One of the first things baseball people will tell you is that projecting future lineups based on a handful of prospects developing is a fool’s errand.  It’s literally the baseball equivalent of counting your chickens before they hatch.  There’s a phrase in the game that many baseball executives live by: there is no such thing as a pitching prospect.  Essentially what it means is that until a pitcher makes it to The Show, they’re as valuable as a one-fingered bowling ball.  In many ways position players are in the same boat if not a teensie bit more likely to reach their potential.  Fortunately for the Cubs, they have position player prospects in spades. 

Theo Epstein has spoken in the past about the impossible ideal of building an organization entirely through home grown talent and how it is akin to catching a fart in a Pringles can (I’m pretty sure those were his words).  With the major league squad in a race to the bottom of the standings, I thought it might be fun to try and piece together what the starting eight (no pitcher) will look like when the Cubs’ fruit begins to ripen and they achieve their goal of sustained success.  For safety’s sake let’s call this the 2016 opening day lineup.  I’m only going to use existing players currently within the system (Boise & above) as I don’t want to speculate on future draft picks (the Cubs are on pace for a top 5 pick next summer as well) or the recent wave of international signings (due primarily to my naiveté of their development timelines & potential).  So without further ado, join me won’t you as we take a best guess stroll around the diamond, predicting what the next generation of consistently competitive Chicago Cubs looks like.

 

Catcher – Wellington Castillo

This selection falls under the category of “No Viable Alternative.”  Castillo is the organization’s tallest midget in some senses.  As evident by their selecting six catchers in this year’s draft, it does not appear there is much faith in the internal options these days.  On Tuesday Epstein even alluded to three undisclosed minor leaguers getting converted to a new position behind the plate in the Fall Instructional League beginning two months from now.  Until someone emerges from this group of no names I’ll stick with the man they call “Beef.”

 

1st Base – Anthony Rizzo

This selection is not as clear cut as you may assume.  I went with Rizzo here over the in-house option of Dan Vogelbach – he of the Paul Bunyan-esque power - who was recently promoted to High-A Daytona due to, A) the faith the front office has shown in him by acquiring him three different times, B) his recently signed seven year team friendly contract, & C) his current .232/.323/.431 slash line.  I made that last one up – the reason not the actual numbers.  For all the roses thrown at the feet of Rizzo for his leadership and clubhouse presence, he hasn’t exactly produced much on the field this year.  His 2013 season has been that of a Carlos Pena or Adam Dunn Lite.  I guess what I’m saying is that I’m going to default to my faith in the decision makers at the top, but I also wouldn’t be horribly upset if the Cubs emerge victorious from the Jose Dariel Abreu Derby either.

 

2nd Base – Arismendy Alcantara

This is a bit of decision with my heart as well as my head.  Alcantara has been a Cubs prospect for a few years but injuries have set him back each of the past two seasons.  Well this year he seems to have put it all together and the results have been fun to watch.  Alcantara is a switch hitting speedster that has added pop to his repertoire this year as he made the AA All-Star team, homered at the Futures Game during the MLB All-Star weekend, leads his league in total bases and doubles, and has 27 stolen bases including a steal of home on Wednesday night.  When was the last time a Cubs player did that?  Alcantara’s build is that of a true second baseman whereas the others who have been discussed in taking this position would all realistically be a bit of an odd fit given their body types and skill sets.  Another big picture factor in this decision is that the Cubs have a glut of middle of the order power bats on the way, but someone is eventually going to need to hit at the top of the order.  Of all the prospects listed here Alcantara is the premier table setter of the group and there’s value to diversity of skill sets in my hypothetical lineup.

 

SS – Starlin Castro

Perhaps the most controversial choice on the list, consider me amongst those who have not lost faith in young Starlin.  Let us all remember that he is still just 23 years old, in his fourth season in the bigs, with two All-Star appearances, a lifetime .300 average coming into this season and a 200+ hit campaign under his belt.  To say that he has lost anything physically is silly at this point.  His issue is between his ears for the past year and a half.  I think the front office would probably express some regret in trying to tamper with a good thing too much this spring in trying to make Castro a more selective hitter rather than just relying on his pure ability as he’s done to date.  Gordon Wittenmyer from the Sun-Times made a good comment in a recent interview with Tom Loxas over at Cubs Den making the point that such tinkering would perhaps have been better received had Castro actually been in the midst of a slump to begin with.  While I’ll admit Castro’s defense certainly leaves room for improvement (despite his current 22-game errorless streak), the skills are there and I truly believe his game will improve as the talent level of the players and team around him increases as well.  I think he’s a bit of a chameleon meaning that he’ll play to the level that his teammates demand of him, and unfortunately one of the casualties of the Cubs essentially tanking the past two seasons has been his presumed lack of urgency to meet his own personal potential on the field.  I say stick with Castro as dealing him now would be selling at an all-time low (like Rizzo he’s at the very beginning of what promises to be a team friendly deal) and you can thank me later when he returns to All-Star form.

 

3rd Base – Javier Baez

Just writing his name is fun.  It’s like when the hyenas in The Lion King talk about saying Mufasa.  Mufasa Musfasa MUFASA!  He’s 20 years old and absolutely crushing the Double-A Southern League to the tune of 12 homeruns and 42 hits in his first 36 games since being promoted at the end of June.  Those 12 homeruns are good for 5th on the team in approximately 250 fewer at bats than the four players ahead of him.  Baez has played shortstop at every level up to this point and many scouts say that he has the skills to stick there, but his 40+ errors this season across two levels speaks to a player whose offense is his ticket to the big time.  As he fills out his 6ft 195lb frame I think he’ll lose some of his range, limiting his value in the middle of the field, but making him an above average defender at the hot corner.  Generally speaking I think third base comes down to Baez and Kris Bryant and my deciding factor is that Baez is a shortstop (the tougher defensive position) who can move to 3rd while Bryant is a 3rd baseman who can move to a corner outfield spot.  It’s my column and that’s how I’d call it.

 

Right Field – Jorge Soler

Soler has become a bit of the forgotten man this year as he’s ambled around the recovery wing of the Cubs spring training facility for the past month and a half.  Apparently Soler fouled a ball off his shin during spring training and played through what he assumed to be a bruise for the first two months of the season.  After taking another foul ball off the leg he finally got it x-rayed which revealed that the bone had been cracked for some time.  That means he hit .281 with 8 homeruns in 55 games on a broken leg.  All I can tell you is that I made the drive to Kane County to see Soler play about a year ago and he looked like a man among boys.  He was every bit of his listed 6’4” 215lb self and the opponents were scared to test his laser of an arm from right field.  The kid’s the real deal and despite his recent set back of not returning this regular season, it sounds like the plan is to get him into the Arizona Fall League (for the Who’s-Who of MLB prospects) and let his buzz start anew down there in October. 

 

Center Field – Albert Almora

The Cubs Jason McLeod (Senior VP of Scouting) and Jed Hoyer (GM) may or may not be able to talk about Almora while standing up in public.  For the sake of being mistaken as tent salesmen it’s best they discuss last year’s #6 pick in the draft from a seated position.  Almora is everything an organization is looking for from a leadership and role model position.  Aside from some slicked back hair and white framed Oakley’s I saw him in earlier this summer (prima donna?) by all accounts he’s the kind of kid you hope your daughter brings home someday.  Oh yeah, and he’s freaking ridiculous at baseball.  In 61 games this year strung together between four different injuries he’s amassed a .329/.429/.469 slash line and plays the best defensive outfield in the entire organization.  It’s been said in many places that he could start defensively for the big league team today.  When Dale Sveum is talking about adjusting the development of current major leaguers like Junior Lake because a 19 year old in Low-A Kane County is on his way, it speaks to the expectations the organization has set for the young man.  In the hypothetical lineup referenced in the Alcantara section, Almora is the ideal #2 hitter who makes contact, moves the runner over, and does just about everything you could ask of the position.

 

Left Field – Kris Bryant

Back in 2005 there was a power hitting third baseman that came out of a fairly prominent warm weather NCAA program with incredible power and was selected as a top 5 draft pick.  After a brief attempt to keep him at 3rd he was quickly moved to left field where he’s gone on to win Rookie of the Year, an MVP, was elected to five All-Star Games, and won the homerun crown in 2012 amongst other accolades.  That player?  Ryan Braun.  Kris Bryant has the potential to be in the same ballpark if not match that résumé aside from one glaring difference.  He’s not Jewish.  In all seriousness, we’ll assume Bryant is reached is potential in the most natural way possible but Braun is the ceiling that many think Bryant can achieve, and if so then we’re talking about a generational player.  While it can be argued that he has the skills to stick at 3rd I’d just as soon put him in left (the DH of the National League) and take every step to ensure that bat of his reaches its full potential first and foremost. 

A lineup that features 3 thru 6 hitters of Bryant/Baez/Soler/Rizzo in some order has the capacity to be historic.  Package Alcantara & Almora in front of them to set the table and then add former 200-hit Castro in the 7-hole and the sky is the limit.  This group, assuming they all come within sniffing distance of their potential (admittedly a big assumption but we’re kool-aid drinkers) seriously has the ability to turn Wrigley Field into a video game on any given afternoon. 

This lineup also means that there is some serious talent on the bench waiting to fill in.  Not mentioned above is power hitting Mike Olt who can play 1st/3rd/OF, Christian Villanueva (the best fielding 3rd baseman in the system who found his power stroke at AA this year), the aforementioned Vogelbach, Jemier Candalerio (a switch hitting 19 year old 3rd baseman at Kane County), Matt Szczur, and the “they’re still around?” All-Stars of Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters (both of whom I’d assume are traded as pieces for a high end pitching prospect at some point).  Also lost in this shuffle is current flavor of the month Junior Lake. 

So when your friends and co-workers are complaining this winter that the deep pocketed Cubs are being stingy on the free agent market, not signing past their prime starts to ten year deals for hundreds of millions of dollars, refer back to this list and ask them exactly who of the above would they like to block from reaching Wrigley as a core piece to what promises to be a very bright future?  Have patience Cubs fans, the cavalry is on its way.

For those who want to dive in to the deep end of the pool, here’s a link to ESPN’s Keith Law’s podcast Behind The Dish with guest Jason McLeod talking about most if not all of the names above.