DENVER -- A day off for the big league club on Thursday allows the spotlight to shine on the Chicago Cubs minor league affiliates as their seasons begin. Most eyes will be on Triple-A Iowa where first round picks Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Addison Russell (via the Oakland Athletics) form a potential dominant infield, though Baez will start the year on the bereavement list. Iowa plays in Memphis over the next four days.
Here's something to ponder: Does Bryant's early performance in the minors really matter? Everyone assumes he will be called up not long after the Cubs earn the extra year of service time which comes after spending 11 days in the minors -- that deadline will pass next Thursday.
It became a hot controversy during spring training but the Cubs never publicly wavered -- Bryant was going down to work on his game, they said. What if he struggles over the next week, especially on defense? It really shouldn't matter if he starts off in a slump at the plate. The sample size will be very small and the Cubs can always say they realized he's not being challenged or motivated by being at Triple-A so "let's bring him up and get his career going."
But if he's having issues in the field, say, 2-3 errors in the first week of play -- whether that's in left field or at third base? They're on record saying he needs to smooth out his defensive game so how can they bring him up if he's struggling? That could still be the case even if he isn't technically making errors but just looking shaky.
The last thing anyone wants is a situation that delays his debut considering his bat is major league ready. The Cubs will need to come up with some plausible reasons for a promotion despite any struggles but at that point no one will care about his Triple-A stats anyway. He'll finally be here. Still, the best case scenario is for Bryant to keep up his dominance and earn that final promotion.
A tough spring on the diamond just took a tragic turn with the death of his sister. Baez's mental toughness will be tested and when he returns to baseball, how can anyone judge him on his play? Being in the minors might be the best thing for him unless he feels everything is just going against him right now. He'll need time -- and that has nothing to do with his swing. He should take all the time he needs.
He opened even more eyes around the league and within the Cubs than possibly anyone else this spring with his cat-like reflexes both at the plate and at shortstop. Both Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon said they could see him helping the Cubs this season. At least they're not ruling it out. I didn't think that would happen this year as Russell didn't play a full year in the minors in 2014 but maybe he just needs some seasoning before he's ready.
Russell and Baez will both play shortstop and second base in Iowa in case either are called up but Russell is too good at short for him to make a permanent switch to another position. It will eventually force the Cubs to make a tough decision on their middle infield but for now Russell simply needs those at-bats to be fully ready. If he's having success you can definitely expect a second half where he and Bryant -- and potentially Baez -- are all on the big league club. Where they all play will simply have to be worked out as it happens but Russell is a long-term shortstop.
In a little bit of a surprise Double-A pitcher CJ Edwards will start the year in the bullpen. The Cubs make a lot of sense in explaining that decision in that Edwards looked fantastic in 1-2 inning stints this spring and now they can manage his innings after a sore shoulder sidelined him last year.
"His stuff was electric," general manager Jed Hoyer said Wednesday. "Maybe there's a quicker path to the big leagues as a reliever. In no way, shape or form have we given up on him as a starter but we realized we probably have to manage his innings this year. Starting him off in that role allows us to do that then we can make an assessment."
Edwards wouldn't be the first player to start his career as a reliever then morph into a starter but it's always been a debate that because of his slight frame, the bullpen might be his best bet. This option leaves both avenues open for the Cubs.
"The way he threw the ball this spring was a big part of that equation," Hoyer said.