Two storylines have been vying for center stage in the North Side of Chicago this offseason: free agent pitchers, and free agent center fielders. Certainly these two positional needs are not exclusive of one another, as a trade for young pitching would likely see the Cubs parting ways with a high profile outfielder, thus increasing their demand for outfielders in free agency. With the hot stove starting to heat up, we're about to see some pieces fall into place for the Cubs 2016 roster. I won't bore you with hypothetical trades because your guess is as good as mine at this point; practically every player in the MLB has been linked to the Cubs this winter. What I will tell you about is the center field options the Cubs already have cooking in the minors and how I see their future in the organization panning out.
I left Billy McKinney out of the conversation because I don't believe he has what it takes to stay at CF in the Majors. While he has been extremely impressive at the dish, his arm is nothing special, and he doesn't have the speed to effectively cover the gaps. Because his skill set will likely land him in LF going forward, the Cubs don't exactly have a pressing need for him in their organization. Look for McKinney to be included as a supplemental piece in a big name trade if one is made.
Eddy Julio Martinez
On October 19th, 2015, many Cubs fans spent the day conceiving of ways their boys in blue might claw back from an 0-2 series deficit against the Mets. Perhaps people will someday look back on the date, instead, as the day the Cubs signed top international prospect Eddy Julio Martinez. Okay, maybe I'm being a bit dramatic, but this signing has the potential to impact the future of the organization in a major way. EJM is consistently ranked as one of the top five international prospect in baseball. For what it's worth, MLB.com lists him fourth on their Top 30 International Prospect Rankings.
The twenty-year-old has a nice sized frame reporting in at 6 foot 2, 195 pounds. Though the size is nice in that he has room to develop decent power, I am most excited for the contact approach scouts are talking about. I've watched several videos of Martinez taking batting practice, and his swing is a thing of beauty. His cuts are far more contained than most players his age. He stays balanced, his swing is compact, and his head is silent. Many scouts are comparing him to Andruw Jones, and I can certainly see why.
Major League ETAs are hard to determine for young Cuban prospects, but it seems Martinez will spend at least one full year—probably closer to two—in the minors as he has not had much exposure in center field up to this point. His reportedly plus speed and plus arm (having been a pitcher) give him the necessary tools to stay in center for years to come once he becomes comfortable in the position. With two years of experience in Cuba's top league under his belt, I imagine we'll see Martinez reaching higher levels of Minor League ball by the end of 2016.
The Cubs' signing of Martinez should in no way be seen as an indictment of Albert Almora, a name that two years ago left prospect watchers salivating. Instead, the Martinez signing is simply the Cubs’ way of putting the law of averages to the test. With the onslaught of talent coming up from the minors, several players are bound to have success. It's no secret that the stock has fallen off quite a bit over the last two seasons for Almora, but I promise we aren't looking at the next Brett Jackson. Almora's second half improvements at the plate have been reason for great optimism. After starting the year with a dismal .244/.288/.340 through 55 games, Almora bounced back in a major way, bumping his slash line all the way up to .272/.327/.400 in his final 51 games.
Much like the Smokies breakout catcher, Willson Contreras, Almora's recent success has come as a result of improved plate discipline. This is one of the key elements you want to see in a young hitter as he works his way through the minor. His walks and OBP have risen while his strikeouts have declined showing he has become more comfortable at the dish. These trends should be comforting because Almora projects as a lead-off sort.
Defensively, Almora is more than ready for the Show. This might be an understatement. I would even argue that Almora is ready for Gold Glove contention. The guy makes his way onto Sports Center's Top 10 more than a fair number of Major Leaguers. It feel like Almora is getting up there in age because of how long he's been with the Cubs already, but he's still just 21 years old making him younger than most of his AA competition this year. Almora will be a big league player; it's just a matter of time.
So what does all this mean for the Cubs? Simply put, it means the Cubs have a bit of flexibility when it comes to making offseason decisions. This is, in part, why the Cubs have been linked to so many different players this offseason. There is no pressure for the club to sign a center fielder to a long term deal because they are confident with what they have in the farm system. It is very likely the Cubs sign a Denard Span and/or Austin Jackson sort to a short term deal while they wait for their young talent to mature.
This is not to say the Cubs have no interest in signing Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon though; Theo and Jed may see something they can't pass up. If the Cubs do end up signing and outfielder to a larger contract, it will be reassuring to know that the move was not made out of desperation. It will also mean the Cubs still have big name trade chips in the minors that can be shopped for pitching. While the Cubs won't be looking to trade Eddy Julio Martinez anytime soon, don't be surprised if you hear Albert Almora's name come up in trade rumors. Clubs are placing greater emphasis on defensive productivity in recent years which certainly raises Almora's stock. The Cubs are looking to cash in on young, controlled starters, and they will inevitably come at the expense of a few big name prospects.
Should the Cubs try to sign someone to man center field to a short-term deal or a long-term deal? Who would you sign and how long would you sign them for? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
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