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October 12, 2011

Future Shock

Cubs State of the Union

by Kevin Goldstein

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Congratulations, ________________; you're the new Cubs general manager. Win a World Series and you own this town and have an instant legacy. So what are you inheriting? A veteran roster with some brutal contracts and a system that is more deep than star-studded. A walk through the roster and what's coming to help shows that this team can still win, but it will take some smart maneuvering.

Catcher
Incumbent: Geovany Soto (2011 salary: $3 million). Soto still has a couple of years of relative cost control, and while he's frustratingly inconsistent, he'll always have above-average power for the position and has improved a bit defensively.
What's Coming: Like most systems, the Cubs are weak behind the plate, and while he's been in the system for a long time, Wellington Castillo still deserves note, maybe more than ever following a .286/.351/.524 season at Triple-A Iowa. He's almost a Soto type with a better arm, but with a propensity for injuries. It might be best to let Castillo back up for a while in preparation for taking over full-time duties if Soto departs.

First Base
Incumbent: Carlos Pena (2011 salary: $10 million). There's some talk of bringing Pena back, but being a great guy can only get you so far. He's averaged 32 home runs and 92 walks over the past three years, but also hit .216 in the process.
What's Coming: It's nearly impossible to see a soon-to-be 29-year-old as a prospect, but after winning Pacific Coast League MVP honors and hitting in the big leagues during a September callup, it's time to take Bryan LaHair a little more seriously. Scouts think he could be as productive as Pena, if not more, with a .270 batting average and 20-plus home runs. With 2012 unquestionably a rebuilding season, why not see if those scouts are right and spend the money that could go toward a first baseman elsewhere? Dan Vogelbach, a second-round pick in 2011, has massive raw power, but when you are a high school player who already has weight issues, it's a huge red flag.

Second Base
Incumbent: Darwin Barney (2011 salary: $417,000). Barney hit .276/.313/.353 as a rookie and played excellent defense, but that's not enough production for an everyday player. Every team wants a player like this on the roster, but in a utility role. Barney was miscast on the right side of the infield; he's a better defender at shortstop than Starlin Castro.
What's Coming: The Cubs are loaded with second-base prospects (also known as failed shortstops). The problem is, none of them are very good. D.J. LeMahieu got some time in the big leagues last year, and Ryan Flaherty is also close, but both are subpar defenders who have hit for power in the minors but need to cheat for it, which won't work at the highest level. More likely to help in the majors, albeit in a utility role, is Marwin Gonzalez, who could deserve a look at some point in the upcoming season.

Third Base
Incumbent: Aramis Ramirez (2011 salary: $14.6 million). Ramirez was the team's best player in 2011, but is it worth picking up a $16 million option for 2012, or giving him $2 million to go away? He turns 34 next year, so a long-term deal would be a mistake, but a complete rebuild might be an unmitigated disaster; the team still needs offense.
What's Coming: Perennial prospect Josh Vitters continues to confound. Vitters, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, spent the year in Double-A and continued to show a remarkable feel for contact, striking out just 54 times in 488 at-bats. He even earned some praise for improved defense. However, while Vitters gets better, it's still in small increments; his swing-at-everything approach continues to be a sore point within the organization. He's still talented and is going to be a big-leaguer, but 2012 will be key to us figuring out just how much value he'll provide.

Shortstop
Incumbent: Starlin Castro (2011 Salary: $440,000). He’s a potential face-of-the-franchise player, if he's not already. Expect more 200-hit seasons, and expect more power, but the defensive issues are very real, as is his body, which is getting thicker and slower. It's hard to say if Castro will slide over to third base or second, but he'll likely be off of shortstop as he nears free agency. Either way, one of the best moves the franchise could make would be to lock him up long-term.
What's Coming: The Cubs don't have any shortstops of note that are close. Junior Lake made some notable improvements this year with the bat, but he still can't hit a breaking ball, and plenty of scouts would love to see what his plus-plus arm could accomplish on the mound. It’s worth keeping an eye on is Dominican teenager Marco Hernandez, who flashed above-average offensive and defensive ability in the complex league this summer. The best shortstop prospect in the system is 2011 first-round pick Javier Baez, but like Castro, he's more of a hitter than a defensive player, and he'll also need to move to second or third base.

Outfield
Incumbents: Alfonso Soriano (2011 Salary: $19 million); Marlon Byrd ($5.5 million); Reed Johnson ($900,000). The Soriano contract, of course, is a farce and an albatross; he's owed $54 million for the next three years, and has a no-trade clause to boot. The best-case scenario involves picking up half of the contract and paying Soriano to drop the no-trade. It’s the best case, yet still a nightmare. Byrd is fine for just one more year, and Johnson had a nice fluky year as an extra guy. As for the young players, the team needs to admit that Tyler Colvin and Tony Campana are not answers.
What's Coming: The Cubs’ top position prospect is Brett Jackson, and while he's ready to contribute in 2012, expectations need to be tempered. With solid tools across the board but nothing in the star-level category, he's a potential 20-20 center fielder, but a lack of contact ability will always keep his average down and his strikeout rate high. Outfield is a position of weakness in the system, and scouts are extremely mixed on speedster Matt Szczur; some see him as an everyday player, and others view him as a Reed Johnson clone. Korean import Jae-Hoon Ha profiles as a future fourth outfielder.

Starting Pitchers
Incumbents: Ryan Dempster (2011 Salary: $14.5 million); Matt Garza ($5.95 million); Randy Wells ($475,000); Carlos Zambrano ($18.75 million). Rodrigo Lopez and Casey Coleman shared fifth-starter duties in 2011, but neither deserves mention as far as the future goes. Dempster's ERA jumped by nearly a full run in 2011, but his peripherals weren't as bad, and while he might not be worth the $14 million he'll get in 2012, he's a valuable starter, and a potentially valuable trade chip come July. Garza has two more years of bargain salaries before he hits free agency, and as far as value-to-money ratios go, he's the team’s most valuable arm by a wide margin. Wells has value solely as an innings-eater, but teams need those. Zambrano's contract is a nightmare, as he'll be paid $18 million next year. Luckily, his player option will not vest unless he's a Cy Young candidate next year, in which case, he's worth every penny.
What's Coming: Starting pitching is a severe point of weakness in the organization, mostly because of trades and disappointing 2011 seasons. Chris Archer is now with the Rays, Trey McNutt fell apart mechanically, and 2010 first-round pick Hayden Simpson had a lost season, losing as much as 10 mph on his fastball from his college days. There are some potential back-end pieces like Robert Whitenack, but this is a glaring weakness that will need to be addressed from the outside.

Relief Pitchers
Key Incumbents: John Grabow (2011 Salary $4.8 million); Carlos Marmol ($3.2 million); Sean Marshall ($1.6 million); James Russell ($427,500); Jeff Samardzija ($3.5 million); Kerry Wood ($1.5 million). Grabow is a free agent, and no longer an overpaid reliever in the bullpen. Marmol's extension moves into the expensive years, as he'll earn $16.8 million over the next two years, which could be a bargain or a real problem depending on how many strikes he throws; his raw stuff is at least worth the price tag. Marshall's salary bumps up to $3.1 million, but as a durable lefty who is also dangerous against righties, he's more than worth it, although he is a free agent after 2012. Russell is a usable extra arm, while Samardzija deserves props for turning into a solid reliever with excellent stuff. However, control is still an issue with him. Wood is a free agent again, and while he's no great shakes, he's certainly worth another $1.5 million deal.
What's Coming: Relief pitchers are rare in most systems, as they are mostly failed starters. Jay Jackson is the closest to being ready to help (as early as 2012), although his ceiling likely ends in the seventh inning. The most intriguing name is Andrew Cashner. An elite closer in college who was groomed as a starter, Cashner was poised for a breakout this year before shoulder problems ruined his season, Cashner is throwing in the upper 90s in the Arizona Fall League and touching triple digits. He is the most likely to assume closer duties should Marmol's wildness continue to plague him.

 One good draft, one good year internationally (and the 2011 campaign has the potential to be both), and this is suddenly a system with legitimate prospects and a bunch of depth. Throw in the fact that the team is in the National League Central, and things look that much better, as the Brewers might lose Prince Fielder, while the Cardinals, even if they keep Albert Pujols, aren't exactly getting any younger. There's an opportunity here, so don't blow it. No pressure.    

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

23 comments have been left for this article.

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