hopeful the passage of time would mute criticism. For every hit he delivers in Korea (and there will almost certainly be a lot of them), the urge will grow stronger.