There are some pieces of baseball history that a responsible baseball writer needs to think twice about invoking. Then there are the “Murderers’ Row” New York Yankees lineups of the 1920s, which require at least 1.21 gigawatts of thinking energy before the “invoke” button can be pressed.

So believe you me, it is with some trepidation that I propose the following…

Might the Chicago Cubs be brewing up a Murderers’ Row lineup of their own?

It’s not going to be easy. That much is certain. But all the same…maybe it’s possible.

We’re thinking about this, of course, because what was an incomplete Cubs lineup recently became complete. The Cubs began the year with slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo and super-prospect right fielder Jorge Soler and have since added slugging third baseman Kris Bryant and multitalented second baseman Addison Russell.

All four of these guys are 25 or younger and, unlike fellow youngster Starlin Castro, were ranked as elite prospects recently.

You can see where the hype train is coming from. Chicago’s much-hyped quartet contains one guy who was an elite prospect only three years ago and three prospects who were elite this year. Excitement would be warranted if they were all on different teams. That they’re all on the same team is absurd.

The early returns, meanwhile, certainly look encouraging.

The Cubs called up Russell on April 21 and Bryant a couple of days earlier on April 17. And ever since then, Chicago’s lineup has been operating at a much higher level. The Cubs were hitting .224 and scoring 4.0 runs per game before April 17 and are hitting .267 and scoring 4.8 runs per game since.

“It’s a little early to focus on the results, but the quality of the at-bats and the type of approach that we have, those things have been impressive,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, via Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune.

In other words, what many expected to be an elite offensive unit has been just that. Chicago’s attempt to build a modern-day Murderers’ Row lineup is off to a hell of a start.

On the surface, anyway. It’s below the surface where things get murky, and where the prospect of Chicago’s young quartet becoming a modern-day Murderers’ Row requires some imagination.

Though the Cubs’ much-hyped quartet appears to have made a difference, that’s really only a half-truth.

Rizzo and Bryant have been dandy, combining to hit .345/.482/.471 since April 17. That’s a .953 combined OPS, a figure that’s quite good and, indeed, much conducive to projecting greatness.

But with Rizzo, projecting greatness is hardly necessary. He had a breakout season in 2014, and his .948 OPS this year is befitting of his ongoing evolution in the batter’s box.

FanGraphs can vouch for how much Rizzo has improved against left-handed pitching, and he’s also a rare lefty power hitter who makes good use of the opposite field. More recently, he’s become a tougher out with two strikes, as his .582 OPS in two-strike counts is well ahead of the league average of .508.

So though his reputation as a power hitter precedes him, Rizzo is so much more than that. He’s one of the more advanced hitters in baseball and certainly the most advanced hitter on the Cubs.

At least until Bryant steals that title from him.

Bryant’s reputation as a power hitter also precedes him. The books on him agree that he has true 80 raw power packed into his 6’5″, 215-pound frame, and he used it to produce 43 homers in the minors last season and nine more in spring training this year.

But his approach has stolen the show. Since being taken to school by James Shields in his major league debut, he has 10 strikeouts and 10 walks in 51 plate appearances. And in hitting .350 during this span, he’s shown a willingness to hit the ball where it’s pitched rather than sell out for power.

So, it turns out he’s not just a slugger. He’s an adjuster too.

“The real good hitters, if you get them out the same way a couple times, they can adjust off of that,” Cubs hitting coach John Malle told Anthony Castrovince of “If a guy’s not that great of a hitter, he can only hit mistakes. But [Bryant] is the kind of hitter who can make adjustments from series to series or almost at-bat to at-bat.”

As for Bryant’s power, just because he has yet to hit a home run doesn’t mean he hasn’t shown it off. The Baseball Prospectus book on him raved about his uncanny ability to hit any pitch on a line, and one guy who can vouch for this is Pittsburgh Pirates southpaw Francisco Liriano:

In light of their talents, it’s easy to buy into Rizzo’s and Bryant’s potential to become what they’ve teased they can be: an elite lineup duo.

An elite lineup duo, however, is only half of what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the possibility of an elite lineup quartet, and that’s not happening if Soler and Russell don’t also step up.

The two of them have been a part of Chicago’s recent offensive surge, but they haven’t contributed to it. Soler started 2015 strong but is mired in a 2-for-26 slump. Russell’s career, meanwhile, is off to a rocky start that includes a .179 average and 14 strikeouts in 29 plate appearances.

According to Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon sees a lack of discipline and general overaggressiveness as primary symptoms of Soler’s slump. Those happen to be two issues that have plagued him since he arrived in the majors last September.

And that’s not all.

As the following chart from Brooks Baseball shows, pitchers have learned that the righty-swinging Soler is most dangerous against pitches within the inner two-thirds of the zone. They’re staying away:

Clearly, Soler has adjustments to make. Beyond simply needing to calm down his approach, he also needs to start hitting pitcher’s pitches. They’ve adjusted to him. Now he needs to adjust back.

As for Russell, it’s too early to tell if there’s a blueprint for how to beat him. But it’s easy to notice how he’s been overwhelmed against fastballs. Per Brooks Baseball, he’s batting just .167 with nine strikeouts against hard stuff, and a plot of his fastball whiffs shows he’s been easily beaten within the zone. That’s not a good look.

Obviously, Soler and Russell have lots of time to fix what’s ailing them. But it’s worth remembering that, elite prospects though they may be, they’re still just prospects.

Even the elite ones can be humbled. The Cubs have a harsh reminder of that in the person of Javier Baez. He was a top-five prospect this time last year, but then the majors kicked his butt. He’s now back in the minors, with no clear road back to the big league.

Soler and Russell may be doomed to the same fate. And if they are, well, we can wave goodbye to the idea of the Cubs cultivating a modern-day Murderers’ Row lineup. The idea just doesn’t work without two more excellent bats around Rizzo and Bryant.

What the Cubs must hope, then, is that the versions of Soler and Russell they’ve seen recently aren’t the real versions of them. And fortunately for them, that might actually be true.

It’s easy to forget now, but Soler was looking like a sure thing not long ago. Through his first 157 plate appearances, he was hitting .305/.344/.556 for an even .900 OPS. That’s not a small number of plate appearances, and that’s certainly not a small OPS.

And though Soler has been a wild swinger in the majors, he wasn’t in the minors. He walked in 14 percent of his minor league plate appearances in the process of hitting .340 with an 1.132 OPS in 2014. And due to his pitch-recognition skills and his ability to be “a quick study,” he was granted a future as a reasonably advanced hitter by Mauricio Rubio of Baseball Prospectus.

Russell’s problem with fastballs, meanwhile, is a case of him playing completely against type. According to Baseball America, a primary reason he hit .295 with an .858 OPS in the minors last year was because he was “nearly impossible to beat with a fastball when he’s looking for it.”

As such, Soler and Russell living up to their lofty potential isn’t a matter of their doing things they aren’t capable of. If they do what can and needs to be done, what’s currently an awesome Rizzo-Bryant duo will indeed become an even more awesome quartet.

Just how rare would such a quartet be?

If you want to narrow the focus to great hitting quartets that have been similarly young, pretty darn rare. Go searching for clubs that had four outstanding hitters (i.e., with an OPS+ of at least 120) age-26 or younger, and you’ll get only four results. The last was the 1969 Cincinnati Reds.

Given that, the least we can say is that our excitement at seeing Rizzo, Bryant, Soler and Russell all in the same lineup hasn’t been misplaced. And if Soler and Russell can indeed start living up to their potential as well as Rizzo and Bryant have, the quartet they’ll form will be worthy of high praise.

Yes, even the grandest baseball invocation of them all.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.

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