To say that Chicago Cubs super prospect Kris Bryant’s spring was impressive is perhaps the understatement of the year. A prospect who batted well above .400 and led all of Major League Baseball in home runs is, in most cases, justification for a spot on the Major League roster.
Note, however, that I said, in most cases, as despite his almost video game like spring, Bryant will be spending the beginning of the season “seasoning” in Iowa. Cubs president Theo Epstein had all but publicly said that Bryant would start the season in the minors. Of course, the reaction to this move is less than satisfactory. Cubs fans are understandably upset, Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras is very angry, and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association has issued a statement on Bryant’s demotion, calling it a “bad day for baseball”. Even I am upset that Kris Bryant will have to waste two weeks in AAA instead of being an immediate contributor.
Having already discussed the reason why top prospects often spend extra time in the minors, it’s clear why Bryant is going down instead of staying up. For those who still need help connecting the dots, it’s more feasible for the Cubs to have a full six years of Kris Bryant production on the cheap, rather than five years for the sake of an early promotion. And that’s understandable. The Cubs are going to be stacked with cheap high ceiling talent until the early 2020s. It’s clear that should all their young bats pan out, they will have to either dole out big contracts early in these players’ careers, pay them in free agency, or risk losing them to big spending franchises like the Yankees and Dodgers.
However, the problem for fans isn’t just delaying Bryant’s debut, it’s also the way they explained why they were going to do it.
Throughout Spring Training, Theo Epstein never admitted why Bryant was going to stay down. Sure, he offered the same excuse, that Bryant “needed more seasoning”, and offered up Dustin Pedroia and his Rookie of the Year 2007 season as a reason for why Bryant deserved to stay down, but these excuses had no foundation to them.
Trying to justify demoting a prospect like Bryant is hard to do, especially for a fanbase that has had very little to cheer about lately, but I believe that Epstein had the opportunity to diffuse some anger by explaining his true motivations.
Had he just said “I am demoting Bryant because it makes sense to keep him an extra year when he will be in his prime rather than lose that year for two weeks of production”, I’m certain that fans would have understood. Would they have accepted the justification? In all likelihood, they wouldn’t take it well, but they would still take it. Honesty, while painful, is a better policy than presenting the same excuse and expecting the fans to take it, no questions asked.
Sure, Scott Boras and the MLBPA would have had justification to file a grievance against Epstein and the Cubs, but it would have allowed for the elephant in the room to be addressed. It’s no secret that the arbitration clock is considered a nuisance, a hinderance which prevents top prospects who are major league ready from contributing when they are ready, but rules are meant to be broken. Had Curt Flood not opted to report to the Phillies after he had been traded from the Cardinals, Major League Baseball likely would still be operating under the reserve clause. Had Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Josh Bell not received a $5 Million signing bonus to keep him from committing to the University of Texas, then the draft slotting system would not have been implemented. Had the Rangers not paid an obscenely expensive posting fee to pry Yu Darvish away from Japan, then the slotting system wouldn’t have been revised.
We could spend the remainder of this post playing the “what if” game, but it’s clear, Kris Bryant is going to spend an extra two weeks in Iowa, and when the Cubs promote him, his clock will tick. He’ll be a free agent by 2021, barring him signing a contract extension. In the meantime, I wouldn’t be surprised if the MLBPA and Major League Baseball decide to discuss ways to eliminate the arbitration clock, with an idea in place by next offseason.
Until then, patience, Cubs fans. Two weeks doesn’t determine a whole season, and when Bryant comes, you’ll probably never have to see him go to the minors again.