Future remains bright for Cubs' prospects
Bryant, Baez headling strong core of standouts in Minor League system
CHICAGO -- The Cubs' "Core Four" continues to highlight the hope for a better tomorrow.
Infielders Javier Baez and Kris Bryant and outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler -- four of the Cubs' top five prospects, according to MLB.com -- have scouts and the club's front office drooling, with Baez impressing during Spring Training and the power-hitting Bryant on his way to Triple-A Iowa after putting up absurd numbers in Double-A.
And then there's the slightly less-heralded names, such as second baseman Arismendy Alcantara (No. 6), first baseman Dan Vogelbach (No. 10) and third baseman Christian Villanueva (No. 11), who are also impressing in the Minors.
That's why even as the Cubs continue to struggle at the Major League level, the front office is excited about what the future holds at Wrigley Field.
"The depth is there now," said Cubs senior vice president of player development and scouting Jason McLeod. "I think some of the guys are going to rise to the top. But throughout the system, we feel really good about the numbers and the volume that we have."
The Cubs added to their prospect pool in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, selecting Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber fourth overall, Virginia Tech catcher Mark Zagunis in the third round, and using the rest of their top 12 picks on pitchers.
Adding organizational pitching depth has been the focus of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and McLeod in their three years with the Cubs -- both through the Draft and at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
The improvement is noticeable.
The club's top pitching prospect, right-hander C.J. Edwards (No. 4), was acquired in last year's Matt Garza deal. Right-hander Arodys Vizcaino (No. 8) -- acquired in 2011 for lefty Paul Maholm -- is finally healthy and now in Triple-A after flashing impressive stuff out of Double-A Tennessee's bullpen.
Add in right-hander Corey Black (No. 15, acquired last season for Alfonso Soriano) and right-hander Kyle Hendricks (No. 14, Ryan Dempster in 2012) and recent Draft picks Pierce Johnson (No. 7), Paul Blackburn (No. 13), Tyler Skulina (No. 17) and Duane Underwood (No. 19), and the Cubs feel their organizational pitching depth is in a much better place today compared to three years ago.
"I don't know if you ever feel you have enough depth, but certainly we've hit it hard, now in our third Draft, and now we're starting to see some of that get to the upper levels and get to Double-A," McLeod said. "We have talented staffs now in both A-ball leagues. That's what you hope for, is now you get to a level and you have prospects there. We feel like we have that right now."
This year, the Cubs added to that with a trio of highly-rated high school arms -- left-hander Carson Sands (fourth round), lefty Justin Steele (fifth) and righty Dillon Cease (sixth) -- and three college aces -- St. Louis right-hander James Norwood (seventh), Oregon lefty Tommy Thorpe (eighth) and Arizona righty James Farris (ninth).
The top pitcher taken, Maryland right-hander Jake Stinnett, is pegged by draftniks as the quickest to the Majors. Although the Cubs will limit him to 15-20 professional innings this year following a long college season, McLeod said he's excited about the righty's future.
"This year was actually his first full season as a pitcher, and he goes out and he leads the ACC in strikeouts," McLeod said. "Big-time ground-ball rate, throws a lot of strikes. He's already a physical guy who's athletic. And he's young for a fourth-year player in college … so we feel all of those things lead to someone who's still really on the rise in who he is as a pitcher."
The infusion of talented players had led to a stockpile at certain positions -- especially third base, with Bryant and Villanueva, and the middle infield, with Baez and Alcantara. But McLeod and the Cubs believe the competition is good, and will lead to the biggest goal: winning.
"I'm sure it's not easy for Villanueva as a young guy in Triple-A to be looking behind and seeing what Kris is doing down there, but at the same time, these guys have been around each other at big league camp, at our offseason camps, and I think they push each other more than anything," McLeod said.
"Hopefully they do have that competitive desire within themselves to compete against themselves, and then ultimately compete against the other team and win."