Agent Scott Boras had strong words today for Cubs ownership regarding the timeline of the promotion of top prospect Kris Bryant, as Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports. In the view of Boras, the team — and, in particular, its final decisionmakers — must decide whether to prioritize winning over long-term contractual matters.
At base, the issue revolves around service time and major league readiness. By keeping the 23-year-old Bryant in the minors even for just two weeks to start the 2015 campaign, the club can prevent him from accruing a full year of service and thus delay his free agency by a full season. The controversy over Bryant is not a new one, of course; we saw similar debates last year, for example, involving players such as Gregory Polanco. It is, however, in particularly sharp focus given the player’s massive potential — as exhibited in his outstanding spring performance thus far (six home runs in 23 plate appearances) — and the club’s own emergent competitiveness.
“Cubs ownership has a choice,” said Boras. “Are they going to present to their market that they are trying to win? [Cubs owner] Tom Ricketts said they were all about winning.” In addressing the issue, Boras compared Bryant to several other top prospects who were allowed to start the year with their clubs in spite of service considerations, often with successful results. He had particular criticism for the team’s decision not to call up Bryant late last year, saying: “I believe the issue with Kris Bryant is not whether he should be on the 2015 team. The issue is, why wasn’t he called up in September of last year when he could have prepared for the 2015 season?” In comments to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Boras was even more strident, saying that holding Bryant down is tantamount to “damaging the ethics and brand of Major League Baseball.”
In response, club president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said that the decision whether to include Bryant on the active roster to start the year was his alone, upon consultation with his front office team. “Comments from agents, media members, and anybody outside our organization will be ignored,” he said.
Epstein emphasized that there is more at play than contract status. “As I told Kris last September and again at the start of spring training, we view him as nearly big league ready,” Epstein said. “The remaining area for improvement is his defense — something Kris agrees with. Kris is 6-foot-5 and a half and therefore faces obstacles other third baseman don’t face.”
Though Epstein held out the possibility of Bryant heading north with the team, he noted that lingering shoulder soreness was playing a role in the decision:
“More than anything, we want him to get in a good rhythm defensively before he makes his major-league debut. That has not happened yet, in part due to some shoulder fatigue that is not a concern but has limited the amount of game action he’s been able to have at third base. If enough time remains to get Kris into a good rhythm defensively at we may consider putting him on the club. If not, we see nothing wrong with using the early part of the season at Iowa to get him in that rhythm.”
As for the notion that Bryant should have received a September call-up to prepare him to start 2015 in the bigs, Epstein tells Nightengale that the decision was made in part based upon the fact that Bryant had just experienced his first full professional season. “When we talked after the season,” Epstein said, “he was really happy how he held up physically, but he’s an honest kid, and said that he was little mentally drained from the grind of the long season. I think it was the right thing, let a guy go through his first full season, and feel good about the numbers he put up.”
Bryant entered the year as a consensus top-three prospect league wide after destroying the upper minors last year in his first full season as a professional. Over 594 plate appearances split evenly between Double-A and Triple-A, he slashed .325/.438/.661 and hit 43 home runs. Of course, as Epstein notes, observers agree that there remains some polish to be applied to his work at the hot corner.
As for the Cubs roster, one major impediment to significant early playing time for Bryant was removed over the offseason when the team dealt away the solid Luis Valbuena. But Chicago traded for Tommy La Stella as another cheap, youthful option and also has former prospect Mike Olt in camp.