The Future of the Cubs on First
Once upon a time, a long time ago, the Chicago Cubs had no first base prospects to speak of. Since those long ago days of last spring, we have seen this team draft Dan Vogelbach out of high school and trade for Anthony Rizzo from the Padres. Suddenly, the Cubs find themselves paying two of the best first base prospects in the game.
For some, this situation has led to a little bit of confusion. Does the Rizzo trade mean the the Cubs have lost confidence in Vogelbach? Is the real plan to move Rizzo to the outfield in a year or two? Maybe the Cubs acquired Rizzo so they could send him back to Boston as part of the never-ending Theo Epstein compensation saga?
The reality is much simpler. While there are very few definitive rules when it comes to building a winning franchise, one of those rules is certainly this: There is no such thing as too much talent.
Both Rizzo and Vogelbach have a place in the Cubs future. Baring some sort of catastrophic injury or illness, Rizzo will reach Wrigley Field first. The most likely scenarios have Rizzo returning to the majors in the middle of this summer. He should be the primary first baseman from that point through the end of his Cubs career.
Vogelbach, on the other hand, is a long way from the majors. He will likely begin 2012 playing for either Boise or Peoria. There are consistent reports that his approach at the plate is already more advanced than what we might expect for a player taken out of high school, so if he reports to camp in good shape he has an excellent chance of picking up some significant playing time as a first baseman and designated hitter in the Midwest League. While a late season promotion to Daytona is not out of the question, it also is not likely. It will probably be 2013 before Vogelbach gets a sustained look at the Florida State League. If all goes well, he could reach Iowa as soon as 2014. I doubt we will see Vogelbach in Chicago until late 2014 at the earliest. He won’t be ready to take over every day duties at first until 2015.
In other words, the Cubs have about three seasons before they have to figure out what to do with two slugging first baseman in the majors. Trading for Rizzo has absolutely no bearing on Vogelbach’s development or the Cubs’ confidence in him. Vogelbach is simply too young to factor into the Cubs short term plans; Rizzo, on the other hand, fits those plans beautifully. So long as Rizzo is playing well, the Cubs can be patient with Vogelbach and give him all the time he needs to develop in the minors.
Let’s fast forward to 2015 and assume that everything has gone perfectly for the Cubs at first base. Rizzo is entering his arbitration years as one of the best young first basemen in the game. Meanwhile, Vogelbach has proven he can be an above average fielder and has been showing off prolific power at the plate. No one doubts that Vogelbach is ready for the majors or that he will be at least as good as Rizzo when he gets promoted. What do the Cubs do then?
That’s easy. They trade one of them. As we have seen in the past, young first basemen can bring quite a return in trade. No matter which player the Cubs decide to trade, they will still wind up with a very good first baseman to go with the additional high-end prospects they receive in the deal. In this scenario the Cubs cannot lose.
Unfortunately, everything is not likely to work out that perfectly. More likely we’ll see the one or the other of the two first baseman not quite live up to expectations. Injuries or a lack of adjustments against more advanced pitching will lower a ceiling to the point that there is no debate who should have the first base job. But this is also a no lose scenario for the Cubs, and it highlights the importance of having depth. If a team has one high level prospect and that prospect does not pan out, the team could be left in a bind. On the other hand, if a team has stacked high level talent all over the diamond and throughout the farm system, it does not matter if some of them do not pan out. The overall depth of talent greatly increases the likelihood that some of them will go on to have successful major league careers. Good organizations stack talent in the farm system because good organizations understand that there is no such thing as too much talent. The Cubs are emerging as a good organization on the rise.
There are other areas in the system where the Cubs appear to have overlapping prospects. Center field (Jackson, Szczur, and Chen), third base (Vitters, Lake, Baez, Candelario), and catcher (Castillo, Clevenger, Gibbs, Rosario) stand out in particular. Rather than a sign of poor management or an indication that the new front office does not value certain prospects, this should be seen as nothing more than yet another indication that the Cubs are building their farm system the right way. In the years to come we will continue to see the Cubs stacking prospects as deeply as they can, and we will also see the Cubs’ farm system consistently produce quality players for the major league team. The future is bright for the Cubs thanks in no small part to their depth of talent in the minors.