By Jimmy Lynn
The Chicago Cubs’ front office will have some tough decisions to make as the July 30 trade deadline approaches, and the current state of their farm system won’t make that process any easier.
Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — all homegrown stars and core members of the 2016 World Series team — will be free agents after the 2021 season. And after an offseason during which Theo Epstein stepped down from his role as president of baseball operations, Cubs ace Yu Darvish was traded to San Diego for little in return, and hometown favorites Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester signed contracts elsewhere, the idea of Chicago holding onto all three of their star infielders seems unlikely.
“The fans are going to freak out, but I think [Chicago] ends up having to trade guys like Bryant and maybe even Rizzo to help with [their] long-term goals,” Senior Director of Communications for Minor League Baseball Jeff Lantz said. “The Cubs traded away Gleyber Torres to get Aroldis Chapman, and now [Torres] is a star with the Yankees. Maybe the Cubs trade Kris Bryant and get guys that are going to be the next [Torres].”
If Chicago chooses to part ways with Baez, Bryant or Rizzo, there are few in-house solutions to replace them in the short term. Among the organization’s top 30 prospects, only two players — pitchers Keegan Thompson and Cory Abbott — are currently playing above the Double-A level. Twenty-one of Chicago’s top 30 prospects are either playing at the Low-A, High-A or rookie level, meaning it could be years until fans see the Cubs’ most talented young players on the major league roster.
Iowa Cubs manager Marty Pevey is not optimistic about many of Chicago’s top prospects reaching the Triple-A level in 2021, let alone the big leagues.
“It depends on how they do at the next level — Double-A and Single-A ball,” Pevey said. “They’ve got to earn it. You don’t just graduate here. You have to get here by proving you belong.”
None of Chicago’s top infield prospects project to make their major league debuts in 2021. Shortstops Cristian Hernandez and Ed Howard are just 17 years old and 19 years old, respectively. Both players are top five prospects in the Cubs system, but neither is expected to break into the majors until at least 2024, according to MLB.com.
Dealing one or more of the impending free-agent infielders might be the quickest way for Chicago to replenish the top levels of its farm system. According to Cubs Vice President of Special Projects Jared Banner, the prospects Chicago could receive in return for one of their established veterans may help the Cubs win their next World Series.
“Guys like Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, who ended up being Cy Young candidates and key cogs in the championship run, were traded from other teams,” Banner said.
The team might need a stop-gap solution to play some innings in the infield if the Cubs decide to trade Baez, Bryant or Rizzo this summer without getting a replacement in return. The Cubs’ second-round pick from 2019, Chase Strumpf, currently playing at the High-A level for the South Bend Cubs, could get the call — especially if the 23-year-old continues his torrid start to the season. Strumpf is batting .309 with four doubles and seven walks through his first 16 games for South Bend in 2021.
“[Strumpf] is on his way to becoming a major leaguer,” South Bend manager Michael Ryan said. “In a perfect world, it would be by the end of this year or next year.”
Cubs fans will have high expectations for Strumpf, a third baseman, if he gets called up as a result of a trade around the deadline. After all, the last wave of young Cubs infielders to break into the major leagues included 2015 Rookie of the Year and 2016 National League MVP Bryant and two-time All-Star Baez, who were both instrumental in bringing Chicago its first World Series in 108 years in 2016.
“The expectations for Chase are high,” Ryan said. “Any time you’re a top prospect and you’re a great player, you’re going to have high expectations. That’s exactly what the organization has for him — not to put any pressure on him.”
Jimmy Lynn is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimmylynn33.