With a young core the Chicago Cubs are set up nicely for the future.
The Chicago Cubs are truly remarkable, aren’t they?
Even if the they don’t win the 2015 World Series and break the hearts of every Back to the Future fan, their season has still been a huge success. Hell, even if the Cubs don’t advance past the St. Louis Cardinals, they deserve a standing ovation.
Theo Epstein has gone from a savior and golden boy in his days back in Boston to a demigod in Chicago.
We’re talking about a man who has the chance to etch something on his resume that no man will ever be able to again. Epstein has a chance to be the man who broke both the Red Sox and the Cubs’ curses. After 86 years without a World Series title, Epstein constructed the first championship team for Boston since the pre-Prohibition days. If the Cubs win it all this year, we’re talking about 193 years of championship drought being washed out by a flood — of champagne.
Yeah, Theo, I’d definitely bring that up in your next interview.
Okay, okay, so it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s an intense idea to toss around. With Joe Maddon at the helm, the Cubs are poised to be the MLB’s most complete team for the next five to seven years — probably longer. It’s scary to peruse their roster and think that free agency will be the downfall of a team like that. But I guess we can all thank the late George Steinbrenner for free agency.
How good can the Cubs really be in foreseeable future? Well, let’s break it down by position, shall we?
As far as pitching goes, Jon Lester is 31-years-old and signed through 2020 with an option for 2021. Lester will transition into being a middle-of-the-rotation guy because he’s already learning to dominate batters without overpowering them. It’s the Greg Maddux way of pitching: know your stuff and hit your spots.
As Lester evolves into the team’s elder statesman on the pitching staff, Jake Arrieta will continue to be the team’s Luke Skywalker a.k.a. the chosen one. Arrieta held opposing batters to a .185 batting average this year and carried a 1.77 ERA.
He’s 29 years old and isn’t scheduled to hit free agency until 2018 because of arbitration. Having Lester behind him — and a 27-year-old Hector Rondon in the bullpen — will allow Arrieta to take some stress off his shoulders and just go out and pitch.
Randy Johnson went 56-61 in his first five seasons with the Montreal Expos and Seattle Mariners. In fact, it wasn’t until he turned 29 (like Arrieta) that Johnson emerged into the dominating presence that he was. That year, 1993, Johnson went 19-8 with the Mariners. Arrieta might not be the 6-foot-10 beast that Johnson was, but their career paths have been eerily similar so far.
As for the aforementioned Rondon, he — like Mariano Rivera — debuted at 25-years-old. While Rivera collected 48 saves in his first three years, Rondon has compiled 59. As we all know, Rivera went on to be the best closer of all-time with the most saves (652) of all-time. If Rondon turns out even half as good as Rivera was, the Cubs will be in good shape.
Let’s not forget that Chicago has some big-time-pitching prospects waiting in the wing. Carl Edwards Jr (24 years old) and Duane Underwood (21 years old) are both ranked in the top-100 MLB prospects, and Pierce Johnson (24 years old) is projected as a No. 2 starter.
Pitching looks to be locked up right now, and that’s the biggest concern for the Cubbies.
Miguel Montero has been good for Chicago this year with 15 home runs and 53 RBIs. But he’s a 31-year-old catcher who played in 113 games this season. Montero is signed through 2018 and will collect $28 million during the next two years. With a 23-year-old Wilson Contreras waiting down in the minors, Montero may not be with Chicago for too long.
Chicago could plug in Kyle Schwarber behind the plate until Contreras is ready, and by that time the National League might finally have a designated hitter. Contreras was moved from third base to behind the plate because of his arm strength and athleticism and could very well be the Cubs’ catcher of the future.
Schwarber can then move from behind the plate to a corner-outfield spot and continue to slug away like he’s been doing. We could be in line to witness some 40-home run seasons from Schwarber. He would be a clean-up hitter for about 25 other teams, but projects as the sixth batter in a stacked Cubs lineup.
Now let’s assume that the Cubs hold onto Starlin Castro, whose name was mentioned in trade talks earlier this year. After being benched by Maddon, Castro has responded with an offensive outburst. He hit .350 after Maddon moved him to second base and gave Addison Russell the starting shortstop spot. And, surprisingly, he and Russell found more chemistry in the field.
Castro has the range and throwing motion that project him as a high quality second baseman, and he’s still only 25 years old and signed through 2020.
Russell had phenomenal defensive year as a rookie. He made only 13 errors and had fielding percentage of .977 in 147 games. As a comparison, Texas Rangers’ high-priced shortstop, Elvis Andrus, made 22 errors in 160 games this year. We can’t forget that Russell made nine of those 13 errors while at second base, and he’s a natural shortstop. His on-base percentage was .303 and his average was .242, but he hit 13 home runs. If Russell can sustain that kind of power, he’ll be the best shortstop in baseball within two years — especially if he gets his average up.
Now Jorge Soler missed a lot of time due to injury, but his role is going to be similar to Pedro Cerrano’s in the movie Major League. He’s going to be a masher, and if he learns to hit the curveball and the “straight ball,” he won’t even need Joboo.
Seriously, though, in his first 455 at-bats of his career, Soler averaged a home run for every 30 at-bats. Imagine having 20 home runs and 90 RBIs from the seventh hitter in your lineup. What’s scary is the fact that he was hurt this year. If Soler can stay healthy for an entire season, then you’re talking about a potential All-Star.
With Soler in right field and Schwarber platooning in left field, center field is temporarily occupied by Dexter Fowler. Now Fowler had a decent year hitting .250 with 17 home runs this year, but he’s a free agent after this season and made $9.5 million this year. The Cubs will have to decide if they’re willing to give Fowler $50 million to $60 million for four to five years, because that’s probably what he’s going to ask for.
If they don’t, the Cubs have 21-year-old Billy McKinney, whom they acquired with Russell from the Oakland Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija trade. McKinney is the No. 9 ranked outfield prospect in baseball, and he could serve the same role as Fowler but at a discounted price.
What’s interesting is if Castro stays, the Cubs could easily plug Javier Baez at third base and move Kris Bryant to center field. Bryant has the athleticism, speed and arm strength to play center while Baez is an extraordinarily gifted fielder who would gobble up everything at the hot corner. If Baez can produce a respectable on-base percentage, it’s likely he slides into the No. 2 hole in the lineup with Castro leading off. Again, that’s dependent upon Chicago keeping Castro.
Bryant would then join Mike Trout as two of the elite center fielders in the game. We all know what Bryant can do. He’ll likely hit 40 homers more than once and could even take a shot at 50 one day. He and Anthony Rizzo will be the heart of the lineup for many years.
Speaking of Rizzo, well, that’s it. He’s the guy. We all gaze at Bryant as though he’s the team’s star, but Rizzo is the heart of that clubhouse. At 25 years old, he is a top-5 first baseman offensively and a top-10 first baseman defensively.
In his first five years, Rizzo has averaged a home run every 21 at-bats, and for only three of those years was he on the major league roster for the entire season.
Rizzo and Bryant are going to eat like they’ve never eaten before. I’m talking about a Thanksgiving dinner after a two-day fast kind of hunger for the Cubs’ bash brothers. Rizzo is signed through 2021 while Bryant will fall victim to arbitration.
The Cubs’ offensive and defensive future is very bright, and the NL Central division will only weaken. The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching is in good hands with Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez, but Yadier Molina and Matt Holiday are already declining. And I wouldn’t count on Kolten Wong and Jason Heyward being the bread-and-butter of a lineup.
The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are already going through a transitionary period, and they likely won’t be contending for at least two to three years as their young talent grows.
That leaves the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gerrit Cole is going to contend for the Cy Young Award every year. That’s almost a sure bet. Pittsburgh also has 22-year-old Tyler Glasnow ready and waiting to be Cole’s running mate atop the rotation. And with Andrew McCutchen leading a young, talented outfield that includes Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, the Pirates will be the Cubs’ main competition for the division.
Having said that, Chicago’s future roster is better than every other roster in the MLB. It’s quite possible the Cubs win more than one World Series between now and 2020. They have the talent, youth, leadership and financial flexibility to do it.
When considering what the Cubs could realistically accomplish in the next five years, the answer is simple: everything.