Kris Bryant’s time is now.
There is nothing left for him to prove in the minor leagues, and the Chicago Cubs have made a clear and definitive turn toward competitiveness. Both those reasons ought to point to the 23-year-old uber-prospect being on the team’s Opening Day roster.
Bryant is the Cubs’ best possible option to play third base. So as long as he is physically able when spring training concludes, the Cubs do not have any valid reasons to leave Bryant behind in the minors.
Off to AZ! Time to go to work!!— Kris Bryant (@KrisBryant_23) February 15, 2015
Ever since the Cubs drafted Bryant second overall in 2013, he has done nothing to disappoint. His progression through every class of the minors culminated with an incredible .325/.438/.661 slash line, a 1.098 OPS, 43 home runs and 110 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014. He was awarded Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award and enters spring training as the MLB.com No. 2 prospect, Baseball Prospectus’ No. 5 prospect and will undoubtedly be a top-five prospect when Baseball America releases its rankings Thursday. (He was eighth last year.)
Because the Cubs traded last year’s third baseman, Luis Valbuena, and because Mike Olt had the majors’ worst batting average (.160) and highest strikeout rate (38.8 percent) of players with at least 250 plate appearances, there is need at the hot corner.
That means Bryant will get a good portion of the playing time during the Cactus League. Unfortunately, that does not mean he has a clear path to the majors on Opening Day.
The Cubs organization and the game’s economics could be his roadblocks.
If Bryant does not spend more than 171 days in the majors this season, his service clock is backed up, and he cannot become a free agent until 2021. If he exceeds that cap, he can hit free agency in 2020. The Cubs’ season is 183 days long, so in order to keep him under the 171-day threshold, the team has to keep Bryant in the minors for the first two weeks of the season.
That extra year of control is huge for the Cubs, especially if Bryant becomes the kind of elite hitter in the majors that he has been in the minors. The Cubs swear that any decision on Bryant’s roster situation will be strictly related to baseball, but it is hard to ignore that extra year of control.
“All those issues on who makes the club and when to call a player up, you have to balance a number of factors,” Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said at the Cubs Convention a month ago (via Tony Andracki of CSNChicago.com). “But they're all baseball-driven factors: Kris' development, who else we have to play a certain position, roster implications.
“We made that decision last year with Javy Baez. If we were just looking to protect the player's service clock, we wouldn't have called up Javy or Jorge Soler. It was the right time for their development and it was the right time for the team.
“When it's the right time for Kris' development, and the right time for the team, he'll be on the roster.”
Seeing as how Bryant has annihilated the highest level of the minor leagues and the Cubs are suddenly in win-now mode, the time appears to be right for everybody involved even with Bryant’s service time dilemma a clear and present concern. But teams with playoff aspirations, such as the revamped Cubs, should not hold back from putting out their best possible lineup because of player control issues.
That is why spring training should be Bryant’s stage to shine. The team does not have a better option than him at third base, and in order to find out how he handles big league pitching, even in exhibitions when pitchers aren’t throwing their full arsenal, Bryant should have the bulk of the plate appearances among his competition.
And when he proves he can handle Cactus League pitching, there will be no good reason to keep him off the Opening Day roster.
“I've never really put [making the Opening Day roster] as my sole focus,” Bryant told Andracki. “Obviously, that's my ultimate goal, but I don't really want to think about that because it's up in the air. I don't really have any control over it.
“I'm very excited to get going in spring training and show them what I've been working on and show them what I have. Hopefully, I go out there and make it really hard on them.”
The decision should not be difficult, though. In a sport where one game can be the difference between postseason baseball for the first time since 2008 and extending the drought to a seventh year, the 12 days Bryant would have to miss to keep him under team control for that extra year can become extremely meaningful.
If Bryant is truly is the team’s best option at third base when camp breaks, he has to be at Wrigley Field on April 5 when the Cubs host the St. Louis Cardinals, the division favorite.
On that night, the Kris Bryant era has to begin.
All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.