CHICAGO – The midseason prospect rankings by ESPN.com's Keith Law were released on Thursday and the Chicago Cubs have three of the top eight prospects in the game, including the top-ranked player in third baseman Kris Bryant.
Bryant went from No. 15 in the preseason to No. 1 thanks to a 31-homer, 81-RBI first half. Joining him in the top 10 are Double-A newcomer Addison Russell (No. 4), acquired from the Oakland Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija trade, and Triple-A shortstop Javier Baez (No. 8). Also in the top 50 is outfielder Jorge Soler (No. 28). Single-A centerfielder Albert Almora dropped out of the top 50 after a slow start to 2014.
While Bryant, 22, has torn up minor league pitching this season, the Cubs don't believe he'll make it to the big leagues this year.
"I don't foresee a scenario where he would be up this year," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said after Bryant was promoted to Triple-A. "I don't think it's the right thing to do in someone's first full professional season, barring extraordinary circumstances, both in terms of the player and what's going on with the big league team."
Not surprisingly, Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, didn't necessarily agree with that assessment.
"Why not?" Boras told the Chicago Tribune over the All-Star break. "Bring him up in September, let him get his feet wet, get that out of the way, and let him go hit."
It's a nice thought, but it would mean Bryant would be eligible for free agency sooner than if he stayed in the minors until the middle of April next year. With Boras as his agent it might be the prudent thing to do. If Bryant comes up in September and then starts 2015 with the Cubs he'll be a free agent after 2020. If the Cubs wait a couple weeks into next April before calling him up -- due to service time rules -- he wouldn't be a free agent until after 2021. In this case that difference could entail a lot of money. It's exactly how the Houston Astros dealt with prized outfielder prospect George Springer earlier this season.
In the meantime the Cubs will have to settle for being one of the top farm systems in the game. Their scouting of both the amateur players they drafted and young, professional players they've acquired via trades is admirable, at least on paper. The development of those players is seemingly going well. The current front office didn't sign Arismendy Alcantara or draft Baez, for example, but they are overseeing their final stages of development. So far so good, not withstanding Baez's rough first half.
But the Cubs should only be getting a nice golf clap for their rebuilt farm system, not necessarily a standing ovation just yet. After all, how difficult is it to draft high every year and get talent? Or trade pitchers such as Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm and receive young talent in return? Of course, you don't just pick those prospects out of a hat, but when your strategy is to tank and sell, sell, sell, it's a little easier than navigating through a normal season.
The Cubs will get that standing ovation when the prospects start to perform at the major league level. One has shown promise -- Alcantara made the most of his two-day tryout last week and is staying with the Cubs for now. The good news is, the days of simply acquiring young talent is coming to an end. Epstein said as much right after dealing Samardzija when he expressed hope that 2014 would be the last year the Cubs were obvious sellers.
Even though no one officially has ranked the Cubs' farm system the best in baseball just yet, they're in the team photo. How much higher can they go and what's the point if it doesn't start to translate at the major league level? It might not be Bryant's time just yet but between starting pitchers and some other prospects -- perhaps Baez -- the Cubs should be moving their top farm players to the majors.
The best news for fans might come when the Cubs' farm system takes a fall in the rankings because the good prospects are actually playing in the majors. That's when the job of rebuilding will be complete. Winning would be next.