We've been covering a lot of prospects lately and at just about every point, we talk about how the Cubs have a talented young starter ahead of them. A look at the 2017 starting lineup by position (with Baez at 2B) shows few -- if any -- openings for a young prospect even in the long term...
- C: Willson Contreras (24)
- 1B: Anthony Rizzo (27)
- 2B: Javier Baez (24)
- SS: Addison Russell (22)
- 3B: Kris Bryant (25)
- LF: Kyle Schwarber (23)
- CF: Albert Almora (22)
- RF: Jason Heyward (27)
Every single player is at peak performance age or younger. And there is a lot of cost-control for the foreseeable future..
- Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant are all cost-controlled through 2021. Anthony Rizzo signed an extension through 2021 as well when we include the two team options.
- Willson Contreras and Albert Almora are cost-controlled through 2022.
- Jason Heyward is signed though 2023, though he could opt out after 2018 or 2019. It is right after those option years that his salary begins to decrease, so even if he performs at a level similar to his usual season prior to 2016, there is a chance he can get at least as much money (5 years, $106M) after his first option in 2018 (he'll be 28 for most of that season and 29 when he becomes a free agent) or 4 years and $86M after 2019.
That's at least 5 years that this core is guaranteed to be together for every player except for possibly Heyward, who can opt out after 3 or 4 years. We can, of course, also add veteran starter Ben Zobrist, who will also play a significant role for the next 3 years even if he isn't part of that young core.
Here's a look at the Cubs top position player prospects per my personal rankings...
- Eloy Jimenez, LF (A ball)
- Ian Happ, 2B-OF (AA)
- Jeimer Candelario, 3B (AAA)
- Mark Zagunis, OF (AAA)
- DJ Wilson, CF (Short Season A)
- Eddy Martinez, OF (A)
- Donnie Dewees, OF (A+)
- Victor Caratini, C (AA)
- Jacob Hannemann, OF (AA)
- PJ Higgins, C (A)
So what happens with all those young position player prospects? Where do they fit?
Category A: The Near MLB Ready guys
- Candelario and Zagunis will likely be ready by this season.
- Caratini and Happ aren't too far behind and should be ready by 2018.
- Hannemann should be ready by 2017 or 2018, though he is likely to be a role player early in his MLB career and will be easier to keep in the organization.
Category B: The guy who can force the issue
- Jimenez could start the season in AA and put him on a track to reach the majors by late 2018. That conveniently puts him on a timeline to replace corner OFer Jason Heyward should he choose to opt out.
- In the same situation, there may be some who would prefer to keep Happ and trade Jimenez.
Category C: The guys who are too far away to worry about now
- Donnie Dewees could also be ready by late 2018 or sometime in 2019 and be either a starting CF if Almora doesn't pan out or a 4th OFer if he does.
- DJ Wilson and PJ Higgins are too far away to cause concern about a logjam yet, especially since Higgins could easily backup what will then be an experienced Willson Contreras.
- Dewees and Wilson are also OF options if Heyward leaves.
No matter how you shuffle the deck, it seems the Cubs should have enough to make trades and still maintain organizational depth.
For some reason, this debate gets artificially divided into two distinct camps. One camp says you absolutely have to trade the prospects before it's too late and the other says you cannot trade prospects because you have to keep the pipeline going. In reality, both ideas have merit but neither are entirely accurate.
There are gray areas everywhere. The closest there is to an untouchable for me (and that term likely no longer exists when it comes to Cubs prospects) is Eloy Jimenez, who could be an impact starter at what might eventually be a position of need, but I think that if the right deal comes around the Cubs could still trade him and have potential alternate corner OF replacements in Ian Happ, Mark Zagunis, and Donnie Dewees should they be needed down the road.
While there are no real untouchables, one player I don't see much point to trading is DJ Wilson, who has a unique set of skills in their organization and is too far away to be blocked. He also wouldn't bring a whole lot in return at this point in his development anyway.
The Cubs also have some time, though they'd rather not get their backs to the wall as they did with Jorge Soler. In his case, Soler's value as a member of the Cubs organization peaked far lower than they'd hoped. That they got as good a player as they did in Wade Davis is fortunate, even if Davis is only controlled for one more year. By contrast, all of the players on the current top prospect list have options and room for growth. They don't have to trade them now if the return value isn't there and the need isn't yet glaring. They can keep all of them in the minors. All of them could still see their value go up. All of them are still potential depth pieces in the event of injuries to the 2017 MLB squad. They certainly don't have all the time in the world, but they do have some time to find that right deal.
Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, and Victor Caratini are the most blocked players in terms of position and timeline, so they become obvious trade candidates in the short term,. They are not without value, however. As mentioned, they provide value as depth in the case of injury for 2017. Anything the Cubs get in return for those players has to exceed the value that depth provides, so they won't just sell them for pennies on the dollar.
It gets really interesting when we talk about Ian Happ. He's already spent a half season in AA and will likely be ready by 2018. He's also versatile, meaning the Cubs can start squeezing him in by moving him around the field. But with Zobrist around for 3 more years and Baez here for 5, even that's not really a big need right now. Happ is also a potential replacement for Heyward if he leaves, especially if the Cubs trade Jimenez or he doesn't progress enough to start by 2019/2020. Happ has seen his value go up since the AFL, ranking as the Cubs top overall prospect per MLB.com. Whether that is enough to headline a deal for a cost-controlled starting pitcher is hard to say right now, Prices have risen sharply.
Another interesting player on the list is Eddy Martinez. Like Happ and even Jimenez, there is some mixed opinion. Unlike those two, he's far enough away where there is no urgency to deal. They can wait and see if they choose. If there is a team that values him highly now, however, there's no reason for the Cubs to hold back if the overall return is suitable.
Honestly I think the Cubs are open to almost anything right now. Assuming Schwarber and Almora perform up to expectations -- and if Heyward bounces back and decides to stay through his option years, the Cubs may not have a single lineup opening for at least the next 5 years. In that scenario, it'd be logical that the Cubs would make all of their position player prospects available. I think we could say the same thing regardless of the situation if the right player (read: cost-controlled young SP) were made available to them. Even if Heyward leaves, the Cubs have enough depth to sustain a major prospect trade for a core young pitcher.
In the absence of impact, MLB ready homegrown starting pitching, the Cubs have the next best thing -- a young core and a surplus of position player talent as currency to obtain what they need. I'd be surprised if they didn't exchange one asset for the other at some point. This offseason seems unlikely but perhaps we'll see it over the next year or so. If recent trades hadn't diluted the value of prospects as they have, they probably would have made a deal by now. But the Cubs prefer not to have the market dictated to them and my guess is they'd rather wait until it settles before they commit to a trade, especially since they have some time to play with now. The bottom line, though, is that they have put themselves in a position to make needed additions as they arise. They have an opportunity to increase their chances to contend for a World Series title for each of the next 5 years. By the time that run ends, they should have had the time and resources to rebuild their farm system, especially if they hang on to their lower level talent.
All of that is not to say the Cubs should start a fire sale and trade for the sake of trading. Those prospects have value so I don't expect them to continue trading top prospects for 3 month rentals and if they do, it means they've found themselves in a desperate position, much as they were last year with the bullpen. Even so, it's hard to imagine the Cubs ever having the same sense of urgency now that they've won it all. Some of that pressure is gone forever.
At the same time, please don't make too much of that last sentiment. This is a competitive front office. They didn't come here for a one and done. I don't expect them to rest on their laurels -- and I certainly wouldn't want them to. If there is a reasonably good value deal to be made that helps them win in the short term, they're going to make that deal. And while I don't believe they would trade any of their young MLB core players (including super-sub Javier Baez) I do think they'd be willing to trade any prospect for the right player and/or in the right scenario -- though I would expect them to set the bar pretty high to include Jimenez or Happ.
The Cubs are in an enviable position. They're awash with prospect currency and they have about a 5 year window to compete for multiple titles provided they maintain a playoff worthy starting rotation and bullpen. They also have the resources to additionally contend well beyond those 5 years if they can use that currency responsibly. One thing we should know by now, the Cubs have the right owner and the right front office to make these tough decisions and deftly balance short term goals with their long term philosophy of sustainable success.
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