Signals from the front office are consistently pointing to 2015 as the year when the pieces start to come together, and the Cubs take a significant turn towards perennial major league contention. We knew there are some good players already in the majors to build around, and we know there is a very talented wave of hitters in Triple A and Double A that should arrive over the course of the next season and should help improve the major league Cubs.
But what is still missing? What do the Cubs lack both in the majors and the high minors?
Or, to phrase that differently: what will the Cubs be looking for in trades or in free agency as they look to 2015?
After a survey of the system, that is the question we’ll try to answer.
Iowa Cubs : 51-45
The Cubs remain in first place, but that is by just a half a game over Omaha and three games over Oklahoma City. The July 4 trade has had a significant impact on the Iowa rotation, and it will take some time for the Cubs to reestablish a new normal in that area. In the meantime, they may be relying a little more on their offense.
Fortunately Iowa is about to get a few days to figure out that new normal. After today’s home game, they are off on Monday and Tuesday for their All-Star break. The Triple A All-Star game is on Wednesday, and on Thursday the Cubs resume the season with a trip to Round Rock.
Tennessee Smokies : 12-11
The Smokies are tied for first in wins, but trail Birmingham by half a game thanks to having lost one more contest. Huntsville is half a game behind the Smokies.
The Cubs conclude a home series with Jacksonville on Monday and then have a day off for travel. On Wednesday they open a tough five game set in Huntsville.
And in about two and a half weeks, on July 31 and August 1 to be exact, I will be visiting the Smokies for their games against Pensacola. If you are going to be in the area, make plans to come out to the ballpark.
Daytona Cubs : 13-8
The Cubs have played two more games than Brevard County, those games resulting in a win and a loss, and are effectively tied for first even though Brevard County leads in winning percentage slightly. Dunedin and Tampa are two and a half back.
The Cubs are in Jupiter through Monday, and then after a day off they head home to the risk of rainouts and to play Fort Myers through Saturday.
Kane County Cougars : 15-6
Kane County is still in first, but they are still having a hard time shaking Peoria. The Chiefs are just a game and a half back of the Cougars, and trail by just one in the win column. Burlington and Quad Cities are three and a half back.
The Cubs Low A affiliate have a doubleheader at home against Beloit today, and another game against that same competition tomorrow. After an off day on Tuesday they travel to Lansing and Great Lakes to complete the week. The series in Great Lakes starting on Saturday will be on MiLB.TV.
Boise Hawks : 15-14
Boise had a very good week and have taken ownership of second place, but despite pulling to within a game they were not able to catch Hillsboro for first place. Not yet, anyway.
Starting on Monday the Hawks are at home for eight straight with games against Spokane and Salem-Keiser. Spokane is the best team in the Northwest League, though, so Boise may have a challenge on their hands.
Arizona Cubs : 9-7
After starting the season pretty well, the AZL Cubs have fallen on some hard times lately. Despite winning just one game this past week, the Rookie Level Cubs are still tied for first with the AZL Diamondbacks. The whole division is close, though, with the last place A’s just three back.
The NL West features prominently on the schedule this week with games against the Giants, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers as well as the Angels and a pair against the Brewers.
First base is no problem for the Cubs going forward thanks to All-Star Anthony Rizzo, and his fellow All-Star Starlin Castro joins Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Luis Valbuena, and Christian Villanueva in ensuring that the rest of the infield should be covered. Odds are pretty good that the Cubs can find a better than league average infield in that group somewhere.
Catcher is also no problem. Welington Castillo has been slowed by injury this year, but he is coming off a 3.2 fWAR season and back to back seasons with a wRC+ over 100. With Rafael Lopez emerging as a strong backup contender, the Cubs have no need to prioritize catcher in the near term.
The bullpen also looks good. Not only do the Cubs have a stable of young flamethrowers already in the majors, they have a nice collection of reinforcements that includes Zac Rosscup, Arodys Vizcaino, and Armando Rivero lurking in the high minors. Even if a reliever or two is transitioned into the rotation (Neil Ramirez seems like a candidate for that) the Cubs bullpen should still be in good shape.
And now the problems areas come into focus. We knew the starting rotation was going to be an issue, but we also know that there are some quality options available on the free agent market. Kyle Hendricks looks like a solid back of the rotation option for 2015, and Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch should join Chris Rusin on the spot-starter shuttle at the very least. Meanwhile the 2015 Iowa rotation is likely to feature high upside arms like C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson, not to mention fireballer Corey Black. In other words, depth may not be much of a problem next year.
What the Cubs will need is someone to join Jake Arrieta at the front of the rotation. That will have to come from free agency; the nearest potential front of the rotation candidates in the minors are still a year or more away. Starting pitching will no doubt be high on the Cubs shopping list this winter, but once again I suspect they will target pitchers we do not necessarily expect. Fans will be looking for stars and exciting names, but the Cubs will be looking for another Scott Feldman or Jason Hammel. Given the Cubs success taking relatively anonymous pitchers and turning them into highly effective starters, I have no complaints with that strategy. When all is said and done I suspect the starting rotation will again be a strength for the Cubs in 2015.
Outfield may or may not be a problem, depending on how many of the Cubs infield prospects have success in the majors. If they all prosper (unlikely) then the Cubs will likely send Bryant and Alcantara to the outfield. In that scenario their biggest need might be for a veteran outfielder to come off the bench and help lead a young group. Then again, that job might already be filled by Justin Ruggiano and his wRC+ of 131.
More likely, though, all the prospects won’t hit right away. Jorge Soler will factor into the picture at some point in 2015, but he is likely to begin the season in Iowa. That means the Cubs could really stand to find one reasonably potent bat, or at least a high OBP hitter, in free agency or trades. Whether that production comes from a single hitter or in the form of a platoon I think is irrelevant; the point is that if the Cubs are going to compete in 2015 they are likely to need some more production from the outfield than what is entirely realistic to expect the first wave of prospects to provide.
The bench will also be a candidate for some retooling. Alcantara could emerge as a very potent super-utility player for the Cubs next year, but he is also a candidate for a starting role at second or in center. Regardless, the bench will probably pick up a few reinforcements over the winter. I suspect that once again the Cubs will look to stock their bench with undervalued guys like Valbuena and Ruggiano. Given how young this team could be, a veteran or two on the bench would not be amiss, but I wouldn’t call it a requirement either.
Starting pitching and outfield are the biggest holes that need to filled, but if we look at the team in a different way we can find two more gaps: OBP and left handed hitting.
The Cubs are next to last in team OBP this year; fixing that will have to be a focus if the Cubs are going to move up the standings. They are going to get a significant injection of power from Bryant and Baez, but power is only part of the story for a successful major league offense. With the exception of solo homers, runners have to get on base before they can score runs. OBP is a big deal. And the Cubs don’t have much.
The Cubs also stand to be a very right handed hitting team in 2015. Rizzo will be the biggest left handed bat, but the switch hitting Alcantara may be the only other regular to hit from the left side unless the Cubs make some acquisitions. There is a nice group of left handed hitters in A ball for the Cubs, but Vogelbach, Schwarber, and McKinney are all at least a year and a half away. Adding some balance to the Cubs lineup is not absolutely necessary, but it should be a factor on the shopping list.
In short, I would expect the Cubs to be on the lookout for:
- a left handed hitting, high OBP hitter who could preferably play in the outfield,
- possibly an additional high OBP hitter, perhaps as an option to platoon with one of their existing bats or come off the bench on a regular basis,
- a very good starting pitcher to help anchor the rotation,
- a couple more starting pitchers because there is no such thing as too much pitching,
- another veteran or two who can provide some stability for a very young roster,
- and any undervalued players they are able to snipe off the waiver wire.
And if we look ahead just a little more to 2016, we could be seeing a wave of high ceiling pitching prospects, a slugging catcher, and a couple more offensive-minded outfielders on the way. The Cubs can’t bank on that, of course, but it should be something we keep in mind as the Cubs maneuver through their options. Even after this next wave of prospects washes into Wrigley, there is still more help on the way.