Cubs infield picture bright

 Fans who attended today’s Seattle Mariners vs. Chicago Cubs Spring Training game in Mesa, Arizona may were probably disappointed if they were looking forward to an “October-esque” pitching match-up between the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez and the Cubs’ Jon Lester. The 31-year-old Lester, who was originally scheduled to start today, was scratched due to a “tired arm.”

On top of that, Hernandez struggled with his command and surrendered one walk, six runs, and six hits in two and two-third innings. But, it’s only Spring Training and, based on his track record, he’ll be ready to go on Opening Day at Safeco Field. Last year, the Mariners ace posted a 4.73 earned run average during 13.1 Cactus League innings and went on to finish a close second in the American League Cy Young Award voting.

Despite King Felix’s difficulties, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to observe some of the Cubs’ marquee infield prospects in person. Chicago enjoys the luxury of possessing a young stable of infielder who are either major league ready or on the brink of reaching the big leagues. With so much talent at – or near – the major league level, the team faces the challenge of finding room for all of these talented youngsters, assuming that they all reach their heralded potential.

The one infield position that is clearly set for the foreseeable future is first base with 25-year-old Anthony Rizzo at first base, who agreed to a seven-year/$41 million contract in 2013 and went on to deliver all-star value with a 5.6 fWAR in 2014. There’s intrigue with the rest of the infield, which has more candidates than positions.

Second baseman Javier Báez came through the Cubs’ minor league system as a shortstop and was a top prospect for 2014 before changing positions. The 21-year-old struggled mightily during his 229 plate appearance striking out 41.5 percent of the time. He’ll need to improve at making contact with the ball to be part of the team’s long term plans. The other player in the second base mix is Arismendy Alcantara, who also made his major league debut in 2014. The right-handed hitter actually had more playing time in center field than second base. But, the off-season acquisition of veteran centerfielder Dexter Fowler means that Alcantara will see much less playing time in center field. Manager Joe Maddon is on record stating he could use the 23-year-old as a super-utility player like Ben Zobrist, who was with the Cubs manager in Tampa.

Shortstop Starlin Castro is the “old man” of this group. The 25-year-old made his major league debut as a 20-year-old and is already a three-time all-star. After a down year in 2013, Castro bounced back with a .292/.339/.438 triple slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 2014. Like Rizzo, the Cubs locked up the young shortstop to a long-term extension and he’s under contract until at least 2019. Having long-term team control is has dual value for Chicago. They could keep the youngster at a relatively low cost or use him as a valuable trade chip, thanks to that long-term deal.

The player who could eventually unseat Castro is highly-touted prospect Addison Russell. Acquired as part of July 2015 trading deadline deal that sent pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija to Oakland, the 21-year-entered today with a torrid .368/.429.526 during Spring Training. Russell, who ranks fifth in the MLB.com Top 100 prospect rankings, will likely start the 2015 season at Class-AAA Iowa.

Chicago’s top prospect, third baseman Kris Bryant, is the number two overall prospect – according to MLB.com – and has been in the center of a controversy this week, which Prospect Insider’s Tyler Carmont reviewed in detail. Despite the swirl of attention he’s been facing, the 23-year-old has been tearing up the Cactus League and didn’t disappoint today with a walk and two home runs bringing his Spring Training home run total to eight. It’s clear that Bryant will be manning a position in Wrigley Field in the near future, although how long Cubs faithful have to wait before they see him and the position the former University of San Diego Torero be playing will ultimately be determined by the long-term needs of the organization.

There’s no rush to decide who will be the team’s long term third baseman since Russell, and perhaps Bryant, will start the season at Class-AAA Iowa. Barring a trade, it’s possible that the organization could move Russell to third base and ultimately dispatch the Cubs’ top prospect to the outfield. Regardless what the team opts to do with the middle infield and the hot corner, the team is poised to have one of the best infields in the major leagues for a long time. All that’s left to be done is for this bevvy of young infielders to fulfill their promise at the major league level.

Both the Mariners and Cubs both are planning to rely heavily on their young core to develop a sustainable, winning organization at the major league level. Chicago’s minor league system is more advanced than Seattle’s. But, the Mariners are better positioned to win in 2015, thanks to their blend of youth and veterans like Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Austin Jackson, Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith, and Rickie Weeks. I believe that both teams are on the right track to enjoy that sustainable success. Perhaps, in the near future, fans will actually get to see that King Felix and Lester face-off in meaningful games in October.

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