Chicago Cubs: Power Ranking the Cubs' Young Core with the Rest of the NL Central
Since Theo Epstein joined the Cubs, the North Siders have focused on acquiring young talent and setting their rebuilding plan in motion.
Epstein has done a solid job so far, turning unneeded veterans into potentially useful parts as the Cubs attempt to build a young team around cornerstones Starlin Castro and Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs have made clear progress in Epstein's first year, and there is significant hope for the future in Chicago.
But the Cubs are not the only team with a plan for the future. Several clubs in the NL Central have the pieces in place to compete in this division throughout the next decade.
I attempted to rank each team's "young core," comprised of players age 27 and under who are either currently in the majors or are expected to make the majors by early 2014, in order to determine who is in the best shape in the division. It is important to remember that teams like the Cubs and Cardinals may be in a better position than their current cores suggest, as they have more resources than the competition.
5. Milwaukee Brewers
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The Brewers have had a good run of late, but they are not in a great position to sustain that success as key cornerstones begin to age.
Ryan Braun, Milwaukee's undisputed leader and one of the best players in the National League, is just too old to qualify for this assessment at 28. With players like Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks on the wrong side of 30, the Brewers don't have too much to look forward to offensively.
Shortstop Jean Segura, who came to Milwaukee in this summer's Zack Greinke trade, is one of the bright spots for a Brewers team that has recently traded several top prospects for pitchers like Greinke, Shaun Marcum and C.C. Sabathia. Taylor Green and Logan Schafer can be contributors, but they are not expected to be stars.
The Brewers do have several more years of Yovani Gallardo to look forward to, and Mike Fiers will likely hold down a spot in the Milwaukee rotation for the foreseeable future as well. But the Milwaukee farm system is not going to make a huge impact in the coming years, and the Brewers are clearly in the worst shape in the N.L. Central going forward.
4. St. Louis Cardinals
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The Cardinals seem to contend every year, with their superior developmental abilities often overcoming a lack of obvious first-rate talent at the Major League level. There is no reason to believe this will change, but the Cardinals' identifiable core is not as strong as many of their competitors.
St. Louis has been one of the best hitting teams in baseball for several years, but most of their lineup has crossed the 27-year-old barrier. Jon Jay is a solid player, Matt Carpenter has some promise and Daniel Descalso is a decent role player, but otherwise, the Cards are hoping for youngsters like Pete Kozma to refine their games. There are no stars in this bunch.
The Redbirds do have a few young pitchers in Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn. Both have proven that they can be extremely effective at times and somewhat inconsistent at others. These pitchers are certainly building blocks, though they also are not stars.
What should excite St. Louis fans the most is the likely emergence of Shelby Miller, who pitched in the playoffs for the Cards this year and outfield prospect Oscar Taveras. These two players represent the kind of young, impact talent that the Cardinals are otherwise lacking.
3. Chicago Cubs
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The Cubs have the necessary high-end talent to compete in the N.L. Central in the somewhat near future. But despite early improvements under Theo Epstein, the Cubs are still somewhat lacking in complementary pieces.
Starlin Castro, only 22 years old, remains the key to their offense going forward. Castro's ability to hit for a high average is well-supported by Anthony Rizzo's power. Otherwise, Chicago doesn't have too many young hitters beyond high-ceiling talent Jorge Soler and former top prospect Josh Vitters.
Jeff Samardzija anchors the Chicago rotation going forward, and James Russell, Casey Coleman and the recently-acquired Arodys Vizcaino can all be useful. There are no sure-thing No. 2 or No. 3 starters in that group, though.
Things do look much more promising for the Cubs, and the team is certainly in a better position than it was 12 months ago. But they are up against two teams that have pretty solid cores already in place.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
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The Pirates have much of their young core already in place at the Major League level, and there is substantial help on the way from the minors.
Andrew McCutchen is by far the best player in these rankings, and he is not the only high-ceiling talent the Bucs have on offense. Pedro Alvarez came into his own this year, and players like Starling Marte and Travis Snider have plenty of potential. Neil Walker is already a very solid player in his own right.
Pittsburgh does not have much young impact pitching at the Major League level, with recently promoted players like Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson being the bright spots. The Bucs do have two of the best pitching prospects in baseball, though, and both Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon should be in Pittsburgh by 2014.
In McCutchen, Alvarez, Marte, Cole and Taillon, the Pirates have some of the best young talent in all of baseball. What they do not yet have however, and what puts them slightly behind the No. 1 team on this list, is established consistency from most of this talent.
1. Cincinnati Reds
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The Reds have been one of the best teams in baseball for the last few years while maintaining a young core, and there is no reason to expect that to change in the near future.
Yes, lineup anchor Joey Votto doesn't qualify for this list, but when Votto missed extended time with a knee injury this year the Cincinnati offense hardly missed a beat. Jay Bruce is an impact player, and most of the offense remains young. This includes players like Devin Mesoraco, Chris Heisey, Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart.
Almost the entire Cincinnati rotation will be around for years to come, as well. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey are all 26 or younger. Throw in Aroldis Chapman and Logan Ondrusek, and the Reds will have elite pitching for years to come.
We haven't even mentioned Billy Hamilton yet. Simply put, the Reds have as complete a young core as can realistically be expected, and that is why they surpass the other strong cores in the N.L. Central and are the team with the brightest future in the division.