PCA headed to Triple-A ... for now

Counsell: Cubs' top prospect could be 'up here in no time'

March 8th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- Once the Cubs put the finishing touches on the contract that brought star center fielder Cody Bellinger back into the fold earlier this spring, the writing was on the wall for top prospect . Barring the unexpected, the rookie was ticketed for Triple-A Iowa to start this season.

That anticipated step officially arrived Friday, when Crow-Armstrong -- MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 Cubs prospect and the No. 16-ranked prospect in baseball -- was optioned to Iowa as part of a group of spring roster trimmings. By making that decision now, Chicago removed any notion that the center fielder was still vying for an Opening Day role.

“Our thought right now,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said, “is that the best place for PCA to start is in the Minor Leagues and start his season that way. And then kind of just knock down the door for us and make us kind of figure something out on the Major League side.”

The Cubs trust that Crow-Armstrong is already an elite-enough defender in center field that he could play that position right now in the Major Leagues. And with the outfielder now removed from the Opening Day competition, Crow-Armstrong will get a chance to show off his defensive prowess, plus speed and dynamic bat in the Cubs’ Spring Breakout game against White Sox prospects next week.

Counsell said Crow-Armstrong was “disappointed,” but not surprised by the team’s decision. The goal now for Crow-Armstrong is to perform at a level for the Iowa Cubs that gets him back to Wrigley Field as soon as possible. Even with Bellinger assuming the everyday job in center to start this campaign, the North Siders have a roster built in such a way that there could be room for the rookie soon enough.

“For him to go out and play every single day and just play his game,” Bellinger said, “he’ll get comfortable and get in his flow and his routine, and he’ll be up here in no time.”

As things stand, the Cubs have Gold Glove left fielder Ian Happ and right fielder Seiya Suzuki on either side of Bellinger in their starting outfield. Last year, Bellinger also played a lot of first base, adding flexibility to the roster. And then there’s the designated hitter slot, which should feature a rotation of players based on matchups under Counsell.

If Crow-Armstrong gets off to a hot start at Triple-A, there is a scenario in which he could earn a promotion to the Majors and patrol center. Bellinger reiterated on Friday that he is willing to grab his first baseman’s glove, if that is what the Cubs eventually ask of him. At the moment, rookie Michael Busch is lined up as Chicago’s primary first baseman.

“Cody has the ability to move positions. Other players have the ability to move positions,” Counsell said. “That's one of those good problems. We'll figure the answer out to that question. If Pete says [with his performance], ‘I'm good enough and I need to be in the lineup,’ you figure out the answer to that question.

“And I think we have enough flexibility to answer that question.”

Crow-Armstrong hit .283/.365/.511 with 20 homers, 26 doubles, seven triples, 82 RBIs, 37 steals and 98 runs in 107 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa last year. That followed a stellar showing in ‘22 that included 46 extra-base hits and an .896 OPS as he climbed from Single-A to High-A.

The Cubs gave Crow-Armstrong a look down the stretch last season, but he went 0-for-14 in his 19 plate appearances in the Majors. The young outfielder took that experience in stride and used the feedback to help inform his offseason training. Now, he has a chance to apply the lessons learned in Iowa for the time being.

“Pete’s 21 years old,” Counsell emphasized. “He just needs to play baseball and learn from his experiences playing baseball. The younger you are, the more you just haven’t experienced yet. Do that, and he’s going to get better quickly. That’s how it’s going to work.”

Throughout the offseason and into Spring Training, Crow-Armstrong joined the chorus of players urging the front office to re-sign Bellinger. The veteran center fielder appreciated that, and has been impressed by how the rookie has navigated the situation.

“A true pro,” Bellinger said. “Me and him, we have a really good relationship. I think really highly of him. This whole time, I think that it just kind of goes to show, even though he’s a super young kid, he’s very mature in a lot of ways. That’s a good sign.”