We've taken a look at the 2014 Cubs Payroll as part of this series and we learned that it's unlikely the Cubs are going to have enough money to buy themselves a championship. They'll have about $25-35 million to spend this offseason, which is a considerable amount, but not large enough to sign multiple big-name free agents. In order to contend next season, it will be necessary that the Cubs get some production from players making the league minimum.
There are already a few sprinkled on the roster, but none of them are likely to provide significant value unless you're on the Junior Lake bandwagon. I'm interested in some of the other players the Cubs have in the minor leagues who could be, at one point during the season, a valuable addition.
I'm talking more about guys like Mike Olt, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Hendricks and maybe even one or two others. I don't see any other major prospects making an impact next season. Jorge Soler has spent the bulk of this season injured and he'll more than likely return to High A to begin next season. Albert Almora, Dan Vogelbach and perhaps even Kris Byrant are likely to be Soler's teammates. They're far enough away from the big leagues that I don't think we could reasonably expect any significant contribution from any. I doubt we even see any of those guys at the big league level until 2015 or later.
There's nobody in Olt's way at 3rd base. Luis Valbuena got off to a pretty good start in 2013, but has faded. He now has a 92 wRC+, though his UZR is 8.7 so he's been worth 1.7 fWAR. It's still a surprisingly good season and the Cubs have shown they just aren't going to give Olt the job. Olt is a very good defender so the Cubs wouldn't lose anything defensively with him at 3rd, but they could gain a sizable amount offensively.
Before that can happen, Olt will have to get a few things straightened out. Since reaching AAA, he's been unimpressive. In his 59 PA at Iowa, a very small sample indeed, he's been downright terrible. Olt's strikeout rate has always hovered near the 25%, which is quite high in the low minors. Like the Cubs Brett Jackson, once he reached AAA, that strikeout rate jumped a lot. It's over 32% this season, which may be unacceptable for anyone who wants to have success at the MLB level. Sure, some have gotten by with similar rates, but there just aren't many of them.
More concerning than the strikeout rate is how much his offense has declined since reaching AAA. Some of that is the result of the strikeouts, some may be the result of some complications he had with his vision and some of it may be the pitchers beginning to exploit that contact weakness more than ever before. In other words,
Mike Olt is no sure thing. Not by a lot. He is, as GW put it in the comments during some discussion I can't remember entirely, a reclamation project. So far it's not going well and it probably won't until he cuts down on those strikeouts. So the Cubs may be stuck with Valbuena next year, but if Olt can get a few things figured out, he offers plus defense at 3rd, a good eye at the plate and a ton of power from the right side. Every team could use that. It's the kind of improvement from within the Cubs will have to see in order to contend in 2014.
If everything works out as the Cubs hope, where will Javier Baez play at the MLB level? This isn't a question that needs an answer right now, but it's one of the more interesting questions with the Cubs. It's also a potentially nice situation to find yourself in.
Scouts have warmed up to the idea of Baez sticking at shortstop. The Cubs front office seems more confident, but what else are they supposed to say? I don't find the Cubs confidence on this particular issue to be reaffirming. They aren't going to acknowledge he can't play shortstop until they move him away. They shouldn't. The Cubs have Starlin Castro at short right now, but he's in the middle of his worst offensive season and has never been much of a defender anyway.
This question assumes that Mike Olt gets his shit figured out. If he does not, this isn't that interesting. The Cubs pick which of Baez and Castro they think is the better defender at SS and move the other to a different position. Baez most likely would play 3rd if he moved in this situation and Castro could move to 2nd, CF or even 3rd base.
Anyway, more about Javier Baez's fine season.
He got off to a sluggish start in High A, but was on such a tear over his last 6 weeks or so there that he finished the year at Daytona with a .390 wOBA (143 wRC+). Considering he was even young for the level, that's quite impressive. He's topped that at Tennessee. He has a .423 wOBA and a wRC+ of 171. We've even seen some improvement with his walk rate, though it still remains a concern in my opinion. We've also seen his strikeout rate remain the same at High A and jump over 31% at AA.
He showed the ability to improve some in that regard as he made improvements at High A, but has not yet taken that step in AA. Still, it's an ability he's shown even though he's still posted very high rates. Like Olt and Brett Jackson before him, it's a high enough rate at the low minors that it's of great concern, in my opinion.
Despite all of the concerns, wow. Just wow.
No matter where Baez may end up or what kind of position shuffling could ensue, Baez represents the largest improvement over anything the team currently has.
Complicating the infield further is Arismendy Alcantara, who was well thought of entering the season, but is now highly thought of enough that he's sure to be a top 100 prospect. Alcantara has been struggling recently, but has still had a very good season. He has a .354 wOBA and 124 wRC+.
He's played over half his games at SS, but is seen as more as a 2nd baseman. His season is all the more impressive when you consider his age. Compared to the median age of each level, he was one of the youngest Cubs minor leaguers. He's played more than half his games in his career at SS so is probably a fairly good fielder at 2nd base. He won't start the season with the Cubs, but could be up soon enough and offer a significant enough offensive improvement over Darwin Barney that we see a change. He's probably not the fielder that Barney is, but the potential improvement at the plate more than outweighs that.
Hendricks has had one hell of a season at AA Tennessee. In 126.1 innings, he's walked only 5.1% of the batters and struckout nearly 20%. He's not exactly a strikeout pitcher, but the difference between those two rates is very good. His ERA is below 2 and has an FIP of 2.65. He's shown excellent command throughout his career while keeping an acceptable strikeout rate.
I'm not sure what kind of improvement Hendricks might offer at the big league level. He hasn't been promoted to Iowa yet despite the performance so the Cubs see no reason to rush him along. Their current rotation will include Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood for sure. Several other pitchers will get a shot to make the rotation and Kyle Hendricks might be one of them. An impressive spring could land him on the Cubs roster.
Any of the other potential improvements would be minor. For that matter, they'd be relatively minor with the exception of Javier Baez and possibly Mike Olt. The Cubs will probably need at least one, if not both of them, in order to contend next season.