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The Rise Of The Cubs

Get used to seeing a lot of Kris Bryant, Pirate fans. Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP

Get used to seeing a lot of Kris Bryant, Pirate fans.
Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP

The Pirates may have won 2 of 3 games this past weekend against the Cubs, but this series and season should serve notice to Pirates fans and the rest of the league that the Cubs are a threat for the foreseeable future.  When a franchise practically has the phrase “loveable losers” embroidered on their jerseys, it’s OK for a typical fan to be skeptical about the Cubs.  But if you’ve been following the Cubs’ minor league system at all for the past couple of years, you’re aware of the sheer volume of high-impact talent that was percolating in the minors.

It’s one thing for a team to have highly rated talent on the farm.  It’s another thing for that talent to come up and do OK, maybe tread water, during their rookie seasons.  It’s almost unprecedented that a team has three pure rookies come up and be completely dominant in their rookie seasons, but the Cubs have done that with Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell.

Kris Bryant is the presumptive NL Rookie of the Year with his 871 OPS, 26 HR, 98 RBI, 13 SB, and solid defense at 3B.  Kyle Schwarber, not exactly a svelte, future Gold Glove winner, has blistered the baseball with 16 HR in just 248 plate appearances and looks OK enough to have LF locked down for the foreseeable future.  Addison Russell hasn’t been stellar with the bat, as his 86 wRC+ shows, but he has kicked in 13 HR and provided excellent defense at SS, to the point that Starlin Castro is on the trading block this offseason.

So what does all this mean for the Cubs and NL Central going forward?  It shows that the Cubs are going to be a real handful in 2016 and for awhile after that.

THE CORE GROUP

Since Bryant, Schwarber, and Russell were all brought up after the season started for a few weeks, that means their six full years of control will run through the 2021 season.  Bryant (23), Schwarber (22), and Russell (21) aren’t even close to their peak years, either.  Add in Cuban import Jorge Soler (23), who had an up and down season in 2015, and you have a dangerous and ridiculously young core group.

Toss in “greybeard” 1B Anthony Rizzo (age-25, 911 OPS, 30 HR, 17 SB), who is signed through 2019 with options for 2020 and 2021 at below-market salaries, and now it’s getting unfair.

I’m hesitant to add stud RHP Jake Arrieta to this young core group, as he only has two more years of team control and pays Scott Boras to be his agent.  If the Cubs can somehow, someway get him to sign a pre-free agency extension, that would be impressive and frightening at the same time.

THE PAYROLL CAPACITY

Chicago is the 3rd largest market in the United States.  The Cubs have a loyal fanbase and play in, perhaps, the most iconic ballpark in baseball.  They routinely have season attendance figures over 3 million in number.  I’ve referred to the Cubs as the sleeping giant of the NL Central for a few years now, as their situation is unlike any other team in the division.

Just five years ago, the Cubs had an Opening Day payroll of $144M, but have taken some austerity measures in recent years after Tom Ricketts bought the team in 2009.  Ricketts rolled the pre-existing team debt into his purchase price and, as a result, he impacted how much the baseball operations department could spend after that 2010 $144M payroll.

But now the new national TV deal has raised the tides of all payrolls, plus Ricketts is able to complete the somewhat controversial ballpark upgrades that he sought for added revenue.  The payroll this year was $120M on Opening Day, with free agent addition LHP Jon Lester and traded-for C Miguel Montero adding $32M to the payroll.

It’s not inconceivable that the Cubs could have a payroll around $150M, perhaps as soon as next year.  The Cubs have $82M of salary commitments (including $13M of dead money to released Edwin Jackson) and what appears to be around $25M of potential arbitration-eligible salaries to players.  Add in $4M for maybe eight minimum salary players and you have $111M of payroll.  That could leave the Cubs up to $39M to play with on the free agent market.

The Cubs are probably going to lose CF Dexter Fowler to free agency, so they’ll have to replace him.  But where the Cubs may make a big move is in the plentiful pitching market.  Arrieta-Lester-Hammel is a strong 1-2-3, with Kyle Hendricks a serviceable #4, but the Cubs had a carousel of sub-par pitchers in the #5 spot all year.

If they make a move to reunite David Price with his old manager Joe Maddon, the Cubs will have an unbelievably formidable rotation.  Assuming Price would be around $25-27M per year, that would still leave $12-14M to add a bullpen arm and scrounge a CF.

THE SILVER LINING

Don’t climb up on top of the Clemente Bridge just yet, Pirates fans.  First, the Pirates themselves are still very good and have some key players under control through at least 2018.  As for the Cubs, at least in terms of their prospects, this 2015 batch is the last group of impact talent on the horizon for a while.

Sure, you may hear some people try to hype up CF Albert Almora  and 1B Dan Vogelbach, but they’re both overrated.  The Cubs don’t have any impressive pitching prospects in the pipeline, either, but it appears as if they may just buy their arms.  Maybe someone like a SS Gleyber Torres or OF Eloy Jiminez will get some burn, but they’re a minimum of three years and more likely five years away from the majors.

***

One of these years, the Cardinals will stop being so good and let someone else take a turn at winning the division.  What concerns me is that the Cubs will jump the line and go ahead of the Pirates, who have been patiently waiting for three seasons.

About Kevin Creagh (289 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

5 Comments on The Rise Of The Cubs

  1. I think you can add Javier Baez into the mix. While he’s not as sure a thing as the big three you mention, he has ridiculous power for someone who can stick at middle infield (or a corner), and gives them the flexibility to move people around the infield like Kang does for the Bucs. Yikes!

    • Kevin Creagh // September 28, 2015 at 1:18 PM //

      I thought about him, but his K rate may preclude him from reaching his true potential. I know I said Castro could be on the trading block, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Baez was packaged up this offseason.

  2. You have failed to list several up and coming Cubs:

    C – Willson Contreras – Will be a top 10 prospect in all of baseball by the time the reports come out at the end of the year/beginning of next year.

    OF – Billy McKinney – Strong hitting prospect and likely top 50 prospect that was considered a throw-in for the Samardzija trade with A’s that netted Russell.

    SS – Gleyber Torres – Really underselling what he did this year. He will likely be a top 50 prospect in baseball.

    P – Ryan Williams – He will also be a top 100 prospect that looks like a future #3.

    P – Duane Underwood – He will be right around the top 100 as well.

    Honorable Mentions:
    2b/OF Ian Happ, OF Donnie Deweese, P Pierce Johnson, P Carl Edwards Jr.

    Even with all of the promotions, the Cubs still have a top 5 – 10 farm system. Also, don’t count them out of the international market. There are some great looking Cubans out there ready to be signed in the offseason.

    • Kevin Creagh // October 4, 2015 at 6:05 PM //

      I’m not saying they don’t have a good farm, just that the high impact prospects are all up in CHI.
      Contreras is interesting, so he’s worth monitoring, but his history is non-descript before this year.
      McKinney has always struck me as a fourth OF — he doesn’t hit for a lot of power and has few stolen bases in career.
      Torres is impact but he’s a long ways away.
      Neither Williams or Underwood will be close to the 100 — neither has a good strikeout rate; both seems like low end #3/high end #4’s.

      • Yes, because K-rate is the only thing that matters to those whom rank prospects. I mean, only 4 of the top 10 RHP prospects as ranked by Mayo have higher K-rates than Underwood does. Underwood has a lower K-rate than Williams does. Let’s forget that most of those top 10 rated RHP prospects reached Advanced A ball at an older age than Underwood, and were not as effective. Underwood looks more like a fringe #2… kind of like that guy Liriano did at the age of 20. I’m not as sold on Williams as Will might be up there, but he does look like he could possibly crack the top 100 this winter, considering he dominated all the way through AA in his first full pro season. If he pitches even considerably close to how well he did this year in AAA next year… he will definitely enter 2017 as a top 100 guy, and possibly a top 10 RHP prospect.

        As for McKinney, since when has major power or speed been absolutely required to be a top-rated prospect with impact potential? Sure, it helps… but keep in mind that guys like Carlos Correa have been ranked amongst the prospect elite… while putting up very similar numbers to McKinney at the same ages and levels. Let’s also not forget that he’s already a top 80 rated prospect and has overtaken Almora in terms of the future “depth chart” for the Cubs’ OF. The kid can hit, get on base at a very high clip, and doesn’t strike out a lot. As a matter of fact, at the age of 20 this year McKinney showed as much promise as Starling Marte did at the age of 22 between Adv A and AA, and with a very similar skill set. How has that worked out for the Pirates so far?

        As for Baez and his K-rate… you may want to recheck that. Since returning from injury in July, he’s had half as high of a K-rate as Kris Bryant whom you openly rave about above. He’s actually dropped his K-rate down to about 22%. Still very high, but not the freakishly alarming near 50% rate he had last year. And… he’s still just 22 and making adjustments.

        Impact guys such as Baez and Edwards (pen most likely) will be on the team next year. You could even see Bryant or Castro move to CF to make room for Baez. Other impact guys such as McKinney, Contreras, and possibly Ian Happ could be up for 2017. Not to mention guys like Williams, Pierce Johnson, and Underwood. 2018 could see guys like Jen-Ho Tseng, Torres, Mike Zagunis, Jiminez come up with impact potential. Not to mention some severely overlooked SP prospects like Dylan Cease, Justin Steele, Jake Stinnett, and Oscar De La Cruz who would all be top 10 prospects in the vast majority of farm systems… including the Pirates’.

        All of this said, we are talking about the Cubs… and the Cubs have had as much horrible luck on their side as they’ve had incompetent ownership and front office personnel in the past. Half of these guys will probably be lucky to simply have full faculties of their bodies by the time their days with the Cubs’ organization are done, nonetheless turn out to be adequate ball players.

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