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Cubs could strengthen NL's toughest division in coming years

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Cubs manager Dale Sveum argues with home plate umpire Scott Barry on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, during a game against the Pirates at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Cubs manager Dale Sveum argues with home plate umpire Scott Barry on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, during a game against the Pirates at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo breaks up a double play under Pirates second baseman Neil Walker during the first inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo breaks up a double play under Pirates second baseman Neil Walker during the first inning Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 10:54 p.m.
 

CHICAGO — On back-to-back days earlier this week, the Braves and Pirates soaked the Wrigley Field visiting clubhouse carpet with champagne and beer in celebrating postseason berths.

On Tuesday, the Pirates sent the Cubs to a single-season, franchise-worst 50th home loss. Wrigley Field turns 100 next spring.

On Wednesday morning, Cubs manager and former Pirates player Dale Sveum was engulfed by reporters, who repeatedly asked about his future, having guided the club to 101 losses last season and 93 losses entering the series finale against the Pirates.

These are hard times within the Friendly Confines. But there's reason to believe the Cubs could soon join the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates as contenders in the NL Central, making the NL's toughest division in 2013 even stronger.

The Cubs have improved their farm system under president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. The Cubs rose from bottom half of baseball to 12th in organizational talent rankings, according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus this preseason. Baseball Prospectus lead prospect writer Jason Parks said the Cubs are “definitely now in the top five of all farm systems.”

Sveum might not be around to enjoy the farm-system's rewards, but he said help is on the way.

“If anybody pays attention, they know we are much, much healthier than we were a couple years ago,” Sveum said. “We have some outstanding (prospects). In two years, it's come a long, long way.”

• The Cubs' last three first-round picks — shortstop Javier Baez, outfielder Albert Almora and third baseman Kris Bryant — were top-10 selections and are regarded by scouts as impact prospects. Baez is a consensus top-10 prospect, having hit 37 home runs this season. Bryant was the consensus top college bat in June's draft.

• The Cubs have been the most aggressive team in the National League at signing international players, giving Cuban defector Jorge Soler a nine-year, $30 million deal last season.

• The Cubs traded ace Matt Garza at the deadline for C.J. Edwards, who has front-of-the rotation potential.

The Cubs are not alone in young talent riches in the division. On Tuesday night, Cardinals' rookie Michael Wacha was one out from throwing a no-hitter against the Nationals. On the same night, Pirates' rookie Gerrit Cole improved to 4-0 in September with a win over the Cubs.

The Pirates and Cardinals are loaded with young talent, ranked as owning top-10 farm systems by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Baseball America ranked St. Louis' system as first in baseball this March. The Pirates followed at No. 7.

It all means the NL Central is already perhaps the best in the league, and soon it could become the best in baseball.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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