Pressing Questions: The Chicago Cubs

Pressing Questions: The Chicago Cubs

When the Chicago Cubs last appeared in the World Series, the team's pennant-winning roster included names like Dewey, Mack, Walter, Stan, Lon, Cy, Len, Lennie, Hank and Peanuts. The National League was composed of only eight teams. Baseball cards, discontinued during the war, generally featured painted images. Mordecai Brown was still alive, Bud Selig was 11 years old and Rob Manfred was not yet born.

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Chicago lost the 1945 Series to the Newhouser and Greenberg-led Tigers, and so began one of the more remarkable periods of sustained non-achievement in the history of team sports. These past seven decades have been a little rough for the Cubs.

But today, the team is guided by a battle-tested manager and a collection of proven executives. Chicago's farm system is ridiculously talent-rich, featuring a trio of consensus top-20 prospects — Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler — plus another half-dozen young players with obvious potential. Things are suddenly looking up for the Cubs — so up, in fact, that the team signed a 31-year-old pitcher to a nine-figure deal in the offseason. When a franchise splurges like that, you know it expects to win, and soon.

Still, the range of possible outcomes for the 2015 Cubs is awfully wide, what with so many under-25 players expected to produce. But there's no shortage of optimism on the north side — and, finally, the hopefulness doesn't seem misplaced or insane. Chicago certainly offers plenty of interesting fantasy pieces this season, so let's field a few questions that press ...

Q: GIVE US BRYANT. NOW. MUST HAVE. URGENT.

A: I mean, that's not even a question. Please respect the Q&A gimmick.

Q: OK, fine. When will Kris Bryant arrive in the majors for keeps, and what will his early numbers look like?

A: Better. Thank you.

Cubs projected starters
Cubs projected starters

The first thing we need to say about Bryant, just so everyone's on the same page here, is that he's an exceptional prospect, a kid with upper-tier fantasy potential. Bryant was named Baseball America's 2014 Minor League Player of the Year, and it probably wasn't a tough call. He hit 43 bombs across two levels last season, driving in 110 runs, crossing the plate 118 times, swiping 15 bags and slashing .325/.438/.661. Bryant has plenty of swing-and-miss in his game (162 Ks), which is no small issue as he attempts to conquer big league pitching — it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he didn't hit for average as a rookie. But everyone expects immediate power contributions. At a time when home runs are increasingly scarce, Bryant offers them in abundance. He's quickly dominated at every stop, throughout his career. Prior to winning BA's Player of the Year award, he was named the Arizona Fall League MVP, plus he claimed the Golden Spikes Award in 2013.

Simply put, it's been quite a while since Bryant was anything less than the top player at his level. We shouldn't completely rule out the possibility that he may open the season as Chicago's starting third baseman, if he forces the issue this spring. Bryant isn't blocked by anyone notable. The Cubs' early-season placeholder options include Mike Olt (uninteresting) and Arismendy Alcantara (very interesting, extremely versatile). Clearly, Bryant's spring performance will be a huge storyline throughout March — arguably the biggest in fantasy. If he doesn't demolish Cactus League pitching, then the Cubs will have cover to do business-of-baseball things, perhaps stashing him at Triple-A until May. Whenever he arrives in Wrigley, Bryant figures to be a middle-of-the-order hitter with high-end power potential. Again, batting average is really the only mild near-term concern.

Bryant was drafted in Round 10 of the LABR mixed league earlier this week, a price that left plenty of room for profit. If you need a 5X5 fantasy projection from us right now, today, here you go: 71-26-77-5-.269.

Q: How 'bout the rest of Chicago's silly collection of prospects? Who are the names to know?

A: We really can't stress enough how deep and impressive this system is entering 2015. The Cubs have multiple prospects generally ranked outside the organization's top-10 — guys like 1B Dan Vogelbach and LHP Carson Sands — who would be viewed as seriously buzz-worthy commodities in other systems. Chicago has a terrific talent pool from which to deal, if the right vet becomes available at the right time. And, of course, the team can continue to promote young, cost-controlled weapons.

Phil Cavarretta, 1945 MVP
Phil Cavarretta, 1945 MVP

Beyond Bryant, the two most interesting names for 2015 are Soler and Russell. With each player, the primary concerns are injury history and ... well, not much else. If healthy, both guys figure to be very good major league ballplayers. Soler was terrific last season after the late call-up (24 games, 5 HRs, .292/.330/.573), and he's demonstrated power and on-base skills during his minor league career (lifetime .300/.375/.525). He could very well emerge as a star, plus he's set to open the season in the majors. Draft and enjoy.

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Russell, at age 21, ranks alongside Bryant as a long term prospect. He plays a premium defensive position and does it reasonably well, but at the moment he's blocked in Chicago by Starlin Castro. One of those guys may eventually find himself at third (which would bump Bryant to left), or at second (if Javier Baez can't adjust), or perhaps at short for the Mets (Starlin-for-pitching has always made sense). When Russell makes it to Chicago, it will be an actionable fantasy event. He can hit for average with double-digit power/speed totals, not unlike Castro.

Chicago's prospect parade won't stop any time soon, not with C/OF Kyle Schwarber and RHPs Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards advancing steadily. Schwarber is a dynasty must-own.

Q: So what are the odds that Baez will be a total bust?

A: Total? Well, that seems unlikely. For all his faults, he still managed to belt nine homers in 229 MLB plate appearances last season. When Baez hits 'em, they stay hit.

Javier Baez, after yet another out. (Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports)
Javier Baez, after yet another out. (Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports)

The problem, obviously, is that he rarely hit anything last year when facing major league arms. Baez whiffed a remarkable 95 times over those 229 PAs, drawing just 15 walks. His swinging-strike rate was 19.1 percent, which of course is funny-bad — much higher than guys like Chris Carter (16.5), Tyler Flowers (16.4), Ryan Howard (15.5) and Mark Reynolds (15.3).

As general manager Jed Hoyer said back in January, "[Baez] is going to have to make more contact to stay in the big leagues."

With new coaches and new expectations in play, Baez will presumably need a strong spring to earn his spot in the opening day lineup. He'll then need to demonstrate in April that he's capable of adjusting to big league stuff. Baez's power ceiling remains extremely high, but his floor is Uggla-ish. If he fails to impress in February and March, Alcantara or new arrival Tommy La Stella can leapfrog him. Fantasy owners shouldn't ignore Baez, but you can't afford to draft your way into a spot where you need him to succeed. He's a lottery ticket, not a lock.

Q: What's the story with Jake Arrieta? Was he a fluke last season, or is he for real?

A: Legit. Solid. One hundred percent real — or at least greater than 90 percent. Draft with confidence. Arrieta's breakout was no accident of luck. He tweaked the pitch mix last year, threw as hard as ever, cut his walks, and missed a million bats (OK, hundreds of bats). Arrieta's swinging-strike percentage (10.2) placed him in the neighborhood of guys like Jordan Zimmermann (10.3) and new teammate Jon Lester (9.9). His ERA was 2.53 and his xFIP was 2.73. Again: Not some miracle of friendly bounces. Arrieta is entering his age-29 season, coming off a terrific campaign. If you don't want him, leave him for me.

Q: And this year's Cubs closer is the same as last year's Cubs closer, right?

A: Yup, Hector Rondon. He's coming off a quiet 29-save season, he posted useful fantasy ratios last year (2.42 ERA, 1.06 WHIP) and he whiffed 4.2 batters for every walk. This is a bargain closer, friends.

Q: Will they have an actual ballpark on the north side this season, or will it just be a deep crater surrounded by cranes and heavy machinery?

A: Renovations at Wrigley are ongoing, beset by legal challenges and not happening as fast as anyone would like. Bryant may arrive before the new bleachers, even if he opens the season at Triple-A. The park alterations are a strange sideshow in an otherwise exciting year. The expected changes are likely to have some sort of impact in the way the ballpark plays, but weather has always been the dominant factor. Wrigley can be uncommonly hitter-friendly one day, then overwhelmingly pitcher-friendly the next.

Weird, fun place. Weird, fun team. Let's play two.

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Rest in peace, 14. (Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)
Rest in peace, 14. (Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)