Pete Crow-Armstrong Learning Difference Between ‘Prospect Baseball’ and Winning Baseball on Fly

Many hands were rung and teeth gnashed when Alexander Canario was called up and subsequently relegated to the end of the bench. I know as well as anyone because I was right there grousing about it while clutching my pearls. But then I realized it was almost certainly never about Canario’s ability to impact the big league club, even though a lot of us still believe he could do just that.

My reach isn’t as great as I’d like, so my realization still wasn’t shared by the masses when it was announced that Pete Crow-Armstrong was being promoted. The prevailing belief remained that David Ross was speaking earnestly when he said “The guys that got us here are going to play,” which would mean PCA was likewise going to spend the rest of September tweezing splinters from his backside.

Discerning observers knew that wasn’t going to be the case and the phenom’s early usage has since put to bed everyone else’s fears, but Ross has done his best to temper expectations. Speaking to 670 The Score’s Bernstein & Holmes show on Tuesday morning following Crow-Armstrong’s debut the night before, the manager more or less parroted his previous sentiments regarding Canario.

“We’re not developing players right now,” Ross explained. “We’re trying to win games. Pete’s skill set is a real value in these big outfields we’re going to have. Pete will get some at-bats. I think he’ll come in for defensive purposes at times, gives us the flexibility, another Mike Tauchman to insert him in pinch-hit situations like we did last night, and he came through with a big at-bat. We got more roster talent now.”

That first statement rubbed some people the wrong way, but Ross wasn’t addressing the organization as a whole. The fact of the matter is that the Cubs don’t have enough season left to be concerned with any future beyond the next day. You’re not sitting down for a meal at a fine-dining restaurant if you’ve got an appointment in 10 minutes, you’re grabbing fast food.

Don’t take that as a knock on Crow-Armstrong’s talent or potential, it’s more about the Cubs’ needs right now. We also need to consider the fact that Ross, and pretty much every other manager, coach, and front office exec, can’t and won’t be totally honest when speaking on the record. There’s so much going on behind the scenes that most of us will never know about, and part of the job is to maintain as much leverage as possible.

“I can’t always let you guys know, and sometimes I gotta lie,” Ross said jokingly to the media last week when talking about various playing-time decisions.

He was speaking specifically about Adbert Alzolay, who hadn’t pitched for a while because he was “dealing with some stuff” and then had to be placed on the IL with a forearm strain. In the case of Canario, the Cubs may have been trying to maintain the illusion that he was a legit option off the bench. Ross then downplayed Crow-Armstrong’s role the morning before starting him in center for the first of two consecutive games.

Not putting him out there to patrol the largest outfield in the world would have been malpractice, though there is something to be said for easing a new guy into the bigs.

“There’s teachable moments,” Ross told reporters. “There’s things he’s got to follow and understand, a process that we have here that is important. And prospect baseball is different than winning baseball, right? He’s got to learn that. He’s coming into a group that we’re willing to help him out as a coaching staff, and as his teammates, because he’s very valuable.”

That might sound funny to those who believe every level of baseball is or should be about winning, but that’s not the focus of the minor leagues. Winning is merely an added bonus to the end goal of developing prospects to become contributors to the big club, either directly or as part of trades to acquire other players. For the Cubs, any player growth at this point is chocolate syrup on a winning sundae.

If only they had more winning Sundays, amirite?

There may also be times in the minors when the goal of an individual prospect is placed above those of the team. The best recent example of that is the Cubs having PCA playing a little corner outfield in late August, a move that weakened Iowa’s defense even if only for a game or two. A lot of folks got really honked off about that choice, my goodness. The lineup for several games might be specifically tailored to a player who is on a rehab assignment or who’s just been promoted.

There can be an adjustment when going from the man to just one of the guys, not that anyone should be worried about Crow-Armstrong being a diva who needs to stand in the spotlight. Even though not every veteran can relate to exactly what it’s like to be the top prospect in the organization coming up with a ton of hype, they all understand the idea of wanting to help the team while also learning to navigate the complexities of a whole new environment.

“He’s a player that can impact our winning right now, but also I think the experience is going to be extremely valuable for him in his career,” Nico Hoerner said of his new teammate. “It’s so much more than just getting your at-bats in the minor leagues. At this point, it’s, ‘What does it look like in the big leagues?’”

There will be some growing pains as Crow-Armstong makes adjustments to big-league pitching just as he had to do at each level of the minors, but he seems to understand his role on this team.

“I’ve always loved how the organization has vocalized their plans for certain players,” he said. “And yeah, I just really appreciate the faith they’ve had in me and the trust they’ve had in me — enough trust to go out and play center field in a playoff race.

“However I can help and however I can learn is what I’m trying to get out of this.”

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