The Chicago Cubs are ticketed for another last-place finish in the National League Central this year, but there won’t be a more exciting team to watch over the final month of the season.
The Cubs have played .500 ball (23-22) since the All-Star break thanks to an electric offense that is pacing the National League with 57 home runs during that span.
In general, things have been looking up for the North Siders since the beginning of July, when they began infusing the big-league lineup with some of their prized prospects.
Now, a little less than two months since the process began, it’s easy to see why the Chicago Cubs’ future is so bright.
But how long will it be until the Cubs emerge as playoff contenders?
It’s difficult to predict a specific year with any sense of certainty, but the team’s performance during the second half of the season and its untapped potential on the farm suggest that time could come sooner rather than later.
"This is a nervous time, I would suspect, for Cubs fan as the Calvary begins to arrive at Wrigley Field," says Bob Lutz of The Wichita Eagle. "Are they really coming to save the day? Or will this turn out to be just another tease?
"I'm betting that this time, the Cubs are on the right course."
While the debut of the Cubs’ top prospects this summer has been the major storyline, it’s doubtful that the opportunity would have presented itself without the respective success of shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo—the team’s only cost-effective players worth building around.
Though he’s been sidelined with a back strain of late, Rizzo has put together a breakout season worthy of MVP consideration. Through 129 games this season, the 25-year-old is batting .278/.375/.514 with 30 home runs, 23 doubles, 71 RBI and a 106-65 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Castro, meanwhile, has seemingly reversed the trajectory of his career with a much-needed bounce-back campaign, batting .292/.339/.438 with 14 home runs, 33 doubles and 65 RBI through 134 games. The 24-year-old has been especially hot since the All-Star break, with a .329/.371/.432 batting line and 51 hits in 40 games.
The ongoing success of Castro and Rizzo surely has made it easier for the front office to promote its top prospects during the second half of the season. Specifically, their production has underscored the Cubs’ open window for success moving forward, and therefore encouraged them to give their core players, both prospects and big leaguers, a head start as they finish the season together at the highest level.
While the Cubs have a deep farm system featuring a slew of top-ranked position prospects, it goes without saying that middle infielder Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant, shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Jorge Soler represent the team’s top young talent.
Baez was the first to arrive of the quartet, making his major league debut on Aug. 5 against the Rockies at Coors Field. The 21-year-old slugger announced his arrival in a big way, launching a go-ahead solo home run to the opposite field in the top of the 12th inning.
Since then, Baez has added six more home runs to his season total, giving him seven in 29 games. Though it was expected, the right-handed hitter has been feast-or-famine at the dish since the promotion, with 51 strikeouts in 125 plate appearances (40.8 percent strikeout rate). And even though Baez is batting just .175/.208/.383 during his short time in the majors, the Cubs still have a winning record of 16-13 with him in the lineup.
The Cubs’ most recent call-up was Soler, promoted from Triple-A Iowa on Aug. 27. He didn’t come with the same hype as Baez after missing most of the first half with hamstring injuries.
However, the 22-year-old Cuban quickly made up for lost time after returning, as he batted .340/.432/.700 with 15 home runs, 23 doubles and 57 RBI over 62 games across three levels. More importantly, his overwhelming success in the minor leagues forced the Cubs to promote him late last month.
Soler has been nothing short of amazing since the call-up, batting .500 (11-for-22) with three home runs—each of which has been very, very impressive—four doubles and eight RBI through his first 24 plate appearances. On Monday, he became the seventh player in MLB history with an extra-base hit in each of his first five games.
Manager Rick Renteria spoke after the game about his right fielder’s impressive showing at the plate, via Carrie Muskat of MLB.com:
"He's got bat lag—he stays inside of pitches really, really well, and then he stays through it and really gets extension," Renteria said. "He's what you call short to the ball and long through it."
Renteria also acknowledged the excitement that’s come with Soler’s arrival, stating via Muskat, "He's done a nice job since he's been here and impacted us in a positive way. It'll be exciting for the fans here in Chicago to see him and put their eyes on him."
That brings us to the Cubs’ two other big-name prospects, Bryant and Russell.
|2014 MiLB Statistics: Chicago Cubs Top Prospects|
|Kris Bryant (22)||138||594||34||43||110||14.5%||27.3%||.325||1.098|
|Javier Baez (21)||104||434||24||23||80||7.8%||30.0%||.260||.833|
|Jorge Soler (22)||62||236||23||15||57||14.0%||20.3%||.340||1.132|
|Addison Russell (20)||68||280||14||13||45||6.8%||17.5%||.295||.858|
Bryant has done nothing but mash since the Cubs selected him No. 2 overall in the 2013 draft, but the front office has already made it known that he won’t be promoted to the major leagues in September.
The 22-year-old third baseman has posted video-game numbers this season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, batting .325/.438/.661 (1.098 OPS) with a minor-league-leading 43 home runs to go along with 34 doubles, 110 RBI and 15 stolen bases in 138 games.
Russell, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft, was acquired in early July from the A’s in the deal for right-handers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Like Soler, the 20-year-old missed most of the first half with a hamstring injury but has settled in quickly with his new organization after a hot start, batting .294/.332/.536 with 12 home runs, 11 doubles and 36 RBI through 50 games.
Based on the state of the Cubs’ current offense and the hitters they have on the way, such as Bryant, Russell and even 2014 first-rounder Kyle Schwarber, this is a team that can rake its way into the playoff conversation by 2016. However, that’s assuming that all or most of the organization’s top offensive assets continue down their current developmental paths.
As the Cubs’ potent offense takes shape over the next season-plus, there will come a time when the organization is forced to trade prospect depth for pitching. The good news is that every top potential trade chip, whether its Castro, Baez or Russell, is probably good enough to return a high-end starting pitcher in a straight-up deal. Plus, the Cubs should still boast a potentially league-best offense even if they lose one of the aforementioned blue chips.
One thing is for certain: With Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, three guys capable of hitting the ball over 400 feet each time up, in the everyday lineup for the next month, the Chicago Cubs are officially must-watch television.