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posted: 7/7/2014 5:30 AM

Just like that, Cubs have No. 1 system in MLB

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  • The addition of Addison Russell helped make the Cubs' farm system tops in all of baseball.

    The addition of Addison Russell helped make the Cubs' farm system tops in all of baseball.
    Associated Press


When the next issue of Baseball America hits the newsstands -- or the midseason prospect update hits the BA website -- the Cubs' farm system will be ranked No. 1 in Major League Baseball.

Just think about that for a minute. Now, think about it for another minute.

Yes, it deserves at least that much thought.

When Theo Epstein began his final year in Boston in January 2011, the Cubs were generously ranked No. 16 in baseball, and their top prospects were the likes of Chris Archer, Brett Jackson, Trey McNutt, Hak-Ju Lee, Josh Vitters, Chris Carpenter, Matt Szczur, Hayden Simpson, Rafael Dolis and Brandon Guyer.

By the time Epstein got here, Archer, Lee, Guyer and Robinson Chirinos had been dealt to Tampa for Matt Garza, and Jim Hendry had finally been given permission to spend and over-slot, adding the likes of Javy Baez, Dillon Maples and Dan Vogelbach in his final June draft.

Still, years of trading prospects, a lack of ownership spending to draft, sign and develop players domestically and internationally, combined with little outlay on scouting infrastructure, left the Cubs woefully behind the times.

Epstein announced immediately upon arriving that he intended to change that, explaining that much of the Cubs' investment would be unsexy and unseen. It took many in the media and fan base months to believe him, but he stayed with the plan.

So the Cubs have spent the last couple years doing precisely that, and between drafting very high and trades netting big-name prospects, the Cubs are now in the prospect stratosphere.

Not since Dallas Green and Gordy Goldsberry of the 1980s have the Cubs stockpiled so many genuine prospects, and had Green and Goldsberry not been fired, they might have fashioned multiple division titles and perhaps a World Series appearance.

Though they weren't present to enjoy it, they built the 1989 Eastern Division champs with scouting that produced Greg Maddux, Damon Berryhill, Joe Girardi, Rick Wrona, Shawon Dunston, Dwight Smith, Jerome Walton, Doug Dascenzo, Gary Varsho, Jeff Pico, Les Lancaster and Rafael Palmeiro (who was traded for 1989 contributors Mitch Williams), Steve Wilson, Paul Kilgus and Curtis Wilkerson.

The Cubs are positioning themselves now for a homegrown lineup that will offer teams able to consistently compete for division titles, and use the rest of the chips to deal for what they need to fill out the lineup and pitching staff.

With the addition of shortstop Addison Russell and center fielder Billy McKinney on Friday, the Cubs now have the top-ranked system in the game and three of their best prospects -- Kris Bryant (second), Russell (fifth) and Javy Baez (seventh) -- are in the top 10.

"They might have been the No. 2 or 3 organization before, but we really, really like Russell," said Baseball America editor John Manuel. "He does have power, but what stands out is the elite athletic ability that scouts complain they don't see enough of in baseball players anymore.

"It's reasonable to think he could hit .275 to .300 and if it all comes together he has 25-home run potential. All indications are he's a consistent guy on the field with a consistent effort off the field with his preparation.

"He's going to be a good defensive shortstop, good to both sides with a good arm, better defensively than Starlin Castro or Javy Baez, combined with a consistent and above average offensive contribution.

"His issues are all coachable and he should improve. There's not been an indication that there's anything he can't do."

If that all comes to fruition, Russell is the Cubs' shortstop of the future and Castro -- now a three-time all-star -- may be headed for another position or out of Chicago, where several teams are currently in the market for a talented offensive shortstop with a team-friendly contract through the end of the decade.

Of course, Epstein insists that Castro is his guy, which is what he has to do to increase his market value. In the meantime, Baez continues to play shortstop every day, an indication that the Cubs might be thinking they'll need Baez at that position sometime this year or next.

Either way, Russell is coming. He'll be ready for the majors next season and Epstein has invested a lot in the 20-year-old infielder.

What's important to understand, however, is Epstein doesn't care about the politics of which player belongs to what regime, but it's worth noting as well that players like Castro and Baez are not new to Epstein or his top lieutenants.

These are players they scouted just as did the Cubs, and it doesn't seem likely that they've seriously changed their opinions.

They were as infatuated as anyone with the stunning power of Baez, but did not know how he would progress as a baseball player. While that probably hasn't changed, remember that Epstein adores power bats and Baez has people dreaming of Gary Sheffield, so they may yet find a position for him.

As for Castro, they tried to change him last year to make him more Theo-friendly and he nearly disintegrated, so they fired a manager, hired a new one and told him to be himself. Castro is back to being Castro, but it doesn't guarantee Castro will remain.

How it all shakes out may not be known even to Epstein, but with assets come opportunities.

And, not so suddenly, the Cubs have a plethora of both.

•Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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