The last half-decade has been rough for the Chicago Cubs.
The franchise owns a 356-453 overall record since its last playoff berth in 2008, recording only one winning season (2009) during that span. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Cubs are coming off back-to-back dismal seasons in which they combined for 197 losses.
However, help is on the way.
If you’ve seen my top 100 prospects and farm system rankings for 2014, then you probably already know that the Cubs’ collection of prospects is among the best in baseball. Specifically, the organization placed seven players in the top 100, with three ranking in the top 20: Javier Baez (No. 6), Albert Almora (14) and Kris Bryant (17).
While many of the Cubs’ top prospects have bright futures, Baez, Almora and Bryant each have the ceiling of an All-Star-caliber player, and it won’t be long until they’re given a crack at the major leagues. Yet, in order to climb out of the cellar in the National League Central and contend for a spot in the postseason, the Cubs can’t afford to rely on the presumed success of their Big Three.
The Cubs are headed in the right direction and could feature one of the NL’s more exciting offenses by the end of the 2015 season (and beyond). However, it’s difficult to envision the franchise turning things around without first addressing its lack of depth on the mound.
It’s hard not to be excited about Javier Baez.
Last season he led all minor league hitters in both extra-base hits and RBI, and tied for second in home runs—as a 20-year-old.
After a slow start at High-A Daytona, Baez eventually caught fire and turned in possibly the most impressive offensive performance of the 2013 minor league season on June 10, when he was 4-for-4 with four home runs and seven RBI at home against Fort Myers. By the end of the month Baez was in Double-A.
From there forward the now-21-year-old was one of the most productive hitters in the minors, posting a .983 OPS and 20 home runs over his last 54 games.
Between both stops, Baez batted .282/.341/.578 with 98 runs scored, 75 extra-base hits (37 home runs), 111 RBI, 20 stolen bases and a 147-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130 games.
As I mentioned in Baez’s top-100 write-up, he generates elite raw power with his extremely strong wrists and violent swing—the kind that makes 30-plus annual home runs in the major leagues a very real possibility. He has issues with pitch recognition and chases too many breaking balls out of the zone, but it’s mostly a product of his aggressive approach and should improve with more experience against quality pitching. Plus, even if Baez posts poor strikeout-to-walk rates in the major leagues—he’s struck out 220 times against 54 walks in 916 minor league plate appearances—his bat speed and ability to square the ball should result in respectable batting averages.
Defensively, Baez is an impressive athlete with smooth actions at shortstop and a plus arm that’s ideal for the position. However, as is the case with most young shortstops, he’s still learning to control his body and, more importantly, learning to slow down the game. So don’t get too caught up in the high error totals (67 errors in 203 games) during the early stages of his career.
Unfortunately, with Starlin Castro under contract through the 2019 season, Baez lacks a clear path to playing time in the major leagues, save for an injury, of course. Yet the Cubs will likely be forced to make room in the lineup for him at some point next season; with a top-flight prospect such as Baez, an aggressive promotion to the major leagues is actually the next logical step in his overall development. So it’s not a surprise they plan on working him in at both second and third base during spring training. Baez’s bat will be a weapon no matter where he plays defensively.
Selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Kris Bryant made stops at three minor league levels last summer, capping his impressive professional debut by batting .333/.387/.719 with five home runs and 14 RBI in 16 games at High-A Daytona.
Bryant’s late-season success carried over into the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .364/.457/.727 with eight doubles, six home runs and 17 RBI in 20 games, and was named the circuit’s MVP.
Though known for his robust, light-tower power to all fields, Bryant actually has a good feel for hitting, with a line-to-line approach, good pitch recognition and excellent plate coverage. I do think he’ll encounter some problems in the high minors due to his lack of a stride and purely rotational swing, but nothing he can’t overcome with a few adjustments and more experience.
There’s some uncertainty whether Bryant will remain at third base with Javy Baez ahead of him on the depth chart, so there’s a good chance the 22-year-old sees time at both corner outfield spots as the season unfolds. In spite of his massive 6’5”, 215-pound build, Bryant is a good athlete and moves well for his size, and he should have modest range given the length of his strides. His plus arm is a clean fit in right field, as is his bat, but like Baez, it’s all about what position will give him the clearest path to the major leagues.
It says something that Albert Almora isn't overlooked in a system that houses the best power-hitting tandem in the minor leagues.
Almora’s 2013 full-season debut was bookended by a pair of injuries, but it didn’t stop him from emerging as one of the top hitters in the low minors. Upon his return from a broken hamate bone suffered during the spring, Almora was one of the Midwest League’s top hitters, batting .329/.376/.466 with 24 extra-base hits and a 30-17 strikeout-to-walk rate in 61 games. However, the outfielder’s impressive season ended prematurely on Aug. 7 when he was placed on the disabled list with a groin injury.
The Cubs assigned Almora to the Arizona Fall League to make up for the lost time, where he promptly thrived in spite of being one of the league's youngest everyday players. The 19-year-old wound up batting .307/.342/.480 with nine extra-base hits and 12 RBI in 21 games.
Almora is a premium athlete who showcases five future average-or-better tools and extremely advanced baseball skills for a player his age. Perhaps more importantly, Almora’s makeup grades through the rough; the kid simply leads by example and seemingly never takes a pitch off.
A right-handed batter, Almora has a quiet and efficient swing with preternatural barrel control and a knack for consistently staying inside the ball. The 19-year-old already has a strong approach at the plate, not to mention an impressive feel for the strike zone, and you can just tell he takes pride in using the entire field. Also, Almora should have more over-the-fence pop after he develops physically and adds strength, and his power has the potential to be above average by the time he reaches the major leagues.
Defensively, Almora is everything one could hope for in a future center fielder. Though his speed is only a tick better than average, he demonstrates excellent instincts through his reads, jumps and positioning. He can flat-out go get the ball, making challenging plays on the run appear effortless.
Unlike Baez and Bryant, Almora doesn’t face any potential roadblocks in center field, and should have the position to himself once he’s deemed ready for the major leagues. Given his age and inexperience above Low-A, Almora will be the last of the Big Three to debut at Wrigley Field, probably in late 2015 if all goes as planned with his development next season. However, because he’s already such a well-rounded young player, he arguably will be the most prepared for the challenge.
Pitching: The Final Frontier
While the Cubs’ system stands out for its wealth of promising young hitters, it also draws unwanted attention for its lack of high-end pitching prospects. However, with Baez, Bryant and Almora expected to arrive in the major leagues within the next two years, it’s only a matter of time until team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer shift the organization’s focus toward adding impactful arms to all levels of the system.
That being said, the Cubs have quietly added several potential back-end starters since the beginning of the 2012 season, acquiring right-handers C.J. Edwards, Kyle Hendricks and Neil Ramirez through a pair of trades with the Texas Rangers, and also landing Paul Blackburn, Pierce Johnson and Rob Zastryzny through the draft. The only true high-ceiling arm in the Cubs’ system is Edwards, but he’s still considered a risky prospect given his undersized, wiry frame and lack of experience above the High-A level as a 22-year-old.
After selecting Baez, Almora and Bryant in the first round of the draft in successive years, the Cubs will presumably target high-upside (but still relatively safe) arms in 2014—and they’ll have plenty of intriguing choices with the fourth overall pick.
It also will be interesting to see how the Cubs approach free-agent pitchers in the coming years, especially ones that received a qualifying offer and will therefore cost the organization a future first-round draft pick. The only way they’ll go all in on a free-agent hurler is if the team shows steady improvement at the highest level. Plus, given the organization's surplus of impact position prospects, they should have many opportunities to trade depth for proven major league talent.