Of all the Jeff Luhnow era drafts, the one I reacted the most negatively towards was the 2007 draft led by Pete Kozma and Clayton Mortensen. I came around on Mortensen and still wonder a bit if he couldn’t turn into a useful reliever or back end starter some day but the Pete Kozma pick at #1 will forever rankle. One of the few giddy moments from that draft was the 4th round selection: Kyle Russell. Whatever happened to that guy?
In 2007, Russell was a divisive prospect for scouts who were concerned about how his swing would translate but impressed by the athleticism and raw power he displayed at times. Quoting Baseball America:
He has a quick bat and lefthanded power to all fields, and he also offers solid athleticism, speed and arm strength. Yet a lot of scouts aren’t sold on his stroke and approach. They say it’s a grooved swing with too much uppercut, and pitchers can get him out by working up in the zone or coming inside. They also wonder how he’ll handle quality lefthanders.
Russell was often referred to as a first-round pick but there were rumors that he would slip because of bonus demands and because of the reservations that some scouts had. There were teams that had Russell high on their draft lists and teams that had him lasting into the 5th round. A draft eligible sophomore, Kyle Russell was selected by the Cardinals in the 4th round and things got interesting quickly.
Initial indications were that he might sign with the club at one point telling Derrick Goold: “I wanted to tell them, ‘I’m ready to go,’” he said. “Draft me.” Of course, the conventional wisdom was that it would go up to the deadline on August 15th. Then things started to sour. But wait, Luhnow was still optimistic as July came to a close. Indeed, indications were that he would sign with the club just 6 days away from the deadline. Alas, Russell and the club were too far apart on the signing bonus. And over the next several months, details would trickle out that left a bad taste in your mouth about the whole situation.
The Russell signing was shortly after I had joined with Erik to work on Future Redbirds in an effort to increase the coverage of the minor leagues. Russell was one of the first draftees who we followed closely for a protracted period of time and it was admittedly disappointing when he didn’t sign. In 2008, Russell had a less impressive season at Texas and was drafted in the 3rd round by the Los Angeles Dodgers for $410k, well below his 7 figure discussions with the Cardinals.
One of the criticisms at the time of the non-signing by the Cardinals was Russell’s selection in the 4th round rather than the 3rd, which made him an unprotected draft pick. When the Cardinals failed to sign him, they received no subsequent year do-over draft pick. Instead the club would watch Russell go to rookie league with the Dodgers in 2008 to start his professional career and the Cardinals would go home empty handed.
Since beginning his professional career, Russell has been mostly as advertised. He’s shown tremendous raw power with ISOs over .200 at every stop and a flawed plate approach that has him striking out over 30% of his plate appearances. Russell has mollified that somewhat with a walk rate over 10% but as he’s advanced to AA, he’s struggled to maintain his batting average in the face of better offspeed and breaking pitches. As a 25 year old in AA, Russell is hitting .260/.338/.498 at Chattanooga in the Southern League.
Ultimately, the Cardinals may have made the right decision not signing him. He’s old for a player at AA though he is hitting well relative to his league (127 wRC+). The Cardinals don’t really have an approximate to Kyle Russell in the system (a corner outfielder with raw power but poor plate discipline). Kyle Russell, in many ways, was drafted on the advent of higher minor league scrutiny and his story with the Cardinals is one of my earliest recollections with Future Redbirds. The Cardinals haven’t had quite the same will-he-won’t-he situation (though Austin Wilson evoked memories of it) since Russell and it will be a long time before we know whether the player or the club was “right”.