With another season in the books, now is a good time to take a look at the Chicago Cubs organization and discuss some thoughts and expectations about the season that was and what to expect going forward. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have now been in charge for three years, and the “implementation” phase of “The Plan” seems to be coming to an end. 2014 was a productive year. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo bounced back in big ways, proving their 2013 campaigns were blips on the radar. The emergence of Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta provided some stability in the starting rotation, which has been an area of concern for the future.
The farm system welcomed more big prospects, Addison Russell via the Samardzjia/Hammel trade with the A’s and Kyle Schwarber via the draft. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler got their first taste of the “Show” and gave the front office a good idea about where they are in their respective development.
Let’s start with Rizzo and Castro. The foundation of the Cubs’ major league roster put up numbers that are very promising for the future. Rizzo looks like a star in the making at first base and should anchor the middle of the lineup for several years to come. Castro responded from a truly dreadful 2013 season by posting the best OPS of his career. Additionally, his defense continued to show steady improvement. Castro is still (and probably always will be) prone to the occasional mental lapse that gives fans reasons to criticize him. I have defended Castro since the day he got to the show, and I will continue to do so now.
The kid (yes, kid, he’s 24) is still developing. That should be a reason to get excited, not frustrated with him. In his five essentially full Major League seasons, Castro is a three time all star and proven .285 hitter. He will never take a lot of walks and, while his power is increasing, he will never hit for a ton of power. However his .777 OPS (114 OPS+) is very, very good and I think that stat is one of the best overall measures of a hitter. I don’t expect Castro to become a consistent .320 hitter with 20+ home runs, and that’s fine. I think his numbers will increase slightly from this year as he enters his prime years, but I also expect him to subsequently level off somewhere slightly above where he was this year. Go look at the season he had in 2014 and try to say that is a bad thing.
I mentioned the criticism Castro gets on a near daily basis. Combine this with the Cubs wealth of prospects at shortstop and you get various trade scenarios flying around with Castro’s name attached to them. I could not be more opposed to trading Castro. While it is a nice thought to suggest that one of the prospects could be even better than him, I am not ready to take that gamble. We know what Castro is and what he is going to be, so is there really any reason to move him? I think you would be hard pressed to find a player more underappreciated by his fan base than Castro. However, we all know Cubs fans are dumb and when you have people like Al Yellon egging them on, there is really nothing that can be done. Keep Castro, let him be awesome and that’s that.
Jake Arrieta’s emergence may be the best example of how good of a job Jed and Theo have done turning this roster over. Arrieta was acquired (along with Pedro Strop, and more on him later) from Baltimore in 2013 for Scott Feldman. The Cubs traded a two-month rental, 31-year-old pitcher with a career ERA over 4.50 for a 28 year old who posted a top 15 ERA in baseball in 2014. Safe to say the Cubs won that trade. Kyle Hendricks, acquired from Texas in 2012 for Ryan Dempster, posted a 2.28 ERA, albeit in 75 innings pitched. Regardless, Hendricks proved that he deserves a spot in the 2015 rotation, and, assuming 2014 wasn’t a fluke, he figures to be in the plans for the rotation going forward. The emergence of these two has calmed, at least somewhat, the fears about the Cubs lack of pitching prospects.
The main focus of this three-year rebuilding process has been stockpiling assets. The Cubs made it no secret that was exactly what they planned to do in 2014. When it became clear that Jeff Samardzija was not going to sign an extension friendly for the Cubs, he was traded to the A’s along with Jason Hammel (another Feldman-like “sign-and-flip” guy) for a group of prospects headlined by shortstop Addison Russell, who was thought to be off-limits. This trade might be the most impressive of the Theo Epstein era because it sent two players clearly not in the long term plans and netted a top prospect in all of baseball. Even if Russell is a bust, this trade is completely worth it.
The Cubs’ fan base received a much-anticipated jolt in early August when top prospect Javier Baez was called up. This was followed by the arrival of Jorge Soler a few weeks later. Both guys had their moments and as both figure to be major pieces going forward, it is worth taking a serious look at their early results and what might happen going forward. Javier Baez had a two-month debut period that was awesome, painful, exciting, terrifying, promising and disheartening all at once. His raw power is ridiculously huge and when he makes contact, the ball tends to travel very fast, very far, or both. The problem is, he didn’t make a ton of contact. His K rate of 42% was twice the major league average and brought back some memories of the Brett Jackson era (I’ll duck and cover now).
For a power hitter like Baez, a K rate of roughly 30% is expected, but 42(!!!!!!)%? That is an insane amount of unproductive at bats, and probably reason enough to ease off the Javy Kool-Aid just a bit. Baez did have plenty of good moments, however. In the few times he put together a quality at-bat, good things tended to happen. His defense was better than expected and the idea of him and Castro up the middle of the infield for the future is very appealing. Additionally, his track record in the minors shows that he usually struggles initially after a jump to a new level, but then proceeds to be very productive after the adjustment period.
Unfortunately, his track record also shows piles of strikeouts. If this adjustment period trend holds true with his jump to the bigs, I would not expect it to happen quickly. I think Baez still has a long ways to go in his development, which is fine. He is 21 and his upside is reason enough to let him grow and see what the Cubs have in the powerful second baseman.
Jorge Soler looked much more major league ready during his initial tour of the show. Soler also has loads of power and his physical build makes it easy to see him being an anchor in the corner outfield going forward. Injuries have been a huge hindrance in Soler’s development to date, and his small sample sizes in the minors make it hard to try to draw any conclusions about what the Cubs might have in the 22 year old Cuban. His early results are promising, but sample sizes are everything and it will take months of at bats before we will know much about the future of either of these guys.
The back end of the bullpen was another area of hope. Neil Ramirez had an unbelievable season, and looks like he might have the makings of a shut down closer in the future. Ramirez is a prime example of how prospects turn out, as he was the player to be named later when the Cubs traded Matt Garza to the Rangers in 2013. Mike Olt was supposed to be the headliner of that trade, and we’ve all seen how that turned out. Pedro Strop was impressive as well. He was part of the Scott Feldman deal/swindle the Cubs pulled, so literally any positive return the Cubs get from him is huge.
Hector Rondon stepped into the closer role and showed that he might be a valuable asset for the future. It is rare to see a Rule 5 player like Rondon have the success he has had and that bodes very well. The development of these three pitchers points to the relatively unnoticed success the Cubs have had developing pitchers. It’s not clear what exactly led to the emergence of all of these guys, but if it can be attributed at all to the work Chris Bosio has done with them, the pitching staff could become an area of great strength.
I’ve mentioned the Cubs perceived lack of pitching prospects several times so far, so I’ll address that in more depth now. Pitchers, especially young ones, are risky business. For this reason, Jed and Theo seem to be taking the approach of signing proven veterans and, in the future, trading some of their prospects for key pitching. Some of the prospects, maybe even one of the big names, will, inevitably, be traded. It is pretty clear that prospects can bring back pitching in return, just look at the trades the Cubs have made in recent years. The somewhat surprising emergence of several starters and the power arms in the bullpen suggest that the Cubs have a knack of sorts for developing pitching at the major league level. The front office is taking more of an “as we go” approach with pitching, and if they keep getting the returns they have been, there is no reason to change this approach.
Earlier I mentioned how the focus of the franchise has been asset stockpiling. This included signing veteran sign-and-flip guys, and, yes, losing. And lots of it. The only way to build a farm system is to get better prospects, and the biggest way to do that is by way of the draft. The best way to get good players in the draft is to have a high pick, and the only way to get that is by losing. The first three years of the new regime featured plenty of purposed losing. That is why waiver-wire guys and AAAA players filled the roster. Jed and Theo never got caught up in fan base clamoring to make a run at the second wild card, and they never tried to catch lightning in a bottle by signing aging free agents to huge contracts. This is very good. Sure it wasn’t always pretty but it was nice to know that the franchise finally had a defined sense of direction, and a clear, transparent map of how they were going to get to where they want to go.
So what could 2015 bring? 2015 will bring more prospects arriving at Wrigley and a clearer picture of what the Cubs have in these guys. The arrival of Kris Bryant, whether it comes in April or June, will be a huge moment for the franchise. Bryant had a monster year in the minors in 2014, and if he can translate to the bigs, he has the makings of a star. The question with Bryant is where he will play. At 6’5’’, he is tall for a third baseman, but a good build for a corner outfielder. Having him and Soler hold down the corner outfield positions could be awesome. Javier Baez could slide over the third base, as he certainly has the build for it. Addison Russell, who will likely arrive at some point in 2015, could end up at second base. The next of the “Core Four” prospects, Albert Almora, likely will spend 2015 down on the farm, but should be ready for big time contribution come 2016.
Additionally, Arismendy Alcantra, Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva, among others, could step up and fill some unexpected roles. Before I get to far ahead of myself it is necessary to acknowledge that these guys are all prospects. Prospects fail at huge rates, which is why it is great to have so many. That being said, it is just plain unrealistic to expect every one of the big names to pan out into.
There is still a long way to go, but I feel like it is finally safe to say the purposed losing phase in over, and the days of contention are in their infancy. Does this mean the Cubs will contend in 2015? No. It means they could contend in 2015. While I certainly wouldn’t bet on it, it is completely plausible that things could come together quicker than the Cubs anticipated, resulting in interesting baseball next August and September. Again, this is not a likely outcome for next year, but there are plenty of reasons for some measured excitement about the year to come. Regardless of what happens next year, the foundation in beginning to solidify for a sustainable run of success on the north side of Chicago.