Will 'Core 4' of Elite Prospects Transform Lowly Cubs into MLB Contenders?

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Will 'Core 4' of Elite Prospects Transform Lowly Cubs into MLB Contenders?
Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Can Javier Baez and his fellow hotshot prospects get the Chicago Cubs pointed in the right direction?

At 29-39 heading into Tuesday, the Chicago Cubs are on a familiar path. That is to say they're looking at their fifth consecutive losing campaign and their 106th straight season without a championship. And yet, for an organization that hasn't had much success lately—and even not so lately—there is hope.

That hope is all about a future in which the Cubs are no longer Lovable Losers but perennial contenders. Better yet, it's a future that is gradually becoming the present, thanks to the presence and progress of one of Major League Baseball's very best farm systems—and a "Core Four" of elite prospects, in particular.

Those four? Why, they're easy to name, and not only for folks waiting (and waiting and waiting) for their inevitable arrivals on the North Side: Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.

Although all four ETAs aren't identical, if the plan put into place by team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer plays out just right, that quartet should reach Wrigley Field and help the Cubs start making some noise as soon as 2016—and for years beyond.

Epstein, who took over baseball operations for the Cubs in October 2011 after winning two titles as GM of the Boston Red Sox, told Tim Keown of ESPN The Magazine this past spring training: "There's definitely a dichotomy with how we're perceived from the outside and how we feel about ourselves as an organization. There's a great vibe around here. The sense of progress and potential is palpable."

Of the seven Cubs prospects to earn a ranking in the top 100 among five well-known sites that track and rate young players—Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Bleacher Report, ESPN and MLB.com—the four mentioned above as the club's potential "Core Four" are those who checked in as top-50 prospects in each preseason ranking:

Cubs Prospects Ranked in the Top 100 by Various Sources
PROSPECT BASEBALL AMERICA RANK BASEBALL PROSPECTUS RANK BLEACHER REPORT RANK ESPN RANK MLB RANK
Javier Baez 5 4 6 7 6
Kris Bryant 8 17 17 15 8
Albert Almora 36 25 14 28 15
Jorge Soler 41 45 41 26 41
Pierce Johnson 87 91 76 - 86
C.J. Edwards 28 81 70 67 34
Arismendy Alcantara 100 83 65 71 75

Various

There are a few noteworthy points to make about this quartet. The first is that they've all been acquired within the past three years, starting with Baez, who went No. 9 overall back in the 2011 draft; followed by Almora at No. 6 in 2012; then Soler, a Cuban defector who signed a nine-year, $30 million contract in late June of 2012; and most recently, Bryant, last year's second pick, who has been absolutely tearing up the minors since he signed.

The second is that they're all still extremely young, even by prospect standards, for their respective levels of play, which is especially promising. The youngest of the bunch is Almora, a 20-year-old at High-A, and Baez is 21 and already at Triple-A. Bryant and Soler, both 22, are teammates at Double-A.

And lastly, all four are position players. While Baez is a shortstop and Bryant a third baseman, Almora and Soler are center and right fielders, respectively. As for their strengths on the diamond, Baez, Bryant and Soler have some of the best power in the minors, and Almora is considered one of the best up-the-middle defenders.

Indeed, this fantastic foursome of prospects is not only new and young, they're also more likely to make an impact on a daily basis in some way or another—hitting, running, fielding—and less likely to succumb to a progress-halting or career-derailing elbow- or shoulder-related injury like oh so many young pitchers have recently.

That's not to say all of them are quote-unquote "can't-miss" or "safe"—if such a thing exists. While Baez and Bryant have remained relatively healthy as professionals, both Almora and Soler have dealt with injuries that have hampered their development.

Almora suffered a broken hamate bone and a strained groin last year, and Soler has been particularly snake-bitten, having played only seven games at Double-A this season while dealing with a right hamstring ailment after losing much of 2013 with a fractured tibia.

USA TODAY Sports
After missing a chunk of last season due to injury, Jorge Soler played in the Arizona Fall League.

There are other prospects in the Cubs pipeline aside from Baez, Bryant, Almora and Soler, too. Among them are infielders Arismendy Alcantara, Jeimer Candelario and Dan Vogelbach, as well as right-handers C.J. Edwards (acquired as part of the Matt Garza trade last July) and Pierce Johnson (the team's second selection after Almora in 2012), both of whom are currently out with injuries.

Any of them, and a host of others, could factor into the franchise's future at various stages from the next few months to the next few years and help the team return to relevance.

But if the Cubs are going to be more than just relevant any time soon, Baez, Bryant, Almora and Soler will be at the heart of the resurgence.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Derek Jeter (in jersey) is the last of the Yankees "Core Four" still around, and he's retiring at season's end.

Funny how the stars sometimes align, but if that comes to fruition, baseball just might be gaining a new "Core Four" in Chicago just as the one in New York is wrapping up its run. With the retirement of Derek Jeter at the end of this season, the Yankees' version—Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jeter—will be saying goodbye just as the Cubs' is breaking in, starting with Baez and Bryant.

Of course, there's a long way—and about five rings—to go before any "Core Four" comparisons can really be drawn. But the build-it-back-up-from-within approach started working about 20 years ago in the Bronx after what were arguably the darkest days in Yankees history.

Although the Yankees' 17 championship-less seasons from 1979 through 1995 (counting the 1994 strike year) don't quite measure up to the Cubs' never-ending drought, the point isn't to compare futility, but to point out the way in which it turned to an extended period of success thanks to the team's rebuilding with savvy draft picks and steady player development. 

Sarah Glenn/Getty Images
Cubs fans already adore Albert Almora, who's still in A-ball.

Whether the Cubs' "Core Four" of Baez, Bryant, Almora and Soler, supplemented by other prospects and players brought in by Eptsein and Hoyer via the draft, free agency and trades, eventually proves capable of doing what the Yankees' model did—have sustained success and maybe even win it all—remains to be seen.

Ultimately, though, that's the Cubs' plan: to turn the future into the present and then ensure the present lasts well into the future. This is how Hoyer put it to Keown: "One of the challenges with the drought or the streak is the idea that next year's the year. You want to reach the point where next year can always be the year. Trying to cobble something together every year to make a run has had a negative impact here."

With Baez and Bryant nearly ready and Soler and Almora to follow, the Cubs' "Core Four" will be in place soon. So for a change, the Chicago Cubs are acknowledging that next year won't, in fact, be the year. But 2016 and beyond? Maybe. Just maybe.

 

Statistics are accurate through June 16 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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