Under The Bleachers: Kris Bryant And The Business Of Baseball

Chicago Cubs third base prospect Kris Bryant demolished big league pitching throughout Spring Training, batting .425 with 9 home runs, 15 RBI and an on-base percentage near .500.

Everything about his performance in preparation for the 2015 Major League Baseball season indicates that not only is the 23-year-old former second-overall pick ready to man the hot corner on a daily basis for the Cubbies, but also that Bryant should be the frontrunner for National League Rookie of the Year honours as well.

While he could very well still win Rookie of the Year, he won’t be standing at third base and batting in the middle of the lineup for the Cubs on Opening Day. Bryant was re-assigned to Triple A earlier in the week, stoking the fires on a debate that has been had in baseball circles for the past several years. Here’s the skinny:

By sending Bryant to the minors and keeping him there beyond April 16, the Cubs keep the former San Diego University standout from reaching free agency until following the 2021 season. This is all about Major League service time and Chicago looking to retain control of an elite prospect for as long as possible and it’s all within the rules.

The Los Angeles Angels did the same thing with Mike Trout, Washington did it with Bryce Harper and Tampa Bay famously did it with Evan Longoria at the beginning of his rookie season as well. All were capable of breaking camp with the big club, but all were optioned to the minors for a couple months in order to delay the start of their careers and therefore keep them locked up for one more season.

Big picture for Chicago, it’s the right thing to do – Bryant looks like a sure bet to be an All-Star and a major power threat in the middle of their lineup for years to come, so holding onto his rights for one extra season by letting him hang out in Des Moines for a couple weeks makes perfect sense.

But there is something about this that just feels stupid and backwards.

The kid hit more home runs than anyone else during Spring Training and has been pegged as one of the best prospects in the game for a couple years. He’s going to head to Iowa, mash the ball all over the yard and generally look like a big fish in a small pond in dire need of bigger waters.

Meanwhile, Chicago is going to deploy MIke Olt at third base to begin the season, spelling him on occasion with Tommy La Stella. For the record, Olt is a career .159 hitter (258 AB) and though La Stella is significantly better at .251 (319 AB), he’s primarily a middle infielder and has zero pop.

Cubs President Theo Epstein called this a baseball move, but this is anything but a baseball move. It’s a business decision – an understandable, but ultimately backwards business decision, one that takes some of the fun out of the game and changes the way we approach sports as knowledgeable, adult fans.

Kids don’t necessarily pay attention to the minutiae of sports the way teens and up do – they want to see the couple guys that they know pull on the same cap they have and they’re not overly concerned about the salary cap and service time and things of that nature.

But even understanding all those elements doesn’t make this decision – or comparable decisions in other cases – any easier to stomach. We still want to see our team put the best lineup possible on the field every single day, barring injury and the occasional day off. We understand the contractual implications of Bryant spending two or three weeks in Iowa and that long-term it means he’ll be a Cub for an extra year, but what about this year?

What about the first two or three weeks of the season, where a couple wins could end up making a difference in the playoff race and the ball-smashing third baseman could change the outcome of a couple of those games? Retaining his rights through 2021 is great provided he stays healthy and doesn’t demand a trade, but after more than 100 years without a World Series win and 70 years without playing in the October Classic, shouldn’t this team be doing everything in their power to field the best team from Day One?

It’s not just a baseball thing either.

While this specific situation – keeping players in the minors to delay the start of their service time clock – is mostly associated with baseball, NHL teams face comparable decisions with 18-year-olds coming out of training camp, although you never would have witnessed the Pittsburgh Penguins sending Sideny Crosby back to Rimouski for one more season or having him start the year in with Scranton-Wilkes Barre.

Basketball doesn’t have the same issues with demoting talented prospects, but it does face a problem with tanking. The Philadelphia 76ers reboudning plan over the last few years has basically been to be as bad as humanly possible while stockpiling young talent and high draft picks. It’s not against the rules and has some logic to it on paper, but you still have to get the picks right and hope everything lines up right while asking your fans to endure two, three, maybe even four seasons of utter futility.

It sucks.

It makes perfect business sense, but people don’t necessarily care about the Philadelphia 76ers or Chicago Cubs as corporate entities looking to maximize profits and make sound financial decisions.

They want to see their teams win and sending your best everyday player to the minors isn’t how you win games early in the season.

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