Cubs just need to stay the course
Club has made great strides in building organization from ground floor up
CHICAGO -- A couple of weeks ago, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and president of business operations Crane Kenney invited Cubs season-ticket holders to a command performance at the Bank of America Theater in downtown Chicago. They introduced them to new manager Rick Renteria over a video link -- he would have been there if he wasn't still recovering from his hip surgery -- and made presentations about the team's new Spring Training facility, upcoming changes at Wrigley Field and the collection of prospects in the farm system.
This is the kind of production you put together when you've gone 127-197 in your first two seasons with your organization, as have Epstein and his front-office staff, headed by general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod.
I wasn't there, but that's OK. I didn't have to be convinced.
While you can't yet see it at the Major League level, the Cubs have made great strides the past two years in building an organization the right way, from the ground floor up. These are smart people doing smart things, and how quickly they are able to finish the job is really beside the point. The Cubs are going in the right direction, and if they have another two years like the last two, they will have finally cut the gap between themselves and their perennial measuring stick, the Cardinals, who have been doing things right forever.
This is probably a good time to add my standard caveat: It's easy for me to buy into what they're doing because I don't buy season tickets. It's the people who do whose patience is being tried, but I think they're going to feel foolish if they bail out now.
This is a very promising time for this organization -- arguably the most promising since the late John Holland added Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Randy Hundley and Ferguson Jenkins behind Ernie Banks. For the first time in 30 years, the Cubs have a thick wave of talented prospects in their farm system, and they're coming fast.
This is exactly the way Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod planned it when owner Tom Ricketts bought into their vision. Ricketts had purchased the team with it descending after being propped up through free agency, as former general manager Jim Hendry chased the World Series that got away in 2003, and he gave Hendry's replacements five-year contracts to demonstrate his commitment.
When the Cubs pick fourth in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, it will mark the fourth year in a row that they have had a top-nine pick. The front office also spent heavily on the international market in trying to stock this farm system the way they did Boston's a decade ago.
Third baseman Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 Draft and ranked the club's No. 4 prospect, has been a quick study as a pro. Including the run that made him MVP of the Arizona Fall League, he has batted .346 with 15 homers, 22 doubles and 49 RBIs in 56 games as a pro.
At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Bryant is similar to longtime Angels third baseman Troy Glaus, who was the third pick overall from UCLA in the 1997 Draft. Bryant's potential also seems to be on the same scale as Evan Longoria, the third pick overall in 2006 from Long Beach State, and Ryan Zimmerman, the fourth pick overall in '05 from the University of Virginia.
Those three guys averaged 127 games in the Minors before their debuts -- a trend that suggests Bryant will force his way to Wrigley Field next August or September, unless the Cubs decide not to start his service clock until 2015.
Shortstop Javier Baez, a Hendry holdover from the 2011 Draft who hit 37 home runs between the Florida State League and the Southern League last year, is similarly coming fast. The Cubs' top prospect has things to keep working on, sure (he strikes out too much and still chases some bad pitches), but he's shown instincts to go with his power in his 215 Minor League games and will be compared daily to the 23-year-old Starlin Castro this spring. Epstein and Hoyer know they'll soon have to trade Castro (signed through 2019 and coming off a horrible season) or move him or Baez to a new position.
Bryant, Baez, Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are the headliners in an under-25 core of players that also includes left fielder Junior Lake, center fielder Albert Almora, right fielder Jorge Soler, middle infielder Arismendy Alcantara, outfielders Rubi Silva and Matt Szczur, third basemen Jeimer Candelario and Christian Villanueva and first basemen Dan Vogelbach and Dustin Geiger.
"The Cubs have some guys coming that are going to be really good," a scout with another organization said last week. "They've got the guys you know about and they've got guys behind them. It's going to be fun to see what these guys do."
Pitching and catching remain organizational weaknesses, but 2012 Draft pick Pierce Johnson (Missouri State) and trade acquisitions C.J. Edwards, Corey Black and Kyle Hendricks are all potential big league starters, with Edwards and Johnson offering front-of-the-rotation potential. Dallas Beeler, who worked five strong innings in the AFL championship game, and Matt Loosen could get looks in '14.
One other reason to like the Cubs' long-term future: They currently have only $31 million on the books in both 2015 and '16. Possibly one year from now -- and if not, then definitely in two years -- Epstein and Hoyer will be able to add major pieces through free agency or trades (with the inventory of attractive bargaining chips including teenagers Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres, along with others signed on the international market).
Masahiro Tanaka could jump-start the process if he gets to the market and the Cubs win his rights through posting. The odds are probably against that and any other major move this offseason, but the pipeline is pumping. It is bringing hope for success that can be sustained.