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‘Good problem’: How the Cubs will balance winning and development for prospects 

8 months agoAndy Martinez

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to implementing young players into a big-league roster.

“When I look around baseball, what’s one of the biggest challenges is how do you compete at the highest level while also breaking players in?” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said.

Unlike in 2022 or late 2021, the Cubs in 2023 didn’t have the luxury of giving a long runway to young players; they were trying to win and if there was a weakness in their lineup or pitching staff, they were quick to amend it. That’s partially why someone like Matt Mervis or Pete Crow-Armstrong had a quick hook — the Cubs couldn’t prioritize development at the expense of wins.

“There’s really no way to know — some players are going to have some struggles early on and some won’t,” Hoyer said. “And we have to find ways to win while it’s happening.”

Last offseason, the Cubs added veterans like Trey Mancini and Tucker Barnhart to help the big-league team, yes, but also so the team didn’t have to come into the season relying on unproven prospects like Mervis or Miguel Amaya in their first taste of the big leagues. The veterans — beyond Mancini and Barnhart — also provided a learning environment for those younger players.

There’s no way to know exactly how a prospect will fare when they reach the big leagues, but Hoyer and Theo Epstein before him have all preached that development “isn’t linear”.

“We had that with Kris Bryant, for example, where he never really ever had a struggle early on, that happens sometimes,” Hoyer said. “You also have other situations where whether it’s Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ, those guys ended up having to struggle and getting sent down.”

The hope for the Cubs is that 2023 was a learning experience for prospects, including Crow-Armstrong. The 21-year-old was 0-for-14 in 13 games in his first taste at the big-league table. It was disappointing for the Cubs’ top prospect, who had plenty of expectations when he was called up in September.

“He struggled at the plate when he was here, and I told him this: I actually believe that will end up being the single best thing that could happen to him in a lot of ways,” Hoyer said. “I told him, I said, ‘Hey, you know, I watched Anthony Rizzo hit .141, over roughly 150 plate appearances in 2011 and he was a top 10 prospect.’ He had incredible modeling numbers, and I mean, he literally hit .141, he looked terrible.

“We sat him down at the end of the year and said, ‘You saw what it’s about, you have to go make real changes.’ And thankfully, the Padres traded him here after we came here, because he hit .141. But he showed up in spring training the next year and he had completely altered his swing.

“He realized there were certain pitches he couldn’t get to, and he needed to make those adjustments, and he made those changes. And I think he hit .285 in the next year in half a season. There’s no way he makes those changes if he doesn’t struggle.”

That’s not to say Crow-Armstrong is going to arrive in 2024 and crush major-league pitching, but the likelihood of him being able to improve his game based on what he was exposed to in his 13 games should be higher than if he didn’t have that experience.

“I certainly wish he would have come up and hit .500 and led us to four more victories, but that didn’t happen,” Hoyer said. “But second to that, I think having that experience where I think he’s going to take that to heart and go make those changes, I think is really important, because he’s going to be a good and very impactful player in this league for a long time.”

Other young Cubs’ players have experienced this and shown their ability to either sink or swim.

Jordan Wicks faced adversity right away in his major league debut — 8 pitches into the outing he had allowed a home run, single and walk, and things were teetering on the edge. He buckled down and retired 15 in a row. He finished with a 4.41 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP — numbers that are slightly inflated after allowing 6 runs in his final outing of the season — in 7 starts and looks like a potential rotation option in 2024.

Christopher Morel had immediate success in his debut in 2022, but hit just .183/.253/.380 over his final 2 months that year and started 2023 in Triple-A. This season he hit 26 home runs with an .821 OPS in 107 games and looks to be a key piece for the Cubs next season and beyond.

Both learned from their experiences and the veterans around them and learned how to use their strengths to contribute to the team to help them win.

“Being in this environment around this team for young guys is extremely valuable,” David Ross said. “Being around the adversity we’re around, watching guys stay consistent in their approach and their work, having the right conversations and still trying to get better, those guys are doing that right now. And it’s gonna pay dividends for years to come for sure.”

That’s how the Cubs will hope to integrate other young players coming up — like Cade Horton, Ben Brown and Owen Caissie. Barring injury or necessity, they’ll find pockets to provide a soft landing and lessen the expectations. Alexander Canario’s call-up in September was a prime example; he was used in favorable matchups that benefitted both him and the team and was around the veteran clubhouse to learn and grow as a player.

“They can struggle at times, because at some point, you’re going to have to break those players in,” Hoyer said. “There’s no way to be a really great organization if you’re not willing to give those at-bats and those innings to young players. Some are going to thrive, and some won’t, but if you don’t allow them that opportunity, you’re going to watch them thrive in other cities, which is the most painful thing.

“So having to try to figure out how to break a bunch of guys in, that’s a good problem to have. But it’s a challenge nonetheless.”

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