MESA – Cubs prospect Kris Bryant knows he can hit a home run a day – like that two-run shot to left-center he hit in a “B” game Thursday – until the end of March and he’s still going to open the season in the minors in April.
No matter how blue in the face his agent, Scott Boras, gets ranting about the integrity of the game and damage to the MLB brand when its best players aren’t on rosters because of service-time calculus.
But how he handles it at that point might have far more impact on the Cubs over the next season or so than any two-week stretch at the start of the season he might miss over issues that have little to do with merit.
“I know it’s a huge, huge, huge deal to him right now,” Cubs first-baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “But this time next year he’s going to be laughing at it. So I try to just say to him, even if you don’t start in the big leagues – and that’s every kid’s dream – it’s not a bad thing to go and get at-bats in AAA.”
If Bryant is kept below the minimum 172-day threshold to qualify for a full season of service time, his free agency will be pushed back a year, until after the 2021 season.
“I told Kris, I’ve been through it a few years ago,” Rizzo said. “And I went through it twice with the whole Super 2 thing, and this and that.”
Rizzo was a prominent, fast-rising power hitter with San Diego in 2011 when Padres general manager Jed Hoyer – now the Cubs’ GM – kept him in the minors until June 9 despite huge numbers at AAA (all but assuring the club would avoid an additional, fourth year of salary arbitration eligibility with Rizzo).
After struggling, Rizzo was sent back down. Then after he was acquired by the Cubs’ new Hoyer-Theo Epstein regime over the winter, he was kept in AAA despite even bigger numbers until late June (to assure the same outcome).
Rizzo, who rendered the whole issue moot when he signed a seven-year, $41 million deal in 2013, said that business side of the game can mess with even the most level-headed young player’s mind.
Rizzo’s trying to be the teammate he didn’t have, the one who can share and advise from experience.
“It’s tough,” Rizzo said. “It’s not easy because at the time I felt like was ready and there was nothing I could do.”
Bryant needs only look at his locker neighbor, Javy Baez, to see a classic example. Baez put up big numbers each of the last two springs in big-league camp, and even coming off a huge 2013 minor league season, he was sent back to AAA to start last season.
“It was really tough,” Baez said, “because you know what you can do, and you know that you can be here with the rest of the guys. He’s doing what he knows he has to do. But maybe he stays, maybe he doesn’t.”
But should he? Is Bryant ready?
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Baez said. “Everybody knows that he can be in the next level.”
The Cubs benefitted from holding off on Baez’s service-time clock last year, but the middle-infielder also had no position to play on a team that had an All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro and still had former Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney.
The consensus opinion in the organization is that Baez’s disappointment contributed to a miserable six-week start at Iowa in 2014. Baez said that’s not the case.
Regardless, the struggles likely delayed his big-league debut – which came in August, nearly a month after infielder Arismendy Alcantara’s.
“I think he will fine,” Baez said of Bryant. “He will understand what he’s got to do to get to the big leagues.”
That’s part of what Rizzo, who counsels several of the big prospects in camp, is trying to help assure.
“The good thing with Kris is he got sent down last year so he kind of knows the crappy feeling it is,” Rizzo said.
And even if he were to get the call for Opening Day, that’s not a push-button process for a rookie, either. (In fact, the Cubs are almost certain to have him debut on a road trip with fewer distractions and media).
“It’s not easy getting called up for the first time, with everyone calling you, your phone ringing non-stop,” Rizzo said. “You get a couple hits against Adam Wainwright, and you’re on top of the world, and then you’re going to have to face Lance Lynn the next day and then Michael Wacha. There’s no easy-feasting pitching like there is maybe at lower levels.”
If Bryant were to get the call out out of camp – “He can 100 percent in my mind handle it,” Rizzo said.
But Rizzo’s advice is to keep an eye on the bigger picture regardless.
“He knows he’s really close,” Rizzo said. “I keep telling him his goal needs to be to be the Opening Day third baseman every year after this year no matter what happens this year.”