BY DAN McGRATH
For the Sun-Times
If a debate over a top prospect’s Opening Day destination is the No. 1 issue as a baseball season opens, chances are the team in question has enjoyed a relatively quiet spring.
That’s true enough for the Cubs despite Joe Maddon’s creative efforts to keep things loose and lively and Jon Lester’s tired arm.
True for the White Sox, as well. Not from insensitivity did I smile when I heard of Chris Sale’s early-spring foot injury, but from the description— — he hurt himself “falling off a truck.” When we were kids, one of my father’s old neighborhood pals would show up at the house with radios, barbecue grills, tables, baseball gloves . . . always explaining that the gift had “fallen off a truck.”
We knew better than to press for details. But if a Cy Young- caliber starting pitcher lands in the Sox’ rotation by falling off a truck, it could be 2005 all over again.
That would be 1908 for a Cubs reprise, and I’m not seeing it, although they’re much further along in renovating their roster than they are their ballpark. Javy Baez’s continuing struggle to make contact seems a bigger deal than three weeks of Kris Bryant now or a full year of him later, but the Cubs have assembled enough talent to be interesting, if not competitive, while waiting for the “Core Four” and complementary parts to reach Wrigley.
In other words, they’ve moved past the days when Nate Schierholtz was their best player. And I rejoice as I realize I’m paying $133 to see the Cubs play the woebegone Phillies from a good but not great seat on a Saturday in July.
If Bryant is as good as advertised, ticket prices won’t be coming down any, as it will take a contract in the range of Max Scherzer’s or Giancarlo Stanton’s to retain the young slugger once he can offer his services on the open market. Postponing that by a year is the rationale for delaying Bryant’s major-league debut until later this season despite a month of sensational spring hitting. That’s the Cubs’ right under the collective-bargaining agreement. Uber-agent Scott Boras has howled in self–righteous indignation and the players’ union declared the Cubs’ decision a bad day for baseball, forgetting what an insult that was to third baseman and fellow union member Mike Olt, whose interests deserve as much protection as Bryant’s.
I wouldn’t say “sad” is the right word, but it’s at least odd that there’s hot debate over Bryant’s Chicago future before he has played a game here. That doesn’t exactly encourage the development of long–term affinity— — embrace the kid at your peril.
The balance of power in baseball labor relations began swinging the players’ way in the mid–’70s. It might not have been better knowing Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks would form the heart of the Cubs’ order for perhaps a decade, but it was a safer emotional investment.
Maybe it’s a Chicago thing. In 1998, in the aftermath of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game, one of the follow–up stories dealt with the likelihood of the Cubs being able to retain him once he hit free agency in six years.
Baseball had become Moneyball long before Billy Beane and Michael Lewis popularized the concept.
So let’s be patient with Bryant — he’ll be here soon enough. And if his “light–tower power” is the real deal, he’ll be so huge that re-signing him will be an imperative, a non-issue.
He won’t, however, be big enough to swing the division race this year.
The Cubs have shot past the Brewers and could be better than the sagging Reds, but there’s a sizable gap to cross before they reach the Cardinals’ and Pirates’ level. If the pitching holds up and some of the kids come through, they can be on the fringe of wild-card contention.
The Sox could be better than that, having made changes for the better to coincide with some slippage by the teams in front of them. —Scherzer (Tigers) and James Shields (Royals) will be hard to replace. Assuming they pitch and hit well enough to contend, the Sox’ biggest challenge is fielding. Aside from a bad bullpen, nothing undermines a team worse than four-out innings and unturned double plays.
It starts for real Sunday night, and I’ll be there. A hard hat is appropriate for the Wrigley Field construction zone, and I’ll be wearing one. Fell off a truck a few years ago, I’m told.