With the 2013 season set to kick off in a couple weeks, the Chicago Cubs are likely in for another long season as they continue to rebuild the franchise from the ground up.
The team has already begun to stockpile some high-end talent, and enters the season with the No. 13-ranked minor league system, according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook.
However, that ranking is due in large part to their top three prospects—a trio of hitters who has the potential to be perennial All-Stars in shortstop Javier Baez and outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.
Center fielder Brett Jackson, first baseman Dan Vogelbach and a pair of Dominican infielders in Jeimer Candelario and Arismendy Alcantara also count among the team's top 10 prospects, as there is a clear lack of pitching organization wide.
As the team gears up for another trying year, the biggest long-term focus has to be improving the pool of young pitching talent, and here is a full rundown of what they have in terms of viable arms, and what they can do moving forward to improve things.
What They Have at the Major League Level
With a big league rotation made up of veteran stop-gap pieces and an expiring frontline arm in Matt Garza, the only pitchers who appear to be assured a rotation spot beyond this year are Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson.
The 28-year-old Samardzija enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, his first year as a full-time starter, as he went 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 174.2 innings before being shut down in early September.
He'll get the ball on Opening Day this year, and he has the potential to emerge as the staff ace if he can take another step forward.
Jackson was the team's big free-agent signing this winter, signing a four-year, $52 million deal. He's not an ace, but he's a consistent, durable middle-of-the-rotation arm, and he gives the team a reliable arm if nothing else.
After those two, Travis Wood could also factor into the long-term plans if he can prove himself this season. The 26-year-old was acquired from the Reds last offseason for reliever Sean Marshall, and he went 6-13 with a 4.27 ERA in 26 starts.
Following a rough July, he settled in over the season's final two months and posted a 3.56 ERA despite a 2-7 record. He's looked strong this spring (12 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 11 K) and gives the team a left-handed option as well.
Beyond those three guys, the likes of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva and free-agent-to-be Garza all figure to be gone by the time the team is ready to legitimately contend. More on Garza later.
What They Have at the Minor League Level
The Cubs have three pitchers among their top 10 prospects, and one of them is 32-year-old Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa.
Their top-rated arm is Arodys Vizcaino, who is their No. 4 prospect and was acquired from the Braves last year in the deal that shipped Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to Atlanta.
The right-hander went 5-5 with a 3.06 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 97 innings over three levels during 2011, finishing the season in Atlanta as a 20-year-old.
However, he missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and it remains to be seen if his future lies in the rotation or the bullpen. Regardless, he appears to be a solid piece of the puzzle moving forward.
The other top prospect is Pierce Johnson, who enters the season ranked as the team's No. 6 prospect after being selected in the supplemental round of the 2012 draft, No. 43 overall.
Johnson pitched at Missouri State University, where he went 4-6 with a 2.53 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 99.2 innings in 2012. He projects as a No. 3 starter, and is a power pitcher with a mid-90s fastball and hammer curve. He's relatively polished, and should move quickly.
After those two arms, the rest of the organization is more or less a question mark.
Albert Cabrera (No. 13 ranked prospect) showed promise working out of the Chicago bullpen last year (11.2 K/9 over 25 appearances), and he's being converted to a starter in the minors this season. Control is a major issue, though (7.5 BB/9), something he'll have to rein in if he hopes to make an impact.
Paul Blackburn (No. 16 prospect) was taken with the No. 56 overall pick in this past June's draft, and he is a polished high school arm with middle-of-the-rotation upside.
The wild card of the group is Dillon Maples, who was viewed as unsignable entering the 2011 draft but was taken by the Cubs in the 14th round and signed to a $2.5 million bonus to lure him away from his commitment to North Carolina.
After signing late in 2011, he pitched just 10.1 innings last year in the Rookie League before injuring his elbow and being shut down. He has frontline upside, but needs to show the team something this year as he'll be 21 in May.
Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley saw time in the Cubs rotation down the stretch last year, but are little more than organizational depth long term, and beyond that there is not much to speak of down on the farm.
Upcoming Draft Prospects
The Cubs hold the No. 2 pick in the upcoming June draft, and they'll have a chance to add a top-tier pitching prospect with the selection.
Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, who fell to No. 8 overall in last year's draft due to bonus demand expectations and opted to return for his senior year, enters the season a the top college prospect and has No. 1 starter upside.
A trio of juniors in right-handers Ryne Stanek (Arkansas) and Jonathan Crawford (Florida), and left-hander Sean Manaea (Indiana State) also enter the season expected to be top-10 picks and will no doubt be on the Cubs' radar all year leading up to the draft.
Organizational Trade Chips
After trading Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Geovany Soto, Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker at the deadline last season, the Cubs will likely be aggressive in dealing once again this summer.
They have a number of players set to hit free agency who will likely be on the move, but really only three potential trade chips have the type of value that could bring the team a high-end prospect.
The aforementioned Garza was among the most sought-after arms at the deadline last year and no doubt would have been moved had it not been for a stress reaction in his elbow that wound up ending his season.
His value has no doubt decreased now that he is on an expiring contract, but he is capable of pitching like a frontline starter nonetheless. If he proves healthy and productive heading up to the deadline, the Cubs should be able to get a solid haul for the 29-year-old.
Then there is Alfonso Soriano, who enters the 2013 season with two years and $36 million remaining on his contract. He was immovable entering last season, but turned in his best season as a Cub with 32 home runs and 108 RBI as one of the few bright spots on last year's team.
It was reported in December that the team was willing to take on $26 million of his remaining salary if it meant getting a solid prospect in return (h/t CBS Sports' Jon Heyman via Twitter), and if he hits like he did last year, a team may be willing to jump at that offer to add his bat for their playoff push.
He'll make $9.8 million in the final year of his contract this season, and while he has struggled at times, the potential and devastating slider still remain, and if things click he could enter the deadline as the top reliever on the market.
If there's one thing teams overpay for on a yearly basis, it's veteran relief pitching at the deadline, and if he's pitching like he did a few years ago and the team takes on some of his salary, they could get a great return for Marmol.
The face of the Cubs franchise right now is undoubtedly 22-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro. Already a two-time All-Star, Castro signed a seven-year, $60 million extension last August that will keep him in Chicago through at least 2019 (h/t ESPN).
However, the young star has not been immune to trade rumors, as there was an uproar of sorts last May when Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that the Cubs were willing to listen to offers on anyone other than Samardzija (h/t USA Today).
Nothing materialized, and there were conflicting reports on whether or not the Cubs would ever even entertain the idea of moving Castro, but nonetheless it remains an option.
As a young, controllable player at a premium position with a proven track record of success, Castro would net a huge return if he were moved. A solid four-player package with at least two frontline prospects could be expected.
With Javier Baez working his way through the organizational ranks, the Cubs will have to decide how to align their defense once he proves big league ready, and moving Castro could be one way to improve the team's pitching and free up a spot for Baez.
In all likelihood, Baez will shift to third base, and the Cubs will never entertain the idea of moving Castro. I'm in no way suggesting that they should trade their young star, but it is there as a potential option to improve the pitching situation.
For now, Cubs fans will have to take solace in the continued progression of their three marquee hitting prospects, along with the continued development of franchise cornerstones Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
On the pitching side of things, a strong follow-up campaign from Samardzija in which he establishes himself as the staff ace would be huge.
There are some pieces there in the minor league system, but we'll have a much clearer picture of what the future holds after this year's draft and the July trade deadline.
If the team can add at least a couple more core pieces on the pitching side of things and maybe have one of their in-house prospects take the next step, they could find themselves among the highest-ranked minor league systems in baseball next season and in a great position to contend a couple years down the road.
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