This is Theo Epstein’s fifth year running baseball operations at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs still haven’t really given up a significant long-term asset while constructing a playoff contender.
Except for trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and adding versatile swingman Adam Warren to a deep pitching staff. That deal also cleared a path for Ben Zobrist, a professional hitter, super-utility guy and World Series champion, all part of a $276 million spending spree.
So the Cubs can take a step back in spring training and see how Joe Maddon manages all the egos and personalities, assess what they will need as the season unfolds and respond to roster emergencies this summer.
“We haven’t really touched our base of young players, outside of Starlin Castro,” Epstein said. “That does allow us – whether it’s (at) the trade deadline or next offseason – to be a threat to make significant trades that can help the ballclub going forward.”
The smashing success of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber completely distorted our view of what a normal path to the big leagues should look like. Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, became an All-Star third baseman last season and the National League’s Rookie of the Year. Schwarber, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, debuted last year and blasted 16 homers in 69 games, plus five more in the playoffs.
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“It’s a challenge every year,” farm director Jaron Madison said. "You’re not always going to have the Schwarbers and the Bryants and the (Addison) Russells (all) coming up every year. So you’re constantly looking for guys who can step in behind them and take their place.”
Who’s next? Here’s a look at the organization’s 10 best prospects ranked by Baseball America:
1. Gleyber Torres: Still only 19 years old, the Venezuelan shortstop finished last season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach.
2. Willson Contreras: The potential catcher of the future won a Southern League batting title with Double-A Tennessee last year.
3. Ian Happ: The Cubs hope the ninth overall pick in last year’s draft can become a reliable second baseman. If not, they believe in the switch-hitting profile at the University of Cincinnati. Jason McLeod – the vice president overseeing scouting and player development – used a comparison from his time with the Boston Red Sox: Jed Lowrie with a little more power.
4. Duane Underwood: Probably the most promising pitching prospect in a farm system that doesn’t have many projectable frontline starters, though right elbow inflammation limited him to less than 80 innings last season.
5. Dylan Cease: There are only 24 innings on the right-hander’s professional resume, but the Cubs used money saved from Schwarber’s below-slot deal to take a chance on a Tommy John case with 100-mph velocity.
“The upside is tremendous,” McLeod said. “But where he is right now is very, very far away. He’s one of the guys we’re really excited to see coming into 2016.”
6. Albert Almora: The first player drafted here by the Epstein administration (sixth overall in 2012) is projected to begin this season as Triple-A Iowa’s centerfielder.
7. Billy McKinney: The Oakland A’s packaged their 2013 first-round pick with Russell in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade and the outfielder has put up a .798 OPS during his minor-league career.
8. Oscar De La Cruz: With mid-90s velocity and a 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame, the Cubs hope this right-hander can develop into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. But he is still years away, approaching his 21st birthday and with no experience above the A-ball level.
9. Eloy Jimenez: Coming out of the same international class as Torres, the Cubs gave the outfielder a $2.8 million signing bonus in the summer of 2013.
10. Jeimer Candelario: The Arizona Fall League Fall Star appears to be blocked as long as Bryant is playing third base on the North Side.
The Cubs landed six players on MLB.com’s rankings of the 100 best prospects in the game: Torres (No. 28); Contreras (No. 50); Happ (No. 76); Underwood (No. 77); Almora (No. 86); and McKinney (No. 88).
Baseball Prospectus included six Cubs prospects on its Top 101 for 2016: Torres (No. 41); Contreras (No. 57); Happ (No. 67); McKinney (No. 74); Almora (No. 83); and Eddy Julio Martinez (No. 97).
The Cubs finalized a $3 million deal with Martinez during the middle of their October playoff run. In a dispute involving the Cuban outfielder’s family and handlers and agency (Beverly Hills Sports Council), Major League Baseball sided with the Cubs after the San Francisco Giants believed they had agreed to a $2.5 million signing bonus for Martinez.
“We always love to bring in impact-type talent,” McLeod said. “He’s a kid with a really strong body (who almost) looks like an NFL defensive back. (He’s got) plus speed, plus power pull side. He can really throw and it’s very accurate. Right now, we’re not sure if it’s going to be center field.
“We haven’t spent a lot of time with him and haven’t seen him too much. We’re actually really excited to see him (up close). He’s one of those multi-tool players and we’ll get a much better feel for how he handles an actual at-bat.
“We know he competes in his at-bats, but we just simply don’t have enough visual of him yet. We’re not really certain about how much contact there will be or how much the power will play.”
Remember, prospect rankings can on some level reflect how much time and energy a front office puts into courting the media, and which players an organization wants to spotlight, perhaps talking them up for a potential trade sometime in the future. The Cubs should be in position to put together a blockbuster deal when they need it.
“You never make it a goal to not move any prospects,” Epstein said. “That’s one of the reasons you build up a farm system – the ability to use some of those prospects to make trades. It just so happens (that) we traded one player off our big-league team – a really good player who is just 26 and has a tremendous future – and we spent a lot of money. But I think we’ve done so in a way that complements the core that we have – and it’s preserved our flexibility.”