CHICAGO – As Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant tears up Triple-A pitching after doing the same in Double-A, the question is going to come up more and more: When is the right time to bring him, or any prospect, up to the majors?
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein declared last week he couldn’t “foresee” a scenario where Bryant would make it to the big club this season. But based on the team’s own logic about young players, perhaps he’ll reconsider. That and the fact Bryant has four home runs for Iowa already.
“Sometimes there is a rush,” Epstein said. “You take a guy that is still young for his level at Triple-A and he starts to produce decent numbers. Then I see people speculate, ‘Oh, he should be up here, he can help now,’ but you have to look beneath the surface a little bit. If a player [for example] is still struggling with off-speed pitches but he manages to put up respectable numbers, it might not be the right time for him to come up here and all of a sudden get abused by those pitches and have it set back his development. It’s not so much the production as it is where they are on the learning curve with their greatest issues.”
That makes sense. Then Epstein explained the simple metric the Cubs look at most.
“A lot of time you can get clued into that by looking at their walk rate and their strikeout rate,” he said. “If a guy isn’t doing a nice job controlling the strike zone ... if they haven’t mastered that in Triple-A, it might not be the right time for him to come up here. It all depends on the individual, but just because a player is having some statistical success at Triple-A doesn’t mean we’re in a rush to promote him, especially if they are young for their level.”
Epstein didn’t name names, but he easily could have been referring to top Triple-A prospects Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara. At .226 with just 11 home runs, shortstop Baez isn’t having much statistical success -- and his walk-to-strikeout rate isn’t hiding some underlying positive season. He's taken just 16 free passes while striking out 91 times -- a walk for about every 5.5 strikeouts. That doesn’t scream command of the zone.
Second baseman Alcantara is a more subtle case because there are plenty of good numbers in his offensive game this season at Iowa. He’s hitting .286, has 10 triples and a .843 OPS. Not bad for a middle infielder. But the Cubs front office won’t like his 69 strikeouts to just 19 walks. It’s not as bad as Baez, but it might be holding Alcantara back from a promotion.
Then there’s Bryant. Compared to Baez and Alcantara, he’s ready for the majors now. Between Double- and Triple-A this season, he has 43 walks and 85 strikeouts. For the best power hitter in the minors through the first half, those numbers are respectable. If he can keep his rate at less than two strikeouts for every walk, Bryant will be on his way. Remember, baseball has changed over the years. Strikeouts are more acceptable now.
“Hitters are going to strike out,” Epstein said. “That’s just modern baseball. Most hitters strike out 20 percent of the time now, which was unheard of when we all started. That’s the way it is now.”
And as the book “Moneyball” showed, walks are more in the spotlight now, too. If the walks don’t come with the strikeouts, then a promotion isn’t coming, either.