When Theo Epstein came to Chicago to rebuild the Cubs from the ground up, it's clear that the backbone of that strategy was to build a farm system that could turn out two to three solid players a year to fill holes or be used as trade bait. This is a similar strategy to what the Cardinals have used over the past decade. Or to use a more apt comparison, the Red Sox.
Up until last year, a lot of focus on this site has been on the minor leagues because the major league team wasn't really worth talking about. All of that changed last season. The Cubs enter the 2016 season as the favorite to win the World Series, complete with the target on their backs that comes with that designation.
But just because the focus has shifted back to the majors doesn't mean that the minors aren't still important. The key to Epstein's strategy has been to make the Cubs organization strong everywhere: the majors, the minors, the front office, the coaching and the scouts. That's not even mentioning Sloan Park, the renovations to Wrigley and the new media deals. The playoffs are a crapshoot, but the only way to win is to load the dice as much as possible and eventually they'll come up "seven" for you.
With that, here are six storylines to watch for in the minor leagues this upcoming season.
Will Albert Almora hit in Iowa?
Anyone who watched any Spring Training games with Almora in center field knows one thing: he has the potential to be a very special glove out there. With new defensive analysis showing players like Kevin Kiermaier and Kevin Pillar to be valuable keys to their respective teams on their gloves alone, it's clear that Almora could be a key player in any Cubs dynasty going forward. A strong outfield defense anchored by Almora and Jason Heyward could be a huge boon to any Cubs pitcher and could make up for any deficiencies in left field by Kyle Schwarber or Jorge Soler or whomever ends up there.
But for Almora to be more than a fourth or fifth outfielder in the majors, he's going to have to hit at least a little. Before last season, Almora hit for a decent batting average, but it was an empty one without power, walks or speed on the basepaths. Almora was an aggressive hitter who didn't strike out much, but also didn't do a lot of damage once he made contact.
But the second half of last season, Almora made some adjustments. He tweaked his swing and worked on being more patient at the plate. The results were positive: Almora hit .301/.370/.464 in the second half at Double-A Tennessee. He still didn't hit many home runs or steal many bases, but he did hit doubles and drew walks. Combined with that glove, that's a winning combination at the major league level.
So the question for Almora is was the second half a fluke or a sign of real progress? That's what we need to watch for in Iowa this summer.
Was Willson Contreras' 2015 season a fluke?
No one, not even the Cubs, was touting Contreras before last year. Oh sure, he wasn't on anyone's list to get released, but I guess at best if you squinted, you might see a competent backup catcher.
I shouldn't need to remind you what Contreras did in 2015. He won the Southern League batting title, hitting .333/.413/.478 for the Smokies. MLB Pipeline named him the top catching prospect in the game.
Contreras has always had a quick swing through the zone, but there really isn't any explanation for his 2015 season at the plate other than everything seemed to click for him. It does make sense that he would have struggled with hitting before. Contreras was a converted infielder who needed to learn the intricacies of catching. It's understandable that his hitting would lag behind as he worked on defense and that as he felt more comfortable with the catching portion of the game, that his bat would come around. But he still needs to go to Iowa and prove 2015 wasn't a fluke.
Defensively, Contreras simply needs to work on consistency. He has the tools to be a solid defensive backstop, but the position isn't quite instinctive to him yet. He can make a laser throw to second base one batter and then toss one into center field the next. On occasion, he's slow to get down on blocking a pitch and other times, he shows great quickness and skill back there. He just needs to learn to be like that pretty much every time.
Those are the things to look for on Contreras this summer.
Will any pitchers take a step forward?
It's no secret that the Epstein front office has been much better at developing position players than pitchers so far. A lot of this was a conscious decision to start with hitting, but eventually the farm system is going to need to develop some pitching. After all, even though you really want to write these things down in pencil, the Cubs lineup looks strong for years to come with young, under control hitters. But Jason Hammel and John Lackey aren't going to be around forever (and Jake Arrieta might not) while there is alway room to improve the bullpen.
Right now, the pitcher who took the biggest step forward in 2015 was probably Ryan Williams, who at best is probably another Kyle Hendricks. Nice to have, but not a future cornerstone. Pierce Johnson took a step backwards. Carl Edwards Jr. has been exiled to the bullpen, although he was good there. Corey Black has also moved to the pen and he wasn't so good. Duane Underwood had an injury-filled season, although he was fine when he was on the mound. He's still no sure thing.
The other pitching prospects are much lower on the minor league totem pole: Dylan Cease, Oscar De La Cruz, Bryan Hudson, Justin Steele and Carson Sands, among others. These guys will be toiling in South Bend or Eugene this summer. Will any of them end up as potential top-of-the-rotation guys, or will they struggle as they move up the ladder? Do any of them have any chance of reaching the majors before 2019?
Can Ian Happ play second base?
This is an easy one. Can Ian Happ, the Cubs first-round pick in the 2015 draft, play second base? Last year he played exclusively in the outfield, but the offseason was dedicated to transforming him into a second baseman. ESPN's Keith Law thinks he can. Other prospect writers are less sanguine. Whether he plays in South Bend or Myrtle Beach, it's something to watch this summer.
Who is getting traded?
This one is impossible to predict, but after years of the Cubs adding talent to their minor league system, the team is now likely to start dealing some of that minor league talent to help the major league team down the stretch.
But who are the Cubs likely to deal? With the caveat that everyone is available for the right price, I think some guys are more likely to leave than others. Ignoring the humorous "Dan Vogelbach" meme that has taken root around here, there are several players other than Vogelbach who are currently blocked in the Cubs system but might have some value to other teams.
One players who could go is the Cubs top prospect Gleyber Torres, who is blocked at the major league level by Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez. But I don't think the Cubs are going to be in any hurry to deal Torres. For one, he's not likely to be major-league ready until 2018 at the earliest, and a lot can happen between now and then. Second, I think the Cubs think his value will only rise as he moves up the system. Sure, if the Marlins start demanding Torres for Jose Fernandez or the Indians demand him for Carlos Carrasco, then he could go. But I think Torres will still be the Cubs top prospect when Spring Training starts in 2017.
But there are other players that other teams will value who are closer to the majors and don't have an obvious opening on the Cubs roster. Jeimer Candelario and Billy McKinney are two obvious targets for other teams. Eloy Jimenez is another guy who could go. While a long way away, the Cubs do have a lot of outfielders and if other teams are demanding players with high upside, Jimenez could be gone.
But clearly, this is something that's pretty impossible to predict now, as we don't know what kinds of seasons any of these players will have, nor do we know who will be available at the trade deadline and what the needs of their teams are. But as we get closer to July, the answers to those questions may become clearer.
Will the Tennessee Smokies win the Southern League?
This isn't a question of prospects, so much, as it is an interesting trend in the farm system. In 2014, the Kane County Cougars won the Midwest League going away. In 2015, that same core group of players took the Carolina League title with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Now the core of those players -- Duane Underwood, Paul Blackburn, Jen-Ho Tseng, Tyler Skulina, Daury Torrez, Mark Zagunis, Victor Caratini, Chesny Young, Daniel Lockhart, Carlos Penalver and others -- are going to, by and large, move up to Tennessee, if not on Opening Day, then sometime during the season.
This "class" of minor leaguers isn't loaded with blue-chip prospects, but they are loaded with a whole mess of guys who potentially have major league futures ahead of them. Both the Cougars and the Pelicans were teams that lacked any real weaknesses. Can this group make the leap to Double-A (in my mind, the toughest step of the minor league ladder) and win their third straight title?