Cellar dwellers with bright futures: Cubs

As the 2014 pennant race starts to kick into gear, we explore a number of teams who need to look to 2015 and beyond for their chance to compete. The second of these teams is the Chicago Cubs.

Cubs fans went into 2014 with little to no hopes of competing in the National League Central. As of the All-Star break, the Cubs are indeed a last place team, but one that can look toward the future. Several players they hope to build around are already shining in the major leagues, while others continue to develop in the minors. Earlier this month, Chicago bolstered an already strong farm system by trading Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for several prospects. (You can read more about how that trade benefits the Cubs here.)

Building blocks

Although the current roster is languishing in last place, several players have emerged as potential stars. Since being acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres, the Cubs have been waiting for 24 year old first baseman Anthony Rizzo to break out, and this year he has. After hitting just .233 last year, Rizzo has raised his average to .275, and his OBP to .381. His 20 home runs rank third in the league, and he is being recognized with a a selection to the National League All-Star team. Seeing his potential, the Cubs signed him to a long term deal that keeps him under team control at a reasonable price ($41 million minimum) until 2021.

Another player who has rebounded from a poor 2013 is shortstop Starlin Castro. A fifth-year player at just 24 years of age, Castro made the All-Star team in 2011 and 2012, but regressed in 2013, batting just .245. This year, he has already surpassed his previous home run and RBI totals from 2013, with 11 and 52, respectively. He has also raised his average to a a respectable .276, and made the All-Star team for the third time. Like Rizzo, Castro was also signed to a team-friendly long term contract, which will keep him in Chicago until at least 2019.

Aside from these young position stars, the Cubs have several starting pitchers who they hope can anchor the rotation for years to come. First, Jake Arrieta has turned many heads in the baseball world. A 28 year old with a career 4.70 ERA, Arrieta has come out of nowhere to become the de facto ace of the staff. In 13 starts and 78 1/3 innings pitched, he has dominated with a 1.95 ERA and 85 strikeouts. To prove that he is no fluke, Arrieta will need to replicate this success over an entire season, or maybe more. However, even if he turns into a middle of the rotation starter, the Cubs would have reason to be pleased.

Chicago also has another talented, albeit unpredictable starting pitcher. 27 year old Travis Wood seemed to have a breakthrough last year, when he posted a 3.11 ERA in 200 innings pitched. Things have seemingly gone backwards for Wood this year, though, as his ERA has risen to 4.96 in 110 2/3 innings. It’s tough to tell what kind of pitcher Wood will be for the rest of his career, but the second half of the season is going to be very important for him. If he can pitch significantly better and lower his ERA, than there is still hope that he can be something of the ace the Cubs imagined he would be.

A fertile farm system

What Cubs fans should really be excited about are the players in their farm system. After receiving Addison Russell as part of the Samardzija/Hammel trade, Chicago now has 4 of the top 15 prospects in all of baseball, as rated by MLB.com.

First off, 21 year old shortstop Javier Baez (ranked sixth) has the tools to be a great all-around player. The eighth pick  in the 2011 draft, he hit 37 home runs and drove in 11 between two teams in 2013. He was promoted to Triple AAA for the 2014 season, where his numbers are down some, but still very solid.

His power is again evident by his 14 home runs, but his average sits below expectations at .240. Regardless, he has still showed good speed with 15 stolen bases, and he had the chance to showcase his talent in the All-Star Futures Game this past Sunday. His biggest question mark is his defense, but if need be, he can be moved to a more suitable position, especially as Starlin Castro looks to be the Cubs’ long term starting shortstop.

22 year old third base prospect Kris Bryant (ranked eighth) was also selected to play in the 2014 Futures Game. After being picked second overall last year, Bryant has slugged his way to Triple AAA in less than a year’s time. In 128 plate appearances for three teams in 2013, Bryant tallied 9 home runs and drove in 32 runs. He has only gotten better in 2014, with 31 home runs, 81 RBIs, and a .346 batting average between Double AA and Triple AAA. He has had a fantastic start to his career, and it won’t be too long before he finds his name on the Cubs’ major league roster.

Shortstop Addison Rusell (ranked 11th), age 20, was the centerpiece of the package the Cubs received for Samardzija and Hammel.  The 11th pick in 2012 has good speed and power, as well as the ability to hit for average. He has only 88 at-bats in 2014, but last year, he hit 17 home runs, stole 20 bases, and hit .269 between two teams. He is also a good defensive shortstop. The only problem is that the Cubs already have a star shortstop . This means that there is a possibility Russell may either switch positions or be traded.

The Cubs’ fourth best prospect (and ranked 15th overall) is 20 year old center fielder Albert Almora. He was picked 6th overall in 2012, and has performed very well so far in his professional career. He projects to be a solid hitter, who has good but not great power. So far in his first full season he has hit 5 home runs, driven in 42 runs, and hit .267 in Single A+. Scouts are also impressed with his defensive ability in center field, so he is expected to stay at the position. Almora is also only 20, so he has plenty of time to fine tune all of his skills and develop into a better player.

If all or even most of the Cubs’ prospects pan out, Chicago will be set for many years in the future. The recent call-up of second baseman Arismendy Alcantra is getting Cubs fans excited, and this is only the beginning. In years to come, their lineup could turn out to be extremely potent. Additionally, they have several starting pitchers, like Jake Arrieta and Travis Wood, who have shown glimpses of brilliance. When discussing young prospects, nothing is a sure thing, but the Cubs seem to have many players that look almost ready to take the next step and develop into stars. If this can happen, Chicago will find itself  in contention for years to come.

Joe Setyon, sports editor of The Collegian at Grove City College, contributes to Three for Ten Sports as a baseball writer.

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