Bryant, Baez, Russell demotion a reminder that young Cubs have a ways to go

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For everyone but Kris Bryant, baseball is hard. That basic truth turned up again Monday when the Cubs optioned the struggling Javy Baez to Triple-A Iowa.

Together with the news that the Cubs were reassigning Bryant and Addison Russell to minor-league camp, it was another reminder that no matter how many top prospects the organization has, the major leagues are a whole other ballgame.

Or, to put it another way, slow down, everybody.

It’s hard to tell Cubs fans to take their foot off the gas pedal less than a week before Opening Day. ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney found that out when he placed the team 19th in his preseason power rankings. From the social-media response, you would have thought he had declared that God was neither male nor female but dachshund.

Olney’s rankings back up the idea that the Cubs aren’t there yet, that the playoffs are a distant dream for this season and that the future isn’t now. And that’s OK. It doesn’t take away from what the Cubs might be. It just paints a picture of where they’re at right now.

Right now, Baez needs help. You remember Baez. He was the kid who came up to the big leagues with much fanfare last season. He was among the so-called Core Four, along with Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. It was the youthful, talented foundation upon which the organization was being built. It’s too soon to change the name to the Marquee Three, but Baez has his work cut out for him.

Since the Cubs brought him up to the big leagues Aug. 5, he has been a wind tunnel, striking out 95 times in 213 at-bats last season and 20 times in 52 at-bats this spring. This from the guy who had 60 minor-league home runs the past two seasons.

This isn’t meant as a teardown of Baez. It’s meant to remind all of us that there is no such thing as a sure thing in this sport. Hitting a baseball is difficult. Hitting it at the major-league level is an exercise in regular humiliation. It can mess with your mind. It can put holes in your soul. Just because you were great in the minors does not mean you will be great in the big leagues. We tend to forget that.

No one is telling Cubs fans not to go into the season with their hope fully deployed. They should be excited about this team and what this organization is trying to accomplish. But the Baez news is further indication that this is a process. There will be growing pains.

Or, if you prefer, it’s a reminder that these guys haven’t accomplished anything yet at the major-league level. One of them hoped to at least get the chance beginning Sunday.

For Bryant, baseball isn’t hard, but the business of baseball is.

He seems the most ready of any of the Cubs’ prospects, but it makes economic sense for them to delay his debut a few weeks so that, under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, they can retain his rights for another season. They won’t come out and say that because it goes against what most of us were brought up with – that the best players should make the team. But that’s the reality of the situation.

(Can you imagine if president of baseball operations Theo Epstein waits until mid-May rather than mid-April to bring up Bryant? In Wrigleyville, that would go over about as well as last call. Either way, if the Cubs fail to make the playoffs by a game or so, God help Theo.)

The Cubs are walking a strange tightrope between wanting to be very good in 2015 and tamping down expectations that they should be very good in 2015. They want you to know that they’re coming. They don’t want you to think that they’ve arrived.

The motto seems to be: Not So Fast!

Olney has the Nationals as his top team. The White Sox are 15th. The Cubs would be battling for the second wild-card berth if Olney’s rankings held up. That’s pretty good progress for a team that has finished in fifth place in its division five straight seasons.

It’s not a popular prediction among those fans who believe the Cubs are destined for greatness in 2015. But it’s a good starting point.

Nothing is certain. As Cubs fans know, there are worse things.

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