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How Will Chicago Cubs Best Use Pile of Top Prospects to Build a Winner?
USA TODAY Sports
Javier Baez connects on a two-run, opposite-field home run in Sunday's Futures Game.

It’s official: The Chicago Cubs have the best collection of young hitters in all of baseball.

The acquisition of shortstop Addison Russell from the Oakland A’s as part of the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel deal gives the Cubs five top-50 prospects in Kris Bryant (No. 3), Russell (No. 5), Javier Baez (No. 6), Arismendy Alcantara (No. 23) and Albert Almora (No. 36), while Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber both rank somewhere in the top 100.

At the major league level, meanwhile, the Cubs have already locked up 24-year-old All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro through at least the 2019 season.

With a slew of potential homegrown stars nearing the major leagues, it shouldn’t be long before the Cubs enter the next phase of their rebuilding process and begin to target high-end starting pitching.

As Cubs president Theo Epstein told Zach Links of MLB Trade Rumors:

We thought a lot internally as we went through this process that we hope that this is the last year that we’ll be obvious sellers at the deadline.  And, nothing would make us happier than aggressively adding to the big league team and enhancing chances for a World Series. 

However, it’s become clear that the Cubs will be forced to part with some of their highly touted prospects in order to "enhance their chances of a World Series."

Even after trading Samardzija and Hammel, the Cubs still have a decent collection of big league starters in Edwin Jackson, Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood and Dan Straily, the latter acquired from the A’s. Plus, the two vacant spots in the rotation can now be used to audition young arms such as Dallas Beeler and Kyle Hendricks during the second half of the season.

The Cubs might not have an impact pitching prospect at the moment, per se, but the organization quietly has added an array of high-upside arms over the last several years both through the draft and trades:

Notable Pitching Prospects Drafted from 2012 to 2014
Year Player Current Age Current Level
2012 RHP Pierce Johnson 23 Double-A
2012 RHP Paul Blackburn 20 Low-A
2012 RHP Duane Underwood 19 Low-A
2013 LHP Rob Zastryzny 22 High-A
2013 RHP Tyler Skulina 22 Low-A
2013 RHP Trey Masek 22 Short Season
2013 RHP Trevor Clifton 19 Short Season
2014 RHP Jake Stinnett 22 Rookie
2014 LHP Carson Sands 19 Rookie
2014 LHP Justin Steele 18 Rookie
2014 RHP Dylan Cease 18 N/A
2014 RHP James Norwood 20 Short Season
2014 RHP Jordan Brink 21 Short Season

Baseball-Reference

Notable Pitching Prospects Acquired 2012-13
Year Player Current Age Current Level
2012 RHP Arodys Vizcaino 23 Triple-A
2012 RHP Kyle Hendricks 24 MLB
2013 RHP C.J. Edwards 22 Double-A (DL)
2013 RHP Neil Ramirez 25 MLB
2013 RHP Corey Black 22 Double-A

Baseball-Reference

For the Cubs, the best-case scenario is that several of the pitchers listed above end up reaching the major leagues. But even if the team’s depth provides options to fill out its rotation in the coming years, it simply cannot afford to bank on any of its pitching prospects becoming front-line starters.

Rather, the Cubs will presumably target top-tier pitchers through trades, which is where their stockpile of high-ceiling young hitters will come in handy.

Epstein spoke about the Cubs’ unique approach to building a pitching staff, via Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times:

If you look at the way the game is going, the batter-pitcher dynamic has shifted in recent years dramatically in favor of the pitcher, ... So there are more effective pitchers out there right now than there are position players. ...

We like how it positions us, ... We like these players playing together on the field someday. And we’re realistic about the fact that not all prospects work out. And we’re open to the fact that at some point in the next few years we’re probably going to make other trades.

However, before the Cubs even consider trading Baez, Russell or Alcantara, it makes sense for the team to first see what it has. Specifically, the Cubs' future infield is a bit overcrowded at the moment, with Castro entrenched at shortstop in the major leagues, Baez holding down the position in Triple-A, and Russell now doing the same in Double-A.

Courtesy of MLB.com

To further complicate things, there isn’t an obvious opening at another infield position for Baez and Russell, at least not with Bryant at third base and Alcantara tentatively slotted as the team’s future second baseman.

Meanwhile, moving one or two guys to the outfield has the potential to impact the developmental timelines of Soler, Almora, Schwarber and Billy McKinney, who was acquired along with Russell from the A’s.

For now, it seems that the Cubs won’t be making any hasty position changes, according to Epstein, via Links:

"The nice thing about having impact players who are athletic, can play in the middle of the field, and can hit is that it gives you options.  You can never have too many shortstops and you look around baseball and you see some of the best outfielders in the game came up as shortstops and the same for the best third basemen and second basemen.  We feel that Baez is a shortstop but we’re also comfortable that he can play second base or third base or outfield if he has to.  Addison Russell has versatility to play all over the infield, Bryant can also go out to right field with a relatively smooth transition, Alcantara can play shortstop or second base or be one heck of an outfielder…They can all fit on the field together,” said the Cubs president, who went on to say the acquisition of Russell had “nothing to do” with Castro.

ESPN’s Keith Law (subscription required) still opined on how the Cubs' infield situation could ultimately shake out:

Which shortstop should the Cubs trade?

Submit Vote vote to see results

The Cubs are quite loaded in the infield, with Javier Baez currently playing short in Triple-A, natural shortstop Arismendy Alcantara playing second and former shortstop Kris Bryant at third. Russell is the best shortstop of the entire group, so his arrival could hasten a chain of position switches with Baez going to third and Bryant to right field. It also could put Starlin Castro, who is showing signs of life with the bat again, on the trade block in the next 12 months, depending on Russell's health and progress in the minors.

The Cubs have plenty of time to determine their optimal future lineup, as the team is unlikely to be a factor in any playoff race until 2017 at the earliest, when most of its top prospects have settled into everyday roles in the major leagues.

Though, based on Epstein’s previous statement regarding the evolving market for hitters, I’d still expect the Cubs to deal at least one middle infielder, likely Castro, Baez or Russell, and an outfielder for long-term starting pitching when the right offer presents itself.

Once they’ve made a trade (or trades), the Cubs will then reassess their crop of offensive prospects and determine whether or not any position changes are needed. For now, however, the organization will keep its prospects at the positions where they offer the most future value.

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