The Kris Bryant era in Chicago will begin in 2015. The question is: When? Or alternatively: How soon?
In the wake of the Chicago Cubs' acquisition last week of center fielder Dexter Fowler, in which they sent young righty Dan Straily and incumbent third baseman Luis Valbuena to the Houston Astros, speculation already has begun that such a move cleared the path at the hot corner for Bryant, arguably baseball's best prospect.
That's not how the Cubs decision-makers see it, however—at least, according to what they're saying publicly.
"When we think Kris is ready to come up to the big leagues, we’ll make that decision," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said via Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. "But certainly trading Valbuena is not going to speed up that clock at all. It’s all dependent on Kris."
Hoyer just might be on a carousel, because that sounds like some serious spin.
To be sure, Hoyer and Cubs President Theo Epstein, who have spearheaded the franchise's rebuilding process since taking over after the 2011 season, are trying to take some of the spring training pressure and hype off of Bryant, who has been nothing short of sensational since being selected second overall in 2013.
The 23-year-old former NCAA home run leader owns a .327/.428/.666 slash line in his season-and-a-half as a professional, and in making it all the way to Triple-A last year, he hit 43 home runs—the highest total in both the minors and majors.
For Epstein, Hoyer and Co., the trouble is that Bryant's performance has made it darn near impossible to tamp down the excitement and expectations for him, especially on the North Side, where the Cubs are searching for their first winning season since 2009—and perhaps even their first postseason appearance since the year before that.
While Valbuena wasn't completely useless in his time as a Cub (.724 OPS), he also is nowhere near the kind of player who would have posed an obstacle for a prospect of Bryant's caliber once he's deemed ready. So in a sense, Hoyer's remarks do have some truth to them: Valbuena's departure and Bryant's debut can be considered mutually exclusive occurrences.
Then again, one peek at Chicago's depth chart reveals that third base currently projects to be occupied by, uh, Mike Olt. You know, the 26-year-old who, despite flashing intriguing power as a rookie (.196 ISO), has shown a downright scary inability to make contact (38.8 percent strikeout rate in 2014) and isn't exactly Ron Santo on defense, either.
Sure, fellow youngsters, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, both of whom are entering their second season in the majors, could factor in at the hot corner, too. But they have their own adjustments to make on both sides of the ball.
Ultimately, let's not kid ourselves: Whether the Cubs front office wants to try to minimize the Bryant buzz or push back his timeline a bit, the job is going to be Bryant's—and sooner than later.
That said, it's not as if Bryant has nothing to improve upon between now and his eventual big league debut.
Even with all the hitting and homers, he did strike out 162 times, or 27.3 percent of his plate appearances, and his defense at third remains a work in progress.
Here's what Baseball America wrote about Bryant's D and the possibility that he eventually could shift to a corner outfield spot:
Bryant’s athleticism makes him an average defender at third base, where he’s improved on balls in front of him, features an easy plus arm and ranges well to his left. He’s not as good going to his right, and few tall, lanky players his size have stayed at the hot corner. His average speed—he’s easy to grade because he runs virtually every ball out—would suit him well if he moves to the outfield, and he’d profile in right.
But for now at least, Bryant will stay on the dirt. And given what he did in his 70 games over two-and-a-half months at Triple-A Iowa (.295/.418/.619), the possibility exists that he could make the Opening Day roster. Because in addition to being ready enough to show what he can do at the highest level, Bryant also is Chicago's best option at the hot corner. Like, right now.
As Phil Rogers of MLB.com writes:
Bryant needs to be there from the start, provided he has a solid spring. But he's a special case, and you can say the same thing about the hiring of [manager Joe] Maddon and signing of [free agent left-hander Jon] Lester. Timing dictated the Cubs' aggressive approach to 2015, not a shortage of patience on the part of Epstein or chairman Tom Ricketts.
Thing is, Bryant almost certainly won't—and shouldn't—be the Cubs' Opening Day third baseman, and that will be as much about behind-the-scenes roster management as it will his readiness.
You see, once Bryant debuts—assuming he stays up for good—he will be under team control for six years, or through the 2020 campaign.
But that's only if he accrues six full seasons' worth of service time in that span.
Due to a quirk in MLB rules, a player must net at least 172 days in a single season for said season to count as a full year of service time. Less than that, and that year doesn't count.
Translation: If the Cubs wait just a few weeks before they promote Bryant for his debut, they'll get to keep him under control through 2021—another entire season.
Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com breaks it down:
Is there any chance [Bryant] breaks camp with the Cubs? If he does, he can become a free agent after 2020. If the Cubs bring him up closer to May, they have him until 2021. Nothing is for certain, but all signs point to the latter happening. And the notion that the Cubs “might lose the division” because Bryant is in Chicago in late April instead of early is silly.
This loophole is different from the oft-mentioned Super Two deadline, which typically comes in mid- to late June. Prospects promoted before then have a good chance of placing in the top 22 percent of players debuting in a given season, thus qualifying them for a fourth round of arbitration instead of the usual three.
That's why teams looking to save money (and gain a "seventh season" of control) tend to bring up prospects in June or later. To an extent, this is what happened with Gregory Polanco of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014.
How important would an extra year of team control of Bryant be? More significant than the few or even several million it might cost the Cubs if Bryant becomes a Super Two.
Significant enough to make this an easy call, regardless of how ready he is, how little he has left to prove at Triple-A or even how competitive the Cubs plan to be in 2015.
So despite all the hype and hope surrounding Bryant and the Cubs entering spring training, don't expect to see the young slugger break camp with the club, no matter how great he looks in March.
But once April is halfway over, Bryant should be unleashed in Chicago, where he'll then spend the next—count 'em—seven seasons.
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