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Cubs Tue Feb 18 2014
It's difficult for many fans to get excited about the start of spring training when most probability models have the Cubs sitting somewhere around the 70-win mark for 2014. It's obvious that the organization hasn't built the major league club to compete for anything besides a spot at the top of the draft, but that strategy has put the Cubs in an enviable position of rebuilding teams.
Most websites that grade prospect talent in baseball have four Cubs in the Top 50, and as many as eight in the Top 100. The system is loaded with both high-upside and high-floor talent for the first time in years, and most of that talent is in AA and AAA. Why is the remembering that important? Consider where the Cubs were three years ago.
After coming off a 75-win season, a January trade brought Matt Garza in from Tampa Bay -- depleting the club's farm system. When the prospect rankings came out in February, ESPN's Keith Law ranked the team 20th in terms of prospect talent, but threw in the caveat that they had a bunch of prospects in the 101-150 range to counter just one guy (Trey McNutt) in the Top 100. None of the Cubs' Top 10 prospects from 2011 have made an impact with the team. Five of the players have moved on to other teams or out of baseball, one remains in low-A trying to figure things out, and four are stuck in triple-A trying to overcome their crippling weaknesses. Garza's presence didn't help either, as the Cubs tallied just 71 wins in 2011.
In contrast, 2013 couldn't have gone much better for the Cubs when it comes to prospect development. Despite injuries that slowed Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, all the Cubs top prospects performed extremely well in the leagues they were placed. With all the top talent stacked in the upper minors, we'll likely see players like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant make their debut in Chicago at some point this summer if they continue playing like they have. It keeps the Cubs on a timeline of being able to compete next year.
But if two or three of the top players struggle extensively and don't progress at their next stop, it could be a devastating blow to the organization. The team would fall back another year in a rebuilding campaign that has resulted in a drastic decline of attendance at Wrigley Field. Further losses of paying customers with less to look forward to could have a cyclical effect on the entire organization.
Further complicating matters (though many teams would love this problem), is the fact that most of the impact talent on the cusp of the major leagues plays in an infield that already possesses two guys signed to long-term contracts (Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro). Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were adamant last week, saying that Castro is going to remain at shortstop (unless, of course, he tails off even more than his disastrous 2013). That means Baez will have to move to third or second base to play in the majors, but his Iowa team is already full at those two spots with high-end talents Bryant (3B -- who may start out in AA to alleviate this issue) and Arismendy Alcantara (2B). Making matters even more difficult (again, a good problem), is if Mike Olt returns to his super-prospect form from 2012 after dealing with vision issues all of last year. He's a defensive wizard at the hot corner, and hit 28 homers just two years ago in double-A.
The improvement of all the Cubs top-level talent, along with the pitchers in the lower minors who were drafted in rounds 2-10 the past few years makes 2014 the most important yet when it comes to Epstein and Hoyer's tenure. They've built a system of talented players that could be on the doorstep of something great, but the other side of the thin line is a dangerous cliff of multiple more years of major league ineptitude.