What Should the Cubs Do with Their First-Round Draft Pick?
The Chicago Cubs have one of the more interesting selections in this week’s Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Slotted at number four overall, the Cubs are a bit dependent on what happens in front of them, but no matter how the first few picks unfold, they'll have plenty of enticing options on draft day.
The Cubs aren't contenders this year, and probably won't be contenders next year, either. They're clearly building for the future and looking to acquire contributors for the next winning team in Chicago. Many of these pieces are already in place, but there are a few open spots on Theo Epstein’s Cubs of the future.
The Future of the Cubs: Position Players
Going around the diamond, let’s begin with the outfield, the biggest strength of the Cubs’ system. International signee and power bat Jorge Soler is the future of right field, while Albert Almora, the sixth overall pick in 2012, is expected to man centerfield in Wrigley.
The Cubs have a bit of flexibility in left field and the left side of the infield, which is largely dependent on the ability of Kris Bryant, the number two overall pick in 2013, to stay at third base. If he cannot, left field is his future home.
Moving to the infield, the Cubs have a few pieces of their next contender already in place on their Major League roster. Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are signed to long-term contracts and should remain in place for the foreseeable future.
As for infield prospects, the Cubs have a potential superstar in shortstop/third baseman Javier Baez. There are concerns about his strikeout rate, but his raw power is elite and he could add some serious thump to the Cubs’ lineup. It may be in the best interest of the Cubs to move Bryant to the outfield, Baez to third, and leave Castro at shortstop in order to get everyone in the everyday lineup.
This leaves only second base, but the Cubs have the answer in Arismendy Alcantara. Often overlooked by some of the bigger names in this system, Alcantara is a back-end top-100 prospect (he ranks 100th on Baseball America’s list and 83rd on Baseball Prospectus’s list) that will be ready for the show this year.
Furthermore, the Cubs also have power-hitting first baseman Dan Vogelbach and third baseman Jeimer Candelario waiting in the wings as potential replacements for the aforementioned players or as valuable trade chips.
The only position remaining is catcher. The Cubs have a solid regular in Welington Castillo at the Major League level, but do not have a single catcher on any top-10 or top-20 prospect list. Castillo is still a pre-arbitration player, and is under team control for four more years, barring an extension. Castillo is a solid player, but this is a position that they ought to look to upgrade in the long term, especially once Castillo gets expensive in his later arbitration years.
The Future of the Cubs: Pitchers
While the Cubs are covered at almost every position, question marks abound in talks of their future rotation. Only three arms, right-handers C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Arodys Vizcaino, make the Baseball America’s top 10 prospect list, and none are elite prospects.
Johnson certainly looks the part of a future contributor, but he will not be a star. A future in the middle of a rotation is the best case scenario for the 2012 supplemental pick, which is valuable, but he isn't someone to build around.
Edwards comes with risk and durability questions, but if the lanky right-hander can put it all together he could be pitching at or near the top of a rotation. If both Edwards and Johnson reach their ceilings, the Cubs will have a nice start to their future rotation, but if not, they could have to fill as many as four or five spots.
The final prospect worth mentioning, Arodys Vizcaino, was a former top prospect who had battled the injury bug for two seasons in a row. He is back this season and dominating Double-A, but the injury concerns have led to the Cubs sticking him in the pen full time. If he can stay healthy, Vizcaino could be a very good closer for Chicago.
Outline of the Future Contender
The chart below sums up this analysis in a graphic form. The column “Probability” offers my best guess, from 0 to 10, that this player will indeed be a part of the Cubs of the future. ETA is estimated time of arrival for prospects.
This chart confirms the notion that the Cubs need future help behind the plate and on the mound. Every other position is covered very well for the foreseeable future, so if the Cubs choose to draft for a need (a strategy which I do not tend to agree with), they will have a very specific wish list.
Potential Draft Candidates
There are three top catching candidates that the Cubs may consider here, but only one is a lock to stay behind the plate. That is current Kennesaw State backstop Max Pentecost. The 2013 Cape Cod League MVP, Pentecost has increased his production this season to the tune of a .423/.483/.631 triple slash line along with 9 home runs and 17 steals in 19 attempts.
California High School product Alex Jackson could also be considered here, if he's still available, as could Indiana catcher and power bat Kyle Shwarber. However, Chicago needs a true catcher, and if they choose to go that route, Pentecost would be the most likely selection.
The situation with arms is much less clear. While the 2014 draft used to be called “The Carlos Rodon Sweepstakes,” Rodon's underwhelming junior campaign has led to speculation that the left-hander may slip. Prep lefty Brady Aiken is rumored to be in consideration for the top spot, which is almost certain to be a pitcher.
In addition to Rodon and Aiken, Texas prep right-hander Tyler Kolek is in the top tier of arms that could appeal to the Cubs. If any of the top three were available, it would make sense for the Cubs to snag them at number four.
Rodon, the only college pitcher of the three, has electric stuff but must alleviate concerns that he is ticketed for the bullpen long term. Kolek offers tremendous velocity that leads to an incredibly high ceiling, but is also a higher risk than Rodon. Aiken is a traditional three pitch lefty with very good stuff, command, and polish who could move relatively quickly through the minor leagues for a prep arm.
Each of these players have their advantages and disadvantages, and though they are at the top of most boards, it's possible that the Cubs could choose someone else. If they indeed choose to go another route, here are a few potential candidates.
Aaron Nola, RHP, LSU: A polished college arm, Nola’s appeal is that he is close to Major League ready and could move very quickly. While he may not have the same initial success, a career path similar to that of Michael Wacha is reasonable to suggest.
Kyle Freeland, LHP, Evansville: Another Cape Cod League success story, Freeland’s jump in velocity and raw numbers have helped the small school lefty move up the draft boards.
Michael Conforto, OF, Oregon State: Arguably the best college bat in the class, it may be difficult for the Cubs to pass him up. His only true position is left field, but if the Cubs are confident in the ability of Kris Bryant to remain at third base and Javier Baez to stick at short, the selection and development of Conforto could give a huge boost to their future offense while allowing them to dangle current shortstop Starlin Castro as trade bait for young arms.
The Cubs need young arms and everyone knows that the Cubs need young arms. That being said, don't expect the Cubs to simply draft for a need. Last June many expected the Cubs to select either Jonathan Gray or Mark Appel, but they went with Kris Bryant instead and the move has paid off.
If Aiken, Rodon, or Kolek are available at number four, it would make sense for the Cubs to select one of them. With the quantity of quality arms in this year's draft, it seems like a perfect fit that the Cubs would select one of the top arms near the top of the draft. However, the Cubs have proven before that they do not always draft according to the best fit, so it would not surprise me to see them select Pentecost or Conforto with their first selection.
Furthermore, the Cubs could also get creative with their bonus pool and overdraft someone to save money for later picks. There are no elite players with signability issues like Sean Manaea last year, but the strategy could still pay off if the elite arms are off the board and the Cubs are not thrilled with the other options.
Whatever the Cubs decide to do, they will be adding a top-tier talent to their farm system. Theo Epstein and his crew have done well with the rebuild and fans can expect this draft to be another step in the right direction towards an eventual contender.