PCA using tough debut as motivation for 2024

February 21st, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- admits that it took him some time to shake off the zero that will forever be on the back of his baseball card. The highly touted prospect got his first taste of the big leagues in a playoff chase with the Cubs last September but headed into his offseason with no hits or champagne to show for it.

Once Crow-Armstrong got beyond that initial disappointment, it was time to dig in and turn that sour taste into an important developmental catalyst. The young center fielder arrived in Arizona in December, focusing on approach and swing adjustments with Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly. That zero gave them a foundation to build upon.

“It was a small sample size,” said Crow-Armstrong, who is MLB Pipeline’s top-ranked Cubs prospect and the No. 16 prospect in baseball. “But it gave me just the right amount of information to get a better understanding of who I need to be to be a successful big leaguer.”

The Cubs know who Crow-Armstrong has the potential to become in the Major Leagues, too. That’s why Chicago convinced the Mets to make the prospect the return piece in the trade that shipped former Cubs star Javier Báez to Queens at the Trade Deadline in ‘21. The kid they call PCA boasts an electric bat, plus speed and some of the best defense in the game.

Now, as the North Siders look to construct a team capable of reaching the playoffs this year, Crow-Armstrong is poised to play an impactful role. There is offensive development to go, but the center fielder could immediately help in the run-prevention department. He already has hardware, too. PCA took home the MiLB Defensive Player of the Year award in 2023 and was a Minor League Gold Glove winner in ‘22.

“I think he's in a great mental space,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “He looks great physically, and he's been working on his swing. And he's a good teammate. He wants the Cubs to win. I think he knows he's a really good player, and I think he knows he can help us win baseball games.”

The question that continues to hover over Cubs camp is whether the ballclub might still look to re-sign center fielder Cody Bellinger. If that were to come to fruition, Chicago will have to weigh whether Crow-Armstrong is best served by starting the season with Triple-A Iowa. That is still a possibility, even if Bellinger is not brought back into the fold.

Beyond Crow-Armstrong, the current roster includes outfielder Mike Tauchman, who can play center and stepped up as a key part of last year’s team. There is also fellow outfield prospect Alexander Canario, who boasts power from the right side and could fit as a complementary piece.

“There's nothing that says Pete is going to be the center fielder for the Chicago Cubs,” Crow-Armstrong said.

The rookie also made it clear he is on board if the Cubs do want to re-sign Bellinger.

“I love Cody -- that’s my friend. Bottom line,” Crow-Armstrong said. “If Cody comes back, that’s great. That gives us a better chance to win.”

In the meantime, PCA will keep focusing on the adjustments he began over the winter.

Crow-Armstrong has hit at a high level throughout his Minor League career. The center fielder posted an .896 OPS with 46 extra-base hits and 32 steals in 2022 as he climbed from Single-A to High-A. Last season, 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 and Triple-A.

During his time with Triple-A Iowa last year, PCA worked with hitting coach John Mallee (back with the Cubs’ Major League staff now as one of Kelly’s assistant hitting coaches) on adjustments for handling fastballs up in the zone. That issue had a spotlight on it in September, when the outfielder went 0-for-14 in his 19 plate appearances with the Cubs.

“That taste of it just kind of showed him like, ‘Hey, there’s a couple things that we can work on,’” Kelly said. “He’s so athletic -- we don’t want to take that away -- but knowing that there has to be a little bit more structure with some of the setup and some of the swing decisions, because the guys up here will expose what you’re not good at.”

Kelly explained that the goal over the offseason was to help PCA get into a more rigid setup, but one that would allow his athleticism to take over once the swing starts. The Cubs hitting coach described it as creating a base (or starting point) from which “we kind of know what every move is after that.”

“It was eye-opening for him to see what it’s like up there,” Kelly said. “But I think we all know that Pete can hit. And that small sample size isn’t what Pete’s going to be.”