The Chicago Cubs were lucky enough to have two separate Opening Days this year: their season opener against the Cardinals on April 5, and their season opener with the best prospect scouts have seen in some time. Cubs fans can finally celebrate; Kris Bryant has arrived.
In what seems to be Cubs tradition, neither debut went exactly according to plan, as the Cubs were shutout 3-0 against the Cardinals and Bryant struck out his first three major league at bats en route to a hitless performance in four at bats.
In what seems to be the Cubs new direction, however, both Bryant and the Cubs turned the corner almost immediately. Following his first game, Bryant has gone eight-for-fourteen with five walks, six RBIs and only one strikeout, almost a startling improvement from his first contest. The Cubs, meanwhile, sit comfortably in second place in the competitive NL Central, having taken series from the Reds and Rockies, while splitting their series with the Cardinals.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla that surrounds Bryant, who some have termed “the messiah”. Well, first things first: they’re not wrong.
Yes, yes, we all know that Bryant hasn’t even seen a month of major league action. At this point, he’s just another can’t-miss prospect that has seemingly landed on the Cubs’ lap, someone who will finally help the Cubs fulfil the prophecy and win a World Series. But so was Felix Pie. Do you remember Felix Pie? I didn’t think so. I try my best to simply forget Felix Pie.
Bryant obviously has the stats to match the hype. Who hits nine home runs alongside a .425 average in the minors and is demoted to AAA after spring training? Who hits between 60 and 120 percent better than the average minor leaguer, no matter the level? Who had such a monster campaign last season that several statisticians who run different projection systems to predict major league success had to meet up because they were so worried that his stats were predicted to be too good? I think you know the answer to all these questions by now.
Still, numbers are only half the battle. And this is where the notion of busts comes from. Time after time, we see projected slash lines for hitters that are All-Star quality, and when they come to the majors they can’t even hit their weight (I’m looking at you again, Felix).
This is because projection systems look at stats alone. They don’t look at the hitter’s work ethic, they can’t see flaws in a swing that major league pitchers can see in an instant. It looks nice in ‘Moneyball’, but stats are only half the battle. Scouts can fill the rest in.
What scouts have to say about Bryant is … incredible. As with the projection systems, most scouts quickly formed a consensus such that Bryant has been regarded as the best prospect in baseball for some time now.
They cite his effortless, incredibly powerful swing, his work ethic or that he was raised right. Whatever they say, they say the kid is ready. He is special.
I mentioned earlier that it’s easy to get caught up in the Kris Bryant show, something I’ve done myself thus far in the column. Let’s depart from that and look at the rest of the Cubs roster.
Following the news on Monday night that Addison Russell, who is a top-five prospect and has been for some time, would be called up to the majors, I challenge you to find a more exciting infield in the MLB.
Behind the plate you have a two-time All-Star, veteran catcher in Miguel Montero, who provides leadership and experience to a very young team. All-Stars Starlin Castro at short and Anthony Rizzo at first have provided the foundation for this team through its growing pains. And now you have a pair of top-five prospects at second and third base in Russell and Bryant, respectively? This is going to be a really fun team to watch grow.
As it stands, this already is a fun team to watch. Dexter Fowler has brought life to a team that badly needed an OBP boost, and Jorge Soler has been hitting his mind out while playing solid right field. Before the season, many predicted that Soler and Bryant would be duking it out for Rookie of the Year honors, and it seems as if that may be the case. It’s too early to guess whether Russell will make a bid for such an honor, but I wouldn’t count him out of the running.
Moreover, with such a plethora of young talent, the Cubs could not ask for a better man to helm the team than Joe Maddon. Having turned around the Tampa Bay franchise utilizing small paychecks and big prospects, his wealth of experience makes him the perfect match to head what could be a historically good ballclub.
The pitching staff is where the questions begin to come in to play.
Jon Lester has been far from stellar in his first few appearances for the Cubs. Still, it’s hard to believe a three-time All-Star and two-time World Series champ will struggle for too long.
Jake Arrieta had a mind-bogglingly good season last year, far and away the best of his career, and he appears to be on the same track after starting 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA and 19 strikeouts over the course of his first three starts of the season.
After that, the rotation is full of questions. Can Travis Wood return to his form from two years ago? Will Kyle Hendricks’ soft-arm style allow him continued success in the majors? Is Jason Hammel anything more than a middle of the road pitcher?
I’m not sure of the answer to these questions, but I don’t think I need to be, for now. This is not a team that was planning on taking home the World Series trophy this year, as much as everyone in the clubhouse may say that’s their goal.
This is, however, a team that is built on sustained success. After Russell’s promotion, there are still prospects to be called upon who can make an MLB impact. The roster is one of the youngest in the MLB, and Theo Epstein’s vision was never of a one-and-done team like Billy Beane’s A’s.
The Cubs have endured years of laughter and mocking, but now it finally seems like they have the tools to make it work, to make a legitimate run in the playoffs and to do so year after year. That said, tools are one thing, and execution is another. The Cubs have said time and time again that this is the year. Now, it’s time for them to prove it.