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Cubs swing for the fences with Michael Busch

The Cubs and Dodgers pulled off a rare prospect-for-prospect trade as Jed Hoyer gambles on a potentially game-changing bat.

NATHAN J. FISH/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cubs made a bold move yesterday, dealing two promising, but very young, prospects for a major-league ready slugger. Yes, the Cubs also picked a right-handed reliever in Yency Almonte, but make no mistake, this deal was about getting the Dodgers’ No. 1 prospect (according to Baseball America), infielder Michael Busch. In many ways, yesterday’s trade reminds me of the Anthony Rizzo trade of over a decade earlier. There’s no guarantee that it will, but there is a solid chance this trade works out as well as that one did.

Michael Busch is a left-handed hitting infielder who was the Pacific Coast League MVP last season. He earned that award after hitting a whopping .323/.431/.618 with 26 doubles and 27 home runs in just 98 games. The Pacific Coast League is still a hitters league, but Oklahoma City’s home park is one on the tougher places to hit home runs in that league. He did hit 18 of his 27 home runs on the road, but his batting average and on-base percentage home/road splits were nearly identical. Busch doesn’t hit left-handers with nearly as much power as he crushes righties, but his .294/.401/.429 line against southpaws last year demonstrates that he’s not just a platoon bat. Watching his approach at the plate, it wouldn’t surprise me if Busch developed more power against lefties as he got more experience against them.

Make no mistake about it, Busch can hit. He has a quick stroke through the zone with a natural lift to it. He makes hitting look effortless and the power is impressive when he gets ahold of it. Most of his power is from right field to dead center as he has generally drives the ball on the line when he goes to the opposite field. But it’s not hard to envision Busch depositing more than a few home runs in the left-field baskets at Wrigley.

The biggest improvement that Busch made in the minor leagues last year was cutting down on his strikeout rate. Over the 2021 and 2022 seasons in Double-A and Triple-A, Busch struck out at a rate of 26.0 to 26.3 percent. But he cut that down last year to 18.8 percent and his walk rate jumped from 9.9 percent in Triple-A in 2022 to 13.9 percent last year.

I haven’t watched enough games with Michael Busch to independently verify all of this, but Baseball America writes that:

Busch drives balls hard in the air from gap-to-gap, handles both premium velocity and quality breaking stuff and mashes both lefties and righties. He projects to be an above-average hitter who can anchor the middle of a lineup.

I can verify the “driving the ball hard” part and the middle-of-the-lineup potential.

Here’s a collection of highlights from Busch’s MVP year in the PCL.

Busch is a patient hitter with excellent pitch recognition skills. Some observers have argued that the “patience” crosses the line into “passivity” at times, but he’s definitely a hitter who likes to see a lot of pitches and to jump on the one that he knows he can crush.

Overall, however, Busch is a potential middle-of-the-order power hitter with a solid hit-tool and excellent on-base skills. The Dodgers have compared his bat to Max Muncy’s, except that Busch can be expected to hit for a higher average. So if you can get someone who hits 30 home runs a year with a .270 batting average and a .380 OBP, that’s an All-Star, even at first base. Less than that would still be a playable everyday first baseman and a huge improvement over what the Cubs trotted out there in 2023.

Busch did make his major league debut last season with the Dodgers and he admittedly struggled, both at the plate and in the field. He hit .167/.247/.292 with two home runs in 81 at-bats. He struck out 27 times and walked just eight. But he wouldn’t be the first great hitter to struggle in his first taste of the majors. That line is arguably better than what Anthony Rizzo did in his first stint in the majors with the Padres. Busch also was never given any consistent playing time in the majors last year. He’d come up for two weeks, get four starts or so and a few appearances off the bench and then go back down the Oklahoma City. Rinse, lather, repeat.

The Dodgers also asked him to mostly play third base in the majors and, well, more on that later.

If Busch is so fantastic, then why would the Dodgers deal him? I don’t think they wanted to, but their hand has been forced by the need for a roster spot for newly-signed Teoscar Hernández. Also, they just had to do something with him eventually. First off, he’s 26, which is admittedly old for a prospect. But he’s not someone whose arrival in the majors was delayed because he was struggling and repeating levels. He was drafted in 2019 as a college junior and played in just 10 minor league games that year before getting injured in late July. Then he lost a season to COVID, like every other minor leaguer. So he didn’t even really get started on his minor league career until he was 23.

Busch then shot through the minor leagues in 2021 and 2022, reaching Triple-A in May 2022. Busch had played almost exclusively at first base in college, but the Dodgers tried to make a second baseman out of him. The glove wasn’t coming along as fast as the bat, so the Dodgers then tried moving him to third base, which meant spending 2023 back in the minors. Moving him back to first wasn’t an option because of Freddie Freeman. The Cubs don’t have that problem.

So far, the returns on Busch playing third base have not been promising. He lacks the strong arm that most third baseman not named Nick Madrigal seem to need. Plus, a lack of experience at third meant that his reaction times at the hot corner just weren’t good enough. Could he improve there with more time and reps? Maybe. But he’s already 26. Letting him spend another season in the minor leagues learning a new position (which he may or not master) would mean losing out on another season of his bat in his prime.

So the Dodgers, facing a 40-man roster crunch and with Freeman blocking Busch at the only position he plays well enough, decided now was the time to cut bait, before he got even older. And they cleared up their 40-man roster by asking for two very young, high-risk and high-reward minor league prospects from the Cubs who won’t have to be protected for several more years.

We will probably learn more of what Jed Hoyer and Craig Counsell’s plans for Michael Busch are today or tomorrow during the Convention. But no matter what Hoyer says, I believe he acquired Busch to be the Cubs’ everyday first baseman for the next six seasons. Or at least to give him every opportunity to claim that job. I believe he will have that job on Opening Day 2024. Busch has nothing left to prove in Triple-A.

What are the implications of this deal for the rest of the offseason? It certainly doesn’t bode well for Cody Bellinger’s return to Chicago, since the Cubs would have him play a lot at first base were they to re-sign him to a long-term deal. Does it completely close off the return of the fan favorite? Not quite. If the market doesn’t develop for Bellinger the way he and agent Scott Boras would like, Bellinger could come back on a contract similar to the one he signed last year. Bellinger could play center field while Pete Crow-Armstrong gets more experience in Iowa and first base against some tough lefties instead of Busch. He could also DH and give Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki some days off as a corner outfielder. Then after a year in Chicago, Bellinger could go back on the market: a year older but without a qualifying offer attached. If Bellinger repeated his 2023 season this upcoming year, that would also go a long way towards calming any fears in MLB front offices that Bellinger could return to his 2020 to 2022 form.

On the other hand, there likely will be more good free agent hitters next winter than this one, which would argue for Bellinger taking the best long-term deal he can get now. But the Cubs are definitely not giving Bellinger a six-year deal worth close to $200 million now, if they ever were. The chances that Bellinger will be a Cub next year just went way down.

Rhys Hoskins is probably definitely out of the Cubs plans now as well.

But the Cubs do have more money to spend and Matt Chapman has become a better fit, especially if he would be willing to do a two- or three-year deal with a higher annual salary. Busch isn’t the best defensive first baseman around, but he’s much better there than he is at third or second. It would help him to have an infield of Gold Glovers like Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson and Matt Chapman throwing darts right at him. I don’t believe that Hoyer would be willing to tie up the left side of the infield for five or six years by giving Chapman a deal that long, but a shorter deal would make a lot of sense for the Cubs. It might be the best that Chapman can get.

Al covered the Yency Almonte part of this deal well enough. Almonte has had some good stretches and some bad ones. The Cubs are hoping for one of those good stretches. For the Dodgers, trading him was more about opening up another 40-man roster spot than anything else.

We’ve discussed the two players the Cubs gave up in these pages before. I ranked left-hander Jackson Ferris as the Cubs’ ninth-best prospect in my mid-season update. He’s good, but certainly has some control issues that might not be fixable with his current pitching motion. Like all young pitchers who throw hard, there are injury worries. But yes, there is a quality mid-rotation starter upside there and the Dodgers develop young arms as good or better than anyone. Even if LA can’t teach Ferris better control, he could be a real weapon out of the bullpen. But the Cubs, in their current situation, would trade that for a quality everyday first baseman any day of the week.

Outfielder Zyhir Hope is even rawer and younger than Ferris. Right now, he’s all tools and not much refinement. He did do better than expected in his first taste of pro ball in the Arizona Complex League, but he really hasn’t been tested yet in full-season ball. Even in the ACL, Hope had some contact issues. It’s too early to really predict what Hope could be, but he does have some real upside. The Cubs took him out of high school in the 11th round last year, but they gave him an overslot bonus that would be the equivalent of a fifth-round pick.

I’m not trying to downplay what the Cubs gave up. Both Ferris and Hope could end up as quality major leaguers. Teams don’t give up a top 100 prospect for nothing. It should hurt a little. What I am saying is that if Michael Busch lives up to his potential, it doesn’t matter what the Cubs gave up. Focus on what the Cubs got and don’t prospect hug.

I don’t want to make too much of the Rizzo comparisons, but they’re hard to avoid. Both Rizzo and Busch are slugging, left-handed hitting first baseman with strong on-base skills. (I expect Busch to draw more walks and get hit by fewer pitches, but that all evens out.) Neither one of them has 40 home run power, but hitting over 30 in a good year and 25 in a bad one is still pretty good. Like Rizzo, Busch should chip in a lot of doubles. Neither one runs very well. Both struggled in their first shot at the majors for an NL West team.

There are some differences. Rizzo was a better fielder than Busch is. Busch also throws right-handed. Busch went to college and is four years older than Rizzo when he came to Chicago. The Cubs are in a very different point than they were in 2012 when they could afford to be patient with Rizzo. Busch needs to produce now. Rizzo is from Florida and Busch is from Minnesota. That last one isn’t really important. I just thought I’d mention it.

Twelve years ago, the Cubs made a similar bold move to anoint a highly-regarded prospect from another organization as their first baseman of the future. We should be so lucky for history to repeat itself with Michael Busch. It could happen.