No need to wait: Cubs have a spot for Bryant
Goal of contending now would be served by moving top prospect to Majors
Happy holidays, Kris Bryant.
Bryant is arguably the best prospect in baseball. He also may benefit immediately from the Cubs' signing of Jon Lester.
Not that having Joe Maddon around will hurt the big, friendly third baseman, either.
When the Cubs hired Maddon in late October, they kicked Rick Renteria to the curb with two years left on his contract. It wasn't an easy thing to do for Theo Epstein but it was the right thing to do, given the organizational quest for baseball's Holy Grail and Maddon's impressive track record with young players.
On the day Maddon arrived from that now-famous RV park, he made it clear the Cubs' developmental years -- you may know them as the Luis Valbuena era -- were over. The goal had become contending for the postseason, in an immediate sense, not some distant tomorrow.
Lester's six-year, $155 million deal drastically raised expectations, both long term and in 2015. After all, Epstein, a city boy, was so sold on having his old friend from Boston at the front of the Cubs' rotation that he said he was "willing to be soaked in deer urine, if necessary" to sell the deal to Lester, who normally spends his offseasons hunting and fishing.
Compared to that, what's an earlier free-agent window and a slightly higher earnings trajectory for your best young player?
Bryant was something of a surprise as the second overall pick in the 2013 Draft, when many had expected the Cubs to take whichever arm the Astros passed on between Mark Appel and Jonathan Gray. Bryant has shown himself to suggest he will turn out to be the type of smart move that Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod made when they grabbed Arizona State shortstop Dustin Pedroia with their second-round pick in 2004.
Bryant hit the ground crushing balls as a pro and hasn't stopped yet. In a 174-game dash from the Rookie-level Arizona League to Triple-A Iowa, Bryant has hit .327 with a 1.095 OPS. His 52 home runs include 43 in 492 at-bats last season, all with Iowa or Double-A Tennessee.
No one would be shocked if he took a run at Mark McGwire's record of 49 home runs as a rookie. But to do that, he has to be on the roster, and that's the only area in which you can question the Cubs' handling of Bryant.
After torching the Pacific Coast League, Bryant wasn't promoted to Wrigley Field last September. He was essentially sent home to Las Vegas to hit in the batting cage he's built for himself, to get ready for the whirlwind ahead of him.
Since he was the Arizona Fall League MVP in 2013, the Cubs couldn't come up with a productive place for Bryant to play this winter, so he's been largely on his own -- a package wrapped up and waiting for the first day of Spring Training in Mesa, Ariz.
Because they're an intelligent group that answers to their bosses, Epstein's front office has had Bryant on a timetable to arrive in Chicago at some point after Opening Day next season.
By keeping him in Iowa for a couple of weeks, they'd ensure that he wouldn't accrue 172 days' service time, which would mean the Cubs control his rights through 2021, not 2020. And by keeping him in Iowa the first two months, they could delay the start of his arbitration rights until after 2018, not '17. It's smart business to worry about those things, as the less you pay Bryant, the more you have to fill out the roster around him.
But can you still be influenced by those concerns now?
What happens if you send Bryant to Triple-A in April, promote him in early June and then wind up winning 86 or 87 games, one or two fewer than what would have put you in the postseason? Can you take that risk?
Nope, you can't. If Bryant is healthy and in form in Spring Training, he's got to be in the Opening Day lineup.
With Tampa Bay, Maddon saw his 2008 Rays start 5-5 before promoting Evan Longoria, whose free agency by then had been delayed a year. It turned out that didn't change a thing, as they wrote an amazing story in winning the pennant, but as late as Sept. 15, they were tied with Boston for the AL East lead. What if they had wound up missing the postseason by one game?
Bryant needs to be there from the start, provided he has a solid spring. But he's a special case, and you can say the same thing about the hiring of Maddon and signing of Lester. Timing dictated the Cubs' aggressive approach to 2015, not a shortage of patience on the part of Epstein or chairman Tom Ricketts.
Their methodical plan is still in place. Don't look for them to deal Javier Baez, Albert Almora and C.J. Edwards to the Phillies to get Cole Hamels, or to lock themselves in for three years of Colby Rasmus.
Even with Lester and Miguel Montero on board, they have lots of payroll flexibility (only $79.5 million committed for 2016, which drops to about $62 million for '17) and will get more when they're out from under the Edwin Jackson contract and decide the time's right to trade Starlin Castro and hand the shortstop spot off to Addison Russell, whom Baseball Prospectus rates ahead of Bryant. Imagine if that's right.
Either way, such a transition probably isn't happening in 2015, as Anthony Rizzo, Castro and Montero are the three known quantities in a lineup that is expected to include Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Baez and Bryant.
On Opening Day, Montero will be 31; the other six guys will be an average of 23.5.
You'll hear a lot about learning curves and unrealistic expectations next spring. But the overriding theme will be how good this group will be once it has settled into the clubhouse at Wrigley Field. It's hard to imagine Maddon and Lester there in April and not Bryant.