Busch gets chance to stick in Majors with Cubs

February 23rd, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- Not much has changed in 's swing since the last time Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly watched it regularly. Busch’s hands are positioned slightly differently, but the swing itself still looks the part of a player who can thrive in the big leagues.

“It's such an easy, compact, simple swing,” Kelly said.

Kelly saw that easy swing plenty of times as a hitting coach in the Dodgers' system back in 2020, a year after Busch was drafted by Los Angeles. Busch was among the players at the Dodgers’ alternate training site, giving him a chance to keep working after the Minor League season was washed away.

This spring, Busch and Kelly have been reunited with the Cubs, who swung a trade with the Dodgers in January to land the highly touted hitter. In L.A., Busch’s path to the big leagues was blocked by multiple stars. With the North Siders, he is being given the chance to seize the starting job at first base.

“Everybody knew that he could hit, right?” Kelly said. “Some of the question was the defensive stuff -- where was he gonna land? And I think this is a great, great situation for him.”

Right now, Busch is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the No. 51 prospect in baseball. Since acquiring him from the Dodgers -- along with righty Yency Almonte for a pair of prospects on Jan. 11 -- both manager Craig Counsell and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer have said that Busch has nothing left to prove in the Minors.

The 26-year-old moved around the diamond as the Dodgers tried to identify the best route forward for him, but the Cubs are narrowing his daily work to first base this spring. He has partnered at first with Patrick Wisdom, who could serve as a weapon against lefties to spell the lefty-swinging Busch at times.

How much Busch is exposed to left-handed pitching “ultimately depends on what the roster looks like,” Counsell said. For now, the manager knows the most important thing is not only getting Busch comfortable at first base, but with a new organization.

“It's a new team for Michael,” Counsell said. “And so, like myself, it's really just kind of getting to know everybody, meeting everybody. We're asking him to do a lot of work at first base and that's the position we're going to focus on. That's a little new for him in pro ball, so we're spending a lot of time working at first base and we’ll go from there.”

Busch has proven throughout his Minor League career that he can handle his own on the offensive side of things.

Last year in 98 games with Triple-A Oklahoma City, Busch hit .323/.431/.618 with 27 homers, 26 doubles and 90 RBIs, while posting an 18.8% strikeout rate (down from 26.1% in each of the previous two years) to go along with a 13.9% walk rate. In his 357 career games in the Dodgers’ farm system, he slashed .283/.390/.529.

As Counsell phrased it at Cubs Convention last month, Busch has “essentially conquered the Minor Leagues.” But his 27-game stint in the Majors last year still showed room for growth, given that he hit just .167 (12-for-72) in his first look at big league arms.

“He’s a professional hitter, for sure,” Kelly said. “He's changed his hand set a little bit. The lower half is very similar, but he has played around with his hands a little bit. He's tricky, because he's a right-handed thrower, left-handed hitter. And I think some of those guys, with the four-seam fastball and the velocity of the big leagues, there is an adjustment for those guys.

“And that's what he’s gone through -- a little bit at the end of last year when he was in the big leagues. And it'll be somewhat of a focus for us this year, getting him a little bit more aggressive at the top of the zone, and kind of working through the backside of the baseball.”

As Busch works on those adjustments, he has enjoyed having Kelly back at his side in the batting cage.

“It's been good,” Busch said, “just having a couple of conversations here and there about the feels I've been having, or what has changed mechanically or mentally, or stuff like that. Not too much has changed, but I think it was really nice to know, just coming over here getting off on the right foot, [I’d be] with somebody that I've kind of known for a while.”