With Chicago Cubs spring training set to begin Friday in Mesa, Ariz., we're taking an early look around the diamond.
Best Bets: Baez, Alcantara, Hendricks
One thing is clear about the slew of prospects the Cubs should be seeing make it to the big leagues in the coming years: They won't be coming based on the needs of the major league club at that moment. The front office has repeated the notion that prospects need to dominate the level at which they're playing before any promotions occur. They also need to meet certain goals established by the club.
While it's doubtful any prospects who didn't play in the big leagues last season are expected to make the club out of spring training -- except perhaps Mike Olt -- there's a very good chance the Cubs will promote several throughout the season. And a few of them are considered elite names.
None are bigger than 2011 first-round pick Javier Baez.
After a monster season (37 home runs, 111 RBIs) at Single-A and Double-A in 2013, Baez is poised to see Wrigley Field for the first time by the end of 2014 -- if not sooner. He'll have to maintain the plate discipline he showed after being promoted last year, and considering his already violent and damaging swing, there's a good chance he could be in Chicago by late June. But the Cubs have been erring on the side of caution with their prospects so there's no guarantee. Then again, if he dominates at Triple-A Iowa they won't have a choice but to promote him.
There's also the issue of service time as the Cubs will probably follow the Anthony Rizzo timeline if a particular prospect doesn't make it out of spring training. It prevents them from having "Super Two" status and an earlier chance at arbitration. Rizzo came up from the minors on June 26, 2012.
Infielder Arismendy Alcantara is another candidate to come up midseason. His stock has risen as much as anyone's over the last 12 months or so. But unlike Baez, Alcantara might need a near full season at Triple-A before he gets his chance. Same goes for pitcher Kyle Hendricks. Like Baez, Hendricks also had a huge year in 2013 (13-4, 2.00 ERA) between Double-A and Triple-A. Those three players are next up to make it to the Cubs.
It still leaves others an opportunity if they indeed dominate. Infielder Christian Villanueva will play alongside Baez and Alcantara at Triple-A and there's always a chance former first-rounder Josh Vitters or even Brett Jackson find their groove.
Then there is the No. 2 overall pick of last year, Kris Bryant. He'll most likely start at Double-A Tennessee, but it might not take until mid-June to see him move up again. After all, he spent very little time at the Single-A level last year where he dominated, and then won Arizona Fall League MVP honors. If Bryant makes it to Iowa by June, there's a chance he's at Wrigley Field before season's end. It's not likely due to the Cubs conservative approach, but either way Bryant could be just one year away from being a big-league starter.
Jorge Soler is in the same boat as Bryant but might need more playing time as his 2013 season was cut short because of injuries.
All this is predicated on performance. Baez is the best bet because of his raw talent and his development when he moved up to Double-A last season. His plate discipline actually got better at the higher level. That's what the Cubs want to see. At the very least Hendricks and Alcantara should be September call-ups unless their performance dictates otherwise.
Olt remains a wild card because of his vision problems of last year -- though it was only two seasons ago he was considered untouchable within the Texas Rangers organization.
The Cubs are in the midst of transitioning from an older team to a much younger one. It started with Junior Lake in the second half of last season and it should continue with the eventual promotion of Baez.
And more are on their way.