For the better part of the past century the Chicago Cubs have been plagued by one mistake after another. After all, how else do you go 104 years without winning a championship? They’ve bumbled and stumbled their way through the better part of the last decade as well, thanks to a handful of poor management decisions like the time GM Jim Hendry thought it would be a good idea to center a team around the explosive talents of Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano.
But things have gotten better over the past couple of seasons. Theo Epstein was hired away from the Red Sox to oversee the rebuilding of the roster. Many of the bloated, unproductive contracts have been cleared away and some bright young talents have stepped in to take their place. Most of the Cubbies current lineup is under the age of 30 and many of the minor league system is chocked full of talent waiting to make the leap to the big leagues. Best of all, the Cubs now have bargain basement discount playing 1st base for the next 7 years in Anthony Rizzo.
On Sunday it was announced that Theo Epstein and company were able to get Rizzo to agree to a 6 year/$41 million dollar deal. The contract also includes 2 options that could run the deal out to 9 years for $73 million total dollars, which, at that point, would qualify as an unbelievably good bargain. At 23 years of age Rizzo has already shown that he has eye-popping power at the plate, busting 25 homers in just under 700 plate appearances, which is about as many as a hitter gets in a full season. Rizzo already has shown excellent gap-to-gap power as well as the ability to get on-base. That means, barring injury, this deal should be a bargain even if the 1st baseman never improves, which is unlikely. Most importantly, Rizzo has now become the affordable, yet sturdy, foundation on which Epstein can build and maneuver around.
That foundation should be joined by some serious talent in the near future as well. Jorge Soler was signed out of Cuba last summer and he’s crushed the ball at the lower levels of the minor leagues. Soler’s deal, which has another 8 years and $29 million remaining could also turn into another steal for GM Theo Epstein. If Soler can live up to his potential it’s quite easy to imagine him hitting in the #2 or #3 hole in front of Rizzo for most of the next decade of baseball in Chicago.
He’s not the only Cubs outfielder with a high upside either. Triple-A player Brett Jackson has had scouts drooling for years over his 20-20 potential and Albert Almora may be the best of the trio. Almora was the 6th overall pick out of high school in the 2012 draft and his initial foray into professional baseball was a successful one. He hit .321 with 2 homers and 5 steals in his first 33 professional games and he looks to have a bright future.
Those three players don’t even qualify for the title of “best Cubs prospect” either. That goes to shortstop Javier Baez, who has mouth-water power and speed for a player up the middle. He hit 16 homers and stole 24 bases a season ago at a couple of minor league stops and at 20 he still has plenty of room to grow.
The only thing that Epstein and the Cubs still need to really, really focus on is their pitching staff. Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, and company have been solid this season but no member of the current rotation is a legitimate ace. Samardzija has a nice repertoire and his fastball is a standout pitch, but he’s always going to get hit around a little bit and would be best suited as a #2 or #3 on a good team. Matt Garza, who is currently rehabbing at Double-A Tennessee, is a similar pitcher plus a little playoff experience. Chicago’s best pitching prospect, Arodys Vizcaino, underwent Tommy John surgery a little over a year ago, otherwise the cupboard is looking bare.
If Epstein can acquire a legitimate front line pitcher over the next offseason or two, the Cubs would be sitting pretty for 2015 and beyond. The rebuilding plan has gone without a hitch thus far, putting Chicago on pace to make a legitimate playoff run by 2015. The new front office has spent their money wisely, signing their own talent to team-friendly long-term deals while slowly watching the poor contracts of the old regime fall to the wayside. By 2015, these Cubs should have some bite.