Chicago Cubs: 10 Players on the Roster Theo Epstein Can Build Around
The season was over before it started, but the Chicago Cubs head into a stretch that will be as important as other teams' Septembers if they ever want to find themselves playing in October.
With the draft complete, all attention from the front office turns to contenders looking for a piece or two aiding a stretch run, while in return receiving a piece or two to help Chicago in years to come.
As bad as the Cubs are—and they're bad—they have valuable pieces that, although they cannot help the Cubs, can help contenders.
Expect Ryan Dempster to be dealt, along with the possibility of Matt Garza, Bryan LaHair, Alfonso Soriano and anyone not named Starlin or Samardzija.
That being said, the roster overhaul leaves the cupboard bare. First-round pick Albert Almora has yet to sign, and the minor league system isn't as strong as it needs to be.
But there is something. Here's 10 players on the Cubs roster who can contribute and be built around.
This isn't an order of top prospects. Instead, it's a rank of who can be built around. For example, Ryan Dempster is better than Jeff Samardzija, but Samardzija is a better piece to build around.
10. Junior Lake
Junior Lake figures to make up the foundation of the middle infield with Starlin Castro in some capacity, whether it be as the second baseman or shortstop who pushes Castro there.
Darwin Barney certainly isn't the answer at second base, but Lake can be.
In Double-A this season, he's hitting .294 and has had four home runs.
The good news is he's still young with room to grow, as are most of the players on this list.
At 6'2'' and 215 pounds, he may grow to be bigger than the average second baseman, but with Castro and Javier Baez on the left side of the infield, Lake's options appear to be limited to second base.
9. Welington Castillo
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It's unlikely Geovany Soto will be offered a new contract next season, unless Epstein and Co. plan on dealing the former Rookie of the Year.
His .468 OBP in the minors fits perfectly into the mold that Epstein looks for. His arm is stronger than that of Soto's, and his experience with up-and-coming pitchers should fare well for the rapport.
With recent World Series champions featuring formidable backstops in Yadier Molina, Buster Posey, Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek, building Castillo and his experience is imperative to the future success of the Cubs.
8. Jeff Samardzija
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He may be too inconsistent to ever be an ace, or he may build off this season's success and use it to propel to the top of the rotation.
Either way, he's turned into a guy who has silenced critics, including myself.
He's still learning to control his splitter and gain consistency in his off-speed pitches, but his 72 strikeouts in 72.2 innings shows that he's ahead of where many thought he would be.
His 3.96 ERA speaks more of his inconsistency instead of how well he has actually pitched this season. It's inflated by a poor outing where he gave up eight runs in 3.2 innings against the Minnesota Twins. Without that outing, he's ERA is much closer to 3.00.
The Cubs front office must have more confidence in Samardzija than I do, as Bob Nightengale reported the righty is on a short list of players who aren't available.
Regardless, he's certainly a player who figures to be in the rotation for years to come.
7. Jorge Soler
Maybe it's because he's still a teenager. Maybe it's because I've seen him play as often as I've seen Bigfoot. There are little to no stats available on the outfielder, instead only projections.
The list of names that were the next big thing at 19 is longer than the list of those who lived up to expectations.
Can he have a big impact? Absolutely. Is it too early to tell? I think so.
I have more faith in other prospects who are closer to blooming, but Soler certainly has the chance to be quite the right fielder. Or so I've heard.
6. Brett Jackson
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I'd be lying if I said I'm not worried.
Brett Jackson, listed as the No. 2 Cubs prospect according to Jonathan Mayo, is looking more Felix Pie than Grady Sizemore in Triple-A. He's been unable to unseat Tony Campana and Joe Mather in center field after the trade of Marlon Byrd.
The biggest knock on his game was his long swing that resulted in far too many strikeouts. He's done nothing thus far to disprove those critics.
His 89 strikeouts compared to just 27 walks and 65 hits factor into the unimpressive .263 batting average. Power hitters such as Adam Dunn make up for strikeouts with long balls. Eight home runs isn't quite enough to justify the whiffs.
Jackson still possesses each of the five tools that he's carried with him into the top prospect list, but his strikeouts aren't going to disappear against major league pitching.
It's these concerns that land him farther down this list than what is probably expected.
5. Javier Baez
The left side of the infield shouldn't have to worry about stopgaps such as Ian Stewart or Luis Valbuena for long.
Baez, a shortstop, will likely grow into his frame, forcing a move to third base where he should develop enough power to be a corner infielder.
As Jim Hendry's last first-round pick, Baez is currently hitting .317 with four homers in Class A for Peoria. Who was supposed to be Josh Vitters, Baez has all the tools and potential to man the left side with Castro.
4. Dillon Maples
A 14th-round pick a year ago, the Cubs signed Maples to a $2.5 million signing bonus to ultimately develop into the ace of the staff.
He might be the only pitcher in the current system with that much promise.
Trey McNutt is underwhelming, and Gerardo Concepcion is years away from scratching a fifth rotation spot. Right now, it's up to Maples to be the guy.
At 6'2'' and 195 pounds, Maples has the athletic build of an ace featuring a big curve ball and a mid-90s fastball. Maples, who was committed to playing football at the University of North Carolina, can now focus all his attention to one sport.
Much like the next prospect, that bodes well for the Cubs.
3. Matt Szczur
As permanent a spot that Brett Jackson has available, make room for one more in the outfield.
Matt Szczur will ultimately be better than Jackson. He's another two-sport college athlete who chose baseball over football after being drafted out of Villanova.
With his full concentration on baseball, expect him to develop even more.
He's currently reaching base at a .359 percentage to go with 19 stolen bases. He probably won't produce the power numbers of Jackson, but overall he's better-rounded.
Szczur was a Futures Game All-Star selection. It won't be the first All-Star selection under his belt by the time all is said and done.
2. Starlin Castro
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I've said all I can say about the all star shortstop here.
But in a quick rundown, let me explain his importance.
You can't find a shortstop around every corner. The Cubs have one of the best. Oh, by the way, he's 22.
He led the NL in hits last year, and hasn't slowed down any.
Yes, his mental lapses are frustrating. But he played under management that needed to win now, regardless. The new regime is focused more on how the game is played, knowing results will still follow. I expect Castro to learn this quickly and begin to adjust.
1. Anthony Rizzo
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With 22 home runs and a .361 batting average, there's little doubt that Rizzo will soon find his way to the majors.
And there he will remain.
He's a left-handed power hitter at first base with an above-average glove. He can be the guy hitting cleanup who consistently puts fear in opposing pitchers' minds for the first time in Chicago since perhaps Sammy Sosa.
Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez were good, but neither garnered the attention that Rizzo will.
His presence in the lineup will make everyone around him better—something nonexistent in the Cubs' current lineup.