Let’s excuse Cubs fans – and not just because I’m one of them – for their slight propensity toward hyperbole. It has been more than a century since the club won a World Series. So the glory-starved fanbase looks for any flicker of hope that this year could by the year. During Theo Epstein’s four-year run as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, that hope has been staked to a talent-rich farm system that ranks as baseball’s best.
It’s entirely apropos that the Cubs’ championship aspirations rely heavily on a group of unproven prospects. Because, historically, hope in Wrigleyville is about as stable as a game of Jenga. But even the most cynical have to concede that the Epstein-era Cubs have a slightly different feel to them – one anchored by a foundation that promotes sustained success. It’s a foundation largely built on the shoulders of prospect Kris Bryant, rated unilaterally as one of the top two prospects in baseball. Bryant is Cubdom’s messiah and he is finally ready to step into the batter’s box at Wrigley Field.
Late Thursday night, multiple news outlets reported that the Cubs were going to promote Bryant from Triple A. Soon after, via his verified Twitter handle, Bryant confirmed his call up: “Today I got to tell my family that my dream is coming true. Can’t really put into words what that feels like. So excited for this journey!” Bryant will bat cleanup on Friday against the San Diego Padres. His first at bat will assuredly coincide with dreams of a ticker-tape parade.
Bryant has dominated at every level he has played within the Cubs’ system and had an outstanding Spring Training that left his agent, Scott Boras, and the MLB Players Association chastising the Cubs for sending Bryant down to start this season. The Cubs demoted Bryant to the minor leagues to start the year because it gives the organization an extra year of contractual control before he becomes a free agent. It was the right baseball move by the franchise. But forget all the drama; today, the fun begins. And while this might be a punch to the collective gut of Cub Nation, the rational baseball fan will be quick to point out that we should probably temper our expectations a tad.
That isn’t to say he won’t be the perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer many are hoping. All the measurables, sabermetrics and scouts point to that. But he’s still a prospect. Prospects take time to develop, especially at the major league level. Sure, there are exceptions – like Mike Trout – but the majority of players, even those who eventually become baseball’s best, struggle. It’s rare for a young player to arrive, thrive and sustain a level of success. Bryant may begin his major league career raking the ball. But pitchers will adjust. In turn, Bryant will have to as well. That’s almost always a challenge for a young player.
In 1951, the Yankees promoted a young outfielder who possessed raw power, could hit for average and cover the strike zone as well as any young hitter. After struggling at the start the season, he was sent down to their Triple-A affiliate. He would have quit if not for a blunt pep talk from his father. He later was called up for good. His name? Mickey Mantle.
No, Bryant probably won’t be sent back down to the minors. Given his wealth of talent, he may have a Trout-like ascension to baseball’s elite. But it’s unlikely. History says so. At some point Bryant will struggle this season.
But Cubs fans shouldn’t fret. Even as he struggles, remember that flicker of hope will one day turn into a flash fire. Bryant’s likely the guy who will lead the organization toward breaking sports’ cruelest streak. Just know that it will take time. Development almost always does.