By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (CBS) — Despite leading the baseball world in batting average, homers and RBIs this spring, Cubs prized prospect Kris Bryant was sent back to the minor leagues Monday for more seasoning. As he left the Cubs complex with three bats and his girlfriend in tow, a smile of resignation crossed his face as he turned and waved.
Anyone with a mind for the big picture anticipated Monday’s news months ago: Bryant will start the season at Triple-A Iowa, even after hitting nine homers to lead the Cactus League and another in a minor league game to give him 10 for the spring. He also hit .425 with a 1.652 OPS.
The inevitable demotion is certainly more about the Cubs not being ready to promote the 23-year-old Bryant rather than him not being ready for the big leagues. Cubs front office members have admitted they prefer their near-ready major league prospects — even the potential stars — to transcend from the minors to an in-season major league promotion rather than straight out of camp.
While Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein privately knows it was an easy decision because Chicago will have contract control for an extra year on Bryant if he’s in the minors for two weeks, it didn’t mean it was easy to see Bryant leaving big league camp.
“It’s always difficult to send talented young players down because it’s news they don’t want to hear,” Epstein said. “We entered camp with the presumptive move being to send him to Triple-A. It’s always the presumptive move for us with young players who haven’t played in the big leagues yet. You see how camp develops and you see how the rest of your players are performing and see how the roster shapes up and see if there’s grounds for an exception to the rule. But in this case, we felt it was the right thing to do.”
Bryant’s expected to be called back up sooner rather than later this season — perhaps as soon as two weeks after Opening Day.
“His performance mattered, and we told him that today,” Epstein said. “It wasn’t as if he went out and performed in a vacuum. His performance really mattered. It made a great first impression on Joe (Maddon), and it demonstrated clearly to everybody, including to us, that he’s really close to not just being in the big leagues but to playing an important role on the team. His camp mattered. We’re more likely to get him sooner than later at this point with how he’s playing and how close he’s showed. We are going to afford him the same luxury we tend to afford most if not all young players, which is go off and get into the rhythm of the season and play and we’ll get to you quickly.”
Bryant will primarily play third base at Triple-A Iowa with some outfield mixed in, Epstein said, who added Bryant took the news “extremely well” and “professionally.”
There are also no hard feelings between the Cubs and Bryant, Epstein said, after he was at the center of agent Scott Boras’ criticism of the team. Boras accused Cubs ownership of not being committed to winning if their best players aren’t playing on Opening Day.
For nearly six weeks, Bryant heard about service time questions. Just like he adjusted to big league pitching, Bryant handled the repetition of questions with grace and respect.
It leaves everyone feeling good.
“The only thing Kris did to the story was to play really well,” Epstein said.
“No hard feelings at all. Scott was doing his job for his player.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.