Starlin Castro has established himself at the big league level and he's going to get better. How much so? Who really knows, but even if he never got any better, he's still an above average shortstop currently making league minimum.
Anthony Rizzo hasn't established himself as Castro has, but he's more than shown in his first couple months with the Cubs that he belongs at the MLB level. He'll continue to improve as well. Both he and Castro are just 22 years old.
Josh Vitters has re-emerged as an interesting prospect who will more than likely soon be manning 3rd base for the Cubs. He's limited defensive and on the bases, but he can hit for a decent average and has some pop. He's not going to take many walks, but really, none of the three I've mentioned so far will be doing that. At least not right away. Vitters is also 22.
Brett Jackson is 23 and despite what some have said, is still the superior prospect to Vitters. Jackson can play CF, plays average to above average defense, has a great arm, adds plus speed and has hits for power. He'll also take some walks and strikeout a shitload.
It seems like Jeff Samardzija is 34 years old. Maybe it's that he's always working on a new pitch. His numbers this year when not working on a new pitch are good for a 0.00 ERA. Samardzija isn't a top of the rotation starter. He's probably not even a mid-rotation starter. If he can continue to do as he has this year he does add some value at the back end of a rotation and he's relatively cheap.
Matt Garza is signed for another year and he's Matt Garza. He's not a top of the rotation starter either, but he's their best pitcher.
Castro and Rizzo make up quite a young duo at the big league level. If Jackson and Vitters can add to the Cubs anything close to what those guys are likely to, the Cubs suddenly have a strong core of players and not one of them is older than 23. It's not a great core; it's just a good one.
For now, let's say that Vitters and Jackson do come up and by next year we're looking at 4 young and above average players. All are cheap and providing league average or better production. Three of them are doing so for league minimum while the other, Castro, will be earning a few million bucks.
Let's also say that Garza and Samardzija are both above average. Garza won't be cheap and Samardzija will also be making a few million bucks like Castro, but it's cheap compared to what you'd get on the free agent market.
That's six good players, all of whom are making much less money than they'd get as free agents. You'd certainly like your best six to be better than this group, but this is still pretty good. And cheap!
As said, Castro and Samardzija are likely to each earn about $3 million next season. Jackson, Rizzo and Vitters will earn league minimum, which is a combined $1.5 million or less. Garza is probably going to earn $12-13 million. This core will be paid roughly $20 million. That's what makes this an excellent core of players.
A moment or two of optimism has come over me. I don't know what's wrong. Maybe I"ll see a doctor about it, but for right now, let's just all be optimistic about this core next season and go from there. Let's ignore what we know is likely going to happen with this front office, which is that they'll spend little money on free agent talent. Just forget about it for now.
Along with the $20 million above, the Cubs will also have Alfonso Soriano ($18 million), David DeJesus ($4.5 million) and Carlos Marmol ($9.5 million) on the books. the combined total in what we'll gall guaranteed contracts is $52 million. Add in another $10 million for possible arbitrations, league minimum and 40-man roster guys and you're at $62 million.
The name of the game is "What if" and your job is to create a team that contends in 2013 already having $62 million on the books. Your payroll for 2013 is $122 million. You've got $60 million so who do you sign? Assume only minor contributations from other minor leaguers I haven't already included. Don't forget about other valuable players like Darwin Barney.