Over the next few months, we’ll find out if the Cubs plan to contend in 2015. Team president Theo Epstein teased as much during a press conference at the end of the season, and if a pitcher like Jon Lester or Max Scherzer joins a rotation that has already dramatically exceeded expectations thanks to the breakouts of Jake Arrieta and rookie Kyle Hendricks, there will be little reason to doubt him.
The Cubs’ embarrassment of hitter prospect riches is about to shed its prospect label, and their offense should quickly provide the primary strength of the team. Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Jorge Soler each made it to the majors in 2014, and Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Albert Almora should all be soon behind them. In addition to actual team success, those prospects should transform the team’s fantasy potential. In 2014, the Cubs scored the fifth fewest runs in baseball and gave 1,281 plate appearances to Junior Lake, Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Kalish, Mike Olt, and Ryan Sweeney, who combined for more than three wins below replacement.
Before his promotion, Baez was near the top of everyone’s prospect rankings, and Bryant and Russell will be there until they get the call. As such, it is easy to assign the benefits of the Cubs’ expected improvements specifically to them in fantasy. I think that is a mistake. Soler may have never matched their statuses as top five prospects in baseball, but his skill set translates especially well to fantasy production. Meanwhile, the biggest risk for many of the Cubs top prospects’ 2015 fantasy success will likely be each other. There is a lot of positional overlap that could force the Cubs to leave some of their ready prospects in the minors unless they make a trade. Soler is the one that is least impacted by that logjam, which makes him the safest of their prospects to own this season.
It is easy to see Soler’s fantasy potential. In just under 100 plate appearances last season, he hit .292 with five home runs and 20 RBI, which prorate to 31 home runs and 124 RBI over a 600-plate appearance full season. Steamer is much more pessimistic with a projection of a .266 average, 23 home runs, and 78 RBI, but none of Soler’s peripherals from 2014 stand out as a red flag. His .339 BABIP is comparable to other players with similar power (.573 SLG) and batted ball distributions (52 percent GB%). The nine qualified players with at least a .450 slugging and 45 percent groundball rate with 12 or fewer steals in 2014 combined for a .317 BABIP. Soler also avoided the issue that plagued Baez (41.5 percent), Alcantara (31.0 percent) and a host of other rookie hitters: a high strikeout rate. Soler’s 24.7 percent strikeout rate is moderate for a player with his power, and it is supported by a near-20 percent strikeout rate at his two most recent stops in the minors.
As a right fielder, Soler has little competition for playing time from other Cubs veterans or prospects. Schierholtz, Sweeney, and Justin Ruggiano had the most playing time there for the team last season, and Ruggiano was the best of the lot with 0.4 WAR. The other prospects are fighting for time in the infield and center field. Russell and Baez are both shortstops—as is incumbent Starlin Castro—and pushing either player to third base conflicts with Bryant and second base could conflict with Alcantara. The Cubs already seemed to settle on Alcantara in center field, but that’s where Almora plays, too. That leaves two players without a position, and any of them could be affected except Soler.
Soler will likely be drafted in the late-30s or early-40s among outfielders amid a run of intriguing young options like Gregory Polanco, Mookie Betts, Wil Myers, and Marcell Ozuna. Soler doesn’t stand out to me over those other options, but he is the one who I think has the best chance of slipping an extra few rounds in fantasy drafts, in which case I like him quite a bit.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt