State of the Chicago Cubs

State of the Chicago Cubs
The future is bright. Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

Another baseball season has arrived on the North Side of Chicago, and in spite of starring down the barrel of what is likely another 90 loss campaign, things are actually looking up around the Chicago Cubs organization. As we enter the third year of the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer regime, success has been in short supply at the major league level. Theo and Co. are insisting that they are on a path to sustained success. Their message to fans: trust the process, it will be worth it.

For the first time in recent history, the Cubs management has a plan that doesn’t include short term fixes and attempts to catch lightning in a bottle with frantic and desperate free agent signings. This front office decided to get their hands dirty and rebuild this thing from the ground up. By doing so, they accepted the painful reality of several losing seasons. They took the approach of losing at a spectacular rate until the team is ready to win, and while this has been frustrating to watch from a fan perspective, it is nice to see an actual plan being put into place and followed for once.

The 2014 season holds little promise with regard to wins, but is arguably the most important year of the new regime. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo will both be looked to for bounce back seasons, and the continued development of those two players is a key marker of how close the team is to contention. A large portion of the rebuilding process hinges on those two, so their success and growth is probably the most important aspect of this season.

Castro’s 2013 campaign sent waves of pessimism through the fan base, as his numbers regressed greatly from his back-to-back all-star seasons. At this point in his career, he has essentially four full major league seasons under his belt which is a large enough sample size to judge him as a player. Out of his four seasons, he was really, really good for three of them and pretty unwatchable for one of them. Because the good strongly outweighs the bad, I fully expect Castro to return to his 2010-2012 levels of production this season and stay there for the years to come. It is important to remember that the kid (yes, kid, he just turned 24) is at an age where most young players are in the final stages of their development. Castro is still growing and learning, but as has been true all along, the only thing that matters is if he is ready to be a star when the team in ready to compete. All indications say he will be just fine.

Rizzo’s 2013 season was equally tough to watch, but his 101 OPS+ (remember, 100 is league average), 40 doubles and 23 home runs are numbers that help to offset his disappointing batting average (.233). Like Castro, Rizzo is 24 years old and developing his game. Unlike Castro, Rizzo’s sample size is smaller – about two full seasons. Even though he has proven less at the major league level, Jed and Theo still thought highly enough of him to ink a seven year extension through 2019 before last season. I trust this front office to make the right decision, so I also believe the Rizzo can and will develop into an all-star level first baseman.

Jeff Samardzija is another interesting case, as he has been surrounded by trade speculation. Samardzija is not an “ace” but he is a really solid starting pitcher that could be valuable to any contending team. At 29 years old, Samardzija is probably in the thick of his prime years. For that reason the demand for him should be fairly high and from the Cubs perspective the question is whether or not it is worth keeping him around at a decently high price when he will be entering his 30s by the time the team is (hopefully) a contender.

The Cubs farm system is, for the first time in my lifetime, loaded. Led by Javier Baez, the system is full of top-rated prospects who will be huge assets to a contending team. Javier Baez brings a large “wow” factor with him. His long home runs are admittedly intoxicating and his numbers in two big league spring trainings and last season in the minors are reason to be very excited for Javy. A position change seems to be in order for Baez with Castro seemingly well established at shortstop. A move over to second base should not be much of a problem, a player with that much natural talent will be fine moving over 90 feet to his right. Javy’s arrival seems to be tentatively slotted for mid-summer, thus saving the Cubs a year before he is arbitration-eligible. It will be interesting to see the first of the top draft picks get to Wrigley field and Baez will inject some life into the season. Going forward, a Castro-Baez-Rizzo combination in the middle of the lineup looks appealing.

Cubs fans have the tendency to assume all top prospects will be great as Cubs, and that very well could be the case, however they also serve as major assets in the trade market. When the Cubs are contenders, many members of this “core” will hopefully be leading the way at Wrigley Field. However, most of these top prospects could also serve as trade bait to land a top line piece at the deadline as the team gears up for a run at the pennant. Jed and Theo have shown no reservations about trading top talent, as they have traded Hanley Ramirez, Anthony Rizzo (twice) and Andrew Cashner, to name a few, over the course of their respective careers. Cubs fans could be in for a shock if they choose to do the same with one of the Cubs main prospects, however that should be an exciting moment as it will likely mean the team is finally competing.

Much like how losing games is a necessary downside of rebuilding, trading assets is a necessary component of contending. No team has ever been able to win big for an extended period while also maintaining a stream of top prospects and keeping them in their system. A competing team would lead to an end of the days of top five draft choices, and therefore an end to high profile high school or college talents. Again, this is a good thing.
The “sign and flip” philosophy is in full swing again this season. Jose Veras was seemingly signed for the sole purpose of landing a potential prospect at the deadline if he is anything resembling adequate in the Cubs bullpen. Nate Schierholtz, who’s value probably peaked last summer, is surely on the market for anyone looking for a serviceable outfielder to platoon. Darwin Barney, who I have learned is something of a fan favorite, is also an attractive trade option for a team looking to upgrade middle infield defense. Of course, Barney is only tradable if his offense is at least passable, so Darwin could really use a nice hot start for the Cubs’ purposes. Having him on the roster when Baez comes up will be pretty pointless as Barney won’t build any value sitting on the bench and Baez will need to be in the lineup every day. Again, I trust Jed and Theo to make the best moves for the franchise with regard to trades. Their track record over the last trade deadlines has proven they are able to maximize a guy’s value at the right time.

Taking a look around the Cubs system, things seem to be changing for the better. The farm system is loaded and being primed for serious big league service. The team on the field leaves plenty to be desired, but that is beside the point. If the players I mentioned earlier can develop and perform at the major league level the season will be a success. As Jed and Theo surely have to be thinking, just hang on a little while longer. We’re almost there.

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