A couple weeks ago, you could look at Chicago Cubs superprospect Kris Bryant and ask two questions.
First: Was he going to follow his explosive 2014 performance with a big showing in spring training?
Second: If yes, what would it mean?
Well, we have our answer to the first question. It turns out that Bryant is not having a big showing this spring. It's not fair to put it that way.
Because he's having a FREAKIN' HUGE showing this spring.
Through nine games, the 23-year-old third baseman has looked every bit like the guy who pushed his way to the top of prospect rankings with a 1.098-OPS, 43-homer performance at Double-A and Triple-A in 2014. Bryant owns a 1.308 OPS and six home runs, twice as many as any other player.
Before we get into the ramifications of this, take a minute to groove on some highlights. You've earned it:
With Bryant swinging such a hot stick and only Mike Olt standing in his way, most everyone wants to see him at the hot corner when the Cubs open their 2015 season on April 5. Speaking for everyone in this case is fellow Las Vegas native Bryce Harper:
But then again, we've already talked about what a big spring would mean for Bryant. And in regards to his chances of making the Opening Day roster, what was true before is still true now:
It's highly unlikely.
Though Cubs boss Theo Epstein posed to Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago that "anyone in camp can make the team," he and the rest of the front office have consistently refused to promise Bryant anything. And per Epstein's recent remark to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports, the status quo appears to be holding strong:
Even Bryant seems aware that his big spring isn't likely to lead to a spot on the Opening Day roster. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com wrote that Bryant understands Olt is likely to be at the hot corner on April 5, and he sounded resigned to his fate when asked if he would be disappointed if that's how things pan out.
“I'm just trying to stay focused and stay in the moment,” he said.
Fortunately, odds are that Bryant won't be held out of the majors for long. The magic date for his promotion is April 17.
That's the soonest the Cubs can promote Bryant and delay his free agency. There are 183 regular-season days in a Major League Baseball season, and any player who's in the big leagues for at least 172 of those days qualifies for a full year of service time. If the Cubs wait until April 17 to promote Bryant, he'll only stand to garner 171 days of service time.
So instead of after 2020, he wouldn't be eligible for free agency until after 2021.
It sounds like a sleazy scheme the likes of which only Councilman Jamm could dream up. But actually, it's hard to get up in arms about the Cubs being willing to run it.
Holding Bryant back for 12 days would only mean holding him out of nine games. As much as everyone wants to see him at Wrigley Field, only a damn fool wouldn't trade nine games without Bryant for an extra year with Bryant.
And darn it, you can't even call the Cubs cheap.
Though they'll stand to gain an extra year of control if they hold Bryant back until mid-April, they won't stand to save money. Such an early promotion would more than likely qualify him as a Super Two player, which would mean four years of salary arbitration instead of three.
As far as Bryant's long-term future is concerned, there's really only one argument to be made in favor of putting him on the Opening Day roster. That's the notion that doing so might be the best way to butter him up for a long-term contract extension.
But nah. Bryant is represented by Scott Boras, who's notorious for shying away from extensions and taking his players to free agency. As Jim Bowden of ESPN notes:
So, the short version is that Bryant's torrid spring likely hasn't changed anything regarding his call-up date. He may look like he's ready to be there on Opening Day, but don't count on him actually being there on Opening Day.
This is not to say that Bryant's hot spring won't have any effects, mind you. There is a possibility that it could get the Cubs in trouble.
Before spring training, we found out that the army of people clambering for Bryant included MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark. But while everyone else offered words of praise, he offered words of warning.
"I always will pay attention during the course of the year as guys come up, go down, different considerations that may be a part of those decisions," Clark told reporters, including Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. He added: "But as it relates to when someone [like Bryant] may come up, when they may not, those are all things we pay very close attention to and as the year goes along, we'll see where we end up."
What makes Clark's words ominous is that, as Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com noted, it's a no-no for clubs to "blatantly hold back players for monetary reasons." There need to be actual baseball reasons for a player to be held down in the minors, otherwise there are grounds to cry foul.
Knowing that, Bryant's hot spring puts the Cubs in an awkward spot. If he continues to put up huge numbers only to be sent to the minors, the union could pursue a grievance over service time.
Boras would also have to be involved, but he wouldn't need much convincing. He hasn't changed his stance since declaring in November that Bryant belongs on Chicago's Opening Day roster.
“Cubs ownership has a choice,” Boras told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. “Are they going to present to their market that they are trying to win? [Cubs owner] Tom Ricketts said they were all about winning.
“When someone says it’s the system, no, it’s a choice — the choice of winning.”
If the Cubs do indeed start Bryant in the minors, neither Boras nor the union is going to be happy. And if they were to take action with a grievance, you can imagine an ugly situation taking place.
Fortunately for the Cubs, this is a possibility that isn't as threatening in reality as it is in theory.
Bryant is not in the same boat that Houston Astros slugger George Springer was in last year. It was reported late last March that the union and his agent were considering filing a grievance but only after he was sent to the minors upon rejecting a seven-year contract offer. In light of that, there were grounds to claim that the Astros were acting with money on their minds rather than baseball.
But Bryant? So far as we know, the Cubs haven't made him an extension offer. And without that, it would be very hard to make a grievance stick.
As easy as it is to take it for granted that the Cubs have Bryant's service time first and foremost on their minds, they've sung a different tune publicly. The company line has been that Bryant will be promoted when he's ready, and that he has things to work on until then. Specifically, his defense.
To this end, Bryant has actually done the Cubs a favor this spring.
His excellent offensive performance has overshadowed some shoddy defense at third base, and this isn't lost on Epstein. He told Rosenthal that the hope was that Bryant would get in a "good rhythm defensively," and that this hasn't happened yet.
The Cubs have a leg to stand on in claiming that he's not a finished product just yet. And as Epstein pointed out to 670 The Score earlier this month, the Cubs can also stand on the reality that Bryant isn't even on the 40-man roster and that he doesn't even have 300 Triple-A plate appearances under his belt.
If it sounds like the Cubs have everything all planned out, well, yeah. That's exactly what's going on here. They're playing Bryant's situation about as well as they can play it.
If their plan does indeed culminate in them holding Bryant back at the start of the season, you can expect Boras and the union to huff and puff but to stop short of blowing the house down. They'll cry foul but would likely determine pursuing a grievance to be pointless.
So in essence, Bryant's hot spring hasn't actually changed anything. It's certainly created some drama, but it's highly unlikely that it will do the trick of moving up his arrival date.
It's a good thing Bryant's likely arrival date is now only a month away. Before long, the entire discussion will be water under the bridge.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.
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