The Cubs have the top farm system in baseball, according to Baseball America--and pretty much everyone else, actually. But that doesn't mean there aren't question marks hanging over the system.
1. How long will Javier Baez and Addison Russell stay in Iowa?
There is little question that Kris Bryant won't play for the I-Cubs long. I'm on record as saying that Bryant's major league debut will happen on April 20 in Pittsburgh. But how long will Baez and Russell be there?
Baez's issue is simple. The moment that he demonstrates that he can cut down on the number of strikeouts, he'll get the call back up. The question: When that is going to happen? That could never happen, which would leave Baez in Iowa until a September callup. That's not very likely, as Baez would likely get a call, ready or not, if an injury opens up a spot in the infield. If Baez can calm down his swing, he could be back in Chicago in May. He's not likely to return earlier than that, barring an injury.
With Russell, it's a more complicated matter. First, Russell is going to have to demonstrate "mastery" of the Triple-A level. That puts his earliest call-up date in early June, most likely. But as I've noted in an earlier post, Russell's path to Wrigley is currently blocked by Starlin Castro. If Baez can't seize the second base position, Russell could move in there. An August callup, like Baez and Jorge Soler last season, is still the most likely move.
2. Can Kyle Schwarber learn to catch?
That's the big question, isn't it? The Cubs brass have reportedly said it's 50/50 whether Schwarber will be able to stick at catcher. Most outside observers tend to say it's 90/10 against. Schwarber himself seems to have no doubts he can handle it.
But no one seems to think that Schwarber can improve enough defensively behind the plate to be a catcher this season. That's a huge reason why the Cubs traded for Miguel Montero. But a lot of scouts think his bat should be major-league-ready this season.
But what if the Cubs are in a pennant race in August and Chris Coghlan has reverted to his 2011 to 2013 form? Do the Cubs make a trade for a left fielder, thus sacrificing a valuable prospect? It would have to be very tempting to grab Schwarber out of Tennessee or Iowa and plug him into left field, much like the Marlins did with Miguel Cabrera in 2003. That worked out pretty well. But doing so would probably end any chance of Schwarber being a full-time major league catcher.
Let's hope the Cubs and Schwarber give Theo Epstein this hard choice this summer.
3. Which players might be trade bait?
The obvious answer to this question is Baez, whom the current front office inherited from Jim Hendry and who struggled last season in the majors. But Baez would have to return to the majors and start hitting before he could rebuild enough trade value to make it worth Theo's while to deal him. And if Baez were in the majors and hitting, why would they need to trade him?
The Cubs would be loath to part with Schwarber, but I have seen several Philadelphia sources say that he'd be the perfect centerpiece for a Cole Hamels deal. That's speculation and not a rumor, but it's speculation that makes sense.
There's Dan Vogelbach, who is of little use to a National League team and of no use to a team that has Anthony Rizzo at first base. But while Vogelbach has demonstrated he's a good hitter, he's going to have to show he's a great hitter before an American League team decides to bite on that hook.
Beyond that, the most obvious trade candidates are the high-upside international players like Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez. While both players are far away from the majors, the both have the combination of youth and upside that other teams covet. From the Cubs point of view, both players are blocked at the major league level by more advanced players: Russell (and Castro) block Torres while Soler plays Jimenez's position. Either or both could be gone in July.
4. Where will the pitching come from?
It's not a matter of if the Cubs pitching staff will suffer injuries, it's a matter of when. That's just the nature of pitching in today's game. So where will the reinforcements come from? The top pitching prospects, C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson, won't be major-league ready for at least the first part of the season. So that leaves the Cubs relying on the same group of somewhat serviceable arms on the Des Moines shuttle like Blake Parker, Eric Jokisch, Brian Schlitter and the like. They can also hope for a return to health by Jacob Turner or Tsuyoshi Wada.
But as the attrition levels go up, the Cubs will need more pitching. Edwards and Johnson might be ready to step into the starting rotation by July, but there are certainly no guarantees on that. Even if they both live up to expectations, both of them have had injury issues of their own. When the call comes in, those two might not be in any shape to answer the phone. Anyone else, like Duane Underwood or Jen-Ho Tseng, are simply too far away to help this year.
The answer may have to come with the answer to question three. Obviously Cole Hamels is the big prize out there, but impending free agents like Johnny Cueto, David Price or even Jeff Samardzija could be available for less on a half-season rental. But even so, those guys won't come for free.
5. Who will step up this season?
The Cubs may have the top farm system in baseball at the moment, but it's highly unlikely they will by this time next season. The Cubs farm system will lose Bryant, Soler, and probably Russell. That's three top 20 prospects who aren't easily replaced. Schwarber could graduate to the majors as well, or be off to Philadelphia in a Cole Hamels deal.
So who will the Cubs top prospects be this time next season? It would certainly be great if Albert Almora could demonstrate that last season was just a bad fluke and re-establish himself as a top prospect. With even average offensive production, Almora's defense could make him a valuable major league center fielder.
Gleyber Torres is another player who could really jump up the prospect lists. But the better Torres gets and the closer he gets to the majors, the more other teams will want him and the more tempting it will be to deal him.
I've got my eyes looking out for breakout seasons by C/OF Mark Zagunis and OF Kevonte Mitchell. Both are tremendous athletes whom the Cubs took in last June's draft. Zagunis has the combination of hitting ability, strike zone judgement and plus-average speed that would make him an ideal leadoff hitter. Mitchell is younger and hasn't played above rookie ball, but he shows similar leadoff hitter skills, Plus, he's big at 6'4" and could possibly develop some power as he ages.
As far as pitching goes, Underwood is already a pretty good prospect, but another strong season in Myrtle Beach could move him to another level.
Bonus question: Why does the South Bend Cubs mascot Stu wear pants when Clark doesn't?
Some mysteries are better left unanswered.