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Cubs Tue Jul 29 2014
Every time Theo Epstein or Jed Hoyer has a microphone or camera on them, they're asked when the Cubs will be promoting their top prospects. It's inevitable, considering the rampant success that guys like Kris Bryant have had all season, and Javier Baez is experiencing with a recent hot streak. Don't forget the man-child that is Jorge Soler, either.
The recent promotion and prosperity of Arismendy Alcantara has only added to the buzz of when the next piece of the Cubs future will be debuting at Wrigley Field.
The process, however, is not as simple as making a phone call and flying a guy to O'Hare. A lot more goes into the call-up of a prospect to the big leagues.
The first box that must be checked when calling a guy up is his presence on the 40-man roster. Without being added there first, it's impossible to be added to the 25-man roster you see on a daily basis. Teams are very protective of those spots because removing a guy from your 40-man roster means you're making him available to other teams via the waiver process.
That's one of the reasons why you've heard the possibility of Soler getting a September call-up despite the fact he's played fewer games in double-A and triple-A than either Bryant or Baez. Soler signed a nine-year contract with the Cubs as an international free agent back in 2012, and was immediately added to the 40-man at that time. Promoting Soler after Iowa completes their playoff run in September wouldn't require the Cubs to make a corresponding roster move. Soler has, quite possibly, the best approach out of any of the Cubs top prospects, but also has lost a part of his season due to nagging hamstring injuries. The organization wants to get him more at-bats, and the only place he can get those against quality pitchers in September is in Chicago. The Cubs don't have to worry about service time/free agency issues with him either due to the nine-year deal, giving them far more flexibility with his promotion than his fellow Iowans. He'll undoubtedly be the first to Wrigley, and will be manning the outfield later this year.
Bryant and Baez have been relatively healthy all season long, so neither needs extra at-bats to make up for lost time like Soler. To add them to the 40-man roster, there would either have to be a significant injury to a current player (where putting them on the 60-day DL opens up a 40-man spot), a trade, or the waiving of a player (something teams don't take lightly). Sure, the Cubs could do that for 20 or so days of extra at-bats and a taste of the big leagues, but those 40-man slots have extra value during the offseason.
Players that have been with an organization for five years (or four, in some cases) but have never been added to the 40-man roster are eligible for something called the Rule 5 draft. All the other Major League teams get a chance to draft eligible players from the Cubs system that qualify, and vice versa. The catch is that the drafting team has to keep that player on their active Major League roster for the entire next season, or else they're required to offer that player back to their original team. The system is a little complicated, but the reason it's important here is because the only way to protect Rule 5 eligible players from being drafted is to add them to your 40-man roster before the draft takes place at the winter meetings in December.
If the Cubs add Bryant or Baez to the 40-man roster for a September call up, those are two roster spots that can't be used to protect players before that draft. And if you think significant players have never been taken in the Rule 5, guess again. Johan Santana is probably the most famous modern example of someone who went through the rigors of the minor leagues, and found greatness with a new team. In a much weirder example due to his drug and alcohol abuse, Josh Hamilton was selected by the Cubs with the first overall pick in the 2006 Rule 5, but was immediately traded to the Reds for cash in a deal arranged pre-draft. Hamilton has since gone on to have an incredibly productive career, including an MVP season in 2010.
Extra 40-man spots are also needed during the offseason to sign free agents, especially during a winter where the front office expects to be more active when it comes to spending money.
Bryant and Baez probably won't be added to the 40-man roster until January or February of next year at the earliest, and depending on who the Cubs sign during the offseason, the team could opt to wait longer to get looks at other players during camp. Service time for those two will also be key to their call-up, but I'd venture to guess the brain trust will look to sign Bryant to a long-term, Evan Longoria-esque contract (or Castro/Rizzo-esque if you prefer) shortly before or after his debut in the majors. Bryant's plate discipline, hitting ability, power, and average defense make him an ideal player for the club to wager a big money contract on despite no experience in The Show. The guess here is that Bryant will make the trip to Chicago directly out of camp with either a long contract in hand, or in the process of negotiating.
Baez, on the other hand, still has a lot of growing up to do as a hitter and player in general. Though he's playing better recently, Baez is far from advanced when it comes to hitting with a plan. He's a see-ball/hit-ball-far type player, which is fine if you square it up a large chunk of the time, but not if you're striking out in 33% of your at-bats as he currently is. He'll need to perform in the majors before the team considers signing him long-term, and with that in mind, it's highly conceivable the team waits until May of 2015 to call him up -- pushing off his free agency and super-two arbitration status for another full year.
The highest ranked minor league system is getting extremely close to showing all it's teeth. Even after the promotions of Soler, Bryant and Baez, the questions being asked of Epstein and Hoyer won't stop. The Cubs will still have Addison Russell, Albert Almora, and newly drafted Kyle Schwarber to be excited about when it comes to impact bats, and the media/fans won't stop with their inquiries until everyone is playing at Wrigley. Just remember the steps that have to take place before each guy gets the call.