The Cubs' lineup looks far different in August than it did in April, and unlike in past years when that might have been a depressing notion, this time around it's an omen of a bright future. The Cubs have brought up three of their top six prospects in 2014, with Arismendy Alcantara getting the call first followed by Javier Baez and then Jorge Soler. There are more to come, too, with Kris Bryant, the top prospect in the entire game for some and the Cubs' first-round pick in the 2013 draft, destroying Triple-A. This group together, along with a few pieces that are already in Chicago, could make for a devastating Cubs lineup in the not-too-distant future, but it's still not enough.
The Cubs just don't have the pitching, not in the majors and not in their system. C.J. Edwards was their top pitching prospect coming into the year, and his optimistic projection -- courtesy of Baseball Prospectus -- had him as a No. 3 starter. His realistic one slated him for relief -- late-inning relief, but still relief, and injuries plus his performance this summer have done nothing but reinforce that thought. Pierce Johnson was the other pitcher in the top 10, and his realistic projection placed him as a No. 4 starter.
Those kinds of arms are important, because if they work out they save a team money it can invest elsewhere -- even mediocre pitching is costly on the free agent market -- but they can't do it on their own. It's good to have Edwards and Johnson as well as Dan Straily and Jacob Turner, both of whom are already in the majors and still young, but if that's four-fifths of your rotation, you are not a contender without a historically productive lineup to back them. Sub in Travis Wood, Kyle Hendricks, Edwin Jackson, whoever for any of the above names: the Cubs have a whole lot of middling starters, and also Jake Arrieta, at their disposal.
Arrieta is, at least, a start. He had a promising run as a prospect in the Orioles' system, but as happens to Orioles pitching prospects under the control of the Orioles, things went to hell, and he found himself on the Cubs last July after posting a 5.46 ERA with Baltimore over the course of three-plus seasons. Since coming to Chicago, he's struck out almost three times as many batters as he's walked while posting a 125 ERA+ and averaging six innings per start. That's a high-quality pitcher, one that's hard to identify, draft and develop, but with a little help from the O's incompetence, the Cubs found themselves with one.
Photo credit: Dustin Bradford
In addition to Arrieta, the Cubs have both the resources and the prospects to make this rebuild come together in a way that justifies the time it has taken. Javier Baez is batting .189 and striking out 43 percent of the time, but he's 21 years old with just under 100 plate appearances to his credit. He's shown why it's worth waiting for him to come around, too, as he's already blasted seven homers in 23 games: if he can even figure out how to identify a breaking ball, he's going to be a special bat in one corner or another. Arismendy Alcantara is a second baseman and center fielder who is also struggling a bit, but he's 22, is a former shortstop and projects to be at least a major league regular. Jorge Soler, the most recent call-up of the three, also has elite power potential, and is in the majors sooner than expected after slugging .618 in 32 Triple-A games.
Add to this trio Kris Bryant, who is also 22 and is batting .300/.417/.643 in his 66 Triple-A games in 2014, and there's plenty of youth and reasons for optimism. There's also 25-year-old Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' first baseman who is batting .278/.375/.514 for a 143 OPS+, and 24-year-old Starlin Castro, who hasn't developed into the star many hoped he would, but still owns a 109 OPS+ at shortstop in 2014. If you simply look at how he has hit compared to other shortstops, that OPS+ changes to 124.
The Cubs also have one of the game's other top prospects in 20-year-old Addison Russell, after trading Jeff Samardzija away to the Athletics earlier this summer. Russell could have an incredible career, but he's also something of a luxury for the Cubs: they already have Castro at short through 2019, and Baez or Alcantara could move back to that position in a pinch. Russell could also make any of those players superfluous, too. Castro is an established piece, and is heading into the third season of a seven-year, $60 million deal with a $16 million option for 2020. Almost every team in the league would call the Cubs should they announce Castro and his reasonable deal are on the market.
This is how the Cubs fix the pitching. They have plenty of money, too, and could sign one of James Shields or Jon Lester -- whom the front office is very familiar with given they developed him in Boston -- to lead their staff the next few years, but a trade almost seems inevitable given what they have in the majors and in their system. If the Cubs wanted Cole Hamels and his remaining four years and $100 million guaranteed from the Phillies, making Castro or Russell the centerpiece could get Ruben Amaro's attention in a way no other offer has. The Cubs have the money to sign one of the two aforementioned pitchers and trade for Hamels if they want, or to attempt to sign both Shields and Lester, or Max Scherzer and Shields, or whatever combination of two of those three pitchers can happen for Chicago. A staff with any two of those four, along with Jake Arrieta and whichever back-end starters the Cubs stick with, combined with the potential of all this youth in their lineup, would be bad news for the rest of the NL. And, for once, good news for the Cubs.
That's still dreaming big at this stage, of course. The Cubs aren't the only team with money, and all three of Shields, Scherzer and Lester might decide they'd rather be just another veteran on an already contending team rather than play mentor to a bunch of kids. The Phillies might deal Hamels elsewhere, or they might refuse to deal him at all. The prospects could tank, Arrieta could revert to his less pleasing form or Castro could find a new way to disappoint. A lot could go wrong, because it's baseball and because it's the Cubs, but the pieces are here for things to change. Now the Cubs just need to put them in the right place to complete the puzzle.