When it comes to baseball on the North Side of Chicago, the past several years have felt like one LONG, cold winter. Four consecutive years of losing seasons, including two seasons with 90 losses and one with 101 losses will do that to a city and fan base that so desperately wants to win.
But the pain goes well beyond the past few years. Cubs fans have had to endure watching their cross-town rivals, the Chicago White Sox win their first World Series title in 2005, ending an 88-year drought. Meanwhile, their own team has been waiting to parade down Michigan Street since 1908. Even the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team busted out of a nearly 50-year slump to win TWO Stanley Cups (2010 & 2013).
Look, I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, so until recently, I knew all too well the feeling of enduring losing season after losing season, missed opportunities, watching the Oakland Athletics across the Bay reel off several Championships, and having that thrown in your face. Believe me – it wasn’t easy passing billboards on Interstate 80 (prior to the Giants winning the 2010 World Series) that read – “Great Ballpark, No Rings.”
This is not about San Francisco though. This is about the Chicago Cubs and how the tide of poor mismanagement and misfortune is finally turning. At long last, there is a healthy crop of prospects in the farm system ready to join a talented group of players on the big club that collectively, are poised to burst onto the scene and out of obscurity. And Theo Epstein, Cubs President of Baseball Operations, is the driving force behind it all.
In case you need a quick refresher on Epstein, at 28, he became the youngest General Manager in baseball history and built a winner around guys like David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon and his infamous grand slam (eulogized in the Ben Harper song ‘Get It Like You Like It”) that propelled the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 2004 breaking an 86-year drought. Three years later, he helped orchestrate a second World Series title for Boston before leaving for Chicago in October 2011. There, he reunited with then, San Diego Padres General Manager, and former Red Sox Assistant General Manager, Jed Hoyer – which brings us to present day.
So what has Epstein done you might ask? I know it’s easy to sit back and look at Epstein with a tinge of cynicism and say, “ok, you’ve had the keys to this car for three years….what’s the deal?” After all, Epstein arrived in Chicago with much anticipation that he in fact WAS the guy that would turn things around. The cynicism has only been exacerbated in our current 24-hour sports news cycle via print, television, radio and especially social media channels, and the “what have you done for me lately” attitude.
This might come as quite a shock for some, but Epstein wasn’t going to turn around a bumbling Cubs franchise in a season or even two. That was never realistic – especially considering that we’re talking about baseball. So many elements come into play. You need to draft well. You need to get lucky. You need to trust the process. Most of all, you need patience and allow your prospects ample time to develop. Players need time to adjust to new equipment (metal to wood bat), pitchers that have ridiculous fastballs and off-speed stuff, and the toil of playing so many games. It’s a grind, which is why even at the Triple-A level, there’s only a 50/50 shot for prospects to make it to the big leagues.
Epstein and Hoyer, to their credit, have followed the process, and slowly and methodically, have built one of the best farm systems in Major League Baseball. I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing – the Cubs have one of the best farm systems? You still don’t believe me?
Look no further than Baseball America’s recently published 2014 Baseball America Top 100 Prospects. Below you will find a list of Cubs prospects in order:
- #5 Javier Baez, Shortstop
- #8 Kris Bryant, Third base
- #28 C.J. Edwards, Pitcher
- #36 Albert Almora, Outfield
- #41 Jorge Soler, Outfield
- #87 Pierce Johnson, Pitcher
- #100 Arismendy Alcantara, Second base/shortstop
What strikes me most when I look at this list of players, besides the overall volume of prospects, is how well balanced it is. Definitely a trademark of Epstein teams. Baez and Bryant, both top 10 players are expected to join the Cubs this season. Both can hit for average, power and get runs in. Of the remaining five players, four are expected to make the big leagues by next year, with only Almora expected in 2016. Almora may still emerge as the best of all of them.
I am most intrigued with Edwards and Johnson. Great pitching always beats great hitting, which is why I love that these guys are part of the Cubs’ overall depth. Scouts pin them both as durable, with great stuff. I think the Cubs will take their time with these guys, especially as they’ve drastically improved their current starting rotation with the acquisition of Jason Hamell, James McDonald and Edwin Jackson.
At the end of the day, all of this might mean nothing. Baseball America could have it all wrong and they certainly have before. The whole thing could come crashing down on Epstein, but make no mistake – Epstein’s Cubs have been all the talk this Spring Training and you have to applaud the effort and desire to become relevant again.
The road to resurgence won’t be an easy one though. The National League Central is still one of the more difficult divisions in baseball with the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds – who all won more than 90 games last year. This combined with the calculated development players probably means 2014 will not be the Cubs year. However, another disappointing season will only fuel the media’s speculation that Epstein’s reign should be considered a failure when the reality is we cannot fully judge he’s vision for Chicago until the team’s prospects have had time to mature and integrate themselves with current standout players like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro.
Without question, 2014 is a big year for Epstein and the franchise, but 2015 is even bigger. Will the patience and hard work pay off? Can he do what he did for the Red Sox for the Cubs? Certainly, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, but based on what I’ve seen, I believe it’s about to pay off. If there isn’t measurable improvement by 2015, I think then it will be fair to cast stones at Epstein. Until then, hold on tight Cubs fans, because I think you’re in for a fun, wild ride.
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