The debate (and wait) is over: With service time issues no longer a concern, it's time for top prospect Kris Bryant to make his major league debut for the Cubs.
There is no longer a good reason for the Cubs to keep 23-year-old third baseman Kris Bryant in Triple A. After a spring training full of debate over whether Chicago should send its top prospect to the minors to start the season, as of midnight Thursday, enough time had passed for the Cubs to call up Bryant without losing a year of team control* over him. And while Chicago has done just fine without him while starting 5-3, given the current state of its roster, Bryant's arrival is almost certainly imminent and necessary—and totally deserved.
*As of Friday morning, there will be 171 days left in the 2015 season. For a player to accumulate a full year of service time, he needs to be on the major league roster for 172 days. Thus, starting Friday, teams can call up players with no MLB service time and effectively get seven team controlled years out of them—this “partial” season and the next six full seasons—rather than the usual six.
The second pick in the 2013 draft out of the University of San Diego, Bryant has done nothing but rake at every available opportunity as a professional. In his first 1 1/2 seasons in the minor leagues he hit .327/.428/.666 with 52 home runs in 620 at-bats, including a .295/.418/.619 line with 21 homers in 70 Triple A games. In spring training this year, he led the majors with nine home runs in a mere 14 games, hitting .425/.477/1.175, and he's hit a strong .333 with two homers in 24 at-bats so far in Triple A. It's obvious that he's not only ready to hit, but also to star. But with the service time rules being what they are, the Cubs were faced with choosing between having Bryant on the team for nine extra games at the start of his rookie season or having him under team control for his entire age-29 season. Given Bryant’s production and earning potential, that was no choice at all.
Much of the aforementioned arguing was driven by Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras (surprise!), who suggested the Cubs were trying not to win by sending Bryant to the minors. So, how has Chicago done without Bryant? With a 5–0 win over the Reds on Wednesday night, the Cubs own a half-game lead in the NL Central.
Could Bryant have turned one of those three losses into a win? It certainly seems possible. Chicago's last loss was to the Reds on Tuesday, 3–2. Bryant could have altered the outcome of that one, but it’s unlikely that he could have made much difference in the Cubs' 3–0 loss to the Cardinals on Opening Day, given that Chicago never had more than one base runner in any given inning, and it’s similarly unlikely that he would have turned the tide in a 5–1 loss to the Rockies last Friday. If the Cubs miss the playoffs by a single win, then Boras (whose only real concern, of course, is cashing in his talented client) and Cubs fans can complain, but those who do renounce the right to enjoy Bryant’s 2021 season.
Bryant may not have made a difference for Chicago in the early going, but with his service time constraints soon to disappear, is his call-up now an inevitability? A quick look at the state of the Cubs' roster would suggest that anything other than having Bryant start at third base on Friday against the Padres would be a decision made purely for the sake of argument and deception.
Tommy La Stella, who started at second base on Opening Day and at third in the second game of the season, suffered an oblique strain in the latter game and was placed on the disabled list on Tuesday. Opening Day third baseman Mike Olt, meanwhile, was hit in the right wrist by a pitch on Saturday and hasn’t started any of the last four games. Since Olt was hit by that pitch, 30-year-old utility man Jonathan Herrera has started every game at either third or second. A career .263/.324/.329 hitter, Herrera has gone 2-for-10 in those games. On Wednesday, Arismendy Alcantara, Chicago's regular second baseman since the second game of the season, became the fourth Cub to start at third already this year. The 23-year-old, who struck out 93 times in 70 games as a rookie last year, is 2-for-22 (.091) on the season. With La Stella on the disabled list, the only other infielders on the Cubs’ 25-man roster are starting shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
A Bryant call-up is a necessary move, and it seems as if the Cubs have already tipped their hand. When La Stella was placed on the DL on Tuesday, he was replaced on the roster by a reliever, leaving the still hurting Olt as the only infielder on the bench. It’s obvious that the Cubs are going to call up an infielder on Friday, and the identity of that infielder should be just as plain to see.
Calling up Bryant after he spent just one week in the minors would be akin to admitting that service time was the only reason he was demoted, but it is properly motivated by the needs of the 25-man roster. And so what if service time was the impetus for Bryant’s Triple A assignment? The rules are the rules, and the Cubs not only played by them, they also made the same choice that any other team in their position would have made. Trading Bryant’s age-29 season for what proved to be eight games of his rookie season would have been madness bordering on negligence. The Cubs made the right choice sending Bryant to Triple A, and they should make the right choice again, calling him up and putting him in the starting lineup on Friday.