Theo Epstein left the Red Sox after the disastrous 2011 season -- but still went out a hero. Epstein was the architect of the 2004 and 2007 World Series championship teams -- you know, the teams that ended the 86-year World Series drought in Boston. Epstein left the Red Sox, one formerly cursed team, to be the President of the Chicago Cubs -- the same Cubs who haven't won the World Series since 1908.
While Epstein left Massachusetts a hero, many wondered if the league had passed him by. Boston had an historic collapse in 2011, and Epstein was responsible for signing Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey and Carl Crawford to terrible contracts.
So far, the Cubs haven't found success in any of Epstein's three years as Chicago's president. Epstein's plan, however, was not to compete by 2014 -- and probably not even by 2015. 2016 looks like the Cubs' target year, with 2015 looking like a season where the Cubs can, at the least, flirt with contention.
Chicago traded its ace Jeff Samardzija, along with Jason Hammel, to Oakland over the weekend, and in return received Oakland's top two prospects -- Addison Russell and Billy McKinney -- along with an interesting arm in Dan Straily.
Russell is the prize of the deal, and, according to Baseball America's midseason top 50 prospect ranking, is the fifth best prospect in baseball. Russell joins a crowded list of elite Cubs infield prospects -- Kris Bryant, 3B, is the No. 2 prospect on Baseball America's list, while Javier Baez, a fellow shortstop, is No. 7. It's believed that Baez will have to move off of SS -- making 3B or 2B a possibility.
The Cubs, however, have Starlin Castro locked up through 2019. That leaves Chicago Bryant, Baez, Russell and Castro for three infield positions. Anthony Rizzo is entrenched at first base. Bryant can likely handle left field or right field -- and his elite power bat will play anywhere.
Assuming Bryant moves to the outfield, the Cubs could boast one of the scariest lineups in baseball as soon as 2016. In addition to the aforementioned infield prospects, the Cubs have Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber, who all profile as impact bats in the outfield. Though Schwarber was drafted as a catch, his future defensive home is likely one of the two corner outfield spots.
By 2016, the Cubs could boast a lineup that features Rizzo, Baez, Russell, Castro, Bryant, Almora and Schwarber. Of course, a lot has to break right for each of the prospects, but they all profile as significant offensive contributors.
Through July 6, teams in Major League Baseball on a whole are hitting just .251/.316/.390 (.705 OPS) -- the continuation of a trend that's occurred over the last few seasons. Offensive output has dropped significantly:
- 2013: .253/.317/.396 (.714 OPS)
- 2012: .254/.319/.405 (.724 OPS)
- 2011: .255/.320/.399 (.719 OPS)
- 2010: .257/.325/.403 (.728 OPS)
- 2009: .262/.333/.418 (.750 OPS)
- 2008: .264/.333/.416 (.749 OPS)
- 2007: .268/.336/.422 (.758 OPS)
- 2006: .269/.336/.432 (.768 OPS)
- 2005: .264/.330/.419 (.749 OPS)
Statistics via ESPN.com
Over the past decade, offensive numbers peaked in 2006, when all 30 teams combined to hit to the tune of a .768 OPS. The drop between 2006 and 2014 offensive numbers -- where teams are hitting for a .705 OPS -- is a massive 8.2%. Power in particular has dropped, down 8.3% in 2014 from its recent peak in 2006 at .432.
There's another half of baseball to be played in 2014 -- but one thing is clear: offense is down, and has gone down over the last decade.
Epstein and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer have done a tremendous job amassing premium offensive prospects at nearly every position, while locking up homegrown talents in Castro and Rizzo. No, the Cubs don't have tremendous starting pitching depth in their minor league system, but the Cubs certainly have ammunition to trade for a starting pitcher, or, the Cubs could just opt to sign pitchers in the free agent market.
While teams like the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers have built excellent starting rotations, both the St. Louis and Los Angeles lineup have holes. The Cubs of 2016 or 2017 may have a premium hitter in each spot in the lineup -- and could be an immovable object that has to square off against an irresistible forces that constitute young, talented MLB starting pitchers.
It's been over a century since the Cubs have won the World Series, but Epstein may have done it again -- the Cubs should be a legitimate power in the near future.
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