The Cubs had a lot of work to do when it came to rebuilding the farm system. The Cubs addressed the lower levels of the system with the draft and international signings, but the upper levels were bereft of young talent as well.
The problem is nobody really likes to trade good upper level prospects, especially for 2 months of a starting pitcher, so the Cubs had to get creative.
Cue up the Texas sextet. The Cubs have acquired 6 near MLB ready prospects from the Rangers over the past two seasons. All but one will start the season at either the AAA level or the big league club.
The Dempster Haul
Both Kyle Hendricks and Christian Villanueva don't blow you away physically, so they were considered sleepers in a very good Rangers system. The flipside, however, is that the Cubs felt they were polished players with great makeup with the ability to adapt and move quickly. They were right. Just a year and a half later, both will be at the AAA level to start the season.
The Garza Haul
Last year the Cubs had to cobble together a package of imperfect talent. Mike Olt had his vision issues, Neil Ramirez had questions about his shoulder, Justin Grimm was forced up too early last year and didn't make a good impression, and CJ Edwards has questions about his size/stamina despite great stuff and outstanding minor league numbers. Three of those 4 players will be at the AAA level or better and Edwards will be the furthest away at AA, but with the raw talent to close that gap quickly.
There may be some flaws and/or limitations in this group, but there is no question there is talent. There is no way they get this level of talent without a few question marks -- not for 2 months each of Garza and Dempster.
Here's a quick look at those players and their chance to contribute in 2014 in order of likelihood/impact
1. Mike Olt
Olt appears to be overcoming the vision issues that led to his struggles in 2013. It's easy to forget that Olt was a top 50 level talent as recently last year -- he would have ranked in the Cubs top 5 this year had he repeated his 2012 numbers. Again, they never would have acquired him if that happened.
Olt is being given a shot at winning the 3B job this spring. Luis Valbuena didn't do anything to lose the job. He was productive despite a low batting average, but he is a role player filling in as a stopgap. He's not going to get in the way of a younger, potential long term player if the Cubs think that player is ready.
What you want to watch for this spring with Olt is his contact rates, the quality of his contact, and his defense. Regardless of the numbers he puts up, those areas will tell you the most about Olt and whether he has overcome his vision issues and is ready to contribute at the MLB level.
If he makes the team and plays well, there are implications down the line. It affects the ultimate defensive position of the Cubs top two prospects: Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. Bryant's move would be simple. He goes to a corner OF spot. With Baez it is a bit more complicated as the Cubs have a good young player at SS in Starlin Castro and another prospect they like, Arismendy Alcantara, at 2B. Those are the kinds of problems you want the Cubs to have as they begin to fill out their lineup because it will give them all kinds of flexibility to move players around or move them in trades to fill other needs.
2. Justin Grimm
It's no accident the Cubs had Grimm included in the Garza package. They've liked him for a long time. He's an athletic pitcher with ideal size at 6'3", 200 lbs and the good stuff to match. Grimm averaged around 92 mph on his fastball but hit as high as 96 mph last year out of the bullpen. His curveball is a potential out pitch though he has to gain consistency with it in terms of command.
Grimm fits either in the rotation, where he can be an innings eater from the 3/4 spot, or as a late inning bullpen arm, where he can likely pitch in the 95-97 range and can focus on his FB/CB combo.
ZiPS is relatively optimistic about Grimm, whom it sees as a 1.1 WAR pitcher. That isn't much, but it is good for the 5th highest projection of any Cubs pitcher. Keep in mind too that this modest projection reflects the struggles he had as a pitcher who was rushed to fill a rotation spot last year before he was ready.
Perhaps a change in scenery and work with pitching Chris Bosio can vault this former top 10 pitching prospect (#5 in the Rangers system before the 2013 season) to the next level. The formula worked with former Reds #7 prospect Travis Wood, who bounced back when given the opportunity.
If the Cubs don't pick up a veteran, Grimm has a good shot at the #5 role this season.
3. Kyle Hendricks
Hendricks was the Cubs best pitcher at the minor league level last year. His stuff isn't quite as good as Grimm's but his command and pitchability are the best in the Cubs system. Hendricks took a step forward last year when he learned to cut his fastball, creating movement and drawing weak contact with it. It gives him something closer to the go-to pitch he has lacked early in his career because he commands it well and can use it when he's behind in the count.
Hendricks fastball is in the high 80s but he plays it up by spotting it well and setting it up with his good change-up. Adding to his effectiveness is his abiilty to pitch with good downward plane, allowing him to keep the ball down in the zone and keeping the ball on the ground and in the park.
Pitchers who lack the ability to beat hitters purely on stuff are in the position of having to prove themselves at every level and that is no different with Hendricks. As the hitters get better, their margin for errors in the strike zone get smaller. So far, however, he has been up to the challenge, making it all the way to AAA Iowa where he put up a 2.48 ERA (3.18 FIP) in 6 late season starts. Hendricks will return there to start the season but if he continues that success he could be in line for a promotion, perhaps as soon as the all-star break.
Like Grimm, Hendricks projects as roughly a 1 WAR pitcher in 2014.
4. Neil Ramirez
Ramirez is yet another former top 10 prospect who has hit a bump or two on his road to the big leagues. Ramirez struggled with his delivery and command in 2012 and nearly fell off the prospect charts, posting a 7.66 ERA with the Rangers AA affiliate. Last year, however, Ramirez bounced back and put up tremendous strikeout rates in his second chance at that level. He struck out hitters at a rate of 11.1 Ks/9 IP -- a whopping 30.5% of hitters he faced. Pitchers cannot live by strikeouts alone, but his ability to miss bats gives testament to the quality of his stuff. Overall, Ramirez went 9-3 with a 3.84 ERA.
Ramirez has the quality pitches to be a starter, including a big breaking curve, an improving change, and a slider that he has turned to more and more often. The curve, as pretty as it can be sometimes, is difficult to command and can get him into trouble when he leaves it up in the zone.
There is plenty to work with here but Ramirez still needs work, so don't expect him to start the season with the Cubs. He needs to continue to develop consistency with his delivery and command, two things that go hand in hand, but when he does, he will have a chance to help the Cubs by the end of the season. He most likely projects as a late inning reliever, but the Cubs have no reason to rule him out as a starter yet.
5. Christian Villanueva
There are a lot of names that come up when we talk about future Cubs 3Bs and Villanueva is one name that tends to get lost in the shuffle. He doesn't have the elite bat speed of Baez, the all-around skills and polish at the plate of Kris Bryant, or the combination of athleticism and solid approach of Mike Olt. He lacks the power or flashy tools that all 3 of those players possess. However, Villanueva does have solid tools across the board -- a guy whose sum is greater than the sum of his individual parts.
Villanueva is currently the best defensive 3B in the Cubs system. What he lacks in elite quickness, he makes up for with instincts and anticipation. He has soft hands and a strong arm.
Offensively he began to develop some doubles power at AA Tennessee and hit for a career high 41 doubles and 19 HRs. After struggling early in the season, Villanueva adapted to the higher level of pitching and finished a strong, a sign that bodes well for him.
If Villanueva needs to work on something, it's continuing to develop an approach that can get aggressive at times. He does have some good pitch recognition skills. Despite a change of scenery and a new opportunity, Villanueva remains a sleeper and if Olt isn't ready this year, Villanueva could well get the next chance to supplant the Valbuena/Murphy platoon at 3B.
6. CJ Edwards
The most highly regarded prospect on the list is also the furthest away. Edwards was absolutely dominant at the A ball level last year, going 8-2 with a 1.83 ERA (1.78 FIP) and striking out nearly 12 batters per 9 IP with the Rangers. He was even better with the Cubs in 6 starts, upping his K rate to nearly 13 per 9 IP -- whiffing an incredible 36.3% of hitters while walking a very respectable 7.7%.
Edwards has an electric fastball and a wipeout curve -- two legitimate swing and miss pitches -- to go with a solid change. There is no question about his stuff. It's all about whether he has the stamina to be at the front of the rotation. Edwards carries just 155 pounds on his 6'2" frame. He's doing all he can,
"Anything I see, I eat," he said. "Last night at the hockey game, I had an Italian sausage, cheese fries, Sprite, Coke and a hot dog with cheese on it."
No doubt the Cubs will couple Edwards efforts with strength training to make sure he puts on the right kind of weight. Whatever happens, however, Edwards has the ability and makeup to make an impact. And if he never develops the strength and stamina to be a frontline guy, the Cubs would be thrilled with a mid-rotation type with the frequent ability to pitch like an ace. I can't help but think of Rich Harden when I think of Edwards, another slightly built pitcher with dominant stuff, so the Cubs will have to monitor his workload closely.
Edwards is one of the most exciting, most talented pitchers the Cubs have had in recent history -- and to top it all off, he's an impressive individual who will be easy to root for. He's unlikely to contribute in 2014 but raw talent has a way of making a mockery of time tables once it all comes together.
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