CHICAGO – Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein didn’t break news Friday in reiterating that star prospect Kris Bryant probably won’t make it to the big leagues this season like former teammates Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara have.
Epstein has been saying that since he promoted Bryant to Triple-A Iowa way back in June. What rings hollow is his reasoning – especially compared with Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, who more than likely will make it to Wrigley Field before year’s end.
“It’s not business,” Epstein said. “In your first full professional season there is enough that you have to deal with without making your big league debut. That’s the proper thing for his development.”
Who can say Epstein is right or wrong, but he’s been preaching the “first full professional year” thing for a while and it simply seems like something random to grasp onto. Bryant played half a season with the Cubs last summer, then the fall league, and he quickly advanced through the minors this year. Is it really that big of a deal it’s technically his first full year?
“In his first full pro season, not only would the player have to be doing extraordinary things," Epstein said, "but there would have to be unique circumstances with the big league team too, where we were in a pennant race and really needed that boost.”
Can’t the opposite be true? Isn’t being out of a pennant race as good a time as any to bring a player up? In fact, that seems to be the better time. There’s less pressure. And with so many young players already in the big leagues Bryant could ease into it as much as anyone, considering he would be the last of the group this season. And as far as extraordinary things, leading Double-A in all three Triple Crown categories, at the time of his promotion, and totaling 37 home runs and a composite .342 batting average seems pretty special.
“I think people forget because he was drafted just 14 months ago,” Epstein said.
The biggest indictment of this logic comes in the strategy surrounding Soler, who is the same age as Bryant. The Cubs are basically saying Bryant is too green to come up while there is no such issue with Soler, who has had 45 at-bats at Triple-A, though he has showed some great plate discipline. He has eight walks and just 10 strikeouts going into Friday’s games.
“That’s shown up more consistently now,” Epstein said. “Ever since he came off the disabled list the second time he’s had consistent, high-quality at-bats. He’s not swinging at chase pitches. He’s focused throughout the at-bat. That’s not something we taught him, that’s something he showed up with.”
Soler is finally healthy and performing as projected. But because of those injuries – to his legs this year and last – he’s been limited to 134 games played, 547 plate appearances and 479 at-bats as a professional. Bryant has appeared in 151 games while amassing 639 plate appearances and 540 at-bats going into Friday's action. Just because one has been in the system longer than the other, he’s more ready?
The Cubs admitted long ago that Soler needed reps after defecting from Cuba in 2011 while establishing residency in Haiti before making it to the states and eventually signing a nine year, $30 million deal with the Cubs. Meanwhile, Bryant hasn’t stopped playing baseball – other than to sign his contract last summer. And more important than any of this is the fact that Epstein knows Bryant can mentally handle any ups and downs or rigors of coming up in his first full professional year. He’s a hitting machine who takes care of himself and would have no problem adjusting to the big leagues, even though he started the year at Double-A Tennessee.
One item that does make sense is the 40-man roster issue. The Cubs have some expendable players – such as Josh Vitters or Brett Jackson – who can be removed. But adding Bryant now would give the Cubs a little less flexibility in the offseason. In other words, they may want to use those expendable spots to sign or trade for players this winter without Bryant clogging one spot up. He won’t need to be added to protect him from the Rule 5 draft either. It may not be an issue considering the Cubs have several other players besides Vitters and Jackson who could be removed, opening up enough spots for Bryant and other additions.
As much as Epstein can’t admit it, business is probably getting in the way of baseball. Bryant is represented by Scott Boras, and by bringing him up now he’ll be moving toward being a free agent after the 2020 season due to fulfilling service-time requirements. By waiting until mid-April or later next season, Bryant wouldn't become a free agent until after 2021. Some might think it’s a moot point since the Cubs will undoubtedly lock him up to a long-term contract well before then as they have with other stars. But it doesn’t change the eventual negotiating tactic by Bryant and Boras. Simply put, the sooner a player can become a free agent the more he can make, no matter when he signs.
The bottom line is the Cubs aren’t wrong in using this strategy. Bryant won’t be immensely harmed – if at all – by waiting until early next season to be brought up, but making it sound like a developmental issue just doesn’t seem right.
“His defense, to continuing to work on his approach on certain parts of the strike zone,” Epstein said of what Bryant needs to do.
So a .260 hitter (Baez) with 130 strikeouts to 34 walks gets promoted, but a .342 guy with currently the exact same amount of strikeouts but with 70 walks and 14 more home runs won’t be? And the player (Soler) with less professional experience will be as well.
But remember, a matter of a few months isn’t going to make or break the Cubs or Bryant. This is simply about making sense of something that seemingly doesn’t.