As Baez-Mania settles, Cubs know better days are ahead

As Baez-Mania settles, Cubs know better days are ahead
August 10, 2014, 11:45 pm
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Tony Andracki

There has been a definite buzz around the Cubs over the last week.

Javier Baez's promotion - and subsequent historical start - was a big reason for the optimism, but it's more than that.

It's about what Baez represents: The Cubs are coming.

[RELATED - Baez the center of attention as 'JavyTime' hits Wrigley Field]

With his call-up, Baseball America's midseason No. 7 prospect joined Arismendy Alcantara, who was promoted from Triple-A Iowa a few weeks before Baez. Add that duo to a pair of All-Stars - 24-year-old Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo (who just turned 25 Friday) - and "The Core" is starting to take shape in Chicago.

"These are players who have been part of our plan and part of the vision for a long time and now that they're up here, it's easier to see how it all fits together," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "I think more people can get excited about it. That creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.

"Our fans deserve to get excited. I'm just happy for them that there's something for them to get excited about. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning and that's what's on our mind and we're working hard to get there, but having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can't miss, that's something.

"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 have been some tough times."

Yeah, a century of tough times - 105 years without a championship.

The Cubs are headed toward a fifth straight fifth-place finish in a division that sent three teams to the postseason a year ago. The players in the Cubs clubhouse want the losing culture to change and they hope to end the year with some momentum.

"We didn't start off so great, but we can definitely finish off on a pretty good note and show what's to come in the future," pitcher Edwin Jackson said. "Things are definitely headed in a positive direction."

"We just want that winning feeling," Rizzo said after Sunday's walk-off win. "Everybody is just coming together. We're far out, but we just want that winning feeling, we want that good feeling."

But Epstein and his hand-picked front office aren't trying to take the easy path toward that "winning feeling." They're not signing overpaying for high-priced free agents or placing Band-Aids on the issues.

Epstein and Co. are trying to build a foundation for sustained success and they've taken a step in that direction by earning the top farm system in baseball.

Chris Valaika, who signed with the Cubs as a minor-league free agent prior to the season, spent the first few months of the season in an Iowa lineup with Baez and Alcantara and then Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler later in the season.

[MORE - Chris Valaika hopes he can play a part in Cubs rebuild]

"It's been really impressive," Valaika said. "Signing as a free agent over here, I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew they had a lot of young guys. I had no idea the talent level that they had.

"Spending the last few months in Triple-A, getting the chance to play with Javy, Kris Bryant, there's some special players. I think the way they're doing it, this organization is going to be really good for a long time."

Bryant and Soler are knocking on the door at Iowa right now. Bryant was recently named the top prospect in the game by ESPN and has 38 homers across two levels this season. Soler has struggled to stay healthy, but when he has been on the field, he's posted a 1.237 OPS, including a 1.142 mark at Iowa.

Soler could be up in Chicago sometime this September and Bryant should arrive sometime around May 2015. Addison Russell, Albert Almora and others - like 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber - are not far behind.

Baez struggled mightily to start the season, but made some serious strides and earned a call-up where the Cubs are giving him nearly two months to get acclimated to life in the big leagues.

[RELATED - Cubs taking it one step at a time with Javier Baez]

"That's always been a goal of our organization is to vertically integrate the entire system," Epstein said. "When you have homegrown players that you can promote, it does wonders for that, because it boosts morale for our minor-league players. They can look out and see a guy they were just playing with and see him on TV, maybe playing Sunday nights and ultimately playing in October.

"It's great for the staff, too, because they can look at the big-league team and feel a sense of pride and ownership that they helped a player who is now playing at the big-league level for us.

"It really ties the whole organization together in a way that we like and we want that to be a big part of 'The Cubs Way.' We want to be known for developing players and we want the entire organization to be bought in."

The Cubs have arguably the best stable of position players in baseball, but they also believe strongly in their pitching infrastructure, led by big-league pitching coach Chris Bosio.

[MORE - Cubs starting to think big, will make pitching No. 1 priority]

Jake Arrieta has emerged as a frontline starter while Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs' 2013 minor league pitcher of the year, has taken his game to another level in the majors and looks like a core part of the rotation.

Travis Wood was an All-Star last year and the Cubs have some intriguing options for the rotation next season in Japanese starter Tsuyoshi Wada and a trio of reclamation projects - Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront and Dan Straily - who could take a similar path to Arrieta's.

And then there's free agency where guys like Jon Lester - who has the Boston connection with Epstein and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer - and Max Scherezer will be available this winter. The Cubs have already been aggressive in trying to acquire elite pitching on the open market, going hard after Masahiro Tanaka and Anibal Sanchez in free agency and placing a waiver claim on Phillies ace Cole Hamels last week.

The Cubs have also followed the St. Louis Cardinals' model and stockpiled a bunch of high-upside arms in the bullpen - Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Arodys Vizcaino.

Toss in some solid veteran role players - outfielders Chris Coghlan and Justin Ruggiano, as well as infielder Luis Valbuena - and the days of the Cubs being sellers at the trade deadline could be a thing of the past.

As Epstein said, that's the ultimate goal. It's not enough to have baseball's top-ranked farm system.

[RELATED - Time for Theo to push Cubs into next rebuilding phase]

The fans in Chicago are growing impatient as Epstein's third year with the organization winds down.

"On the one hand, we try to divorce ourselves from any sort of public reaction or media perceptions of what we're trying to do because we're so bought into this plan that we have," Epstein said. "We've felt really good about it for a period now.

"We also felt - and we still feel - like there's so much more work to do and we don't deserve any type of kudos or pats on the back. On the other hand, we're all human and we feel the optimism of our fans, of our players.

"It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off and we'll feel like it's finish when we win the last game at the end of October."