Here's a riddle for you: how many prospects can you have before you have too many prospects? The Chicago Cubs have been pushing the limit of this question for the last few years, stockpiling as much young talent as possible in hopes that it will lead them to their first world championship since Theodore Roosevelt was president. Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara are all current or former top-100 prospects who should see extensive time at the big league level in 2015, and many believe that shortstop Addison Russell is a better prospect than any of them. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are still young and locked into team-friendly deals through the end of the decade, giving the Cubs one of the best young cores in baseball.
So why has the national media declared 2015 the season that the Cubs return to prominence? There have been a few more moves along the way, including the signing of free agent pitcher Jon Lester, trades for catcher Miguel Montero and center fielder Dexter Fowler, and supplemental additions like catcher David Ross and former closer Jason Motte. There is a nice mix of solid veterans and talented youngsters on this roster, though the hitters are still quite green.
However, the move that really set off the media's bat signal was the hiring of manager Joe Maddon. After years of penguins, costumes, and other hijinx in Tampa, Maddon brings his unique perspective to a fanbase starved for a championship like no other. Maddon has plenty of experience handling touted prospects and experienced stars -- they had plenty of both in Tampa, remember. His real test is not just to win, but to win quickly. Can the Cubs make good on the national media's lofty projections in 2015? Or will we have to wait another year to see this potential juggernaut round into form?
Manager: Joe Maddon (1st season)
2014 record: 73-89
SB Nation blog: Bleed Cubbie Blue
First series vs. Tigers: June 9-10 @ Comerica Park
While the Cubs are loaded with position player prospects, the question of where to put them all probably won't be answered in 2015. Starlin Castro is still the shortstop for now, but his poor defensive numbers may result in a transition to second or third base when Russell is called up. Castro hit .292/.339/.438 with 14 home runs in 2014, and it's not unreasonable to think he could add a little more power if he moves off of shortstop. The situation at third base is relatively simple at the moment. Mike Olt should begin the year at the position, with Kris Bryant set to take over the moment he gets called up to the majors. Olt struggled his way to a .604 OPS with 100 strikeouts in 258 plate appearances last year, but he also walked at a 10 percent rate and hit 12 home runs. Olt also appears to be the superior defender at third based on scouting reports, but Bryant's offensive potential more than outweighs a few runs saved with the glove.
Across the diamond, first baseman Anthony Rizzo will be counted on to once again shoulder the load in the middle of the lineup. He filled that role admirably in 2014, hitting .286/.386/.527 with 32 home runs and 78 RBI. This, plus some above average defense at first base, resulted in a 5.6 WAR season. We probably shouldn't expect this all the time -- only seven first basemen have had better years since 2010 -- but it highlights the type of player Rizzo can be when everything clicks. Second base projects to be more of a battle, especially given how much Javier Baez has struggled this spring. If Baez is sent down, Arismendy Alcantara and newcomer Tommy La Stella will likely share the workload. Alcantara has already been compared to former Maddon favorite Ben Zobrist, and will see time all over the diamond. La Stella has also increased his versatility by working at third base during the offseason.
The positional logjam doesn't apply to just prospects, though. The Cubs traded for Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero and signed veteran backstop David Ross -- a rumored "package deal" with Jon Lester -- which displaced 2014 starter Welington Castillo. Montero is aging quickly after spending time on the disabled list with back issues in 2013. Of course, the heavy workload he sustained in Arizona doesn't help. Ross hasn't totaled more than 200 plate appearances in a season since 2008, but his significant platoon splits (and Maddon's adherence to those) should earn him plenty of starts against lefties in 2015. Castillo probably has the highest offensive upside of the three at this point, but is also the odd man out of the catching rotation. However, Maddon has mentioned that the Cubs might carry three catchers for a short period this year, and Castillo hits lefties well enough to be a viable pinch-hitting option.
The outfield rotation should be fairly easy to comprehend, at least in 2015. Center fielder Dexter Fowler is a prime example of the eye test not agreeing with advanced defensive metrics. Despite a reputation as a good defender, Fowler was one of the worst fielders in baseball last season. He cost the Houston Astros more runs than Torii Hunter failed to save for the Tigers, resulting in a 1.4 WAR season. Offensively, he showed zero decline after leaving Coors Field, posting the same .347 wOBA he had for the Colorado Rockies in 2013.
Prospect Jorge Soler should have a starting job in one corner after a solid showing in August and September last year. Soler hit .340/.432/.700 in an injury-shortened minor league season last year. The Cubs are hoping the 23-year-old can blossom into the same type of player that some of his Cuban contemporaries -- Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, and the like -- have become. Former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan earned a starting job in 2015 after hitting .283/.352/.452 last season, but any regression to his 2010-2013 form will see others cut into his playing time. Lefty-masher Chris Denorfia didn't do his one job in 2014, but had an .834 OPS against southpaws in 2013.
Phil Coke! Sure, the former Tigers left-hander isn't the ace of the staff or even the closer, but he's in Cubs camp and apparently pitching pretty well. Coke had a great shot at making their roster even before spring training started due to a dearth of other available lefties, but a solid spring doesn't hurt. Left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada has been dealing with groin issues, and projects as more of a long reliever than a late innings specialist. The right-handed options are a bit more encouraging, and include incumbent closer Hector Rondon, who totaled 15 saves and a 0.47 ERA from mid-August through the end of the season last year. Pedro Strop put further distance between himself and his awful start to 2013 with an excellent 2014 season, striking out 71 batters in 61 frames. Neil Ramirez has seen an uptick in both health and velocity since transitioning to the bullpen after arriving from Texas in 2013, and is another late innings option for Maddon.
While we're interested in Coke, the rest of the world will be watching how left-hander Jon Lester performs in his new home. The former Red Sox ace put together the best season of his career at the right time in 2014, allowing a 2.46 ERA and striking out 4.58 batters for every walk in 219 2/3 innings. His late inning collapse in the AL Wild Card Game has been well documented, but the Oakland Athletics probably would not have even gotten there had it not been for Lester's 159 ERA+ in 11 starts over the final two months of the season. Joining Lester atop the rotation is right-hander Jake Arrieta, who you may remember from the Baltimore Orioles a few years ago. This isn't exactly the same guy, though. Arrieta tweaked his mechanics over the offseason and became a bonafide Cy Young contender -- you know, if Clayton Kershaw weren't around. Arrieta struck out four batters for every walk and held opponents to just 114 hits in 165 2/3 innings. He's sort of in the same "let me see that trick again" boat that J.D. Martinez is, but has the former top prospect pedigree to back up this kind of breakout.
Jason Hammel pulled the same trick that Red Sox fans were expecting Lester to pull last offseason, signing with the Cubs after they traded him to the A's at the deadline. Hammel enjoyed an excellent half season in Chicago, allowing a 2.98 ERA and 3.19 FIP in 108 2/3 innings. He fell apart after the trade, but his regressed numbers were much closer to his career marks. The strikeout-to-walk ratio -- 4.52 before the trade, 2.57 after, and 2.26 for his career -- was the biggest clue. Right-hander Kyle Hendricks is the only semi-homegrown product with a guaranteed spot in the Cubs' rotation. He arrived via trade in 2012, but didn't make his MLB debut until last season. In 13 starts over the latter half of the year, Hendricks allowed a 2.46 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. He barely struck anyone out, but his other peripherals were rather Rick Porcello-esque. Oh, and he's less than a year younger than Porcello.
The battle for the fifth starter spot has been anything but so far, as nearly everyone is either hurt or just plain bad. Former Tigers prospect Jacob Turner was one of Keith Law's breakout candidates for 2015 -- Nick Castellanos is also on that list -- but has been shut down for a month with an elbow injury. Tsuyoshi Wada has the aforementioned groin issue, and projects better as a swingman anyway. Edwin Jackson was awful in 2014, allowing a 6.20 ERA and 1.64 WHIP in 140 2/3 innings. Things got so bad for him that the Cubs, who finished 17 games out of first, used him out of the bullpen in September. He still has two years and $26 million remaining on his contract, but that doesn't appear to be much of an incentive for the Cubs to keep him in the rotation. Left-hander Felix Doubront has struggled enough for spring training stats to actually matter, in his case. That leaves lefty Travis Wood, who struggled in 2014 but was an All-Star in 2013. He allowed a 3.13 ERA and 3.89 FIP in 200 innings that year, and is a very serviceable back-end starter if he can regain his command.
Down on the farm
Truth be told, the Cubs' farm system is too loaded to talk about in one paragraph. Most prospect analysts would rank their entire top 10 at the head of the Tigers' system. The rest would throw even more on the heap. Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell are both in the "best prospect in baseball" conversation, while several others already mentioned aren't far behind. Outfielder Albert Almora had a disappointing season at Double-A Tennessee last year, but is still a top-50 talent. Kyle Schwarber and pitcher Pierce Johnson are also slated to hit the big leagues next season, while guys like outfielder Billy McKinney, shortstop Gleyber Torres, and left-handed starter Carlos Sands represent the next wave of top talent.
Player to watch: Kris Bryant
Everyone else will be watching him, so why shouldn't you? The 23-year-old third baseman was drafted out of the University of San Diego in 2013, and has quickly risen to the cusp of the major leagues thanks to some truly massive offensive numbers. He put up teeball-esque numbers in Double and Triple A last year, hitting .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs and 110 RBI in a combined 594 plate appearances. He has a career 1.095 OPS in the minor leagues, and is hitting .435/.500/1.304 with six home runs in 26 plate appearances this spring. The Cubs will undoubtedly start him at Triple-A Iowa due to service time issues -- three weeks in the minors earns them another year of club control -- but his major league debut will be a well-publicized event. Sit back, enjoy the spectacle, and thank our lucky stars that he's in the National League.
They have one of the brightest futures of any team in baseball, but the Cubs might still be a year away from contention in 2015. They only won 73 games last season, and while their offseason earned them the biggest jump in playoffs odds of any MLB team according to Fangraphs, they are still projected to finish in third place. The Cubs went a combined 14-24 against the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014, two teams that should be in the playoff conversation again this year.
The Cubs made the right moves for a club that plans on contending in 2015. Jon Lester is a bonafide ace atop the rotation, and the veterans they added are still productive players who should add plenty of value. However, I'm wary of how young and inexperienced their offense is. They finished 12th in the National League in runs scored last season, and will need significant contributions from multiple rookies to move into the upper half of the league. The Cubs look like a potential force one day, but will likely fall short as they gain experience in 2015.