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How the Cubs Can Manage a Youth Movement

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The Chicago Cubs are far from a young team at the moment.  As currently constructed, Geovany Soto is the only everyday starter who will be under the age of 29 at season’s end.  However, for the first time in a while, the Cubs appear to have a  relatively strong minor league system with some talents that could contribute in the near future.  In addition, several contract expirations will force a decision of the part of new ownership and possibly change the face of the team.

Who Could Be Leaving

It seems like Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee have been stationed at the corners for a decade.  Over the years, we’ve seen Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella try to squeeze any productive left handed bat between them in the lineup whether it be Jacque Jones, Kosuke Fukudome, Jeromy Burnitz or Milton Bradley.  While these players have come and gone or changed roles, Lee and Ramirez have been a consistent duo.  Derrek Lee bounced back from a rough 2008 to to put together his best year since his ’05 season in 2009.  The bad news is, he’ll be 35 by the end of this season when his contract expires.  Looking forward, years like 2008 look a lot more likely than 2009.

For Ramirez, he has a large player option for 2011 with a mutual option in 2012.  He took a hometown discount when he signed the extension and likely won’t fetch any more on the open market.  Since arriving, he has been the most consistent contributor for the Cubs, even maintaining a .905 OPS last year despite coming back from a shoulder injury.  Ramirez is 3 years younger than Lee and will more than likely outlast him on the north side.

Additionally, Kosuke Fukudome is signed through 2011 and will be turning 34 around the beginning of the 2012 season.  Unless he shows continued improvement in his early 30’s over the next couple of years, the initial 4-year deal will likely be the only one he receives from the Cubs.

Besides those big three players, Ryan Theriot is on a year-to-year basis, recently losing the first arbitration hearing the Cubs have had in nearly two decades.  Jeff Baker and Mike Fontenot are by no means long-term solutions, and Marlon Byrd just signed a 3 year deal.  As for Alfonso Soriano, he’s not going anywhere.

On the starting pitching front, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano are locked up for a good while, Randy Wells has just a year of service time accrued and Ted Lilly is finishing up the last year of what’s been a very productive deal (2007 playoffs aside).

What’s to Come

If you haven’t heard of Josh Vitters, Starlin Castro or Jay Jackson, they are the hottest prospects in the Cubs’ system. Castro has held his own at age 19 in AA ball, but will need at least a year to work on his defense and develop some power before anyone can consider playing him full-time at shortstop. Josh Vitters has displayed a great swing with tremendous power in A ball, but leaves a lot to be desired with his defense and BB rate. Jay Jackson has been outstanding in the high minor leagues, registering a 10.1 K/9 and 2.95 ERA over his brief minor league career. One also has to mention former top pick Andrew Cashner who excelled in his first minor league shot at starting. Still though of by many as a future reliever, he is said to be working on a changeup and will be starting in the minors this year. Another former top pick, Tyler Colvin put together a solid ’09, but has the same problem as Vitters with a low BB rate.

Further down the line are players like shorstop Hak-Ju Lee and outfielder Brett Jackson who had great seasons in 2009. Both show tremendous skills and have a strong chance to reach the majors. Other players like SP Chris Carpenter, SP Chris Archer, OF Kyler Burke and 2B Ryan Flaherty could also contribute down the line.

The Plan

The first decisions will have to be made at the end of the 2010 season.  With Derrek Lee’s contract expiring and Josh Vitters close, but not completely ready for the majors the Cubs have a few options.  Lee is entering into a free agent class of first basemen that includes Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn and Lance Berkman to name a few.  Because of this and the current market, Lee could be brought back at a large discount in a 2-year deal.  However, another possibility could lie in what becomes of Chad Tracy or Micah Hoffpauir this year.  If either show the ability to produce, they could be used as stop-gaps while Vitters develops fully.  While some might say this is a risky proposition, it is equally risk to expect continued production out of a first baseman in his mid-30’s.  With Vitters’ arrival in either 2011 or 2012, the Cubs could begin Aramis Ramirez’s transition to first base, unless Vitters does not improve at third in which case it would become his home.  Xavier Nady is another possible stop-gap solution who will likely come cheaper, with less years attached, and more positional flexibility if he is signed beyond 2010.

If Ryan Theriot becomes too expensive, the team can also go with current AAA shortstop Darwin Barney, or go with Andres Blanco in the short run if he shows improvement.  Both could produce at Theriot levels at younger ages without blocking Starlin Castro’s arrival.

At the same time, Ted Lilly’s rotation spot could easily be filled by Jay Jackson with several other starters waiting in the wings.

After 2011, Kosuke Fukudome will either be extended or move on to another team.  If the Cubs are to continue to get younger, this would be an opportunity for either Brett Jackson or Tyler Colvin to begin playing in the OF.  At the same time, some other aforementioned minor leaguers could be ready to fill unexpected holes in the rotation, the outfield or infield.

In many ways, this transition could be seamless, as long as management isn’t insistent on holding onto older players.  While it is risky to assume production out of young players, it is equally risky to invest a large amount of money in an aging veteran.  Additionally, with the money freed up through expiring contracts, there will be enough available to resign younger players and even look to plug holes temporarily through free agency.  A lot is still in the air, though.  Will Ramirez opt to remain a Cub?  Will Soriano produce at all in the final five years of his contract?  Will Soto return to his 2008 form and become one of the better catchers in the game?  These are critical questions whose answers will ultimately force  the Cubs’ decision makers to either find some in-house, young solutions or search for temporary and expensive answers in free agency.

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