Wednesday afternoon, Jason McLeod, scouting director for the Chicago Cubs, announced that Javier Baez and Kris Bryant will begin their seasons in AAA and AA, respectively. While some fans may see this news as a further sign that 2014 will be another bad year for the Chicago Cubs, these assignments, combined with other hints given by Theo over the past 3 years demonstrate that the Cubs expect their top prospects to be in Wrigley soon. Once these prospects arrive in Chicago, the days of Theo begging fans for their patience will be over and Cubs fans will finally have an opportunity to see if the management’s plan has put the team on the path to winning or not. Each of these assignments has a slightly different implication, but both should look great to Cubs fans.
In assigning Javy Baez to AAA, the Cubs are showing how pleased they are with the way he has progressed. After spending 2012, his first full season with the Cubs, in A ball (split between Kane County and Daytona), Baez started 2013 in High A Daytona. In 76 games at Daytona, Baez hit .274 with 17 home runs and was then called up to AA Tennessee, where he hit .294 with 20 home runs in only 54 games. While his plate discipline (147 strikeouts in 577 at bats) and defense (44 errors in 123 defensive games played) are concerning, his improvement at the plate (and surprisingly, in the field as well) from single to double A was marked.
The most exciting part of this move is the timing of his assignment to AAA. Theo and Hoyer have taken an extremely cautious approach with the promotion of minor league players. During the 2012 season they refused to bring Anthony Rizzo to the majors for months, despite his .342 batting average and 23 home runs in 70 games at AAA Iowa. Their reasoning for such an approach is two-fold: first, they do not want the arbitration clock to begin on any of these players before it is absolutely necessary. This will allow them to sign players to reasonable long-term deals (like they have with Rizzo and Starlin Castro) after the players have been able to demonstrate their ability at the major league level. Overall, this approach will save money, which can then be used to supplement their roster with free agents. The second aspect of the approach is that it protects young players from being exposed to the pressure of the major leagues before they have fully developed. The quick promotion for Baez from AA to AAA indicates that the Cubs are not going to strictly stick with a system of keeping players at each minor league level for one or more years. What it really says is that the Cubs believe that Baez will be ready for the majors sometime between mid-2014 and mid 2015.
Bryant’s assignment is encouraging because it demonstrates that Theo and Hoyer do not believe that all prospects should be treated equally in their minor league assignments. Baez, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora all spent significant time in A-ball before being promoted (it is not yet clear where Soler and Almora will be next year, but thus far, neither has played above A-Ball). The difference between these players and Bryant is that Bryant spent 3 years in college and is actually the oldest of the four players (22 years old). The Cubs’ willingness to tailor their approach to particular players is encouraging. If they feel that Bryant is ready to start his first full season with the Cubs in AA, it likely means that his minor league stint will not be a long one. It also means that if he does very well in AA, the chances of seeing him in Wrigley late in 2014 are relatively good.
The Big Picture
The Cubs seem to want to bring all of these prospects up as a unit. By giving them a chance to become familiar with each other at the minor league level, the hope is that this will create some chemistry between the players when they reach the big league level. The Cubs also announced that Arismendy Alcantara will likely start the season in AAA. If Bryant, Baez, and Alcantara are close to Wrigley, it means that players like Soler, Almora, and CJ Edwards are probably not far behind. The Cubs are not going to be competitive in 2014, but their willingness to give these prospects a chance will finally give fans an opportunity to evaluate Theo’s approach. If the prospects come up and are successful, the Cubs could become a competitive team very quickly. Cubs fans will quickly forget about the hundreds of losses that it took to build a successful team. If the prospects come up and fail, fans will know that the approach has failed and any remaining confidence in Theo or Hoyer or Ricketts will be permanently rocked. Either way, fans who have already waited for 105 years for a championship should not have to listen to management ask for patience much longer.