At the end of July in 2021, the Cubs officially dismantled a club that had won the 2016 World Series and appeared in five of the previous six postseasons. Three players who were instrumental in ending a 108-year championship drought and creating the longest period of sustained success in franchise history were traded for prospects in a span of two days.
Anthony Rizzo went to the Yankees for outfielder Kevin Alcántara (now a Top 100 Prospect) and right-hander Alexander Vizcaino (out of baseball). Kris Bryant headed to the Giants for Alexander Canario and Caleb Kilian, both of whom have had brief stints in Chicago. But the real coup came when Javier Báez, along with Trevor Williams, departed for the Mets and brought back Pete Crow-Armstrong.
At the time, Crow-Armstrong had played just six games as a pro because he had torn the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder during a baserunning mishap that May. Yet an executive with another club said, "The Cubs made the best trade at the deadline. I can't believe the Mets gave up Pete Crow-Armstrong for two months of Javy Báez."
Though Báez played well in New York, the club went 22-37 after acquiring him and fell well short of the playoffs. Crow-Armstrong has improved significantly in his first two healthy full pro seasons and developed into one of the best prospects in baseball. And now he's a big leaguer after the Cubs promoted him on Monday to help in their drive to make the playoffs for the first time in three years.
In the last 40 years, Chicago's farm system has featured several highly regarded position players, most of whom went on to enjoy successful careers: Joe Carter, Shawon Dunston, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace, Corey Patterson, Starlin Castro, Báez, Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber and Eloy Jiménez. None of them were as well-rounded as Crow-Armstrong, who ranks No. 12 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list and is widely regarded as the top defensive prospect in the game.
When the Mets made Crow-Armstrong the 19th overall pick in the 2020 Draft -- three selections after the Cubs took local high school shortstop Ed Howard -- the Harvard-Westlake School (Los Angeles) product was regarded a quality center fielder with plus speed but came with some questions about his offensive upside. That's no longer the case.
As an amateur, Crow-Armstrong had a contact-oriented approach at the plate that yielded line drives to all fields but not much home run power. After he switched organizations, Chicago helped him upgrade his left-handed stroke. He holds his hands higher and keeps his swing on plane longer, enabling him to pull and lift balls more easily.
Crow-Armstrong, who's still just 21, also has gotten stronger and is now hitting the ball considerably harder than he did in high school. He has hit 36 homers in the last two seasons despite being considerably young for his leagues, with all but 35 of his 971 plate appearances in 2022-23 coming against pitchers older than him. He has at least 20-homer potential and perhaps more.
When Crow-Armstrong started tapping into this newfound power a year ago, he also got more aggressive at the plate. He struck out nearly five times as much as he walked in High-A in 2022, a flaw that more experienced pitchers could have exploited. But he has tamed his approach without sacrificing his ability to do damage this season, hitting .283/.365/.511 with 20 homers in 107 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
Crow-Armstrong is the complete package in center field, where he earns top-of-the-scale 80 grades for his defensive prowess. He enhances his quickness with tremendous instincts, getting tremendous jumps on balls and taking precise routes to chase them down from gap to gap. He's also a fearless defender who doesn't shy from the wall and also has the awareness to protect himself.
As a bonus, Crow-Armstrong has a better arm than most center fielders. He combines solid arm strength with good accuracy, allowing him to play anywhere in the outfield as needed.
It's not purely a coincidence that Crow-Armstrong's first series will come in Colorado, where Coors Field features the largest outfield in MLB and his range will be an asset. Though he hit nearly as well against left-handers (.278/.346/.494) as right-handers (.289/.387/.533) in Double-A and Triple-A, he'll probably get most of his starts with the platoon advantage.
It's unclear how many starts the Chicago will give Crow-Armstrong, but he also offers the luxury of being able to provide speed and defense off the bench. His ability to contribute in a variety of ways also would make him a useful part of a playoff roster, assuming the Cubs hold onto the National League Wild Card berth they presently hold.
The Cubs won't fully unleash Crow-Armstrong until some point next year, when he has a strong chance of earning Chicago's Opening Day job in center field. Consider this September stint a preview of coming attractions of the potential 2024 NL Rookie of the Year.