When he took over as general manager of the Boston Red Sox before the 2002 season, Theo Epstein inherited a mostly barren farm system and expressed a commitment to build a winner through the draft and international free agent signings. By the time the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series, they had several homegrown players contributing to their success.
Fast forward to present day. Epstein is in his first year as president of the Chicago Cubs, a team that has not won a World Series since 1908 nor been to the Fall Classic since 1945, and a club that is hamstrung by bad contracts at the major league level and few top prospects in the farm system.
It is Epstein’s intention to create a legitimate contender in Chicago by building a deep and talented farm system – long term through the draft and via international free agent signings, and in the short term via trades of veterans like Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano among others for packages of promising prospects.
Epstein’s commitment to youth is already reaping results. When he was the GM in Boston, the team drafted left-handed hitting first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was traded to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.
Last off-season, after he joined the Cubs, Epstein acquired Rizzo and pitching prospect Zach Cates for hard-throwing reliever Andrew Cashner and a minor league outfielder. Rizzo already has seven home runs and a .333 average in 105 at-bats since his mid-season call up from Triple-A.
Epstein hopes to add talent and depth to their farm system by trading Dempster, Garza, Soriano and smaller pieces like Jeff Baker, David DeJesus, Reed Johnson, Bryan LaHair and even catcher Geovany Soto. Name a player, and he is likely available for the right exchange – Rizzo, Castro, Samardzija and likely Barney aside.
The Cubs only have one minor league on Baseball America’s Mid-Season Top 50 Prospect Lists, and that is 19-year-old shortstop Javier Baez, a first round pick in 2011 who is presently at Single-A Peoria and likely at least three years away from the majors.
Chicago does have two intriguing outfield prospects opening eyes. One is 23-year-old Brett Jackson, a first round pick in 2009 who has 15 home runs this season at Triple-A Iowa and will probably join the Cubs no later than September when rosters expand. The other is 23-year-old outfielder Matt Szczur, who was just promoted to Double-A Tennessee. He was a two-sport standout at Villanova and reports indicate he could have been a second round pick in the NFL draft.
Epstein hopes to see his top 10 prospect list change for the better in the upcoming days and weeks as trades are made. He made a splash in the international free agent market earlier this summer when the Cubs inked Cuban outfield phenom Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million deal.
According to ESPN.com’s Keith Law, Soler would have been a top five selection in the 2012 draft had he been eligible.
Like the Houston Astros, Epstein’s Cubs are mimicking the blueprint of the Rays, Pirates and A’s for building a contender. It will take time and patience to get a plethora of quality prospects and let them develop, but the Cubs expect to be a contender within three years.