Talking to the press today, Cubs team president Theo Epstein said "I could be in this game for a long time and not send down three players that talented on the same day ever again." Yeah, No kidding. I'm not sure anyone in the game has ever sent three players this talented down to the minors on the same day before.
Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Addison Russell were each sent down for different reasons. Bryant, unquestionably, was sent down because of service time issues, although the team cannot admit that. Baez was sent down because his problems making contact have, if anything, only gotten worse. There also seems to be the first signs of a lack of confidence on the part of Baez, which is something no one has ever said about Baez before. Russell was sent down because he's never played above Double-A (save for three games at the end of the 2013 season in the Athletics system) and because there simply isn't a position for him to play at the major league level at the moment.
This gives the Iowa Cubs perhaps the greatest infield in the history of Triple-A baseball. I can't really prove that, but after a quick look around, I'm not really seeing much better. The best I could find was the 1972 Albuquerque Dukes, who had Tom Paciorek, Davey Lopes and Ron Cey in their infield.
All of this will likely make Chris Valaika the answer to a trivia question. He's the I-Cubs Harry Steinfeldt.
But fans in Des Moines may never get to see this embarrassment of riches. Bryant is down primarily for service time issues, and the I-Cubs first two series are in Memphis and New Orleans. By the time the I-Cubs play their home opener, Bryant can be promoted to the majors without the Cubs losing an extra season of control. I suspect the Cubs will let Bryant play at least one series at Principal Park so that the service time maneuver isn't quite so obvious. Also, Epstein has stated his preference for big prospects to break into the major leagues on the road. Bryant will be in the starting lineup for the Cubs on April 20 in Pittsburgh.
So if you're in Des Moines, buy tickets for the opening home series against Oklahoma City. It will likely be your only chance to see Bryant this season.
But at what position? If there is one thing that Bryant really does have to work on in the minors, it's his defense. He's not a butcher at third base, but he certainly could improve his reads on balls coming off the bat and overall reaction times. Also, the Cubs want him to learn to play left field. Not only have the Cubs issued a new directive that all position players in the minors learn to play more than one position, but it's entirely possible that the Cubs will have an opening in left field but Mike Olt is doing just fine at third. So learning to play left field would be something that Bryant can do for those two weeks in the minors. He did play some outfield at the University of San Diego, so he should be able to get the hang of it quickly.
As far as what is going to happen in baseball because of Bryant's demotion, the MLBPA has issued a statement on the matter.
Today is a bad day for baseball. I think we all know that even if Kris Bryant were a combination of the greatest Players to play our game, and perhaps he will be before it’s all said and done, the Cubs still would have made the decision they made today. This decision, and other similar decisions made by clubs will be addressed in litigation, bargaining or both.
I'm really not sure what they can do. They can file a grievance, but without any specific evidence that the Cubs demoted Bryant for service time issues, there is nothing an arbiter could do. The Cubs have the right to make their roster as they see fit, and it's not like Bryant is the first prospect to be held down for service time issues. Keith Law wrote a column suggesting that players in Bryant's situation be given a restricted free agency after six years of service, (ESPN Insider only) but it seems to me that any team would still have the incentive to go to arbitration on a seventh season rather than being able to match a one-year offer from another team. Teams would have every incentive to make outlandish offers to restricted free agents, knowing that it's only a one-year deal and it won't come around to haunt them later. So Law's proposal solves nothing in my mind.
Wherever you set the deadline, teams are going to have an incentive to wait.
For Baez, the issue is clear. He's simply not making enough contact and he's not reading pitches well enough. Instead of stepping back and seeing what's wrong, Baez seems to be doubling down on the "swing hard and hope to make contact" approach. I think this is as much a product of him pressing as anything. The game has never been hard for Baez, ever, and he's having trouble figuring out how to react.
What does he need to do? I'd love to see him work with Manny Ramirez more. Manny seems to understand Baez and be able to get through to him. There aren't many people who have had as much potential talent as Baez, but Ramirez was one of them many years ago.
Beyond that, the first thing that Baez needs to do is get his confidence back. After that, he really does need to modify his swing and work on identifying pitches. His bat speed is fast enough that he should be able to wait that extra 0.2 seconds before deciding to swing. His power is great enough that even if he takes something off of his swing, he'll still have enough power to get the ball over the fence. Remember, Javy. Balls that land in the baskets count just as much as ones that break windows on Sheffield.
The good news on Baez, such as it is, is that he looked very comfortable defensively at second base this spring. It now seems like a pretty safe bet that Baez will be able to stick at second base, at least for the first part of his career.
Baez is going to be in Iowa a lot longer than Bryant will be. His future is going to be determined by how well he learns to make adjustments. As soon as he can demonstrate that he's changed, he should be back in Chicago. That could be as soon as mid-May, but the All-Star Break would be a lot more likely. The Cubs would have to keep him in Iowa until September to gain an extra year of control, so that probably won't be a concern. At least let's hope it's not a concern. (Correction: They'd have to keep him in Iowa until mid-July to gain an extra year. They'd have to keep him in Iowa until late August or September to gain another pre-arbitration year.)
As far as Russell goes, no one really expected Russell to make the team out of spring training. The Cubs under Epstein have been very methodical in the way they handle their minor leaguers, and every player needs to demonstrate mastery of each level before advancing. Russell still needs to master Triple-A before getting the call to the Show.
But beyond that, the Cubs face a problem with Russell in that the position he plays, shortstop, is already occupied by a three-time All-Star in Starlin Castro. Russell is probably the superior defensive player and I believe that the long-term answer for the Cubs at shortstop is Russell and not Castro. Short-term is a different matter.
So the Cubs have a lot of questions to answer about Russell and Castro. Does the team try to trade Castro? Considering his youth, his talent and his contract, it seems unlikely the Cubs could get equal value back. Moving Castro to second base makes sense, as long as Baez isn't occupying the position. But Castro has never played second base outside of the Arizona Fall League or the Dominican Summer League. It's not something he's really going to be able to pick up in the middle of what we hope is a pennant race.
So Russell may have to start his career at second or third base sometime this summer, depending on what Baez and Bryant do. (Yet another reason for Bryant to learn to play left field.) When that happens is, again, up to Russell. I wouldn't expect to see him in Chicago before the All-Star break and based on the precedents set last year by Baez and Jorge Soler, August is the most likely month for him to make his major league debut. But the position he'll play is to be determined.
None of this takes Kyle Schwarber into account.
There's no doubt that this year is going to be a very challenging one for the Cubs front office. But at the moment, it looks like it should be a good kind of challenging.