As teams around baseball scramble this time of year to self-identify as buyers, sellers, or something more nuanced, every organization is looking ahead to August and September, and, in many cases, beyond.
Will we get enough production from our 25-man roster to stay in contention? Will we need to go outside the organization to make dramatic upgrades? Will we get a bump from younger players coming up and contributing down the stretch? Are some youngsters more valuable in trade than they are to our big-league team? How can we be sure of the difference? To whom am I asking these questions, exactly?
The Chicago Cubs are as unquestionably in the playoff hunt this year as they are in need of better performance in the second half to stay there. While the Cubs have been the benefactor of impressive pitching thus far, they’re going to need to add another starting pitcher before it’s all said and done. The offense has not been as productive lately, but is a trickier beast to address externally, what with all eight positions held down by long-term starters, veterans slated for positive regression, and/or youngsters getting on-the-job training. It’s conceivable that the Cubs could make a notable addition in the coming days. It’s also conceivable that they’ll have to rely on any offensive improvements coming from within the organization. The latter might come in the form of players on the big-league roster improving their results, or it could come from players not yet on the 25-man roster, but who are just an easy option away.
I speak, of course, of the handful of young players currently on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, each of whom could contribute off of the big-league team’s bench before the year is up (or could contribute to a trade package in the next week and a half).
It’s worth checking in on four of those players, each of whom is playing well at Triple-A Iowa right now (stats through Monday, July 20):
Touted for years as among the best natural athletes in the Cubs’ system—but also among the rawest and least consistent—Junior Lake has had his chances to break through with the big-league team over the last two years. It seems that, when it became clear that his unique power/speed combination was not going to play at the big-league level with such a dramatic hole at the bottom of his zone, Lake reinvented himself over the course of the offseason, lowering his base and developing a more patient approach at the plate. He sacrificed a great deal of power in the process … but that might be coming back.
Consider that, over his past 11 games, Lake has homered five times. He’s also notched at least one hit in all 11 of those games, raising his line at Triple-A Iowa to an impressive .325/.411/.494. Moreover, Lake’s walk rate is a sky-high 12.9 percent, and his strikeout rate, 23.7 percent, is no worse than it has been for most of his minor-league career. At 25, Lake is still relatively young, and, given the rawness of his youth and his apparent recent adjustments, he could lay claim to at least some optimism for being a late-bloomer.
For now, we’ll see if there is a team out there wanting to take a chance on Lake’s upside, and if that’s a team with whom the Cubs are already engaged in trade discussions. If not, it’s possible we’ll see Lake back up with the big-league team at some point, contributing off of the bench.
Like Lake, Szczur has been shuffled up and down from the big-league roster this year, and, like Lake, Szczur is a speedy 26-year-old outfielder with at least some explanation for late development, having not focused solely on baseball until he was already in his 20s. Unlike Lake, what kept Szczur from breaking into, and staying in, the big leagues was a profound lack of power. The contact ability and speed were always there, as was a quality outfield glove. But without any real semblance of pop, maintaining a high average against better pitching becomes a problem (to say nothing of the inherent trouble of not hitting for extra bases).
This year, at Iowa, Szczur is hitting .280/.347/.469 with a walk rate (7.1 percent) and strikeout rate (16.3 percent) right in line with his minor-league averages. The big difference, however, is that Szczur’s .189 ISO blows away anything he’s previously put up in the minors (and, lest you lay that at the feet of the PCL, remember that the Iowa Cubs play in an offense-neutral ballpark, and Szczur posted an .051 ISO last year at Triple-A). Is the power for real? Is it sustainable? Does it mean Szczur can carve out a role in the big leagues as a 4th/5th outfielder? We shall see.
With a chance to lock down a spot on the big-league club before Kris Bryant arrived in early April, Olt took an Adam Ottavino fastball to the wrist. A long recovery for the resulting break later, Olt is back at Triple-A Iowa, trying to remain relevant to the Cubs’ future, even if only as a bench player.
Olt’s story has been one of huge ups and sudden downs, but, through it all, the general consensus was that he would hit for power and would play excellent defense at third base. That’s mostly been the case, but it hasn’t been enough to carry him forward into a regular big-league role, thanks mostly to contact issues.
At Iowa so far this year (just 22 games), Olt is hitting .234/.306/.403 with a 27.1 percent strikeout rate—better than last year, but not by much. If Olt, 26, is to play a part in the Cubs’ future—near or long-term—it will likely be in a utility role, assuming another team doesn’t want to roll the dice on his substantial upside first. Without a rash of injuries ahead of him, third base probably won’t open up for Olt any time soon.
For what it’s worth, Olt’s been fantastic over his last nine games: .310/.444/.517, with a 16.7 percent walk rate and a 25.0 percent strikeout rate.
Speaking of Triple-A third basemen who might not get a regular shot with the big-league team, Christian Villanueva has been something of a forgotten man dating all the way back to the day the Cubs acquired him from the Rangers at the trade deadline in 2012. Kyle Hendricks almost immediately emerged as the shinier piece of that trade, and Villanueva has been fighting to remain relevant ever since following infield acquisition after infield acquisition.
Villanueva, 24, is hitting .272/.330/.489 at Iowa this year with a sterling 13.4 percent strikeout rate. Couple that with an adequate walk rate (7.4 percent) and quite a bit of pop (.216 ISO), and the young third baseman is having a fantastic season. Because of the players ahead of him, Villanueva has never quite been on the big-league radar, despite being on the 40-man roster for almost two years. Will he get a chance in the second half? Will another team gobble him up as a future starter?
As with the three men who preceded him, we shall see.
Lead photo courtesy of Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports