February 23, 2012; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer (left) talks to president Theo Epstein (right) during spring training at Fitch Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE
Ever since Theo Epstein has taken over as the head of the Cubs baseball operations he's had one goal and that's to build the team properly, from the ground up. His first order of business was landing Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, two extremely talented baseball executives, to help realize his goal. During one of Epstein's first press conferences he stated "We need more talent. We lack impact talent." Realizing that the Cubs completely lacked top shelf talent, Epstein went out and added an absurd amount of young and potentially big impact talent to the Cubs organization in an extremely short period of time.
The first extremely talented player they landed was Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo has gone wherever Jed Hoyer has been. Originally drafted by the Red Sox in the third round out of a high school in Florida, Rizzo was shipped to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal where Jed Hoyer had since moved onto as General Manager. This past offseason, Hoyer jumped ship to become the GM, but second in command to Theo Epstein, of the Cubs and obviously a little while later Rizzo was acquired. It's not like the Cubs got Rizzo, a powerful firstbasemen, for nothing though. They gave up fireballing right hander Andrew Cashner and outfield prospect Kyung-Min Na to acquire Rizzo and, pitching prospect, Zach Cates.
The Cubs also managed to acquire three interesting players from the Reds for a year of Sean Marshall. They obtained Travis Wood, Ronald Torreyes and Dave Sappelt. Travis Wood was the only player acquired with previous MLB experience. His ceiling is that of a bottom of the rotation starter, but is a solid cost controlled player that every team has a need for. Dave Sappelt is pretty short, but his speed makes up for that pretty well. Sappelt can play an above average centerfield at the major league level which will, at the least, earn him a 4th outfielder job. Sappelt comes up to the plate swinging and does not like to wait around. Torreyes is probably the most interesting out of the three former Redlegs. He's only 19 and has walked at the same rate he's been striking out in Single-A. He's extremely raw, but could easily hit enough to play second base in the majors.
In June the Cubs signed one of the most, if not the most, talented international free agent available. They signed Jorge Soler, who defected from Cuba, to a nine year $30 million contract. Soler is a decent athlete with serious power potential and terrific bat speed. He has a very advanced plate approach especially considering he's only 20 years old. He looks like he could develop into a prototypical right fielder with a great arm and a big bat. So far this season in High-A Peoria, Soler's been slashing .338/.398/.513.
June is also the month of the Rule IV Draft, better know as the Amateur Draft. The Cubs managed to reel in one of the more talented players in the entire draft. Albert Almora was considered to be the second most talented amateur outfielder heading into the draft preceded only by Byron Buxton. Almora is oozing with talent, he combines five tool potential with great makeup and work ethic which make him into an elite prospect. Almora has a great chance of not only sticking in centerfield, but excelling defensively as well. Almora also possesses projected above average power and contact skills to go along with his fielding capabilities. For a more in depth scouting report on Almora click here. While he's a long way away from the majors, Almora has everything you'd want in an early first round draft pick.
With their next three picks, which happened to include two supplemental round picks, the Cubs drafted Pierce Johnson, Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood a trio of right handed pitchers. Following those picks, the Cubs drafted as many high upside high school players as possible without going over the draft cap.
Pierce Johnson has the ceiling of a middle of the rotation starter. Drafted out of Missouri State, Johnson mixes a low 90's fastball with a plus curveball and a developing changeup. Because of his great command, Johnson could move through the minors fairly quickly.
Blackburn and Underwood were both drafted out of high school and, like Almora, have a ways to go until they'll be major league ready. Blackburn mixes a low 90's fastball with two very projectable out-pitches, a changeup and a curveball. The curveball is a little more refined because he used it more often than his changeup in high school. Blackburn has a sound delivery which is usually conducive to staying healthy and having good command of your pitches. Underwood is less polished than Blackburn but has more arm speed and will probably end up throwing harder than Blackburn. Underwood, like Blackburn, throws a curveball and a changeup. The curveball has very good movement but he has trouble consistently throwing and locating either pitch. His ceiling might be slightly higher than Blackburn's but he is also more raw than him right now.
Skipping ahead to the July trading season, Epstein managed to add a few more interesting prospects without even giving up so much. He traded Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to the Braves for Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman and Ryan Dempster to the Rangers for Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks. I still don't understand how the Cubs managed to get a prospect like Arodys Vizcaino for a number five starter and a fourth outfielder. It was a stroke of genius on Theo Epstein's part. The reason a team like the Braves were willing to part with a talented pitcher like Vizcaino is because he's missed the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery and has had previous durability concerns as well. Vizcaino repertoire includes a mid 90's heater and a plus curveball, he's also made strides with his improving changeup. No one questions Vizcaion's stuff it's just a matter of him being able to last seven innings over the course of a game or pitch 180 innings in a season. The other part of that trade, Jaye Chapman, is 25 years old and profiles as a middle reliever in the majors, with a fastball that averages 90 MPH and no great breaking pitches he probably won't amount to much.
The Dempster trade brought back a couple interesting prospects. Kyle Hendricks was the Rangers 2011 8th round draft pick out of Dartmouth. He's pitched very well as a 22 year old in High-A this season . While his fastball isn't that fast, he mixes in a slider, curveball, changeup and a cutter. He has excellent command and a great feel for pitching. The centerpiece of the deal was Christian Villanueva. Signed as an international free agent in 2008 out of Mexico, Villanueva has a nice line drive stroke that'll lead to occasional power. His third base defense is tremendous and coupled with a strong throwing arm makes him look like a potential future gold glove award winner. Since joining the Cubs Villanueva has doubled his BB%, an area of weakness for him. He projects to be a very good ballplayer for a long time.
In conclusion, Theo Epstein and co. have somehow managed to compile an extremely impressive list of young talent in just 9 months on the job. Obviously, having a nice amount of funding behind them is helpful, but it shouldn't mitigate the amazing work that has been done. The fact is that five of the Cubs top 10 prospects, per MLB.com, have been acquired during Theo Epstein's, so far, brief tenure as the Cubs President. And that doesn't even include Anthony Rizzo, who, if eligible, would rank as the Cubs number one prospect. After taking over a team that a year ago looked barren when it came to young impact talent, the Cubs have taken a great step forward to becoming a perennially relevant team again.