CHICAGO -- The first scheduled Sunday off for the Chicago Cubs in 82 years comes one game before the midway point of the season. Their record is about the same as this juncture last year, but is the feeling different?
It is when you consider that Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are having All-Star-type seasons, as both entered with their doubters. Their resurgence alone gives better hope for the Cubs' future -- something you couldn’t say a year ago. All the hype we keep hearing about the farm system is on the verge of paying off. Or at least it’s on the verge of showing us what the prospects are all about.
No, we won’t see Kris Bryant at Wrigley Field this year, and there’s a chance we won’t see Javier Baez either. That’s all right. As has been said many times, no player’s development was ever hurt by spending too much time in the minors. And we are at least finally getting to see some of the fruits of the Cubs' labor down there. If you had 41st-round pick Dallas Beeler making his debut before some of the other, more heralded prospects, you knew something the rest of us didn’t.
It was one start on one afternoon, which he didn’t even win, but Beeler was a sign of hope Saturday when he gave up one unearned run over six innings in a 3-0 loss to the Washington Nationals. The 25-year-old right-hander is the first of a slew of names that will be here soon enough.
“They’re good,” Beeler said of his teammates at Triple-A Iowa. “They’re good. It’s fun to pitch behind them, knowing you have that good of players in the field, and when they come up to bat, there’s always that chance for that big surprise. You never know when it’s going to come, but it comes often.”
Glad Beeler said that, because whenever you overly praise prospects, you feel a little silly. So many players have had success in the minors only to fail in the majors. Many have played for the Cubs. But there is at least one who has a different feel than the rest. Bryant is a franchise-changing player in the making. Now I feel a little silly.
Beeler played with Bryant in the Arizona Fall League and at Triple-A Iowa, where the third baseman picked up where he left off in Double-A: smashing baseballs.
“Awesome,” Beeler said. “They're excellent players, unbelievable ballplayers. You can't put into words. You feel you're watching future Hall of Famers when you see them play.”
That kind of sounds like he’s talking about one player in particular. Baez might not have that same feel he had when he was ripping it up in spring training, but Bryant certainly does. And don’t forget about 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber. Cubs president Theo Epstein sounds even higher on him than he was on Bryant last year at this time. If Bryant is Epstein's Jacoby Ellsbury, then Schwarber might be his Dustin Pedroia. The straw that stirs the entire clubhouse. And Beeler isn’t even the most touted pitching prospect. That could go to Arodys Vizcaino or Kyle Hendricks.
What does all this mean? Not much for the Cubs in the coming second half, but hopefully for next year and beyond. As noted in this blog, the Cubs' turnaround won’t look as gradual as it really is. Ninety losses will turn into 90 wins quickly -- if things go right.
“There’s been parity for a number of years,” Epstein said. “Once the television numbers got into the game, [it] allowed the smaller markets to tie up their young talent, some of the [collective bargaining agreement] changes. You’ve seen increased parity in the league.”
That means the Cubs can pull off what the Milwaukee Brewers are doing right now. Or the Toronto Blue Jays. Or the Seattle Mariners. But unlike those teams -- potentially -- the Cubs plan on sticking around for a number of years instead of getting that one- or two-season surge. The rebuild has been slow, but contending might not be. Yes, the Cubs will have to spend money like those other clubs have, but one headache at time.
So let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, the Cubs will have to settle for competing in the minors. Triple-A Iowa has been on a streak since you-know-who arrived and are closing in on first place in the Pacific Coast League's American Northern Division. The Cubs were pleased their top guns got a chance to feel playoff baseball at Single-A Daytona last year, when it won the Florida State League championship.
Now it might be Iowa’s turn. At that point, several apprenticeships should be complete -- or close to it. So take a deep breath and allow Epstein to work his July magic one more time.
You’ve always got Iowa to follow.
“The locker room is always positive,” Beeler said. “It’s a good team down there.”
That will do for now.