Mark the date down. March 30, 2015. It should be known as a transformational day in Cubs history. For the first time in what seems like forever, the Cubs are simultaneously focused on winning right now…and in the future. The days of selling out to make a single effort to bring a championship to the North Side are gone. As are the days of watching prospect after prospect come up and learn at the big league level. It’s about 2015 AND beyond. This is the first time in the Epstein/Hoyer era where a season was not lost before it begun. It is the first time since 2007 where there was legitimate hope for a season beyond the current one. What happened was the finishing touch of a culture change.
While it may feel like that was a touch dramatic, it cannot be overstated how important it was to send out both of Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, who along with Addison Russell will, for a period of time, make the Iowa Cubs a lot of fun to watch.
Think back to 2006. The Cubs had a highly touted center fielder. He was a higher rated prospect by Baseball Prospectus than Ryan Braun. And Ian Kinsler. And Justin Upton. And Adam Jones. And yet, Felix Pie never became what his talent said he should have. Maybe it’s because he was pushed into the majors on April 17, 2007 (which is a pretty important date this year, for some reason…) and he wasn’t ready to play major league baseball. Maybe Pie flamed out because he was given the center field job in 2008 in a platoon with Reed Johnson and was replaced by Jim Edmonds within a couple of months. Maybe the Cubs so thoroughly botched the development of Felix Pie that they have nobody to blame for his career not taking off but the regime who either sold off or was fired by the Ricketts when they took over.
Fast forward to 2014. Javier Baez gets called up. He struggles for two months in a lost season, but figures out what mechanical adjustments need to be made over winter. And now? He gets optioned to Iowa. So he can continue to work on those adjustments in a place where he is comfortable and is not faced with the pressure of being an everyday player on a team with playoff aspirations. This is a positive development for both now and the future. As opposed to keeping Baez on the roster and running him out there to hit below the Mendoza Line so his glove and his baseball IQ stay on the field, he can become a well-rounded baseball player who can succeed in every facet of the game.
Optioning Javier Baez shows the commitment to winning this season. He is not going to be allowed to work through his offensive issues and develop his approach at Wrigley this season. He’s going to Iowa for that. He is going to a place where he was having a great deal of success when he was called up last summer. The overall numbers may not show it, but Baez crushed AAA pitching just before his call. It is right for the player to send him back. More importantly, it is right for the major league team to send him down because it keeps a potential hole out of the line-up and allows capable replacements in Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara to fill the role in the interim. After, and unlike in previous regimes only after, Baez has made his adjustments at the plate will he come back up. When he can further help this season’s team win.
It is considerably more difficult to make the case for Kris Bryant being reassigned to minor league camp helping this year’s team win. Because it doesn’t. By most measures, Bryant can help right now. While his defense at third base is imperfect and he is still readjusting to playing in the outfield, his bat would be more than beneficial to the line-up. While he is likely going to face some periods of struggle in his rookie season, Bryant could be a very real Rookie of the Year candidate. But sending him to Iowa was the right call.
In the past, Bryant may have had more than a puncher’s chance to make the big league team out of Spring Training. To be honest, he doesn’t even appear to have had the puncher’s chance after the super sized numbers he put up in the small sample he was allowed in Arizona. Pushing him back, though, is the right call. Not for 2015. But for 2021. 162 games for the price of 15 or so cold weather games where pitching and defense are going to be far more important than Bryant’s bat is a no-brainer that some no-brainer in the past may have over-looked. The commitment to being good in 2021 during the month of March of 2015 is not merely admirable…it’s damn near a miracle when comparing to the way the Cubs were run not too long ago.
Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein, and Jed Hoyer are keeping their promise. They are not setting out to catch lightning in a bottle, win a single World Series championship and fade back into irrelevance. They are looking to win now, next year, and all the way through the period of time that extends through six years from now…and hopefully beyond. 2007 and 2008 are prime examples of how taking one or two shots can end. A 96 win 2008 was erased in 4 nights. And the Cubs have been nowhere near that point since. Having 95 win season after 95 win season, though, gives every fan a better shot at getting what they seek. The elusive end of the drought. Because of proper development and foresight that are now being used within the organization, waiting until next year can mean something more than enjoying the summer sun at Wrigley.
It can mean winning. Consistently. Which is something that hasn’t happened on the North Side in a long time.