As the Cubs pass the halfway mark of the season, it’s completely reasonable to look ahead and see how they might finish out the year. They have a four-game lead in the race for the final NL wild card spot, a race that in all likelihood will stay tight. As such, a story that had died down will gradually begin to rise again, first in hushed whispers that will eventually rise to a rousing crescendo—what if the Cubs had used Kris Bryant all season?
There’s nothing more fun that revisionist history, the best part being that a counterfactual can never be proven, or even better, disproven. They’re the ideas that never go away, but in this case, some analysis and review of the facts can go quite far in dispelling this notion.
First, a brief reminder as to why Bryant didn’t start the year with the Cubs. By spending 12 days in the minors to begin the year, the Cubs gained an additional year of team control over him (more details why this is the case can be found here, and the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement can be downloaded here, with service time defined on page 96). From a business standpoint, this wasn’t a difficult decision to make. In those 12 days, the Cubs had nine games scheduled, one of which was rained out—the game made up as part of Tuesday’s doubleheader with the Cardinals.
This table only includes at-bats when the player was playing third base. None of these players made an error, but this isn’t enough production from a position that requires some offensive pop (
unless it’s the White Sox). Olt and La Stella both went down with injuries, which was the justification for promoting Bryant on precisely the first day he could be brought up and retain that additional year of team control. This is how Bryant performed in his first eight games:
He also committed two errors in those first eight games, neither of which amounted to anything. With a difference of almost 700 points in OPS, there’s no way Bryant couldn’t have helped the Cubs win a game or two, right? Right? Man, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer better be working on their speech if the season comes down to the Cubs missing the playoffs by one game.
Except there’s one problem—the Cubs were 5-3 in their first eight games, despite the lack of offensive production from third:
In which of the three losses could Bryant have magically saved the day? The first game against the Cardinals, the home opener on ESPN and facing Adam Wainwright in his major league debut? Given how he performed against James Shields in his actual debut, unlikely. Against the Rockies? Yes, in this alternate reality fantasy world, perhaps he could have hit a home run. Let’s assume he hit third in that game instead of the player who actually did, Anthony Rizzo:
Yes, if Bryant had hit two home runs, a total of four runs would have scored, tying the game. That’s a perfectly reasonable expectation of a player in his third game in the majors. No, there weren’t enough baserunners for Bryant to do anything with other than in a completely unrealistic scenario.
The game worthy of some scrutiny is the 3-2 loss to the Reds. Jorge Soler batted third in that game:
Not a bad day for Soler, 1-for-3 with a walk. In this imaginary world, Bryant certainly could have possibly driven in the runner in those last two at-bats, but keep in mind that in his first eight games, Bryant hit no home runs. To be intellectually honest, it can’t be assumed he would have developed magic powers when the actual power didn’t present itself until his 21st game.
If the Cubs miss the playoffs by one game, they’ll have plenty of other games to look back on—they can start with these five blown saves (which doesn’t include the four blown saves the Cubs eventually won):
The Diamondbacks game was the one in which the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 10th, and Hector Rondon gave up a double to A.J. Pollock in the bottom of the 10th with two outs and two strikes, followed by a Paul Goldschmidt home run to tie the game.
The bullpen has been much more reliable recently, but it was a point of concern earlier in the season. In addition, as the Cubs remain mired in a stretch in which their offense seems to have gone dormant, they continue to rack up the one-run games. Through Tuesday, they’re 19-14 in one-run games, and those 33 games are the most in baseball. Any of those 14 losses in one-run games could be the one that keeps them from the playoffs, not just the one that occurred April 14th against the Reds. Perhaps having a record better than 4-8 against the Cardinals would work as well.
Absent the completely unforeseen, the NL Central title is probably beyond the Cubs’ reach—it’s extremely difficult to make up 7.5 games, even in the expanded playoff era and taking both games of a double header from them for the first time since June 8, 1992. The Cardinals keep losing key players like Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, and Matt Holliday and bringing up players like Greg Garcia, Xavier Scruggs, and Tommy Pham and don’t miss a beat.
If the Cubs miss the playoffs, they can point to many potential reasons, but one of them won’t be Kris Bryant not starting the season with the Cubs, not when actual events are viewed in a truly objective fashion. Even if the Cubs make the playoffs, unless they win the World Series, it won’t matter one whit come spring training 2021 when Bryant is reporting to begin his last team under Cubs control—a year that would have been given away if he had started this year on the major league roster. Who knows, by then he might be locked up to a long-term contract like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro were, but no matter what, it’ll be a year he’ll be in a Cubs uniform. Playing those first eight games without Bryant made no difference this year, and it can mean everything in the years to come.
Lead photo courtesy of Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports