When tracking a minor league prospect through a system, there are some traditional mileage markers along the way. For international signings, one of the first is hitting U.S. soil. It represents a level of proficiency that many never reach, and indicates that your competition just got tougher. Reaching 'full-season ball' is another. Whether a hitter or a pitcher, this means that you can likely follow all of his games, from April through early-September, on-line. Hitting Double-A is another major sign of merit. Most prospects, though, hit each step along the way. Some, those with the pedigree and numbers to match, get rushed. Should Kris Bryant be rushed?
To be entirely honest, Bryant has already been rushed, to some extent. He skipped Low-A Ball, in part so as to not push Jeimer Candelario's development. Candelario is a traditional, yet well-thought of, third-base prospect. He has a degree of buzz, but far less than the standard second-pick-in-the-amateur draft level of buzz. Candelario remained in the Midwest League at Kane County, and Bryant jumped a level to the Florida State League and Daytona.
Despite skipping a level, in a smallish sampling in the pitcher-friendly FSL, Bryant had an OPS over 1.100. That's obscene. He walked too little, struck out too much, and played decent-at-worst defense. Bryant now leads the Arizona Fall League in homers, and seems ready to try the Double-A Southern League in the spring.
Before I get ahead of myself too far, there are a few ways to 'rush' a player. There is always risk involved, but if you think a player is good enough, sometimes it makes sense.
One of the historic examples of rushing a player is 1960s-era catcher Johnny Edwards. A catcher in the Reds pipeline, he was progressing along as usual, but his parent club had a problem. They had a really good team, but they had no worthwhile catchers. Their 1961 season-opening starter struggled, and was traded. His replacements were no better. Eventually, Edwards was summoned, though the team doubted he was ready. He wasn't, but he helped the team win a pennant.
A more Cubs-centric version is Corey Patterson. The third pick in the 1998 draft, Patterson lived up to the hype in full-season ball in 1999. He had an OPS of .949 and skipped a level, jumping directly from Low-A to Double-A. His 2000 season was solid, but by no stretch otherworldly, as his OPS was a solid .829. After a cup of coffee in the big leagues in September 2000, his options started to come into play the next season. No problem, right? He'll be a star.
He was worse in Triple-A Iowa in 2001 than he was in Double-A. He never figured out plate management, and his defensive routes could be curious. Patterson looked very good in 2003, until he was injured mid-season. He was at 1.8 WAR that season, and a 2.9 the next. His best year by WAR was his first in Baltimore, at 4.2. His career mark is just a touch under 10.
The Kris Bryant version of rushing is different than the standard variations of Edwards or Patterson.
Depending on the position a player plays defensively, rightly or wrongly, there are some expectations from them. First basemen are supposed to hit with power. So too, should corner outfielders, though often to a lesser extent. While third base used to be considered a place for power guys, in present-day baseball, that is less of a prerequisite. While some do hit for power (David Wright and Evan Longoria, for example), the position now expects defense more than it did 10 years ago.
When Kris Bryant lines up on Opening Day (presumably) for the Double-A Smokies, most will be wondering about his offense. Is he drawing walks? Is he hitting for average and power? One of the most intriguing things, though, will be his defense. Obviously, Cubs fans hope his glove is at least adequate. If he's better than that, marvelous. However, his defense, and the brass' response to said defense will be more telling than that.
If healthy and recovered from concussion-based problems, Mike Olt will have the first chance to nail down third base for the major-league Cubs in 2014. After coming over from the Rangers in the Matt Garza trade, Olt's story of trying to combat vision trouble has been a soap opera just beneath that of "manager" and "stadium renovation concerns." Olt is regarded as a good defender, and if he mans third as well as he was projected to coming into 2013, he could nail down third base for his cost-controlled years. However, what if he isn't serviceable-or-better at third?
Christian Villanueva figures to play third at Triple-A Iowa. Probably a Top-150 prospect himself, he ranks below Bryant and Olt. He is a less-flashy type, that hits for occasional power and plays solid defense. If Olt falters, I imagine Villanueva would still be given the theoretical 500 at bats in Iowa. Villanueva is on the 40-man roster, performed well at Double-A in 2013, and figures to take a standard year at the higher level to prep for the big leagues.
If Olt isn't ready yet, 3B-du-jour is in play again.
Which brings us back to Bryant. Third base is a demanding position. Bryant has gotten mixed results at third. Many of his biggest detractors, though, haven't watched him play much. In part, because his college games had horrible video feeds, no Northwest League or Florida State League teams televise, and there aren't many pictures from the Arizona Fall League. What we have seen has been a bit sketchy -- making some plays, and flagging on some others.
Bryant is a work in progress at third. If he were a 17th-round pick, meandering through a system, and without a hefty signing bonus, a team would likely be happy to let him improve his skills at third in Tennessee. However, none of those apply. His team at the parent club level has many gaping holes. If he has any measurable success at Smokies Park, fans will want him called up yesterday. And not to Iowa.
A solid-defensive third baseman who can hit in the middle of the order is a luxury in the majors now. If Bryant can be that good at the hot corner, it frees up the other positions for more glitzy and exciting players. And, should help in the "ticket sales" department. But, is it worth the wait for Bryant to get good at third?
Since I enjoy playing "what If", how about this? I'll project Mike Olt hitting .240 with adequate walks and a potential for 15 home runs. Villanueva does what he does, and seems like a guy a team could plug in at 3B through his cost-controlled years, play third, hit sixth or seventh, and not mess it up for even a good team. And Bryant shows tools at third, but really needs a bit of time, preferably away from the lights of the majors, to be good there. And his bat is middle-of-the-order good.
Do you rush Kris Bryant?
He could play left field or right field at a major league average level by late May, I would guess. But to do that, you would have to forego him being a third baseman in the future. Of course, he might be able to pick it up later. But, the time to learn is when in the minors.
I doubt Bryant gets 500 at-bats in Tennessee or Iowa. The possibility exists that he might reach Wrigley before he gets 500 more combined between the two. The question is, how important is development? If Bryant is heavily challenged by upper-minor league pitching, he may have plenty of time to hone his defensive craft. Or, there may be pleadings to send him much higher, much sooner.
He could get called up for right field, getting work 'after school' at third base to stay current there. It isn't ideal for his development, or for the 2014 team, but it could serve as a compromise solution.
How important is having Kris Bryant being the best player he can be? The way for that to happen is for him to be treated like any other player. Master the position that benefits the team the most long-term. If Bryant played third in the minors all 2014, and a bit into 2015, he could be a lock-down third baseman for a decade. But, to get that result, it might take that long. Or, if his bat continues in the OPS .900 + range, his defense might become an inconvenience. The heck with him being a good 3B for a decade, get him to Wrigley by late July, even if it means right field.
The argument can be made either way.
Kris Bryant's offense this year at five different levels have him on the verge of Top-10 prospect status in the game. He is a third baseman, but can certainly be moved elsewhere, should the need arise. The question is, should the need arise? Should Kris Bryant be rushed?