With the Cubs just about ready to promote their top prospects to the big leagues, let the unrealistic expectations around "Cubs Nation" begin. With Kris Bryant ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, and Javy Baez and Addison Russell also ranked among the Top 10 prospects, a starving Cubs fan base is going to expect near immediate results when the youngsters arrive at Wrigley Field. What are realistic expectations for their impact on the franchise? I spoke with a handful of baseball executives around the game to see what they think of the Cubs future.
Every executive or scout I spoke with believes that the toughest part of the Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer rebuilding plan is yet to come. They believe acquiring prospects is not as hard as seeing them succeed at the big league level while providing a veteran support system to help assimilate those prospects into the major leagues.
“I applaud what Theo and company have been able to do in taking a subpar farm system and turning it into the best in baseball in a relatively short amount of time," a former general manager, now scouting in the National League told me. "However, that was the easy part compared to helping those kids flourish as big leaguers while also starting to spend money on free agents."
That same executive also believes that playing for the Cubs holds challenges and pressures that no other team in baseball has to deal with.
“The Cubs have a fan base that is as reactionary as any I’ve ever seen. When they win three in a row they think they will win the World Series. When they lose a few they want to clean house. Trust me, the first time the prospects struggle for an extended amount of time there will be doubters who think they can’t play. Baseball is a game of failure and you have to be able to handle that pressure on a daily basis. Playing for the Cubs is that much tougher than anywhere else in the game.”
Bryant is ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball by many analysts, and every baseball man that I spoke with believes that he will be an excellent MLB player. But almost all of them caution that he is not going to be Mike Trout or Albert Pujols, and that the Cubs massive fan base needs to understand that.
“I see Bryant as a long-term answer in right field and not at third base," a veteran AL scout told me. "Can he play third in a pinch or as an injury replacement? Yes. But as an everyday player he needs to be in the outfield. Offensively, I project him as a .275 hitter with plus power, probably 35-40 homers and 85-100 RBI. Those are great numbers but he is not going to be the best player in baseball."
Most of the men I spoke with see Baez as having the most upside of any of the Cubs prospects, but they also caution that his adjustment to the big leagues may take more time than Bryant or the recently acquired Russell.
“Baez can be one of the best players in the game but he has to cut down his high strikeout rate, and that is going to take him time at the big league level," one executive told me. "His floor is lower than any other elite prospect in the Cubs system but his ceiling is also higher."
Everyone I spoke with believe that the Cubs possess something in their system that no one else in the game has and that is pure, raw power. In an era with increased steroid testing that is a skill that is very hard to acquire. And everyone I spoke with also believes that the Cubs are on the verge of a sustained run of winning baseball that not many alive has ever seen.
“The Cubs have elite prospects, two key players [Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo] signed to very team friendly deals and they have a ton of payroll space," a former GM told me. "Add in their upcoming renovations and TV deal, and they have an opportunity to put a great team together. But, will the expectations of that fan base and the pressures on the young players crush them or will they rise above it? And will their ownership spend the money when Theo and Jed say it’s time to go for it? Those are the questions everyone in the industry is asking."