A few days ago, Mike Ashmore told us a bit about Eduardo Nunez. This morning, I thought we’d look at another infielder recently added to the 40-man.
Kevin Russo was a postseason all-star with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He hit .326 with a .397 on-base percentage and — having covered the league — I honestly believe he was the best lead-off hitter in the International League. It’s a league that’s often dominated by veterans, but at 25 years old, Russo was terrific in his Triple-A debut. When he missed time with a hamstring injury, the Triple-A Yankees were never able to replace him at the top of the lineup. He was especially good down the stretch — .477 on-base percentage in August, all five of his home runs in the final month of the regular season — and he finished third in the league in batting average and fourth in on-base percentage. If not for teammate Austin Jackson, Russo would have been my vote for the league’s Rookie of the Year.
Most of Russo’s time came at second base, with a few starts at third and a handful at shortstop. In the past he’s also played the outfield. Russo went through a stretch when he seemed to make more mistakes than usual in the field — half of his errors came after August 1 — but he’s generally a reliable defender with a surprisingly strong arm for a guy who’s spent most of his career at second base.
Although he missed significant time the past two years, I wouldn’t label Russo as an injury concern. His 2008 injury came when he was hit in the face by a batted ball during batting practice. Last year he tried to come back from a hamstring injury too quickly and wound up missing an additional month.
Russo’s bat should get him to the big leagues in one role or another. He has a good eye at the plate, makes consistent contact and has enough speed to steal a bag. Power is not a significant part of his game, but there’s a little bit of pop in his bat. The question seems to be whether he can play shortstop well enough to be a utility infielder. I haven’t seen him enough at the position to know whether he can handle it, but I thought he was good at second and I like his arm.
Bottom line is, Russo can hit. Nunez might have more power, but I think Russo’s bat is the most advanced of the 40-man middle infielders (other than Jeter and Cano, of course). That should be enough to give him a long look in spring training.