Results tagged ‘ Kris Bryant ’
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Whether it was from his home run tally or his slugging percentage, Kris Bryant’s ability to mash was easy to identify in 2014. MLB.com columnist Jim Callis today unveiled his best tools in the minors, and credited Bryant with the best power—which was probably an easy decision after Bryant put up one of the finest seasons in recent minor league history.
Best power: Bryant, 3B, Cubs
Fellow Las Vegas native [Rangers prospect Joey] Gallo has more raw power than any prospect, but usable power is what matters most, and Bryant beats him in that regard. With his size, strength, bat speed and loft, Bryant doesn’t have to swing for the fences. His opposite-field power is off the charts, and he has the patience to wait out pitchers until he gets an offering he can drive. Bryant topped the Minors in virtually every power category in 2014 — homers, extra-base hits (78), total bases (325) and slugging (.661) — and he also ranked eighth with 86 walks.
Last week, Bryant rated as MLB.com’s No. 2 prospect, trailing only Byron Buxton of the Twins organization. The No. 2 pick of the 2013 draft has hit 52 home runs in 174 pro games and owns a career line of .327/.428/.666 (AVG/OBP/SLG). Many expect Bryant to be on the major league club at some point in early 2015.
Fellow Cubs prospect Jorge Soler was also in the running for best power.
Keith Law ranked Addison Russell the No. 4 prospect in baseball. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
A day after ESPN Insider Keith Law named the Cubs the top farm system in baseball, the analyst handed the organization another compliment Thursday, naming four Cubs to his top 100 prospects., including two in the top five.
As has become the consensus for the last six months, Law anointed third baseman Kris Bryant his No. 1 prospect in the game. Joining him on the list were Addison Russell (No. 4), Jorge Soler (No. 14) and Kyle Schwarber (No. 90).
After hitting .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with a minors-best 43 homers between Double- and Triple-A in 2014, Bryant received multiple minor league player of the year awards. Even though he was selected just 18 months ago as the second-overall pick of the 2013 draft, the slugger has quickly ascended the minor league ranks, and is primed to make his major league debut this year. Law ranked Bryant his No. 15 prospect prior to 2014. Here is what he thinks about the third baseman’s future:
Bryant’s swing is very balanced, with a wide setup and good use of his lower half to generate power. While there were concerns when he was an amateur that his bat speed might not catch up to major league velocity, he really has had no problem with better stuff in the pros, probably because his eye is so good and his swing is very short from load to contact. He’s a good enough athlete to be able to handle third base, although he’d probably be better defensively in right field with his plus arm and fewer quick-reaction plays to challenge him. Wherever he ends up, he has 30-homer, .400 OBP potential, and should challenge for MVP awards once he has a few years in the majors.
Though Russell’s name may be a little newer to Cubs fans, he has been hovering around the top ranks of prospect lists for a while now. Law ranked the muscular Russell No. 3 on this list last year when he was a member of the Athletics organization. A July trade brought the highly touted prospect into the Cubs system, and while a hamstring tear shortened his 2014, the shortstop still manged to hit .295 with a .350 on-base percentage and demonstrated a little more power to his game.
Russell is a true shortstop with one of the best pure hit tools in the minors, both of which are a function of his outstanding hands, which are strong enough to produce hard contact yet smooth enough that he makes difficult plays look easy at short, whether it’s a tough ground ball or a quick transfer on a 4-6-3 double-play turn. His swing did get a little longer in 2014, producing more power but also more ground ball contact, as he would get on top of balls he didn’t square up. Russell always will face questions about his position because he’s not a runner, but his footwork is more than adequate, and he has the hands and arm to be above-average there. Shortstops with the potential to hit .300-plus with double-digit homers are rare commodities — Troy Tulowitzki was the only major leaguer to do it in 2014 — which makes Russell’s skill set extremely valuable.
Cubs fans got a glimpse of Soler at the major league level in 2014, as the power-hitting outfielder spent 24 games on the big league stage. He demonstrated his exciting tools early on, slugging five home runs, driving in 20 and posting a .292/.330/.573 line. Many expect Soler to start the season as the Cubs’ Opening Day right fielder.
Soler has gotten much stronger since he first signed a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs in 2012, retaining much of his athleticism but losing some running speed as he bulked up. He always had enormous power thanks to very rapid hand acceleration and a beautiful, rotational swing with long extension through contact. He has a right fielder’s arm and the ability to be an average or better defender there, but for now his routes are a bit suspect and he’ll need more work out there to avoid being the new Domonic Brown. Soler wasn’t patient in the majors, but he had been so in the minors, and I expect that skill to return as he gains experience in the majors and stops trying to recreate what he did in those first five games. He projects as a 25-30 homer guy who hits .270-280 with a solid OBP and, we hope, average defense, which would make him maybe the Cubs’ third- or fourth-best hitter in their suddenly loaded lineup.
Though Law doesn’t see Schwarber as an everyday catcher, the Cubs appear a lot more confident, having worked with the 2014 first-round pick extensively behind the plate this offseason. Regardless, the big sell on the catcher/outfielder is his bat, which helped Schwarber power through Short-Season Boise and Single-A Kane County before finishing in High-A in 2014. He hit .344/.428/.634 with 18 homers and 18 doubles in his first professional year.
He has a chance to end up with a plus hit tool and plus power, showing much better plate discipline this summer than he did as an amateur, although his front side can get soft and he can be vulnerable to soft stuff away because his typical swing is so hard. If he hits .280 or so with a strong OBP and 25-30 homers, he’ll be a good everyday player even if he ends up as a bad left fielder, and the Cubs certainly believe he has a chance to exceed even those marks.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The 2015 Prospect Watch continued on MLB.com Tuesday with perhaps the least surprising unveiling of the week. Adding to his already-packed trophy case, Cubs farmhand Kris Bryant was named the top third baseman in the minors. The 23-year-old had a huge season in 2014 and is likely primed to make his major league debut in 2015. Here’s some of what MLB.com had to say:
[Bryant] won every Minor League player of the year award imaginable in 2014, when he led the Minors in home runs (43), extra-base hits (78), total bases (325), slugging (.661) and OPS (1.098) while reaching Triple-A in his first full pro season.
Bryant has everything needed to lead the Majors in homers at some point: size, strength, bat speed and loft in his swing, plus the willingness to work counts to find a pitch he can punish. He doesn’t sell out for power, instead letting it come naturally, and he can drive the ball out of the park to the opposite field as well as anyone. Though Bryant will pile up some strikeouts, he makes enough hard contact to hit for a solid average and draws enough walks to post a robust on-base percentage.
Chicago’s stockpile of young infielders eventually could push him to the outfield, where he played some in college at San Diego. Scouts love his makeup almost as much as his power and think he’ll be a star.
Though his ultimate defensive location is still in question, it’s the slugger’s bat that will undoubtedly get him to the majors. In 138 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa last year, he hit .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 34 doubles and showed some speed on the basepaths with 15 stolen bases.
Jorge Soler is one of the Cubs top prospects by any measure. (Photo by Stephen Green)
When it comes to prospect rankings, there are several offensive weapons in the Cubs system that find themselves atop almost every list. Baseball America unveiled its 2015 Cubs Top 10 Prospects Monday, and sure enough, the familiar bats make up the top half.
Here are Baseball America‘s best Cubs prospects and some of the more interesting comments:
1. Kris Bryant, 3B
The Cubs have a surplus of athletic infielders who can hit, and it’s conceivable either big league shortstops Baez and Starlin Castro or Double-A shortstop Addison Russell could wind up at third base, with Bryant shifting to the outfield. Bryant also could stay at third, where Luis Valbuena is keeping the hot corner warm in Chicago. Barring a poor start back Triple-A Iowa, Bryant should arrive on the North Side as soon as the Cubs deem it financially feasible. Bryant has the talent, confidence and makeup to be one of the game’s biggest stars. All he’s waiting for is the playing time.
2. Addison Russell, SS
Russell combines above-average athleticism with extremely quick hands and impressive strength to produce both plus hitting ability and power. He’s nearly impossible to beat with a fastball when he’s looking for it and stays back on offspeed stuff, trusting his fast hands and making plenty of high-impact contact. Defensively, Russell has the range and improved footwork to stay at shortstop.
3. Jorge Soler, OF
Kris Bryant hits more homers, but Soler’s create more buzz. His vicious bat speed, top-of-the-scale raw power and impressive feel for hitting make him a terror to pitchers. When locked in, he generates scorching line drives to all fields; some just don’t stop going until they’re over the fence. He’s coachable, takes quality at-bats and isn’t fazed by hitting with two strikes.
4. Kyle Schwarber, C/OF
Schwarber has thick, strong legs and swings from the ground up, incorporating his powerful lower half to deliver plus power with a short, furious stroke. He keeps his hands back and has the strength to hit the ball out to any part of the park. He has a .300-hitting, 30-homer ceiling. A college catcher, Schwarber has leadership skills and solid-average arm strength, but his receiving was rudimentary as an amateur, frequently dropping to one knee to handle breaking balls. He has the tools to be a capable left fielder, having shown instincts for the position.
5. C.J. Edwards, RHP
At his best, Edwards delivers three above-average to plus pitches, with excellent body control leading to an easy, rhythmic delivery and strike-throwing ability. He’s very tough for hitters to square up due to late cutting action on his fastball, which generally sat 90-93 mph in August and in his Arizona Fall League stint. The late life on the pitch has allowed him to allow just two home runs in 237 career pro innings.
6. Billy McKinney, OF
The Cubs were stunned they were able to pry both Addison Russell and McKinney, the Athletics’ top two prospects, away in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade. Signed in 2013 for $1.8 million, McKinney jumped to high Class A for his first full season and hit better in the high Class A Florida State League after the trade than in the offense-first California League.
7. Albert Almora, OF
Almora has first-round tools, starting with a line-drive bat with present strength, fine hand-eye coordination, bat speed to catch up to good fastballs and average raw power. He was pitched backwards much of the season and struggled to adjust. He still employs a big leg kick and can get streaky, as evidenced by a .377/.395/.649 finishing kick with high Class A Daytona before his promotion. A bit more patience would go a long way to making him a big league regular considering Almora’s defense, which remains advanced.
8. Gleyber Torres, SS
A $1.7 million signee, Torres finished his U.S. pro debut by earning a promotion to short-season Boise before his 18th birthday. His maturity showed as he maintained his focus despite turmoil in his native Venezuela that prompted his family to come to the U.S.
9. Pierce Johnson, RHP
If Johnson puts it all together, he profiles as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter with two plus pitches and potentially above-average control. Chicago’s 2014 ace, Jake Arrieta, had a similar (albeit more durable) career path, and Johnson’s stuff is worth the wait. He could pitch his way to Triple-A Iowa with a strong, healthy spring training.
10. Duane Underwood, RHP
No one took as big of a step forward for the organization in 2014 as Underwood, who has the system’s most electric stuff. If he combines better control with more consistent displays of the best of his repertoire, he could move quickly. He’ll start 2015 with Chicago’s new high Class A Myrtle Beach affiliate.
Addison Russell is considered one of the best prospects in the game. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
Even with marquee players like Javier Baez and Jorge Soler graduating to the majors last season, the Cubs are still the organization to beat when it comes to high-end prospects. According to MLB.com’s Bernie Pleskoff, the North Siders have two of the top 10 prospects in baseball in Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. Bryant, who came in as Pleskoff’s top farmhand, has already received a plethora of awards. Here’s what Pleskoff had to say about the infielders:
1. Kris Bryant (Cubs) 6-foot-5, 215 pounds — Third Baseman — R
Highlight reel power. Coming off 2014 season of .325/43/110 (AVG/HR/RBI) at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. High strikeout totals. Uses entire field. Almost ready.
The 2014 USA Today Minor League Player of the Year, Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year and recipient of MLB.com’s MiLBY award for the best player in the minors last season, Bryant had a year for the ages. Along with the above numbers, the Cubs’ 2014 Minor League Player of the Year reached base at a .438 clip and slugged .661 with 34 doubles, all while stealing 15 bases. Though it remains to be seen where he’ll play regularly at the next level, he continued to improve his defense at the hot corner. Cubs fans will likely see Bryant in the majors within the first few months of the season. His effort is especially impressive given that 2014 was his first full season of professional baseball after being picked second overall in the 2013 draft.
4. Addison Russell (Cubs) 6-0, 195 pounds — Shortstop — R
Very talented player highlighted by solid hit tool. Makes solid, consistent contact and has developing power. Uses entire field. Steady defense and useable speed.
In a lengthy list of talented Cubs middle infielders, Russell is the one many believe to be the best defender of the bunch. In 62 games last season, the 20-year-old committed just four errors. But the Athletics’ 2012 first-round pick also has the ability to hit, finishing .295/.350/.508 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 13 homers after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring problem. Russell was the key return in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel deal to Oakland in early July and will likely spend the majority of 2014 at Triple-A Iowa.
Kris Bryant has spent a lot of time working on his defense at third base. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Defense is often a forgotten element of baseball, yet many clubs find it just as important as a player’s offensive output. As an organization, the Cubs are working hard to ensure prospects become well-rounded players. The following story can be found in the December issue of Vine Line.
In an empty ballpark in Des Moines, Iowa, top prospect Kris Bryant walked over to the third-base bag, crouched down and waited for a coach to send another ground ball his way. Several hundred miles to the south, 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber put on his catching gear and blocked pitches in the dirt hours before his game that night in Daytona.
Both Schwarber and Bryant will likely be big leaguers in the near future—their ability to hit the ball all but guarantees it—but to become well-rounded players, and to help the Cubs win tight games in a pennant race, they know they must become just as proficient on defense.
“Improving your defense is about drills and repetition and having the aptitude and instincts,” said Cubs Director of Player Development Jaron Madison. “But it’s also about buying into doing the extra work needed to get better.”
Though heady offensive numbers still generate headlines and move young players up the ladder, minor league prospects must also focus on their glove work to succeed. This includes everything from making better reads on the ball to moving away from their “natural” positions.
The Cubs have specialized coordinators who lay out plans for the minor league coaching staffs. Anthony Iapoce and Tom Beyers handle the outfielders in the system, Jose Flores covers the infielders, and Tim Cossins oversees the catchers.
The process begins with Madison and his staff evaluating what each player can do naturally on the field. That goes beyond just looking at stats like errors and fielding percentage.
“Footwork for infielders and catchers is huge,” Madison said. “Athleticism and quickness off the ball are things you bear down on. You can help players become more mechanically sound with their footwork, but if a guy is slow off the ball, you know you can’t keep him at short or second base long term.”
Outfielders, meanwhile, need more than just speed and athleticism to chase down fly balls. They also must develop a sixth sense for reading the ball as soon as it’s hit so they can anticipate where they need to be, all while taking the shortest route possible.
“Plus, you need to read the spin on the ball,” Madison said. “It’s different on a ball hit to right field than on a ball hit to left. That’s why you can stick your best infielder out there, and he’ll still have a hard time just catching a ball because of how the spin makes it move.”
Many players ultimately can’t cut it at the positions they came up playing. Madison said he likes to give them as much time as possible to prove they can play their natural spot, but often a change must be made.
Middle infielders with good arms, soft hands and baseball smarts, but not enough range, tend to move behind the plate, where their skills and intangibles are a big asset. Catchers who struggle with game calling often get moved to the outfield or first base. Many scouts in the Cubs organization figured that’s what would happen with Schwarber.
“On draft day, the room was split 60/40, with the majority thinking he wouldn’t be able to stay behind the plate,” Madison said.“But Tim Cossins spent 10 days with him working on drills and talking about the nuances of catching, and he really made huge improvements right away.”
Schwarber, who has said he wants to remain at catcher if possible, has bought into the importance of defense. And if the Royals and Giants proved anything this year, it’s that defense still wins championships.
Anthony Rizzo is one of the most valuable assets in baseball. (Photo by Stephen Green)
For the third year in a row, ESPN-based website grantland.com created its annual MLB Trade Value top 50. The full piece by Jonah Keri is a fun read and dives into further detail as to how the rankings were compiled using 2014 statistics, contract status, age, health and position scarcity.
The story is not assuming all the players listed are going to be traded, but simply aims to determine which players are more valuable than others. Here’s Keri’s explanation of the ideal candidate:
“The perfect Trade Value player is an established star who’s still young enough to carry growth potential, has no significant injury history, and has an affordable contract that brings numerous years of team control. Ultimately, this is a thought experiment: If every team made every player available via trade, which guys would fetch the greatest return?”
A trio of young Cubs found their way onto the list, with Anthony Rizzo checking in at No. 7, Kris Bryant at No. 18 and Jorge Soler at No. 44.
The White Sox get to employ [first baseman Jose] Abreu — the reigning rookie of the year and MVP candidate — for the next five years for just $51 million. The Cubs have an even better deal with Rizzo, whom they’ve got for five years at $35 million, plus a pair of $14.5 million club options in 2020 and 2021 that look supremely reasonable for a 25-year-old slugger who just batted .286/.386/.527 (the NL’s third-best park-adjusted line) while flashing a solid glove. Right now, there’s nothing to dislike about either player.
Bryant, however, is fresh Trade Value fodder. Admittedly, this is an aggressive ranking for a player who’s never seen a pitch in the big leagues, but several factors work in his favor. For one thing, Bryant isn’t a pitcher, so his risk of major injury or sudden skill erosion is comparatively low. For another, he’s a damn beast. No amount of park adjusting or number manipulating can douse the .325/.438/.661 beating he laid on Double-A and Triple-A pitchers last season, when he launched 43 homers in 138 games. He’s an all-world talent, he doesn’t turn 23 until January, and he’s one of the biggest reasons to start fearing the Cubs.
Soler was never rated as highly as [Pirates outfielder Gregory] Polanco (let alone [Twins outfielder Byron] Buxton), even getting overshadowed by flashy prospects Bryant, [Javier] Baez, and [Addison] Russell within the Cubs system. But he made it to the Show at age 22 last summer and punished the ball, belting five homers, eight doubles, and a triple in just 89 at-bats, with three of those five long balls traveling 420 feet or more. He doesn’t quite have the well-rounded tool set that Polanco and especially Buxton do, but at a time when power is at a premium throughout the majors, the Cubs have a player with major pop who’s ready to be their Opening Day right fielder four months from now — and take aim at Waveland Avenue for years to come. In 2012, the Cubs signed Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract, with a clause that would allow him to opt out of the deal and into arbitration when he became eligible. If he continues to hit at anywhere near the level he did in his first brush with the bigs, that’ll surely happen after the 2017 season. In either case, the Cubs control his rights through 2020.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Scouting publication Baseball Prospectus unveiled its list of the top 10 Cubs prospects on Friday. For Cubs fans and prospect junkies, it’s like Christmas day.
Over the last few seasons, the organization has stockpiled a deep farm system many view as the best in baseball. Unlike some other major league clubs, the list of high-upside Cubs farmhands extends well beyond a top 10—even with Javier Baez and Kyle Hendricks graduating to the big leagues. Here is how Baseball Prospectus viewed the top players in the organization:
1. SS Addison Russell
2. 3B Kris Bryant
3. OF Jorge Soler
4. OF Albert Almora
5. C Kyle Schwarber
6. OF Billy McKinney
7. RHP Pierce Johnson
8. SS Gleyber Torres
9. 1B Dan Vogelbach
10. LHP Carson Sands
Strengths: Impact potential with the stick; strong hands and barrel control; good bat speed; improved approach; should grow into high-contact MLB bat that will hit for average and power; solid actions at short; good hands with left-side arm; solid run paired with baserunning acumen; clocks plus times out of the box and should settle in as average run at maturity.
Weaknesses: Still working to slow down game in the field; set-up and footwork can get loose, particularly at the margins, leading to drift in throws; can slip into overly aggressive approach at plate.
The Year Ahead: Russell is close to major-league ready and possesses the skill set, makeup, and natural ability to make an immediate impact as soon as he is called upon. The profile is an elite blend of offensive upside, defensive stability at a high-worth position, athleticism, and strength; the aggregate of which could produce a perennial all-star capable of impacting the game in all facets. Not only might this be the best collection of tools, upside, and probability from a talented crop of minor-league shortstops, but there’s a case for top prospect in the game. He should debut in Chicago in 2015 and it won’t be long before Russell surpasses the ‘L’ stop as the best known Addison in Wrigleyville.
Strengths: Elite raw power; big leverage and big-boy present strength; ability to produce regular hard contact; good plate coverage allowing for wide kill zone on mistake pitches; borderline double-plus arm; solid athleticism and coordination for a big man; strong grades for makeup.
Weaknesses: Long levers produce holes in swing that could be attacked by major-league arms; limited swing plane/pitch plane overlap narrows contact margin; some issues with velocity on inner half; capable at third base but may lack lower-half agility to excel; run could settle a tick below average at maturity.
The Year Ahead: Through his minor-league career, which totals just a shade over a full major-league season’s worth of plate appearances, Bryant has posted pornographic numbers at the plate, including a slash line of .327/.428/.666 while averaging nearly a home run every three games. He’s ready to bring his act to The Show, where he should eventually settle in as a fixture in the middle of the Cubs lineup. This season could be choppy at times due to the potential for major-league arms to exploit shortcomings in a swing. But the approach, work ethic, and IQ should aid Bryant in making his adjustments, and the raw power will be a legit threat from day one. Depending on the organization’s needs, Bryant could remain at third or transition out to right field where his arm and athleticism could make him a solid defender. Either way, he will join Russell as the foundation of a talented, young Cubs lineup for years to come, with 2015 likely to serve as the coming out party.
Strengths: Advanced bat; plus-to-better raw power that plays in game thanks to plate coverage and strike-zone awareness; solid bat speed and good bat-to-ball skills should help hit tool play average or better; strong leader and big makeup; lauded for work ethic; positive reviews from instructs on progress behind the plate.
Strengths: Loud stuff led by lively, low-90s fastball and sharp, low-80s hammer; can dial up to mid-90s with regularity; capable of cutting fastball for different look, counterbalance to two-seamer; some deception; traditional starter’s build; good present strength; will flash above-average change piece with fade mirroring fastball action; showed improvement in consistency of pitch execution and command over final two months.
Strengths: Balanced repertoire featuring three above-average offerings and above-average command; reports of improved consistency in mechanics and arm action through instructs; comfortable pitching to all four quadrants; some room to bump velo band to firm plus in comfort zone; already showing feel for sequencing; sturdy build; solid presence and even demeanor.
A notable absence from the list was right-hander C.J. Edwards, ranked No. 5 a year ago. Despite missing three months to a shoulder strain, Edwards enjoyed a solid second half that included a nice run in the Arizona Fall League. The publication seems to be skeptical of his long-term health, but still had positive things to say about the hard thrower.
Upon returning to action in late July, Edwards showcased impressive swing-and-miss stuff over six starts, with his fastball and curve each grading out as plus offerings and his change showing promise to boot. Were there more certainty that Edwards could maintain the quality of his stuff over the course of a full season at the upper levels, he would fit comfortably as one of the top-ten prospects in the system.
Soler reached the majors in 2014, and the publication believes Russell and Bryant could both join him at Wrigley Field in the upcoming season. They expect Almora, Schwarber, Johnson and Vogelbach to see action in the majors sometime in 2016.
Javier Baez got his first taste of major league action this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
When Theo Epstein sat in front of the assembled media last October and announced, “The story [around the league] is that the Cubs are coming fast, and the Cubs are coming strong,” many had trouble stifling laughter. How could Epstein suggest a team fresh off its third-consecutive 90-loss season was on the rise—especially during a press conference announcing the firing of the club’s manager, Dale Sveum?
It seemed preposterous at the time, but Epstein was hardly joking. He knew what he and his staff had built over the previous two seasons, and he believed it wouldn’t be long before that lofty statement was accepted as fact—even by those not paying close attention to what’s been happening in the Cubs system.
Sure enough, while the 2014 season didn’t produce a dramatic increase in wins, the media and fans finally got a chance to see what the Cubs have been building, as the first wave of prospects finally funneled into Wrigley Field.
It all began with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, two somewhat under-the-radar prospects, but intriguing players nonetheless. Next, one of the best power hitters in the minors, Javier Baez, arrived in the big leagues—along with the corresponding media maelstrom. Finally, the Cubs called up Cuban slugger Jorge Soler toward the end of August.
Not every one of these young players immediately took the National League by storm. There have been ups and downs. But each has provided a spark and shown the potential to be a big contributor to the next Cubs playoff run—which is exactly how the front office drew it up.
“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s definitely a lot of energy,” Hendricks said. “I’m just glad a lot of us have been able to perform well. I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minor leagues. The guys got us ready for this level.”
Epstein understands that this process, which has included many losses, has been tough for both the players and the fans. That’s why finally being able to display the fruits of the front office’s labor has been so rewarding.
“These are players who have been part of our plan, part of our vision, for a while now,” Epstein said. “Now that they’re up here, people can get excited about it. It creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.”
So what exactly is the Cubs’ vision, and what has the organization been doing to realize it?
When Epstein was first introduced as president of baseball operations in late October 2011, he laid out his plan for how he wanted to rebuild an organization that had gone from being the toast of the National League to 91 losses in just three years.
“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game—one that makes an annual impact in the draft and internationally,” Epstein said at the time. “As far as player development goes, we will define and implement a Cubs Way of playing the game, and we won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system trained in that Cubs Way making an impact out here at Wrigley Field.”
Epstein didn’t waste much time in following through with those promises. A week after his introduction, he sat in front of the media yet again, this time introducing Jed Hoyer as his new executive vice president and general manager and Jason McLeod, a man Epstein referred to as the “rarest commodity in the industry—an impact evaluator of baseball talent,” as his senior vice president of scouting and player development.
The three men spent the next year evaluating what they were working with from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. After a year, they made a few tweaks to the scouting department, and completely revamped the player development side. Brandon Hyde was brought in as the farm director, but has since moved on to become manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, while Jaron Madison has transitioned from amateur scouting director to Hyde’s old position.
Under Hyde, the Cubs hired four new minor league coordinators and had one of their better developmental seasons throughout the system in 2013.
Of course, it certainly helped that so much talent had been added to the mix—and continues to be added to this day—through astute trades, the amateur draft and international signings.
“In order to have success in this game, the foundation has to be through scouting and player development,” Hoyer said when he was introduced as general manager. “There’s no shortcut. There’s no magic bullet. All three of us believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly.”
Hoyer acknowledged the ultimate goal is to win a championship, so the baseball operations department first had to build a team that went into Spring Training every season with a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Less than three years later, it appears the Cubs are on the verge of achieving that goal.
And it’s not just the players who have reached the majors this year that have so many people both inside and outside the game optimistic about the Cubs’ immediate future. While the influx of top-notch talent is undeniable, it’s quite likely the best is yet to come.
Last year’s top draft pick, Kris Bryant, dominated every level of the minor leagues, making it all the way to Triple-A Iowa in his first full professional season. His otherworldly stat line of .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 43 home runs and 110 RBI has pushed the third baseman to the top of the national prospect rankings. Shortly after the season, he was named both USA Today’s and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Addison Russell, a consensus top 10 prospect in the game, was acquired in early July via trade and has continued to excel, hitting for both power and average while playing strong defense at shortstop.
Kyle Schwarber was the fourth pick in June’s amateur draft and has already shot up two levels in the Cubs system. So far, he has displayed an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate and appears to be on the fast track to the majors.
And that’s not all. The regime’s first draft pick from 2012, Albert Almora, made it to Double-A at the tender age of 20, and the international scouts flexed their muscles in 2013, as the Cubs spent more money than any other organization. Thanks to those efforts, they added big-time prospects like Jen-Ho Tseng, Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres and Jefferson Mejia, all of whom are proving advanced for their age and are ranked as top 20 organizational prospects by MLB.com.
The system is not only loaded with talent, it’s also deep, ensuring that as the Cubs continue to graduate players to the big leagues, the cupboard won’t suddenly be left bare. It looks like Epstein and Hoyer have built the scouting and player development “machine” they promised to work toward when they were first brought into the organization.
CALL TO ARMS
Of course, since the majority of the Cubs’ young players grabbing headlines are bats, there are still questions about where the organization is going to find the right combination of arms to lead the charge. But even on that front, the team is better off than most people realize.
The front office has now divested the organization of the many onerous contracts from the Hendry regime—meaning there is money to spend—and has proven quite adept at identifying and acquiring undervalued pitching talent. Names like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who all excelled under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio, have been used to acquire players who fit into both the short- and long-term plans.
Feldman, in particular, netted a huge piece in pitcher Jake Arrieta. A former top prospect, the 28-year-old underwhelmed during parts of four years in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles. Though Arrieta was perhaps at his lowest value at the time, the Cubs were bullish about the struggling righty. After missing the first month of the 2014 season with shoulder soreness, Arrieta went on to make the move look like a stroke of genius, putting together a season that rivals those of some of the best pitchers in the game.
Hendricks, acquired from the Rangers in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal, also opened eyes with a strong run of starts to begin his major league career. Though many had the 24-year-old pegged as a fringe major leaguer and back-end starter at best, his poise and control are making some wonder whether he can exceed expectations and become a big part of the rotation’s future.
“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie. We speculated that he might even take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody.
“We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have scouting reports this extensive. He just attacks the video and attacks scouting reports. They’re a huge weapon for him. You see the confidence he has. No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to have identified one area he can attack and put [himself] in a good position to have a chance to get him out. I think that’s been big for him. We’re awfully proud of how he’s adjusted.”
Epstein has acknowledged that while he doesn’t think the Cubs’ position player group is a finished product, he certainly feels great about the nucleus the organization has built. Even with Arrieta, Hendricks and the surprisingly impressive Tsuyoshi Wada (who will be 34 next season, but could still find himself competing for a spot in the Cubs rotation), the obvious focus becomes how to build up the front five.
“I like some of the pitchers we have coming along in the minor leagues, and I think our big league staff has done sort of an underrated job this year,” Epstein said. “There are some bright spots. But we’ve been open about the fact that it would be nice to add an impact pitcher or two. When you look over the next 18 months or so, that’s certainly a priority for us. Whether we develop one from an unlikely spot like might be happening with Arrieta or acquire someone who’s already at those heights remains to be seen.”
FINISHING THE JOB
Surprise success stories like Arrieta and Hendricks, coupled with bounce-back years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, have certainly boosted the optimism around the team as the prospects are rising to the big leagues.
“It’s good for the fans,” Hendricks said. “They’ve needed some winning the last few years, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to give it to them. I think with a lot of us young guys coming up—a lot of young hitters especially—they’re doing an unbelievable job. And there’s more to come.”
While the narrative may have recently changed as far as the media and average fans are concerned, nobody within the Cubs organization considers the work done.
“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m happy for them,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning. That’s what’s on our mind, and we’re working hard to get there. Having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can’t miss, we’re human and that makes us feel good that our fans have something like that in their lives at this point, because certainly there’s been some tough times that they’ve had to endure.”
Epstein and company know they’ve still got work to do. They’re aware that pitching is a need, as is a veteran presence in the clubhouse to lead by example. But they strongly believe they’re on the right path and have felt that way for some time now. Still, the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.
“We’ve felt really good about it for a period now, and we also feel like there’s so much more work to do that we don’t deserve any kudos or pats on the back,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, we’re all human, and we feel the optimism of our fans and our players. It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off. We’ll feel like it’s finished when we win the last game in October.”
—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Cubs prospect Kris Bryant announced his presence in a big way in his first full season of professional baseball in 2014. The slugger, who hit .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) between Double-A and Triple-A, proved he was the top offensive player in the minors, with many publications naming him their unanimous Player of the Year selection. ESPN Insider’s Keith Law added to the chorus Tuesday, naming Bryant his 2014 Prospect of the Year. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Bryant blew away the field, dominating at two levels, leading the minor leagues in home runs and slugging percentage, finishing second in OBP (behind a 21-year-old in low-A) and ascending the rankings to become baseball’s top prospect, all in his first full year in professional baseball. The second overall pick in the 2013 Rule 4 draft, Bryant probably would have appeared in the majors in September if he were already on the 40-man roster, but the current collective bargaining agreement and major league rules gave the Cubs a real disincentive to promote him for a cup of coffee. He will almost certainly be up by May 2015, however, bringing his 30-plus-homer power and outstanding eye at the plate to the heart of the Cubs’ lineup.
The Cubs top prospect led the minors in home runs (43), extra-base hits (78), total bases (325), slugging percentage (.661) and OPS (1.098). His 118 runs scored were second among all minor league players, while his 110 RBI were third, and his .438 on-base percentage was fifth.
Cubs’ 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber also received honorable mention in Law’s article for his solid campaign.