How strong is Cubs’ farm system? Pennant race might tell the story

The day after the Cubs acquired left-hander Jose Quintana from the White Sox for a package that included the top two prospects in their farm system at the time, one media genius informed president Theo Epstein it marked the first time since he took over the team that he didn’t have a top-100 prospect in the major industry rankings.

‘‘And it’s the first time we can call ourselves defending world champions,’’ Epstein retorted. ‘‘And that’s a lot better than saying you have top-[100] prospects.’’

As the Cubs continue their two-week joyride through last-place opposition in Cincinnati and Philadelphia this week, they do it with Opening Day starter Jon Lester and hot-hitting catcher Willson Contreras on the disabled list, highlighting the significance of some of the prospects they used to acquire players such as Quintana.

In fact, how the race for a playoff spot plays out in the last 39 games should offer the next good look into how well the Cubs exploited their rebuilt farm system since winning the World Series last season.

Albert Almora Jr., the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft, went 7-for-14 with four RBIs during the Cubs' just-concluded 5-2 homestand.

Among the four top-ranked prospects in the Cubs’ system when the season started (according to Baseball America), No. 2 Ian Happ and No. 3 Albert Almora Jr. are coming off big performances during a 5-2 homestand, and No. 1 Eloy Jimenez and No. 4 Dylan Cease were sent to the Sox for Quintana.

‘‘The best farm system in the world is when they’re on your big-league team,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘You can see it by watching your big-league team, whether they’ve been promoted or you’ve traded guys away to bring talented players here. That’s what we’re looking for.

‘‘I think any year you can face tough decisions with your prospects and whether you want to move them for championship-type pieces, you know it’s going well.’’

So although Baseball America has downgraded the Cubs’ system to No. 28 in its most recent update, it’s mission accomplished as far as the front office is concerned, even if it all but assures no significant waiver trades before the end of the month.

‘‘We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better,’’ Epstein said in dismissing trade possibilities after being asked a thinly veiled question Friday about Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander in the wake of Lester’s lat injury.

How fast the Cubs can restock for their next generation of needs and how good the next wave of Class A players becomes in the next two or three years will be important questions soon enough.

But how well the Cubs can finish this season with their still-young core of hitters will be the most telling sign of organizational health right now.

‘‘When we go play other teams, I’m still struck how we’re always the youngest team on the field,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer said. ‘‘We have this young core of position players . . . who are guys that were all top-10, top-15 prospects in baseball, who are wearing rings on their fingers from last year.

‘‘We’re an incredibly healthy organization from a young-talent standpoint.’’

Once infielder Jeimer Candelario and shortstop Isaac Paredes were traded to the Tigers for catcher Alex Avila and left-hander Justin Wilson at the non-waiver deadline, most of the remaining well-regarded prospects were so low in the farm system that the two pitchers the Cubs drafted in the lower part of the first round this year were among the top six.

‘‘There are two successful outcomes for your prospects: having them come up here and contribute to a championship club or trading them for players who do the same,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘We are just as committed to young players as we’ve always been. We are going to find ways to build the farm system back up. And I think we have really talented players in our system right now . . . that a year from now are going to be household names.’’

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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