SAN DIEGO – After knowing only the Cubs organization in eight years of professional baseball including five seasons in the majors, left-handed reliever James Russell entered a new environment in every sense after being traded Thursday to the Braves.
“Just the tradition that the Braves have, it’s amazing,” said Russell, the son of former major league pitcher Jeff Russell. “It’s kind of funny, I kind of grew up watching their games because they were always on TV, just like the Cubs. It’s fun to be here. I’m in place where they’ve established winning as a culture.”
Russell, 28, was traded from the Cubs along with veteran utilityman Emilio Bonifacio in exchange for catching prospect Victor Caratini. The newcomers joined the Braves in San Diego and Bonifacio was in the lineup for Friday’s series opener against the Padres.
Bonifacio played right field in place of Jason Heyward, who missed his fourth consecutive games with a back strain. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hopes to have Heyward back in the lineup Saturday or Sunday.
“Going from a team that’s in last place to a team that’s trying to make the playoffs, is great,” said Bonifacio, 29, who has played with six teams before the Braves during his eight-year major league career, and never played in the postseason. “To be here and try to help the team make the playoffs, it’s great.”
Russell had a 3.51 ERA in 44 appearances for the Cubs, with 26 strikeouts and 16 walks in 33 1/3 innings. He gives the Braves an experienced left-hander, which they’ve lacked since the struggling Luis Avilan was demoted to Triple-A.
“It’s nothing I’ve ever experienced,” he said of joining a playoff race on Aug. 1. “It’s kind of cool. I’m looking forward to finding some things out about myself and enjoying winning here. Last night I could compare to going to bed before the first day of school. I mean, it’s hard to fall asleep and you’re real anxious to get to the ballpark and meet all the guys. You just want to get things started.”
Bonifacio hit .279 with 19 extra-base hits and 14 stolen bases in 69 games and will bolster the Braves bench and give manager Fredi Gonzalez flexibility at six positions – all three in the outfield and every infield spot except first base. He had the speedy switch-hitter on Marlins teams Gonzalez managed in 2009 and 2010.
“He’s a great guy, a high-character guy,” Gonzalez said. “This guy doesn’t want to talk about anything but baseball. As a young player on the days he didn’t play, he would sit on the top steps at Pro Player (Stadiuim) and just watch the whole game. He wasn’t doing anything else, he was sitting there watching the game. And Russ (Russell) seems that way, too. A lot of our (coaches) played with his dad.”
Jeff Russell was a former teammate of Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher. The elder Russel had a 56-73 record, 3.75 ERA and 186 saves in 589 games (79 starts) during a 14-year major league career through 1996, including 10 seasons with the Rangers.The right-hander had four seasons with at least 30 saves and led the American League in games finished (66) and saves (38) in 1989, when he posted a 1.98 ERA in 71 appearances, with 77 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings.
“And my experiences with guys whose dads were coaches or played in the major leagues has always been good,” Gonzalez said.
The Braves will have Russell under contractual control through the 2015 season, while Bonifacio is eligible for free agency after this season.
Russell grew up outside Dallas near Braves catcher Evan Gattis and played with and against him on summer-league teams between ages 15-18. Gattis said Russell also threw a no-hitter against his Seminole Junior College team.
“He was kind of a master of location and changing speeds,” Gattis recalled. “He’s got a wealth of knowledge. His day played in the big leagues and is in the Rangers Hall of Fame. He’s going to be a big addition to our team.”
Unlike Russell, Bonifacio had been traded three times previously and was not surprised to find out during the Cubs’ game Thursday that he had been dealt. Actually he had expected it, and if was going to be traded he was glad it was to a team in a pennant race.
He’s friends with Braves pitcher Ervin Santana, his teammate with the Royals in 2013 when Bonifacio split the season with Toronto and Kansas City, and got to know Julio Teheran well when Teheran was pitching in Bonifacio’s native Dominican Republic during winter ball two years ago.
Bonifacio was primarily a leadoff hitter with the Cubs, and a pretty good one – in 270 at-bats atop the order, Bonifacio hit .281 with 19 extra-base hits (two homers) and a .319 OBP. He was in the eighth spot in the Braves’ order Thursday, and Gonzalez plans to keep B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot because the center fielder has performed significantly better in that role than in other spots in the lineup.
Upton had hit just .218 with a .284 OBP and 18 stolen bases in 400 at-bats before Friday, including .250 with a .309 OBP in 128 at-bats in the leadoff spot.
“I want to keep (Upton at leadoff),” Gonzalez said. “I think he’s had some success there in that spot, in leadoff, and that’s what we want to do, put guys in positions where they’ve been successful. And Boni’s not an everyday guy. I don’t want to jerk B.J. around. I even talked to (left fielder) Justin (Upton) today about the possibility of playing right field, and again it’s only going to be for one day, or two days. So I don’t want to do that. Let Justin play left field.
“I think Bonnie has 28 games played in right field (this season), and he’ll be fine.”