Wittenmyer: Behold the one time Cubs didn't manipulate system


Beyond the f-bomb and the candid angst over roster decisions the last few days, the highlight of Cubs manager David Ross’ media Zoom session Saturday was his response to a world-wide leading national outlet asking him to acknowledge he’s not taking his best 26 players north if Nico Hoerner is not on the roster.

“No, I would not say that. No,” Ross said. “I don’t believe that. I believe we are taking our best 26. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re taking our best 26.”

Ross stuck to his answer after more pushback about Hoerner being a Gold Glove finalist last year, etc., etc.

“The best 26 players are going to Chicago with us.”

The point is not to call out any worldwide leaders. They’re not the only ones in the news media and social media spheres trying to pin another service-time-manipulation conspiracy on the Cubs after they optioned Hoerner to the minors Saturday.

RELATED: Bote wins starting second base job, beating Hoerner

And the point is certainly not to defend the Cubs. They have earned every bit of scrutiny and cynicism for their bad-faith business practices in recent years, including service-time manipulation of such players as Jake Arrieta, Addison Russell and, most notably, Kris Bryant.

But take a chill pill on this one.

Until the Cubs prove otherwise with some fishy timing in May, Nico Hoerner’s option to the minor leagues is a move that has been a year in the making, was foreseeable when camp opened, seemed likely when Eric Sogard was added to the spring roster four weeks ago and has looked increasingly logical during a 4-for-23 stretch at the plate through Friday.

Nobody is quicker to hold the Cubs’ accountable in the media than this space.

But nothing about this move reeks of service-time manipulation, no matter how many worldwide leaders or Twitter geniuses say so.

The result certainly has the potential to eventually net the Cubs an additional year of club control over their 2018 first-round draft pick. But Hoerner also looks like the classic case of a young player who can benefit from developmental time lost with his emergency callup in 2019 and weird first full “season” in 2020.

Both can be true without either insinuating a case of service-time manipulation.

Just consider: If the Cubs wanted to manipulate his service time, they could have optioned him to the alternate site last year and recouped the three weeks in 2019 in just eight days, then added five days to that to secure an a seventh year because of the pro-rated formula used during the short season.

Also consider this: veterans David Bote and Eric Sogard actually did have good springs this month, which would have suggested at least shared playing time and, more important, shared bench time for Hoerner — who skipped Triple-A entirely and has yet to play more than 95 games in a season at any level.

And don’t forget that 4-for-23, which is far more telling than his 9-for-13 start — coming later in spring games, when more major leaguers are pitching and veterans no longer are working on locating fastballs.

Hoerner also struggled last year (.222 with four extra-base hits among his 24 hits), eventually reducing him to part-time play.

"Nico’s had such a unique development process,” Ross said. “Being able to do right by him is also what’s best for our organization. I don’t think it’s fair to give him sporadic at-bats. I don’t think it’s fair for him to get a double-switch at-bat when he’s facing a back-end-of-the-bullpen-type pitcher every few nights without regular at-bats. And those just won’t be available if David’s the everyday second baseman.”

As popular as Hoerner has become among fans and media advocates, and as much as the Cubs have earned every bit of suspicion and criticism they’re getting over this move, just how confident are any of Hoerner’s advocates that he’s ready to hit in the major leagues every day?

That he’s better choice than David Bote for most of the at-bats at second base right now, or even Sogard — never mind that he’s anything close to the next Kris Bryant?

And isn’t that what the initial reaction to the move is all about? Assuming that the next young Cubs hitter is going like the last one, or the one before that?

The reason that a team manipulates service time in the first place — in particular, a big-revenue team that doesn’t (usually) sweat, say, arbitration-level salaries — is because the player in question is projected to be a tough-to-extend player or an especially expensive free agent at some point.

As a non-power-hitting second baseman, Hoerner projects as neither. He also hasn’t proven out of the gate that he will be a successful major-league hitter, with or without power, much less a dominant one.

He also doesn’t have an agent well known for taking his top clients to free agency as was the case with Bryant, Arrieta and Russell (all Scott Boras clients).

Hoerner is his own case, much different than Bryant and the others. Barring injury, he’ll be on this team at some point this season, maybe as a better hitter ready to rake in the second half.

Until then, I can’t rip the Cubs for this move, for service-time manipulation or anything else — try as I might.

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