Are The Cubs Holding Back Baseball’s Next Superstar?

Getty Image

It’s been 107 years since the Cubs won the World Series, and they’ve had a 346-464 record since 2010. To be a Cubs fan is to live with a chronic ache that’s occasionally replaced by momentary searing pain, but relief may be on the way.

This off-season, the Cubs signed an ace in Jon Lester and hired a big name manager in Joe Maddon. Add to that their enviable collection of young talent — four prospects in Baseball America’s top 20 — and the presence of Theo Epstein — the general manager of the 2004 Red Sox, who slayed baseball’s last great curse — and a winning season starts to feel like a foregone conclusion. Expectations change once you’re winning, especially when your fan base is starved for something real to believe in.

Kris Bryant is one of those top prospects, and he may be quite real. Last season, between AA and AAA, Bryant hit 43 home runs. This spring, in 32 plate appearances, Bryant has nine home runs, and he’s batting .464.

The word “otherworldly” is an apt term to describe that level of power as the word “barren” is to describe baseball’s offensive landscape. Last season saw the fewest runs per game in 34 years and the lowest on-base-percentage in 43 years.

Baseball’s offensive depression has coincided with a moment where there is no consensus “face of the game.” Guys like Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, and Giancarlo Stanton are in the running, but are they on-par with what Ken Griffey, Jr. was? Or Derek Jeter? Someone whose impact goes beyond the field. A pitchman and an ambassador. Maybe Kris Bryant, who has the potential to be a middle-of-the-lineup force for a contending Chicago Cubs team, could be that. We won’t know until he gets going.

You would think that the Cubs would brand Bryant’s name onto Maddon’s lineup cards, but it’s unlikely that he’ll start the season on the Cubs Major League roster. This is allegedly because the Cubs want an extra year of contractual control over Bryant that they will gain if he stays down in the minors for approximately 10 games. Unsurprisingly, his agent Scott Boras objects to this, and he went on Dan Patrick’s radio show to talk about it yesterday.

“I think every fan will look at the Cubs differently and every opponent will look at them differently,” Boras said. “That’s not what we want. When we go to the ballpark we want to know the greatest players are on the field.”

It’s to Boras’ financial benefit to get Kris Bryant out into the open market a year sooner, so you take his outrage with a grain of salt, but he makes some sense.

Yes, you can look at Bryant’s potential impact over the course of those 10 games (or longer if the Cubs don’t want to look like their decision is wholly financial) and break down the negative impact to a fraction of a win by using sabermetrics, but in this climate of parity and wild card play-in games, one loss can turn a season, and Bryant’s bat could prove to be a difference maker on any given night.

Despite Bryant’s advertised defensive woes at third base (he’s learning the outfield, as well), it’s hard to buy this as purely a baseball decision.

Which brings us to Theo Epstein and the hard sell.

“A major league debut is a sense of time, and if it doesn’t go quite the right way and if you don’t put them in the right position to succeed, you can get in the way of their whole integration into the major leagues and it’s something we take seriously,” Epstein told CSN Chicago. “I’ve never once done it. I’ve never put a young prospect in a position to make his major league debut on Opening Day. Opening Day, when it is cold out and there is a lot of attention and even veteran players don’t feel like themselves, they’re not quite into the flow of the season yet.”

Bryant’s minor league performance, his potential, and his spring breakout makes it difficult for Epstein to rightly compare him to other prospects, and it’s hard to believe that Bryant could get into a better offensive groove than he’s in now. I also don’t think that cold weather and frightful Opening Day decorative bunting feel like enough of a reason to keep someone who could be a transcendent talent down in the minors.

In the end, however, it is ultimately Epstein’s decision and more of an indictment on the system than on any one team. The Cubs are simply operating within the bounds of the system that the players and owners agreed to, even if it’s potentially unfair to Bryant and the fans. I just hope that by May or June, this is the last thing that anyone thinks about Kris Bryant because baseball (and especially Cubs fans) needs him to live up to the hype sooner rather than later.