ST. LOUIS – The Cubs are playing their hated rival, the defending National League champion, and the only things people want to talk about are the farm system and the amateur draft.
You can understand The Plan and the value of cost-controlled, long-term assets. You can recognize the game is trending younger and free agency isn’t what it used to be. You can acknowledge this franchise has severe financial restrictions.
But this can still feel like an alternate universe, a place where president of baseball operations Theo Epstein actually gets asked if there’s an “overemphasis” on winning in professional sports, and manager Rick Renteria gets ripped for writing the lineup that gives his guys the best chance to win that day. (Mike Olt!)
Jed Hoyer took cover inside the visiting dugout before Wednesday’s Cubs-Cardinals game got rained out at Busch Stadium. The Cubs GM listened as beat writers asked about Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, the No. 4 overall pick and the next wave of talent.
“I’ll be really happy when we talk about our team only,” Hoyer said. “But I get it. I totally understand why people want to talk about the future and why people want to ask about our prospects and want to ask about the draft. We are building for the future.”
The future isn’t now for Bryant, who’s hitting .324 with 11 homers, 33 RBI and a 1.045 OPS in 38 games at Double-A Tennessee. Last year’s No. 2 overall pick is dominating that level, but don’t expect a promotion to Triple-A Iowa anytime soon.
“Certainly, he’s having a great year,” Hoyer said. “Right now, it’s not something we’ve talked about. We’ll give it a little bit of stability with him. I think it’s important to know a ballpark you’re going to every day, who your teammates are.”
Hoyer pointed out that within the last year, Bryant’s bounced from the University of San Diego, two Class-A affiliates (Boise and Daytona), the Arizona Fall League and Tennessee.
“It’s probably important to have a few ups and downs with the same club before we even have that discussion,” Hoyer said.
Deep down, people inside the organization realize things are out of balance. The Cubs talk about getting healthy and building it the right way, but ideally the kids wouldn’t be counted on as franchise saviors.
Remember when Baez was supposed to displace Starlin Castro or play next to the All-Star shortstop? The big slump in Iowa – .147 average and 43 strikeouts in 102 at-bats – has tabled that discussion for Cubs fans and Epstein’s front office.
This should just be a blip on the radar for Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect, in what turns out to be a long, productive big-league career. But Bryant will have to make similar adjustments and respond to the daily failures.
“The thing I always think is most impressive is this guy went 0-for-5 with five punch-outs in his first game for Boise,” Hoyer said. “It didn’t bother him. Right after that, he hit 16, 17 games in a row and got called up. That’s the kind of thing that I think would shake a lot of people. He does have confidence in his own swing. Part of that is because he is 6-6. He’s had to make some adjustments in his career to get the most out of his talent.”
The Cubs had reasons to bet on Bryant, who comes from a strong family – his father Mike played in the Red Sox system – and got invited to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, making them believe he can handle all this.
“Hopefully, he’ll keep it up,” Hoyer said. “He’s going to face a lot more good pitching along the road. He’s going to have some more downs along the way. Hopefully, he can continue to be able to fight through those.”
[RELATED: Kris Bryant ready for whatever rolls his way]
Cubs reliever Jose Veras came back from his rehab assignment at Tennessee saying Bryant at-bats are must-see events.
“This kid’s unbelievable,” Veras said. “Everybody loves him. Unbelievable teammate. He’s humble. He’s kind of the leader of the team.”
The Cubs are 13-25 and will need Bryant and Baez to become big-time players and change the conversation. It’s not even Memorial Day and already this feels like September call-ups, while the other narrative in spring training became the summer sell-off.
“You guys ask me about the trade deadline,” Hoyer said. “I can’t wait until you guys are asking about who we’re going to acquire as opposed to who we’re going to trade.
“Hopefully, it will evolve past that and we stop talking about guys in Triple-A and Double-A and we’re talking more about last night’s game. But I think that’s sort of the nature of things right now.”