Cubs send three to minors but not just any three

MESA, Ariz. -- Tickets for Triple-A Iowa Cubs games might see an uptick in sales after the big league club sent them three of the most talented young players the organization has seen in years. In sending Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell down to the minors on Monday the Cubs reminded everyone their future isn’t quite here yet.

“I could probably be in this game a long time and could not send down three players that talented on the same day ever again,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in announcing the moves.

Even if you don’t believe in Baez at the plate yet -- and maybe you never will -- Epstein isn’t wrong. When you combine the raw talent of the trio it’s as impressive as they come. Baez opened eyes with his instincts and defense while Bryant simply crushed balls, hitting .425 entering play on Monday.

And perhaps the player with the most raw ability -- besides Bryant’s home run swing -- is Russell. He was so good this spring it left Maddon practically speechless when the manager informed Russell he was going to the minors.

“I couldn’t tell him what to work on,” manager Joe Maddon recalled. “He’s that accomplished at that age. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

What Russell was doing was simply the best defensive work of any player in camp. This conversation is for another day but the moment Russell is ready for the major leagues is the last day -- or close to it -- Starlin Castro will be at shortstop for the Cubs. And that’s not a slight on Castro. Russell is that good.

But of course the biggest debate revolved around Baez -- not Bryant. Outside of Mesa and Chicago many will wonder why send the player with the most home runs last year in the minors and this spring to Triple-A? We all know why: The Cubs gain an extra year of service from Bryant before he becomes a free agent if he plays in the minors for 11 days to start this season. That was the least surprising of decisions.

“We entered camp with the presumptive move being to send him to Triple-A,” Epstein said. “It's always the presumptive move for us with young players that haven’t played in the big leagues yet.”

He’ll be here soon enough. But after listening to Maddon pump up Baez for weeks now, it looked like he had a roster spot locked up based on his talent outside the batter’s box. Epstein says the internal debate was a good one.

“In a healthy organization there should be different opinions expressed,” he said. “We could not have had healthier debate about it and in the end we all agreed.

“This is the right move right now. He’s so close to getting it figured out in the batter’s box. We think Triple-A is the right venue to continue to make those adjustments and get locked in.”

Maddon added: “He’s not quite ready to help us offensively. And he knows that. When you get a 22-year-old that is accounting for his own shortcomings as he just did that tells me he’s going to get really well quickly.”

Let’s be clear. There may not be a right answer or wrong answer in this argument. Maddon made that clear recently. The Cubs could have easily made the case that Baez staying in the big leagues was the better route to go -- seeing big league pitches and getting big league instruction can’t be a bad thing. But ultimately 20 strikeouts in 52 spring training at-bats tells the story as does 225 strikeouts a season ago. There’s struggling and then there’s being overmatched.

“Where can this improved offensive performance come from?” Maddon said. “Can he learn to do in the major level or does he have to go back to the minor level and eventually show up? The conclusion was to send him back and let him make his mistakes there and let him work through some things right there.”

It’s hard to argue with that explanation just as it would be hard to argue the opposite, but again, a .173 spring batting average on the heels of a .169 mark last season sums it all up.

“Most accomplished 22-year-old I’ve ever been around on the field with regarding defense, baseball, knowing what to do,” Maddon said of Baez. “The part that has to get better is the offense. And he agreed. He totally agreed.”

As for Bryant, he’s learned that life isn’t fair. Epstein made sure to stress that his performance “counted” this spring. That he wasn’t just producing crazy offensive numbers with no impact on his situation. But all it got him was a ticket to Iowa and the understanding that he’s close to making it -- something he must have known after being named minor league player of the year last season.

“We’re more likely to get him (call him up) sooner than later,” Epstein said. “We are going to afford him the same luxury we afford to most young players which is go off and get into the rhythm of the season and we’ll get to you quickly.”

As you would expect, the manager sounded less sure of Bryant’s demotion. Come Sunday it’s Maddon’s job to win games. No matter how much Bryant might or might not butcher balls at third base or in the outfield, there is no scenario where not having Bryant in your big league lineup is a good thing. Not for a manager.

“When you look at the entire picture of development you’re still looking at a couple areas to improve a little bit,” Maddon said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you wouldn’t like to have him in your lineup. He’s also 23. I’m looking forward to working with this guy for the next 15 years. That would make me 76.”

And it would mean Bryant signed an extension or two, something that might be in doubt when his agent, Scott Boras, hears news of the demotion. Epstein says there are “no hard feelings” after a few back-and-forth volleys between the sides, and he isn’t holding anything against the player.

“The only thing Kris did to contribute to the story is play very well and that’s what we want our players to do,” Epstein said.

In the end, spring training has reminded or taught us two things: the Cubs have a group of very talented young players but the team’s plan for greatness is still a work in progress, kind of like Baez at the plate. But there’s still a lot to like about the future -- once it’s all in Chicago and playing to its potential.

“It’s a wonderful debate,” Maddon said. “It’s nice to debate young talent like this. A lot of organizations don’t have the same moment.”