When the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, the U.S. had only 46 states. Russia was ruled by a czar. No human had yet reached the north pole. Or the south pole. Frank "Home Run" Baker had not yet hit his first home run. The list of major league mascots back then included the Doves, Naps, Highlanders, Browns and Superbas. Harry Caray had not yet been born, nor had Mel Allen, Ernie Harwell or Jack Brickhouse.
What I'm saying is this: It's been a long damn time since the Chicago National League Ball Club won a title. And when the team last claimed a championship, in 1908, the final game of the Series drew a record-low 6,210 fans. So there were remarkably few witnesses to an event that now exists outside living memory.
But hey, the present-day Cubs front office has a plan. Fans may not be thrilled with the timeline of the current plan, but it exists. Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein have built a stellar farm system atop the smoking ruins of Jim Hendry's former empire. At every level of this organization, we find high-quality talent. Chicago spent next to nothin' on the major league roster this offseason, avoiding the big-name domestic free agents (Cano, Ellsbury, Choo, Granderson, et al) — a reasonable course of action, because those guys are all 30-somethings. The team pursued 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka, but the Yankees pursued harder.
Ultimately, the biggest offseason additions were Justin Ruggiano and a pantsless bear. Sigh.
[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]
Let's simply try to focus on the positives. Again, Chicago's farm system is terrific, massively improved. Full of upside and intrigue. Shortstop Javier Baez and third baseman Kris Bryant will rank as top-20 prospects on pretty much every board, while outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler won't be far behind. Second baseman Arismendy Alcantara is coming off a 15/31 season at Double-A, plus he homered in the Futures Game. First baseman Dan Vogelbach seemed to hit a missile in every Midwest League at-bat last season (or at least that's what happened when I was in the park). Right-handed starter Pierce Johnson delivered excellent numbers at Single-A last season, Kyle Hendricks was awfully good in the high minors, and CJ Edwards was ... well, he was just silly. Edwards whiffed 155 batters in just 116.1 Single-A innings, posting an ERA of 1.86.
And this, at last, brings us to the only Cubs question that's truly pressing...
Q: When will any of these kids arrive in the big leagues? Are any of them draft-worthy in mixed fantasy leagues this season?
A: There it is, the big one. The zillion-dollar question. It's the only topic worth discussing if you plan to actually attend a game at Wrigley over the next two seasons. Because really, this franchise's major league roster is weapons-grade boring. Just look at that mess over on the right.
Hendricks is a good bet to arrive this season, perhaps early. The 24-year-old righty went 13-4 across two levels last season, finishing at Triple-A Iowa. His ratios were solid — 2.00 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 6.9 K/9 — and he issued just 34 walks in 166.1 innings, allowing only five home runs. Hendricks isn't projected as a top-of-rotation sort of starter, however, and he's not a particularly hard-thrower (89/90-ish). Thus, he's not yet a pitcher of interest for mixed league players. Arodys Vizcaino, 23, is a flame-thrower who's had a few elbow repairs over the past two years, but he's reportedly thrown well in recent months. He's a darkhorse saves candidate, a guy with a closing-quality arm. It's not as if the Cubs' bullpen is full of lights-out relievers. (Details below.)
Of all the notable prospects in this system, Baez and Bryant are the two who should be of greatest interest to the fantasy community in the season ahead (and beyond). Baez was simply a monster last year, hitting 17 bombs in half a season at Daytona, then another 20 in 54 games at Double-A. His final stat line across two levels was eye-popping: 98 R, 37 HR, 111 RBIs, 20 SB, .282/.341/.578. He actually improved after making the leap to the Southern League, too. Strikeouts are a concern with Baez (147 Ks, 40 BBs last season), but his power is elite. His bat-speed is unnatural. He had a four-homer game for Daytona, and you might recall that he homered three times on three consecutive swings last spring. He's legit. Barring injury or unexpected collapse, we'll almost certainly see Baez in the majors by the end of the season. It's reasonable to hope for a mid-year arrival if he continues to produce at or near his 2013 pace. It's no lock that he'll stick at short, but his bat will play anywhere.
Bryant destroyed pitching at every stop in 2013, winning both the Golden Spikes Award for his collegiate work (31 HR, .820 SLG) and the Arizona Fall League MVP. Like Baez, he's an exceptional power-hitting prospect, a player who may not be forced to make any significant adjustments until he reaches Wrigley Field. The hope here is that we'll see him in September. He's certainly not blocked by anything interesting.
Q: So Mike Olt doesn't even rate a mention?
A: Well, Olt is not in Bryant's class in terms of potential, and this system is so stacked with hitters that it's easy to overlook him. But yeah, the 25-year-old Olt is still in the mix, hoping to rebound from a miserable season. (Last year's troubles were the result of vision problems, now presumably behind him.) It's worth noting that Olt is just a season removed from a 28-homer campaign at Double-A Frisco. If he has a strong spring, he has a clear shot to claim a big league job.
Q: While we're discussing bounce-back candidates, what's the forecast for Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo? Those two were surprisingly not helpful last year.
A: The short answer is that I'm substantially more interested in Rizzo, fantasy-wise. He was a disappointment last season, no doubt, hitting just .233/.323/.419, with a relatively modest 23 home runs. Those numbers really don't pay the fantasy bills, not at first base. But there were a few encouraging signs for Rizzo, including improvements in his BB-rate and his swinging-strike percentage. He also had little luck on balls-in-play, posting a .258 BABIP.
The big concern here — and this is no small thing — is that Rizzo has been consistently terrible against left-handed pitching at the major league level. For his career, he's hitting .194/.270/.347 against lefties and .257/.346/.439 versus right-handers. Last year, the split was .189/.282/.342 vs. LHPs and .252/.342/.454 vs. RHPs. If you invest in Rizzo in fantasy (in any format), you have to consider finding a platoon partner.
Still, Rizzo's power potential is clear enough, and his home park tends to favor hitters (although it's really two different parks, depending on wind and temps. But you already knew that.) He should be available at a discount this year. I'm definitely interested.
As for Castro, well ... meh. Even if his batting average jumps back into the neighborhood of .300 — which, for the record, would be a 55-point leap — he's given us no reason to believe that he'll hit for significant power. We know he possesses 20-steal potential, but his speed isn't exceptional by the standards of his position. He's nothing special in the field, either. And he's prone to bouts of boneheadedness.
A responsible projection for Castro would be something like this: 70-12-60-12-.275. If you're expecting more, then you're just wishing.
Q: Who's the closer for this team? Is it really Jose Veras?
A: Looks that way, yup. And yes, he's a dice roll. Nothing special. No magic here. Veras is a guy with a career 1.31 WHIP and an ERA of 3.84. He'll be one of the last closers taken in fantasy drafts, because he's a sketchy pitcher on a team that may only win 65-70 games. But this is a bullpen full of bad ideas, so the job appears to be his, at least initially. Pedro Strop and the aforementioned Vizcaino will enter the discussion when Veras stumbles. And he will stumble, because c'mon.