5 Reasons To Love The Chicago Cubs In 2014 And Beyond
The Chicago Cubs have struggled in recent years. Their last winning season was 2009 and attendance has dipped by more than a half million after four consecutive fifth place finishes in the National League Central. In 2013, a rebound was expected behind budding stars Starling Castro and Anthony Rizzo. It didn’t happen. Their franchise corner stones failed to live up to lofty expectations and combined for fewer wins above replacement than journeyman catcher Dioner Navarro.
The future is bright for the Chicago Cubs, but one wouldn’t know it from a look at the current roster. 2014 will be a year of transition as grizzled veterans begin to give way to a loaded farm system. This is reason to be excited. In fact, it’s reason to rekindle, or begin a love affair with the organization as their impact prospects are talented enough to break the “Cubbies” World Series curse.
1. The Chicago Cubs Are Loaded At The Hot Corner
The Chicago Cubs have a legitimate third base prospect at every minor league level. In Triple-A, Mike Olt hopes to rebound from a poor 2013 showing. Acquired in the Matt Garza deal, Olt batted just .168/.276/.275 after the trade. A year earlier, the 25-year old belted 28 home runs in just 95 Double-A games and established himself as a consensus top-100 prospect.
In Double-A, Christian Villanueva posted a .787 OPS. A pillar of consistency, 2013 marked his fourth consecutive season of OPS production between .777 and .803. At 22, his ability to advance a level each year while maintaining performance is a strong indicator for the future. Beyond the bat, Villanueva is an above average defender capable of saving runs at the Major League level. Having scouted Villanueva in 2011 and 2013, he’s a personal favorite whom I expect to develop into an above average regular.
A fast riser, Kris Bryant was taken with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Chicago Cubs. After signing, he advanced to the Florida State League where he dominated High-A with a 1.106 OPS. Then, Bryant turned the Arizona Fall League into a personal batting practice session, clobbering six home runs in just 20 games. In 2014, he’ll begin the season in Double-A with a chance to reach Chicago by September.
In Single-A, Jeimer Candelario was a teenager to watch entering 2013. He didn’t disappoint, appearing in 130 of 140 games while accumulating 47 extra base hits and 68 bases on balls. He’s the furthest away from contributing at the Major League level, but is considered to be a better prospect than Villanueva or Olt.
Then, there’s Javier Baez. Currently a shortstop, he’s no guarantee to stick at the position long term. A shift from short might muddle the third base picture further. Even without Baez, no organization is deeper at any one position than the Chicago Cubs are at third base.
2. Studs At The Shortstop Position
Starlin Castro was terrible in 2013. However, an abysmal offensive performance overshadowed positive defensive metrics. On opening day 2014, Castro will have been 24 years old for about a week. After signing a lengthy extension, the Chicago Cubs are hoping Castro begins to make offensive adjustments. A high contact, low walk approach served him well for his first three seasons, but last season served as an example of how volatile that type of player can be offensively. His approach will need to improve with top prospect Javier Baez hot on his heels.
Speaking of Baez, the shortstop shrugged off a slow start in 2013 and finished the year with 37 home runs combined between High-A and Double-A. He’s the highest rated prospect in the organization and top five in all of professional baseball. Having scouted Baez in person, his power is on par with the best I’ve seen. Strikeouts may keep him from hitting for a high average, but shortstops with 30 home run pop are few and far between.
The future on the left side of the Chicago Cubs infield is so strong, top-100 prospect Arismendy Alcantara was shifted to second base after Baez was promoted to Double-A. The 22-year old is on the small side, but his bat has surprising pop to go along with above average to plus athleticism.
3. An Outfield Full Of Options
The Chicago Cubs have so many top prospects, projecting a depth chart for 2015 and beyond is like playing a game of dominoes. In a scenario where Starlin Castro sticks at shortstop and Javier Baez slides to third base, Kris Bryant becomes the right fielder of the future. It’s a good problem to have.
In center field, Albert Almora possesses an all-around skill set which plays up due to outstanding makeup. Bryant and Baez will receive the accolades on a national level, but Almora is my pick to become the face of the franchise in the Chicago market due to his style of play.
Cuban import Jorge Soler will settle into right or left field depending on Kris Bryant. His season was cut short in 2013 due to injury, but the soon to be 22-year old was adjusting to minor league life relatively well at the time he went down. Expect Soler to open 2014 in Double-A. A strong performance would line him up for a 2015 debut.
Junior Lake and Matt Szczur are legitimate options to round out a strong outfield unit. Lake had a successful 2014 debut and is penciled in as the team’s starting left fielder. A premium athlete, his unbridled approach leaves him prone to hot and cold streaks.
Szczur is a “tweener” type who’s best served as a fourth outfielder. Minimum salaried bench pieces are valuable though — especially a center fielder with speed and contact ability.
4. The Major League Team Has 4/5 Of A Strong Rotation
Jeff Samardzija or Travis Wood will toe the rubber on opening day as the Chicago Cubs’ de facto number one starter. Now imagine the addition of a David Price via trade to anchor the rotation, allowing Wood and Samardzija to slot second and third. Add Edwin Jackson and Jake Arrieta as the fourth and fifth starters and what’s left is a rotation in the top third of all Major League teams.
This is a dream scenario considering the 29-year old Samardzija (2.8 wins in 2013) has been rumored in trade discussions. Travis Wood is 27 and coming off a career year (2.8 wins), but his 4.50 xFIP leave him more of an innings eater type than a 3.11 ERA would indicate. At 30, Jackson is the oldest of the group. after averaging 3.23 wins above replacement from 2009-2012, his two-win 2013 was a disappointment. Arrieta is 28 who came to the Chicago Cubs as a reclamation project. He’s an arm worth taking a chance on as Arrieta allowed just 59 hits in 74 1/3 innings pitched. However, his walk totals continue to be an impediment.
5. The Chicago Cubs Have Trade Chips
While the goal for any organization is to stack it full of top prospects, the Chicago Cubs are only able to play one person at each position. This means they’ll have plenty of chips to trade for the front line starter they currently lack. It’s a luxury few organizations have.
At the Major League level, veterans Luis Valbuena, Nate Schierholtz and Justin Ruggiano will have trade value at the deadline. And if the aforementioned Jeff Samardzija is dealt, the return will be considerable.
2014 will be another difficult year for a Chicago Cubs team expected to finish in last place again. Regardless of their win-loss record, the return to form of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro will make the season a success. If Javier Baez and Kris Bryant arrive for good in September, it will mark the beginning of a new era at Wrigley Field — one laden with enough talent to break the Cubs 105-year old curse.
20 Feb 2014 / Mike Newman /
Categories: MLB Analysis
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