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First-half positives: The kids can play

7/14/2014
Cubs top prospect Kris Bryant has 31 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A this season. Elsa/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- As the first half of the Chicago Cubs' season comes to an end, it might go down as the most positive of the three under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. And that’s with a 40-54 record. The positives extend from the majors down to Triple-A. Here are five of them -- ranked in order -- with five negatives coming on Tuesday:

1. Kris Bryant

A minor leaguer is at the top of the list because Bryant hasn’t slowed down since he was drafted No. 2 overall last season. And he’s vaulted to the top of the Cubs' prospect standings with 31 home runs and 81 RBIs at the break. He has 107 combined strikeouts in Double-A and Triple-A, but that’s meaningless as he’s hit a combined .346.

“You have to give something to get something,” Bryant said recently of striking out.

The Cubs will take those totals -- or anything close to it -- once he gets to the majors. As sure things go, and there are few if any in baseball, he comes the closest. And his pattern has been the same since college: a small period of struggles followed by adjustments followed by a streak that hasn’t stopped. Bryant may not make it to Wrigley Field this year, but he’ll be there soon enough.

With right-handed power a premium in baseball these days, Bryant stands as a potential franchise-changing player.

2. Jake Arrieta

While many believed Arrieta had the stuff of an ace or at least a No. 2 pitcher, there seemed to be a need for some gradual advancement. He missed all of spring training because of a sore shoulder that set him back further and then came out of the gate in May looking just OK. He took off after a few starts and hasn't looked back, flirting with no-hitters and perfect games. His stuff has been insanely good and hard to hit. He would be third in the majors in ERA (1.95) if he qualified, behind Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright. That's some pretty good company. He'll still need to perform throughout the second half to stamp himself as an elite hurler, but right now Arrieta is proving his head has caught up to his arm.

3. The Bullpen

Yes, this ranks higher than Starlin Castro or Anthony Rizzo because, if we take a step back, that duo's resurgence isn’t all that surprising. One was a two-time All-Star before this season and the other had only to raise his batting average from last year to advance his game. But the bullpen has been a sore spot since the day Epstein & Co. arrived on the scene. Their mistakes with Carlos Marmol and Jose Veras will be long forgotten if the young arms they employ now take the proper steps. No one, and I mean no one, could have predicted Neil Ramirez as a lockdown setup man (1.08 ERA, 3 saves) and Hector Rondon accumulating 11 saves in the first half. And remember, one was acquired in the Rule 5 draft (Rondon) and the other (Ramirez) was a player to be named later in the Matt Garza deal. There are no guarantees with the bullpen from one year to the next, but these arms have a chance of sticking around for a while and growing together.

4. Starlin Castro/Anthony Rizzo

There were many doubters of both players, but Rizzo's and Castro's All-Star selections tell the story of their first half. They both deserve it, especially in putting up numbers with very little help around them in the lineup. It’s not about protection, it’s about pitching stress. Opponents felt very little of it until Rizzo and Castro came up in the lineup, and then they could “relax” again for another inning or two. When they get more dangerous hitters around them -- think Arismendy Alcantara and Kris Bryant -- their numbers might go up even more. Rizzo and Castro were roundly criticized and had major issues at the plate last season and both responded with first halves that have them at Tuesday's game in Minnesota instead of vacationing.

5. Arismendy Alcantara

Five games hardly makes a career -- think back to Junior Lake last season -- but there is definitely something about Alcantara that should excite the most pessimistic Cubs fan. Unlike Lake, Alcantara has been moving up in the prospect rankings for several years. There are many in the game who have scouted him and more than liked what they’ve seen. His switch-hitting ability, his defensive prowess in the infield and outfield, his surprising power for his size and his speed put him in a great position to succeed. That’s not to mention his baseball instincts, which those who played with him at Triple-A Iowa rave about. More than anything, he represents the future of the Cubs. Not some ambiguous idea of rebuilding but an actual product of the farm system who’s shown a lot of talent. He was an extra-base machine in Iowa this year and already has five extra-base hits in five games in the majors. Now he needs to make a major league career out of it and the Cubs might have found their leadoff man of the future.

Honorable mention: Wrigley Renovations

Before Sunday’s first-half finale, Rizzo discussed with reporters the need for an improved clubhouse, as all the new amenities, he claims, will help the players prepare for games. Rizzo should finally get his wish as renovations have been approved by the city and construction is getting ready to begin. The Cubs may have some tough days ahead with rooftop owners, but at least the hurdles of starting have been overcome and Rizzo should get his new clubhouse in due time.