What does Soler signing do to Cubs' system?

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What does Soler signing do to Cubs' system?

Now that the Cubs have signed Jorge Soler, things are about to change for the franchise, right?

Well, not so fast, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. Just ask Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, who tweeted Monday: "Cubs system is getting better. Throw in potential returns for Dempster, Garza and a big pick in 2013 and it could be a HUGE step forward."

Talk about unbridled optimism for Cubs fans, eh? The big-league club may be on pace to lose a franchise record of games, but the future gets brighter seemingly every day.

Last week, the Cubs selected high school outfielder Albert Almora with the sixth overall pick in the MLB Draft, followed by a slew of pitchers.

In January, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer traded Andrew Cashner for slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has done nothing but mash in Triple-A since.

And then of course there was 2011 first-round draft pick Javier Baez, a pure hitter out of high school.

So where does Soler fit into all this?

"You could make a very good case that he's No. 1," Jim Callis of Baseball America said on WGN Radio Monday night. "You're talking about a 20-year old kid. To me, it'd be him and Baez. I like Almora a lot. Soler and Baez have a little bit more offensive upside than Almora. I think Almora is a better all-around player, but Soler and Baez are more explosive.

"You're talking about two guys who can do a ton of damage in the middle of the lineup. Soler's got great bat speed. You're looking at at least plus power and a solid runner. He just really fits that right-field profile. I would probably go Soler. I think Baez is going to wind up moving to third. It's Soler-Baez or Baez-Soler for me."

Baez, 19, was recently promoted to Low-A Peoria and carries a .277.370.468 line with five steals in 13 games.

With Almora, Rizzo, Baez and Soler in tow, joining Starlin Castro, Brett Jackson and Junior Lake, diehard Cubs fans like David Kaplan have something to get excited about.

On CTL Monday, Kap put together a graphic that showed what the Cubs' lineup could look like on Opening Day in 2015:

1. Brett Jackson LF
2. Starlin Castro SS
3. Albert Almora CF
4. Anthony Rizzo 1B
5. Jorge Soler RF
6. Javier Baez 3B
7. Junior Lake 2B
8. Steve Clevenger C
9. Jeff Samardzija P

"I can very much see that scenario," Callis said of Kap's projected 2015 lineup. "I think that's realistic. That's what the Cubs are building toward. The good news, too, is when I look long-term at this division, there's not a team that stands out.

"You look at the Rangers, where they have a great major-league team and a great farm system. Or the AL East where you have all these financial power houses and you have the Rays and you have the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays might have the best farm system in the game if the Rangers don't.

"There's nobody in the NL Central where I look at and say 'wow, that team's going to be tough to beat in three years.' Cubs fans are going to have to take their lumps for the next couple of years, but when you look long-term in that division, there's no one positioned to just ride roughshod over everybody else for the next five or 10 years."

So the offense looks pretty dang good. Again, if everybody fulfills their potential and sticks with the team.

But what about the pitching? Apart from Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza (who may very well wind up involved in a trade), the Cubs aren't sure what they have in the way of pitching prospects. But they set out to try to correct that problem in last week's draft.

"Almora got the bulk of the attention in this year's draft as the sixth overall pick, but the Cubs came back and got pitchers with the next six or seven picks," Callis said. "Supplemental pick Pierce Johnson is a guy who probably could have gone in the first round if he hadn't had a little forearm stiffness that cost him a couple weeks. That's a first-round talent.

"Supplemental pick Paul Blackburn is a good high school pitcher from California who's polished. Second-round pick Duane Underwood has a tremendous fastball. They have some guys there. The question is going to be what else the system can produce. Trey McNutt is a good arm, but probably more of a reliever than a starter in the long term. Dillon Maples -- we really haven't seen a whole lot of since he got 2.5 million. That's gonna be the focus now is finding some pitching to go with all this offensive talent."

Rangers win riveting goaltending duel over Blackhawks in overtime

Rangers win riveting goaltending duel over Blackhawks in overtime

When Scott Darling and Antti Raanta vied for the Blackhawks’ backup goaltending job two seasons ago, there was definitely a strong competition. But it was still one built on respect.

“We had no bad blood in that situation,” Darling said on Friday. “We’ve remained friends. He’s having a great season and I’m happy for him.”

On this night, Raanta may have been just a bit happier.

Raanta stopped all 26 shots he saw against his former team, notching his first shutout of this season, and Nick Holden gave the New York Rangers a 1-0 overtime victory over the Blackhawks on Friday night. The Blackhawks are 1-2-1 in their last four games but remain atop the Western Conference with 38 points.

The Blackhawks were missing Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford in this one. Nevertheless, it was a tight game, one in which both goaltenders were stellar. Darling stopped 36 of 37 shots – Holden’s overtime winner was the first goaltender allowed to New York in two games against them.

Considering the players missing, the Blackhawks will take the point.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

“With or without Toews, you’re always thinking when it’s in the third period and it’s close and getting inside 10 minutes, let’s get it to overtime,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We’ve seen a ton of overtimes in the league. You gotta get the one point. We’ve had some success trying to get the extra one. Tonight, not, but that’s got to be the mindset.”

The Blackhawks were close to taking the 1-0 lead six minutes into the third period, when Marian Hossa thought he scored his 15th goal of the season. But the Rangers challenged for offside. Upon further review, the goal was nullified.

“Well, obviously that’s a tough one,” Hossa said. “I mean, I didn’t notice it was close to offside but obviously with today’s technology, with this new rule, it’s a game of inches. It’s slowing the game down, I think. You’re getting confused, what exactly the coaches are looking for. They created this new rule and we just have to deal with it. But sometimes it’s more frustrating because the league wants to increase the scoring and right now, I think more goals are disallowed because of this.”

Hartman, who had the pass to Hossa, was also disappointed but agreed with the review’s ruling.

“You get your excitement up a little bit and you try not to get too ahead of yourself when you know they are reviewing it. You just try to see it as both ways, if they do call it a goal, if they call it back,” Hartman said. “Obviously it was the right call. It was just a tough one.”

The Blackhawks will take the point out of this one. Despite the players they were without they played a solid game. They had good, quality scoring chances. Their current backup was just slightly bested by their previous one.

“Both [goalies] were great, both [teams] had excellent looks at the net,” Quenneville said. “We missed some good opportunities on 2-on-1s and they had some good looks around Darling as well. Both guys got their teams to overtime, got a point. It’s a good point if you want to look at it like that. I didn’t mind the way we played but Darls was excellent.”

Blackhawks preparing for EPIX all-access look leading up to Winter Classic

Blackhawks preparing for EPIX all-access look leading up to Winter Classic

The 2017 Winter Classic featuring the Blackhawks and Blues is right around the corner.

Players from both sides already squared off in a game of NHL 17 to generate some hype into the game, but nothing compares to behind-the-scenes footage of the two teams leading up to it.

Beginning Dec. 16 at 9 p.m., EPIX will air a one-hour episode each week that provides an all-access look inside the lives of the Blackhawks and Blues, on and off the ice.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

The game will be on Jan. 2 at 12 p.m. on NBC, with the final episode airing Friday, Jan. 6.

Here's a two-minute preview involving the Blackhawks, who are labeled "A Good Bunch of Guys."