DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — It’s tempting for Chicago Cubs fans to pay as much attention to Triple-A Iowa as the struggling big league club.
Iowa’s lineup is a daily reminder that Chicago’s future might be as bright as any team in baseball.
The recent promotion of Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, who is ranked 54th on MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects in baseball, has given the I-Cubs a lineup that’s the envy of baseball. With Soler slotted fifth behind middle infielder Javier Baez (ranked No. 6 by MLB.com) and third baseman Kris Bryant (No. 4), Iowa has a heart of the order that’s as promising as any Triple-A team in recent memory.
The Double-A Tennessee Smokies are stacked as well, with Addison Russell (No. 7) and Albert Almora (No. 41) providing hope that Chicago’s streak of consecutive losing seasons could be over by 2015.
“We were ranked the top system in baseball,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “That is nice to the extent it reflects a lot of hard work by scouts and player development people as well as the players themselves. It really doesn’t mean anything. We are in last place, so almost by definition, our work lies ahead of us.”
The Cubs have largely resisted the urge to rush their top prospects to the big leagues, with the exception of the recent call up of Arismendy Alcantara.
Bryant’s performance as a first-year pro has undoubtedly tested that patience.
Bryant, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, has hit 33 home runs in just 380 at-bats, with 30 doubles, 87 RBI and an OPS of 1.112 between Tennessee and Iowa entering Tuesday’s game at New Orleans.
Though Bryant, 22, likely still won’t see Chicago until 2015 at the earliest, that’s fine by him for now.
“If I’m focusing on that, then I’m not really playing as hard as I can here,” he said. “Something I told myself going into the year is to not focus on getting called up or promoted to a different level. Just go up there and take it day by day.”
Chicago’s measured approach has helped Baez mature into an elite middle infield prospect. Iowa manager Marty Pevey said he’s seen Baez’s intensity and concentration levels exponentially grow since April.
Baez is set to play mostly at second base for the rest of the year, with Chicago’s Starlin Castro seemingly blocking his path. But Pevey believes Baez has the tools to be a shortstop in the majors.
Baez, 21, is hitting .258 with 19 home runs and 73 RBI for Iowa. But Baez’s average has improved every month, and he’s hitting .301 with eight home runs in July.
“Let me tell you something. This cat can play some frigging shortstop,” Pevey said. “We have a really good shortstop in the big leagues, but Javy Baez is an extremely good shortstop.”
Soler’s path to Chicago has been slowed somewhat by injuries since signing a nine-year, $30 million contract in 2012. But after hitting .415 with six home runs in just 65 Double-A at-bats, the Cubs were convinced the 22-year-old was ready for Iowa.
“He said, ‘Now is my time.’ And he just went out and made a statement,” Epstein said. “It wasn’t just the numbers, but the quality of at-bats he was having. He was laying off the tough breaking pitches. He wasn’t being overly aggressive. He was doing a much better job of getting the ball in the air and elevating the baseball. He’s on a mission.”
Chicago’s farm system is weighted more toward positional talent, and there are redundancies at multiple positions. That could push the Cubs to trade some of their elite prospects for arms to help the big league club when it is ready to contend in the NL Central.
But the idea of building a perennial contender from the ground up has many Cubs observers shifting their gaze southwest to Des Moines, with players like Bryant and Baez on the verge of joining former Chicago farmhands like Castro and Anthony Rizzo at Wrigley Field.
“True baseball fans like young players. They like following players around the whole journey, players who are homegrown and they get to know,” Epstein said. “If all goes according to plan, we will be able to provide them with that experience, maybe a whole group of players they can get to know for a decade.”