There are not too many reasons to be excited right now if you’re a Cubs fan. Chicago entered Wednesday 13 games below .500 and 13½ games behind the Brewers for first place in the NL Central. Rival St. Louis sits in second, just two games back of Milwaukee. Cubs hitters are batting a meager .239 — 28th in the majors — while their pitching has been only relatively better, posting a collective 3.68 ERA that's good for 17th in the bigs.
By all accounts, 2014 is one to forget on the north side of Chicago, but not all is lost for president Theo Epstein and the rest of the front office. The Cubs, thanks to their tremendous farm system, are built to compete, albeit a few years down the line.
Jorge Soler, Baseball America’s No. 41 prospect entering 2014, made his MLB debut Wednesday night and wasted no time for introductions. Hitting fifth in manager Rick Renteria’s lineup, Soler got ahold of a 2-1 fastball from the Reds’ Mat Latos and homered to straightaway center to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Soler became the second Cubs rookie in 2014 to go deep in his debut, joining teammate Javier Baez, who belted the eventual game-winning home run in the 12th inning of a 6-5 win over the Rockies on Aug. 5.
Soler wasn’t done. Facing Jonathan Broxton in the 8th, Soler singled to left field, driving in Baez for his second RBI. He finished the night 2-for-4, with two RBI and a run scored. Chicago, which committed three errors and surrendered 12 hits, lost the game 7-5, but gained something perhaps more valuable: a chance for its young stars to get major league experience.
A couple of hamstring injuries limited Soler’s playing time in 2013 and the start of 2014, which led to his omission on Baseball America’s Midseason Top 50 list. At Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa this season, he is hitting .338 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI, and he finally got a chance to showcase his abilities on the big stage. He certainly didn't disappoint. With pure power and a smooth stroke, if he can stay healthy and avoid re-aggravating his hamstrings, Soler could be a mainstay in the Cubs' lineup for years to come.
He’s not the only one who has Cubs fans excited for the future of the franchise. Chicago has four more players in the Midseason Top 50: third baseman Kris Bryant (No. 2, and who could very well win Minor League player of the year), shortstop Addison Russell (No. 5), Baez (No. 7) and second baseman Arismendy Alcantara (No. 33). The Cubs so-called “Core Four” includes Soler, Bryant, Baez and center fielder Albert Almora, the Cubs’ 2012 first-round draft pick.
Soler joins center fielder Matt Szczur, Alcantara and Baez as notable hitters to have been called up this season, with Bryant’s expected arrival set for next September. The latter two have not fared exceptionally well so far. Alcantara has hit 228/.285/.374 with five home runs and 16 RBI in 42 games, while Baez has flirted with the .200 mark and struck out 40 times in 21 games. But their skill sets are readily apparent and can take the necessary time to adjust to major league pitching in a no-pressure environment. The idea is that when next season rolls around, the young players will have had ample time to work off nervous jitters and adjust to the majors, a rare luxury in the modern era.
Rookie pitcher Kyle Hendricks seems to have worked out any issues he may have had very quickly, as he's been a revelation of sorts on the mound. He has been extremely impressive, boasting a 5-1 record with a 1.78 ERA in 50 2/3 innings. Hendricks has front-of-the-rotation-quality stuff and is destined to figure greatly in the Cubs’ staff next season, given the dearth of rotation talent at their disposal.
The pieces are there for the Cubs: maybe not now, and maybe not at a level ready for a deep postseason run in the next few seasons. But the building blocks are in place, as Chicago is betting largely on winning from within moving forward.
Will all of the Cubs’ prized prospects pan out and put up Jose Abreu- or Yasiel Puig-type numbers? Not likely, but the talent is certainly there, and it’s only a matter of time before it comes to fruition.