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The news in Chicago this spring centered on third base prospect Kris Bryant and whether or not he should be the Cub’s opening day starter. The numbers he put up in the Cactus League, .425/.477/1.175 with nine home runs and 15 RBI’s, made the decision a no brainer.
However the business of baseball told a very different story. Bryant’s service-time clock would begin to tick immediately if he made the club out of Spring Training, if the talented rookie spent at least twelve days in the minor leagues before being called up his free-agent season would be pushed back for another season.
Sending Bryant to AAA Iowa was the best move for the Cubs. It makes sense financially, they would control Bryant’s rights through 2021, when he would be 29 years-old, at that time Bryant would become a free agent. Should all go as expected he would then sign a lucrative contract with whomever he chose.
That doesn’t mean that Chicago couldn’t sign him to a contract prior to his free agent season, if he plays to his potential in the Major Leagues. Madison Bumgarner is an example of a player who was rewarded with little time on a Major League roster; the left-hander signed a five-year, $35,000,000 contract with two years of service time.
Bryant isn’t the first superstar in waiting to be kept off the 40-man roster for a period long enough to extend the clubs contract rights, Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmermann and George Springer suffered the same fate. The Cubs are executing their contractual rights under the negotiated agreement, as many teams before them have done.
Bryant has 176 Minor League games under his belt and he’s posted impressive numbers: 1.084 OPS, 52 homeruns and 143 RBI’s. However, that is a small sample size and may prove a detriment when he faces the inevitable adversity in the Major Leagues.
Bryant strikes out about once in every three at bats and his contact rate is questionable, under 65% in Triple-A according to FanGraphs. In the Minor Leagues he has the flexibility to gain more experience in an environment that is designed for player development, while the pressure to produce at the Major League level may prove to be too much for a player with limited experience and a lackluster contact rate.
On the other hand Bryant is 23 years-old and played three seasons of college baseball prior to his minor league experience, he’s handled the pressure of Division I baseball along with the high profile status of being a very high draft pick. The success he’s demonstrated at all levels is a testament to his work ethic and skill development, there should be no reason to doubt that he will continue to progress through the Major Leagues at a rate comparable to his current pace.
A demotion to Triple-A may have a negative effect on his confidence; he may feel greater pressure to demonstrate that he belongs on the Major League club thereby curtailing his development.
Agent Scott Boras and the MLBPA have no recourse and are mounting a public relations campaign attacking the Cubs and accusing term of unethical behavior. All of this may leave a sour taste in Bryant’s mouth when it does come time to negotiate a free agent contract.
Chicago’s lack of offense beckons a player like Bryant. He could step in and provide right-handed power to a lineup that is sorely lacking the ability to score runs. In 2014 Chicago hit .223 with runners in scoring position and posted a team batting average of .239, they continue the trend early this season.
The trade of third baseman Luis Valbuena this off-season to Houston and the revolving door at third base in the Cub’s first four games, three players have played the position, has assured the quick return of the talented Bryant.