MESA, Ariz. -- After a news-filled spring training, the Chicago Cubs are getting ready to begin a highly anticipated baseball season. We’ll get to how they might fare before the first pitch is thrown Sunday night but it's worth examining what the heck happened over the last six weeks.
As manager Joe Maddon said recently, things in spring training begin laid-back but by mid to late March they’re moving at lightning speed. The news moved just as fast. From Kris Bryant to Wrigley renovations to another spring attendance record, there were no shortage of storylines.
And even if you thought the Cubs were out of the spotlight for the next few days, think again. A major league source confirmed Wednesday what commissioner Rob Manfred had already indicated at the beginning of spring training: The tampering case against the Cubs in regard to their hiring Maddon will be decided by Sunday night.
Can you imagine if the Cubs are found guilty of tampering? It would only add to a crazy spring in which their best player in March created the biggest controversy simply because he was so good. Only with the Cubs could that bring some negative headlines.
The Bryant case: Yes, we’re going to take another look at it because there’s one angle that hasn’t had enough of a spotlight -- the human one. Even with a great kid like Kris Bryant there will be a lasting memory for him from this whole episode, and it’s safe to say it won’t be a positive one. And if somehow he forgets, he has a pit bull of an agent to remind him.
Why Bryant became the face of a problem in the collective bargaining agreement is beyond me. Maybe it’s because his spring was so good that on the surface the Cubs -- from a baseball sense -- look silly sending him down. But when the agent spouts off, the player adds his two cents, other players chime in with their opinions, the union puts out a statement and baseball responds with one of their own, we’ve entered the "Twilight Zone." The bottom line is many a player has endured this very treatment, including George Springer of the Houston Astros just last year. After talking with several agents over the last few days none were sure why or how the formula was arrived at that says that 172 days (out of 183) on a big league roster equals a year of service time. But all said that no matter what the number was, teams would manipulate service time.
If the Cubs had to leave Bryant in the minors for two months instead of two weeks I’m not sure they could get away with that from a public relations or more importantly a baseball standpoint. It’s one thing to understand one player and two weeks in a baseball season is meaningless in the larger scope of things but two months can have a serious effect on winning or losing. Bryant would more likely be on the Opening Day roster if that were the case. They need to change that timeframe.
Anyway, are we 100 percent sure sending Bryant to the minors was the right decision? Sure, having the extra year of service before he becomes a free agent is a no-brainer. But look at it from Bryant’s perspective. He was challenged to make the decision hard on the Cubs. He did more than that. He made them look awful in sending him down -- from a baseball standpoint at least. He’s the first player, since they started keeping track of these things, to ever lead the spring in home runs and not make an Opening Day roster. Everyone knows he’s better than about 20 players on the Cubs roster. And don’t forget about last year, when he hit 43 home runs in the minors. He outplayed everyone that was called up during the season yet didn’t get the call himself.
Do you think he or Scott Boras cares that he was in his first full season as a pro last year, as Theo Epstein indicated? Do you think he cares that Epstein has never debuted a top prospect on Opening Day? If there was anyone who could break those trends, it’s Bryant. We don’t need to argue the baseball side of things. And not one teammate of his thinks this is baseball-related, either.
The point is this: What do you think is going to happen when the Cubs come to Bryant in a few years with a contract extension? Do you think Boras -- or even a nice kid like Bryant -- is going to give them a break on anything? Doesn’t this seal the deal for him to reach free agency? It’s like a self-fulfilling cycle: Boras’ clients almost always go to free agency so teams do the best they can to max out the years they have them. By doing that it forces the player to want to go to free agency.
You might say Bryant was going to end up being a free agent anyway, but we didn’t know that for sure. We probably do now. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe seven (almost) years of Bryant is enough. Someone else can overpay for seasons in his 30s. Or maybe the Cubs ante up and pay him market value. He might simply deserve it if he’s as good as Boras and many others think.
Ultimately, the Cubs acted based on the facts they know: He will be eligible for free agency a year later that he would have been. Nothing else is known so it’s hard to argue with their course of action but no one should forget what happened -- because Bryant and Boras won’t either.
Wrigley Field: Kudos to the Cubs for shooting down false rumors -- with some strong language -- about the stadium not being ready by Sunday. Talk about surreal, though, there will be a huge video board in left field but no fans sitting underneath it. No one will enjoy the inconveniences this four-year -- make that five-year -- construction project will bring. (If the players don’t have a parking lot, where is the media going to park? Evanston?) But what was the alternative? Either leave Wrigley for several seasons or don’t do anything. The Cubs say the latter wasn’t an option after 100 years and they chose against the former.
Jason Hammel had the best attitude about it. He viewed it as history happening on his watch. He’ll look back and be able to say he was a Cub when Wrigley Field transformed into a 21st century ballpark. If he can claim the same about being a champion no one will care about traffic or empty bleachers.
Future storylines: Over the coming seasons there will be plenty of new and juicy stories to sink our teeth into. Let’s start with the second best prospect in Cubs camp, shortstop Addison Russell. If he doesn’t make his debut this year the Cubs could be faced with the same situation they had with Bryant. And guess who Russell’s agent is?
Russell is good. Really good. And the Cubs will have a good dilemma on their hands. Russell has to be the shortstop of the future. If defense matters as much as Maddon says it does, then he will be there in short order. Not at second or third base but at shortstop, the most important position on the field. Here’s a quick suggestion: At the trade deadline call the Philadelphia Phillies and offer Starlin Castro for Cole Hamels as the centerpiece of a deal. Throw in C.J. Edwards or Travis Wood or another piece to get it done, then call up Russell and let his career begin. This isn't about Castro so much as it is about Russell. And if you move Castro off of shortstop he becomes a nice offensive player but not the second best at his position as he is now in the National League. No, Castro should be playing shortstop for another team someday if the Cubs are going to max out on having him and Russell right now.
At least the Cubs can deal with all of that at a later date. Next up is that call from the commissioner’s office exonerating or punishing them for the hiring of Maddon. Oh, and then we can start the season. Take a breath, because the Cubs’ return to relevance is just beginning.