Legends On Deck

The Cubs 25 And Under Club

Cubs

Despite being mired in a four game losing streak, the Cubs have a 13-12 record and are in second place in their division entering Wednesday’s game with the first place Cardinals. After having a losing record in each of the last five seasons, the Cubbies look like they may finish above .500 the first time since 2009. If they are to break the .500 mark, and potentially compete for a playoff spot, it looks like they will strongly rely on their young, highly- touted offense, which amazingly consists of five everyday players who are aged 25 and under.

For the past year, analysts have been raving about the Cubs’ young hitters and the enormous potential surrounding their offense. Between the Cubs’ major and minor league teams, they’ve had enough young hitters to make opposing teams drool. This offensive potential seemed to convince the Cubs’ highly- esteemed front office duo of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to end the rebuilding phase that has been in effect since they took control of the team following the 2011 season.

The offseason signings of both Jon Lester (who they were already familiar with from their days running the Red Sox) to a six year/155 million dollar contract and Jason Hammel to a two year/20 million dollar deal with a team option, were clearly an attempt to support their potentially powerful offense with some veteran starting pitchers. However, the focus of many observers has remained on their young hitters, who each could possibly be franchise cornerstones for years to come.

Not only do the Cubs have five everyday starters who are aged 25 and under, but all five have either already had impressive ML success, or has recently been labeled a top prospect and potential star of the future by prospect gurus. Here, we will break down each of these five Cubs’ regulars, and discuss their future career possibilities, as well as how they got to where they currently are.

Starlin Castro (age 25):
Castro was signed as an international free agent in 2006, when he was only 16 years old. He made his big league debut as a 20 year old in 2010, when he finished fifth in the NL rookie of the year. In 2011, Castro made his first all star appearance, hitting .307/.341/.432 and producing 2.8 fWAR. He continued to produce a similar slash line in 2012, performing very well at the plate for a shortstop, and despite a rough 2013 season, he bounced back strong in 2014, making his third all star game.

Through 103 PAs so far in 2015, Castro is slashing .303/.330/374, as he’s seemingly on his way to another productive year. The Cubs and Castro agreed to a seven year extension worth 60 million dollars that began in 2013 and is set to run through 2019, when he will be 29. Castro seems like a good bet to continue to produce like he did in his three all star seasons, each of which was valued at between 2.7 and 3.1 fWAR. His seven-year extension already looks like a smart move by the Cubs’ front office.

Anthony Rizzo (age 25):
Already viewed as one of the league’s premier sluggers, Rizzo was drafted by the Red Sox as a sixth round pick in 2007, when Theo Epstein was the Red Sox GM. However, after the 2010 season, the Red Sox front office, still led by Epstein, traded Rizzo to the Padres, whose front office was at the time led by Jed Hoyer, who left the Red Sox front office the previous offseason, as part of a prospect package for Adrian Gonzalez.

Coming off a season in which Rizzo OPSed .814 for the Red Sox Hi- A and Double A affiliates, he was considered a valuable prospect, but not yet an elite one, slotting in at number 75 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects entering the 2011 season. However, in 2011 he OPSed 1.056 in AAA for the Padres, and proceeded to make his major league debut. When Epstein and Hoyer signed on to run the Cubs’ front office that offseason, they immediately traded for him, giving up pitcher Andrew Cashner and anointing Rizzo the Cubs’ first baseman of the future.

After performing decently in 2012 and 2013, Rizzo broke out big in 2014, hitting 32 HRs and slashing .286/.386/.527. He finished tenth in the NL MVP after a spectacular year in which he was worth 5.6 fWAR. In 2015, Rizzo has continued to mash at the plate, slashing .313/458/.530 with four HRs through 107 PAs. In 2013, he signed a seven year extension worth 41 million, with an additional two team options worth 14.5 million apiece. The oldest out of the Cubs’ 25 and under club (he turns 26 in August), Rizzo appears on the right path to a terrific career as a slugging 1b in a league that is increasingly devoid of power hitters.

Kris Bryant (age 23):
The second overall pick out of college in the 2013 draft, Bryant has received much fanfare since the moment he was drafted. He did not disappoint, OPSing 1.078 and 1.098 in the minors in 2013 and 2014, respectively. In 2014, he was named minor league player of the year, as he led the entire minor leagues with 43 HRs. If that wasn’t enough to prove that he was ready for the big leagues, he hit 9 HRs in only 44 PAs during this season’s Spring Training.

After being held in the minors until April 17th due to service time issues, the 23 year old has surprisingly not yet homered in his first 77 PAs in the majors, although he has still slashed an impressive .283/.442/.367, good for a terrific 138 wRc+. His HR drought should not last much longer, as his 48.7% FB% (% of batted balls that are fly balls) ranks tenth in the league for all hitters with at least 70 PAs. Bryant appears to be a potential franchise player who could possibly team up with Rizzo to form a formidable 3-4 punch in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup for years to come.

Jorge Soler (age 23):
Soler was signed in June of 2012 to a nine year deal worth 30 million dollars after defecting from Cuba. After OPSing .810 in his first full minor league season in 2013, he broke out big in 2014, where despite missing time with injuries, he OPSed 1.132 in the minors. Soler was called up to the major leagues in August of 2014, and had a very successful late season run, where he slashed .292/.330/.573 with 5 HRs in only 97 PAs. So far in 2015, he has not hit as well through 110 PAs, slashing .265/.327/.398 with a very high 35.5% K%, up significantly from the 24.7% he posted in the big leagues last year.

For Soler to be successful, he needs to decrease his strikeouts, which have never really been a problem for him in the past, as he struck out only 16.1% and 20.3% of the time in the minors in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Clearly Soler is having a tough time adjusting to ML pitchers this year, who have so far thrown him less fastballs than last year, although only marginally less (down by a total of 1.5%). His high K% should decrease as the season progresses and his PAs increase.

Soler has a ton of talent, and may very well improve on his 2015 numbers, which aren’t bad at all. He has a decent 101wRc+ so far (1 point above average), although he has achieved his stats with an unsustainably high .407 BABIP, which will certainly regress as the season goes on. Soler is still a very talented hitter with great power potential, and although he may have some kinks to work out, he’s still worth keeping an eye on as he gains more major league experience.

Addison Russell (age 21):
Russell was the selected by the Oakland A’s as the 11th pick overall in the 2012 draft out of high school, and quickly emerged as one of the game’s premier shortstop prospects. After OPSing .865 in 517 PAs in 2013 in A ball, he started the 2014 season with Oakland’s AA affiliate. Russell was subsequently used as the centerpiece in a package of players traded to the Cubs in exchange for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. This trade already appears to be one of the signature moves made by the current Cubs front office, as prospects of Russell’s caliber rarely get traded nowadays. After ranking as a top five prospect on many 2015 preseason prospect lists, Russell returned to the minors to start 2015, but eventually made his major league debut on April 21st.

Russell has been forced to play second base since Starlin Castro is currently occupying his natural position of shortstop, but should be able to make the adjustment and give the Cubs a formidable double play combo, both offensively and defensively. He has only appeared in 12 games, and has only amassed 48 PAs, so it’s extremely difficult to judge Russell off of his tiny ML sample size, in which he’s hit .261/.292/.500 with 2 HRs and a 116 wRc+. His current 43.8% K% is ridiculously high, but that may very well be due to an adjustment period that many youngsters need.

Russell has struck out at least once in each of his 12 games played, but has seen his Ks decrease as his big league stint progressed, as 10 of his 21 total Ks were in his first four games. His K% decreases to 34.6% (still high, but an improvement) in his last seven games. His advertised power has so far translated to the big leagues, as evidenced by his .239 ISO. He has enormous potential, and at only 21 years old, he has plenty of time to make a mark in the big leagues. The Cubs apparently think that impact will come sooner rather than later.

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Steve Berlin

Steve Berlin

Steve is a diehard baseball fan (Lets Go Mets!) who lives in New Jersey. Originally from Brooklyn, hegraduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor's Degree in Economics. Steve loves to focus on the sabermetrics side of baseball, as he grew up in the so- called "Moneyball era".He is also an avid music listener, and is always willing to debate music or sports.
Steve Berlin