Kaplan: Solving the position puzzle with Cubs top prospects

Kaplan: Solving the position puzzle with Cubs top prospects
July 13, 2014, 3:30 pm
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With Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel now pitching for the Oakland A’s, the Cubs have turned their focus to what their roster will look like in 2015 and beyond.  Which prospects will be a part of the Cubs future and what veteran free agents will be added over the next couple of winters?

Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo have had outstanding bounce back campaigns after subpar 2013 seasons that saw them both struggle offensively. Arismendy Alcantara has had an excellent first week in his big league career and based on his minor league track record could be a keeper at either second base or more likely in center field at the start of next season.

Who then is added to the roster that gives the Cubs a core of players to build around and to rely on for the next several seasons? Let’s assume that Kris Bryant and Javier Baez both are on the big league club by mid-May 2015. While Bryant was drafted as a third baseman and would prefer to stay at that spot, I don’t believe that his long term future is at the hot corner. 

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After talking with multiple scouts and making a trip to Des Moines to watch him play myself, I see Bryant in right field. He has a plus arm and solid mobility but I just believe that his size (6'-5") will make it tough on him to make all of the necessary plays that a major league third baseman must make with regularity. Offensively, Bryant should be one of the key forces in the Cubs lineup for many seasons as he should hit for power as well as average and on base percentage.

Baez is an offensive force with outstanding power and bat speed and while he could easily translate into a 35-40 HR guy in the big leagues he could also be a 150+ strikeout player as well. I expect him to get bigger and stronger as he continues to develop but that increased size and strength will push him to either second or third base according to the scouts I have spoken with.  He does not possess great bat discipline which will cause him some problems at the major league level so you could be looking at a big HR and high strikeout player with a very low OBP.  If that happens how will that mesh with the philosophy of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer? In fact, I don’t believe that Epstein, Hoyer and Jason McLeod would have drafted Baez had they been running the Cubs during the 2011 draft.

Addison Russell is ranked among the top prospects in all of baseball in every scouting report that I have read. He is an elite bat who should be an impact player once he reaches the big leagues. Will he stay at shortstop is the question that most scouts have about him. “I’m not sure Russell stays at short because he will get bigger and stronger but I can tell you this. His bat will play at the major league level. Offensively he will be outstanding,” an American league scout told me.

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Many fans want to see Kris Bryant on the big league club right now but I don’t see any scenario where Bryant is in the big leagues any sooner than late April of 2015. Why would you start to burn his service time now? To have two months of him on a team that is going nowhere? As for next Opening Day I don’t see any way that Bryant makes the team because if you keep him in the minor leagues for just a few weeks you get him for 5 months of the 2015 season and the next 6 seasons.

Let’s say that again. You get Kris Bryant for 5 months of the 2015 season and the next 6 seasons if he doesn’t come up until late April or early May. That is smart business. He will need some time to adjust to a new position if he moves to the outfield plus why not wait until the first month of cold weather has passed? Also, he will not hit free agency until after his age 29 season because he would fall short in service time in his 6th big league campaign. That would give him another season in a Cubs uniform when the team should be very good. Would you rather have Kris Bryant now or next April or would you rather have Kris Bryant at age 29 when the team should be a contender? That question should be very easy to answer.

As for Baez, he still has a lot of work to do both offensively and defensively including a position switch to either second or third base in the very near future. I fully expect him to begin playing second base at Class-AAA Iowa very soon so that when he is called up he will have experience at his new position. Baez still needs work in grinding at bats and not chasing bad pitches or trying to hit every ball as far as he can. His tools are off the charts and he could be a major offensive force for a long time but he will also have high strikeout numbers and possibly a low OBP which will need to be improved upon.

As for a glimpse into the future, I see Alcantara in center field on Opening Day 2015 and both Bryant and Baez not in the big leagues until late April or early May 2015. I also fully expect the Cubs to have a very active winter after the 2014 season as they look to have a young but exciting 2015 team. However, the club will need to add some veteran presence to have players that can help nurture all of the prospects that will be playing important roles. I see 2016 as the season the team finally moves into contention in the NL Central when the younger players will have some experience under their belts and the veterans such as Rizzo and Castro should be in the prime of their careers. As for having a legitimate chance to have a run of sustained success I don’t see that happening until 2017 when the club should be positioned for a very good run of contending.