Cubs

Cubs believe their pipeline will keep producing big-time talent

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Cubs believe their pipeline will keep producing big-time talent

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.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“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.”

[MORE: Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite]

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.

[RELATED: Cubs, Jake Arrieta agree to $10.7 million deal, avoid arbitration]

“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.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.