The default outlook for the Cubs’ future is generally “bleak.” After all, this is a team that has not won a world series in 105 years, has not played in one since 1945, and, by June of next year, will join the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves as the only teams to lose over 10,000 games in their history. Yet despite bottoming out with 101 losses last season and on pace to lose over 90 this year, the Cubs, under the direction of President Theo Epstein, and thanks to one of the top farm systems in baseball, for once appear to be headed in the right direction. In fact, by 2017, this club could be back in contention, due to a lineup that projects to be one of the most talented and athletic in baseball.
Led by recent draftee Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ outfield will be the highlight of their 2017 lineup. After setting an NCAA composite bat record with 31 home runs, and subsequently being drafted second overall in the 2013 June draft, Bryant wasted no time in adjusting to professional ball. With quick wrists and even quicker bat speed, Bryant utilized his raw power by launching nine home runs with a .336 batting average and 1.088 OPS in his first 128 minor league at bats. Although his batting average may not be able to match his power, Bryant could rise quickly through the minors and be hitting 30+ home runs in the majors by 2015. He is currently playing third base in A+ ball, but his slow reaction time will likely force a move to right field, where he could be an solid, if unspectacular defender.
Moving on to the left from right field, 2012 first round pick, Albert Almora profiles as a future major league center fielder. Almora, 19, was ranked by Keith Law as the 25th overall prospect due to the fleet footed outfielder’s plus range in center and line drive swing, which has led to a .329 average in A ball. The only knock on the young hitter is his plate discipline, as while he can compensate for a lack of power with plus speed and subsequent extra bases on balls in the gap, his poor walk rate will likely be exposed in the upper levels and at the show. Filling out the outfield is Cuban prospect Jorge Soler. Signed out of Haiti for a lengthy nine year, 30 million dollar contract, Soler has impressed in his two minor league seasons. He posted an .832 OPS between rookie and low a ball in 2012 and, despite injury, hit eight home runs and put up a .467 slugging percentage in high A this year. If he can stay healthy, the powerful Soler could join fellow Cuban outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Yaseil Puig in dominating the next decade of baseball.
Most of the Chicago farm system’s infield may not burst with the same overflow of athleticism as the outfield does, but that may go unnoticed if shortstop Javier Baez continues to rake like a young Nomar Garciappara. Just 20 years old, Baez has turned the southern league into his own personal punching bag. His 37 home runs this year are tie for second with George Springer for the most home runs hit by a single player in the minors in 2013. Baez’s power should translate into the majors, and he has an outside shot at becoming a perennial 40+ home run hitter, but his .282 batting average may not. The young Puerto Rican has struck out 147 times this year while drawing only 40 walks, and only in very rare cases can players who maintain such stark K:BB ratios hit for average or get on base consistently in the majors. Although, he may be able to remain as a below average defender at short at the big league level, I’m predicting that Cubs’ management moves him over to second because of the presence of fellow infielder Arismendy Alcantra.
Long considered a garbled collection of tools who could never put it all together, Alcantra appears to finally be breaking out in his age 21 season. The young shortstop has launched 15 home runs with good on base ability – 62 walks and a .352 OBP – at the AA level this year, whilst playing against generally older competition. More exciting, however, is Alcantra’s glove. The fleet footed prospect has plenty of range at short and an exceptionally strong arm, but, as MLB.com’s Jon Mayo points out, “(he) makes too many mental errors.” If Alcantra can cut down on his internal mind games, as well as his strikeouts on the other side of the ball, he has a chance at a gold glove, and perhaps (although unlikely) even a silver slugger.
Rounding out the corners are two very similar players at very different stages of their prospect careers: Mike Olt and Anthony Rizzo. Recently acquired by the Cubs in the summer blockbuster that sent Matt Garza to Texas, third baseman Mike Olt, 25, has had his fair of troubles this year. Dealing with vision problems all year, the former top-25 prospect has hit an abysmal .201 with only 15 home runs for the for the Rangers and Cubs’ AAA affiliates. Although his eyesight was pruportedlty corrected in the spring, Olt has actually been worse since coming over to the Cubs in July, hitting .168 with only three home runs and an OPS under .600. If the former power hitter can re-find his swing, Olt could provide plus defense and a 25-30 home run power in the majors, albeit with a batting average that can’t scrape .280. If he can’t, though, – and it’s looking increasingly likely that he won’t – he may not even be an everyday player.
Rizzo, currently playing well as the Cubs major league first baseman, is the only position player I’m projecting for their 2017 line up. His plus power, smooth swing and decent glove are the works of the future all star. Theo Epstein agrees too, as evidenced by the seven year deal he doled out to Rizzo this past spring. He hasn’t been all that the Cubs desired this year, hitting only .230 despite boasting 21 home runs, but his future still stands as a 25-30 home run and .280-.290 average batter.
As far as catchers ago, the Cubs system is fairly sparse. They lack any legitimate prospect or controlled major leaguer at the position, making Neftali Rosario the only possible choice for this slot. Just 19, Rosario, a graduate of the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy, was picked up in the 6th round of the 2011 MLB draft. Since them, injuries have relegated him to just 48 games, leaving the young catcher as a collection of unpolished tools. Still, if he ever makes it, he has a loose swing and potentially average defense that will play well in the future.