In just one year together, the duo of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have transformed the Chicago Cubs.
The team went from a middling franchise, with money tied up in overpaid, old assets at the big league level (and not much in the farm system), to one of the most intriguing minor leagues in all of baseball.
The team spent big money to add high-profile Cuban slugger Jorge Soler into a mix that also includes highly-touted 2011 first-round pick Javier Baez and last year's top pick Albert Almora.
In addition to spending in the draft and international market last year, the Cubs made one of the most interesting trades before the deadline: they dealt Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson—two players who had no future with the franchise—and turned them into Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman.
Vizcaino is coming off Tommy John surgery last March and did not pitch at all in 2012, but he was one of the best arms in the Braves' system and ready to make an impact last season before he got hurt.
Almost all of the elite talent in the system is at the lower levels of the minors, so it is going to take time before it all comes together—not that Cubs' fans aren't used to waiting—but the future is as bright as it has been in a long time in Wrigleyville.
Here is a complete overview of the Cubs' system heading into 2013. It includes a look at the top prospects, an impact prospect for this season and a breakout candidate to watch.
Note: All stats and ages courtesy of MiLB.com unless otherwise noted.
No. 1 Javier Baez, Shortstop
57 G, .333/.383/.596, 71 H, 10 2B, 5 3B, 12 HR, 33 RBI, 9 BB, 48 K, 20 SB (Low-A)
23 G, .188/.244/.400, 15 H, 3 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 5 BB, 21 K, 4 SB (High-A)
Baez's full-season debut was delayed slightly as the team kept him behind to get some work in extended spring training. After moving to the Midwest League, he showed off the hitting tools that make him one of the best prospects in all of baseball.
The first thing that jumps out at you when evaluating Baez is bat speed.
He gets the bat through the zone so quick and is able to generate tremendous power because of it. He also showed strong baserunning skills (swiping 24 bags in 29 attempts) even though he is just an average runner.
His greatest asset is also his biggest weakness.
Because Baez knows he can catch up to anything, he doesn't want to take pitchers or work the count. Eventually that can (and will) catch up to him.
Even though there is a strong possibility that Baez will outgrow shortstop, he has the arm and instincts for the position—assuming his body lets him stay there. If not, he should slide over to third base without a problem.
No. 2 Albert Almora, Outfielder
Age: 18 (Turns 19 on April 16)
18 G, .347/.363/.480, 26 H, 5 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 13 RBI, 2 BB, 8 K, 5 SB (Rookie League)
15 G, .292/.292/.446, 19 H, 7 2B, 1 HR, 6 RBI, O BB, 5 K (Short Season)
The Cubs used their first pick in the 2012 draft on Almora, one of the most polished high school position players to come out in recent memory.
He has one of the prettiest swings you will see from a right-handed hitter and he gets through the zone in a hurry thanks to plus bat speed.
Because of his bat speed, Almora is able to generate more power than you would expect from someone with his frame. With more experience and muscle on his bones, he should turn into a 20-25 home run player.
Patience and pitch recognition are two areas Almora will need to work on, as he drew only two walks in 33 games last season. He was just 18 years old, so there is no cause for panic right now.
As a defender, he is terrific in center field. He reads the ball so well off the bat that he can cover a lot of ground even though he doesn't have blazing speed. His arm is above-average and will play fine in center.
No. 3 Jorge Soler, Outfielder
Age: 20 (Turns 21 on February 25)
14 G, .241/.328/.389, 13 H, 2 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 6 BB, 13 K, 8 SB (Rookie)
20 G, .338/.398/.513, 27 H, 5 2B, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 6 BB, 6 K, 4 SB (Low-A)
Soler was one of the top international players available last season and signed a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs in June.
Investing that much money in an unproven asset is always a huge risk, but Soler has the goods to outplay that contract. He should be an above-average regular in the big leagues.
Soler's swing is conducive to hitting for power. He does have a bit of a load to it, but he gets such great extension and loft that he projects to have plus power. He has good pitch recognition and makes adjustments in at bats.
He has a strong arm and accuracy to go along with it. He isn't fluid in the field yet, but that should come with more experience.
At just 21 years old, Soler should start the season back in Low-A with a chance to end up in Double-A before all is said and done.
No. 4 Arodys Vizcaino, Starting Pitcher
2012 Stats N/A due to Tommy John surgery
Vizcaino was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball entering the 2012 season, but he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery to fix it.
He should be pitching in Chicago before the All-Star break—assuming he has no setbacks in recovery.
When Vizcaino was healthy, he threw a mid-90s fastball, plus curveball and changeup. The changeup needs refinement, as does his command, in order to reach his ceiling as a No. 2 starter.
Mechanically speaking, there is nothing wrong with Vizcaino's delivery.
He does use more of a three-quarters delivery but is able to keep the ball down in the zone. His arm action works well but he does lose his release point and that contributes to his command issues.
If Vizcaino can't hold up in the rotation, his stuff will easily play in the back of the bullpen. They are more apt to give him every chance to be a starter before making any permanent decisions.
No. 5 Duane Underwood
5 G (5 starts), 0-1, 5.19 ERA, 8.2 IP, 7 H, 6 R (5 ER), 1 HR, 6 BB, 7 K (Rookie)
Underwood, the Cubs' second-round pick in last year's draft, is an extremely risky bet right now.
He has just 8.2 innings of professional experience under his belt, but his ceiling, combined with the other potential options in this spot, makes him too appealing to keep out of the Top 5.
Boasting an electric arm that includes a low-90s fastball and two potential plus pitches in his curveball and changeup, Underwood could turn into a No. 2 starter down the road.
His control and delivery are inconsistent, as you would expect for such a young player, so he is all projection right now. He has the goods and can flash all that upside on occasion. It will be a slow process but with the right development he could be one of the better pitching prospects in baseball.
General manager Jed Hoyer has already made quite an impression in Chicago with a number of shrewd moves since taking over.
When a franchise has spent years trading assets and using big money to win now, it takes bold moves from the front office to turn things around sooner rather than later.
Fortunately, the new regime that took over for the not-so-dearly departed Jim Hendry knew exactly what this franchise needed and made sure it could add high-ceiling talent to the mix.
Very few teams in baseball have an outfield duo that is as exciting as Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. In a lot of systems, just one of those two players would be the best prospect and no one would complain.
But Javier Baez' exciting offensive potential and better-than-expected chance to remain at shortstop gives him the highest ceiling of anyone in the system.
Beyond those top three players, there are a lot of high-risk, high-reward players making their way up through the lower levels plus a good mix of low-risk, fast-moving players who can step in soon.
The saying in Chicago is "Wait 'til next year" but unfortunately it is going to take longer than that before the Cubs are competing for division championships and playoff spots again.
However, at least now the fans can feel confident that they are headed in the right direction.
Arodys Vizcaino's second major league appearance came against the Chicago Cubs in 2011. He will soon be part of the team's rebuilding efforts.
When it was announced that the Cubs acquired Arodys Vizcaino from Atlanta for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson, I thought it was one of the biggest coups any team pulled off in 2012.
Granted, Vizcaino comes with plenty of risk because he missed all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery—which undoubtedly made it easier for the Braves to deal him.
But given the success rate of pitchers returning from the surgery, it looks like a steal on paper.
Not only does Vizcaino have a high ceiling, but he just turned 22 last November and was ready to play in the big leagues before he got hurt. He pitched in 17 games with Atlanta in 2011, posting a 4.67 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 17 innings pitched.
Before his injury, Vizcaino had a plus fastball that sat in the low to mid-90s and one of the best curveballs in the minor leagues. His changeup may have lagged behind the other pitches, but it shows the potential to be at least an average offering.
If Vizcaino has no setbacks, he will likely start the season in Triple A to work out the usual command and control issues that come after surgery.
But, he could earn a spot in the Cubs' rotation or bullpen (depending on team need) by May.
Jeimer Candelario is just 19 years old.
He has no full-season experience to speak of yet.
His swing and approach in rookie and short-season ball the last two years, however, could push him up the ranks this season.
There are questions about his position, as Jim Callis of Baseball America (subscribers only) notes that he doesn't have much range at third base and has had lapses in concentration in the field.
If Candelario does end up having to move to first base, which won't happen until the team absolutely decides he can't handle third base, his offensive profile won't look as attractive. But as a third baseman, there is a lot to like about his bat.
Candelario has a great eye at the plate, rarely chasing pitches out of the zone—which is huge given his age.
He also has the potential to have plus power as he gets a better understanding of how to drive the ball and he will likely add more muscle to his very strong 6'1" frame in the future.
This will be the first major test of Candelario's career, as he is going to be making his first trek through a full-season league at Low Class A.
The higher levels of the Cubs' system are still low on talent, but the further down the chain you go, the more exciting things become.
Kane County, the Cubs' new low A team, might be one of the most fun teams to watch in all of the minor leagues. It is possible that Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Dan Vogelbach (who I don't love as a prospect, but does have a lot of power) and Jeimer Candelario will start the season there.
Considering that Class A, both low and high, is where virtually all of the Cubs's elite talent is at right now, the development staff has a lot of work ahead of it.
These are players who have the potential to be stars in the big leagues but don't boast enough (or any) experience to know where they are.
This is where farm systems go from having a lot of talent to building championships.
The Cubs can make their future as bright as an Arizona desert at high noon, or they could take a significant hit if the low-level talent doesn't develop as expected.
Another area to watch is pitching. There is not a lot of depth in that department right now, but Pierce Johnson, last year's supplemental pick, could be a No. 4 starter and move quickly.
Duane Underwood and Juan Carlos Paniagua have the highest ceilings of anyone in the system. Again, their professional experience is such that they could turn into elite prospects or fall off the radar.
Underwood is just 18, so he will have a much longer leash to prove himself than Paniagua, who turns 23 on April 4.