Cubs demote Pete Crow-Armstrong: What will it take for him to return to Wrigley Field?

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MESA, Ariz. — After the re-signing of Cody Bellinger, Pete Crow-Armstrong’s chances of making the Chicago Cubs’ Opening Day roster faded quicker than his once-bright blue hair.

On Friday morning, the Cubs reduced their spring roster by 12 players, the most prominent cut being Crow-Armstrong. The talented center fielder is the consensus top prospect in a loaded Cubs farm system. When spring training began, Crow-Armstrong seemed to have an inside track at the center-field job. But that quickly changed when everyday playing time was likely unavailable.

“When we signed Cody, our thought right now is the best place for PCA to start is in the minor leagues,” manager Craig Counsell said. “Then just knock down the door for us and make us figure something out on the major-league side.”

Crow-Armstrong is advanced defensively and likely ready to handle the highest level when it comes to his glove. But there is a clear need for development at the plate. Small samples should always be taken with a grain of salt, but Crow-Armstrong was hitless during his short MLB stint last September. He had a clear hole at the top of the zone and struggled with fastballs at even average velocity.

“Pete’s 21 years old,” Counsell said. “He just needs to play baseball and learn from his experiences playing baseball. As he keeps doing that, the younger you are, the more you just have not experienced yet. Do that and he’s going to get better quickly. That’s how it’s going to work for him.”

Bellinger’s presence would keep Crow-Armstrong from getting everyday at-bats, something that is essential for his continued development. But it goes beyond Bellinger. Michael Busch will get regular at-bats at first base to start the season, meaning Bellinger doesn’t have an obvious spot to move to if the Cubs really wanted Crow-Armstrong up in the bigs.

Some may wonder why Busch is getting this opportunity over Crow-Armstrong, but the reality is they’re in very different situations. Busch is 26 and has completely dominated every level of the minors. After a perfectly acceptable debut at Triple A in 2022 (102 wRC+ in 504 plate appearances), he made the necessary adjustments and crushed the level last summer to the tune of a 150 wRC+ while seeing his strikeout rate dip by over seven percentage points.

His performance led to him being named Pacific Coast League Player of the Year, he was named to All-MiLB Prospect First Team and was one of three finalists for the hitting prospect of the year. When Counsell says Busch has earned this opportunity, this is what he’s talking about. He has nothing left to prove in the minors.

Crow-Armstrong struck out at nearly a 30 percent rate at Triple A last season. He has work to do with his swing decisions and a clear hole at the top of the zone. Of course, this was just in 158 plate appearances at Triple A, over 800 fewer than Busch. One needs to get the runway to show they belong, the other, like Counsell likes to say, is “a college senior.”

Bellinger, who played the field for the first time this spring on Friday, said it’s not easy being a part-time player. Being in the lineup daily will be a key for Crow-Armstrong to prove he’s ready for the next challenge.

“For him to go out and play every single day and just play his game, he’ll get comfortable and get in his flow and routine,” Bellinger said. “He’ll be up here in no time.”

Some may wonder how Crow-Armstrong would fit if he does force the issue. Bellinger’s versatility makes it less difficult to find a way to make it work. If Busch is hitting, perhaps they’d push him to DH and Bellinger to first. Bellinger can play all three outfield spots and if needed, Busch could handle second and even third. The duos’ versatility could allow Crow-Armstrong to find regular playing time if he shows that Triple-A pitching is no longer a challenge for him.

“That’s one of those good problems,” Counsell said. “We’ll figure the answer out to that question if Pete says, ‘I’m good enough,’ and needs to be in the lineup. We have enough flexibility to answer that question.”

Ultimately, it’s a good thing that the Cubs have so many intriguing young players. Along with Crow-Armstrong, Matt Shaw, Owen Caissie, Ben Brown, Kevin Alcántara and other young but high-upside prospects were sent down on Friday. Each one has had moments this spring and last summer that had onlookers impressed and eager to see what they could do at the highest level.

“We’re all seeing it in spring training,” Bellinger said. “We saw it last spring, but they’re a little closer. A lot of talent. They’re all super young and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

Counsell likes the fact that there are so many young players people are curious about. It’s a good thing that these prospect lists are populated by so many Cubs and beyond that, when players like Brown, Michael Arias or Porter Hodge get into spring games, people immediately want to know more about them.

“The best thing to have is numbers to me,” Counsell said. “Because guys are going to surprise you and we’re going to be disappointed by some players. But there’s a lot of them.”

The myriad of prospects creates optimism for fans and the organization alike. That the Cubs don’t need to force any of them onto the roster before they’re ready while also looking like a potential playoff team is a plus. Crow-Armstrong’s time isn’t right now. But if he can make the proper adjustments and find a consistent rhythm at the plate, no matter the roster jam, his return to Wrigley won’t be far off.

(Photo of Pete Crow-Armstrong during a Feb. 23 spring training game: Matt Dirksen / Getty Images)

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