Commentary

At least Cubs' future looks bright

If you can see past ownership's current malaise, shiny young prospects await

Updated: January 18, 2014, 1:30 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

EpsteinJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCubs owner Tom Ricketts, left, and president Theo Epstein seem in no rush to field a winner.

CHICAGO -- You can spot the Cubs' prospects from across a room.

Or at least you can if you know what they look like.

"Who's who?" I asked a fellow reporter Friday night at the Cubs Convention media social. "Point someone out."

"That's Javier Baez sitting right there," he said.

"Where's there?"

After our Abbott and Costello routine ended, I sidled up to a quiet young man in a black suit, black shirt and black tie and started a conversation about the future.

Because when it comes to the Cubs, you're either living in the past or thinking about the future.

The two big charity events this week were hosted by ex-Cubs -- David DeJesus and Kerry Wood -- and the big media event was the "rookie" player workout at Northwestern, which was part of the team's rookie-development program, a skills camp/vacation/media training seminar.

[+] EnlargeAlmora
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports"We want to be up here tomorrow," outfielder Albert Almora said. "But we have to earn it. When they call our name is when they think we're ready."
Even at the media social, the only reason to talk to an actual Cubs player was to take the temperature of Jeff Samardzija, who is going to arbitration with the team. With a long-term contract extension not seemingly on the horizon, most people figure he'll be an ex-Cub by July.

Starlin Castro, the erstwhile face of the Cubs, was nowhere to be found during media time, while Anthony Rizzo mingled but didn't address the media.

The present-day Cubs are nothing more than the company softball team for a local real-estate conglomerate.

Or as Cubs president Theo Epstein put it Friday, "We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes: We're a last-place team."

A last-place team with a new super-cool mascot, Theo.

Now, if the Cubs can land Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka by his Jan. 24 deadline, they could easily be a third-place team. At the worst, they would show they're serious about being a major league franchise.

But if they don't -- and I'm not brushing up on my high school Japanese -- expect another lost season at the ballpark.

But there's plenty of time to grouse about high ticket prices and low expectations from an ownership group more concerned with appearances and infrastructure.

With the future in mind, I talked to three of the Cubs top prospects -- Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora. All were careful not to sound too eager to come up to the bigs.

But don't expect the cavalry any time soon. The Cubs aren't in a rush to win, and they don't have to rush their winners to the big leagues. As Epstein joked, the Cubs haven't given a "timeline" for a reason.

"You can do a lot of damage rushing prospects before they're ready," Epstein said.

But we all know that the minor-league stars are licking their chops in Daytona, Tennessee and Iowa because they know the big-league Cubs are a slapdash organization more concerned with mascots, scoreboards and "branding arches."

OK, they probably don't know about any of that. But they do know the Cubs stink, and that their own future is coming soon. Trust me, they all said they have apps on their phones to check the scores.

"They got really good players in the big leagues and really good young players, but we're not ready yet," Baez said.

Nice kid, huh?

Baez, who has the Major League Baseball logo tattooed on the back of his neck, is the closest thing the Cubs have to a major league-ready prospect as a parade of highly touted Cubs minor leaguers prepares to be tasked with delivering a historic franchise back to respectability.

Well, respectability first and a World Series next.

After hitting .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs (tied for second-most in all the minor leagues) between Single-A and Double-A last season, Baez will start at Triple-A Iowa in 2014, where he will work on playing second and third base. But Iowa is not where he wants to stay.

"It don't really matter where I start," he said. "It's about where I finish."

If the defense comes together, he's got a very good chance of being called up this summer. Drafted in the waning days of the Jim Hendry regime in 2011, Baez got a taste of the big leagues last spring training, when he made a very mature decision to shadow Alfonso Soriano.

"Last year I was following Soriano," the 21-year-old Baez said. "I was doing his routine. Before the games, I was lifting, gotta go stretch before I go to the cage.

"I asked him if I could work with him. He said, 'Yeah, you've got to to get used to doing your own routine. I know you're young and you don't know how to work in the big leagues.' He told me, 'You could follow me and learn a lot.' "

That he did. But that doesn't include showing off on home runs.

"I love that," Baez said, with a wide smile. "But I can't do that yet."

Epstein's inaugural first-round pick in 2012, outfielder Almora, is only 19, and he has a teenager's confidence.

Almora is familiar with Chicago, having played 61 games at Class-A Kane County last season.

"I think it was a big advantage being a part of that team in Kane County and being so close to Chicago," he said. "I played in front of 8-9,000 fans every night at home. We didn't have that when we went on the road. It was just a little glimpse of what's waiting at Wrigley."

Of the three players I talked to, Almora, fast and athletic, is the furthest from reaching Wrigley. But he already has the aura of being a "clubhouse guy," the go-to quote and the action magnet.

"As a player and a competitor, we want to be up here tomorrow," he said. "But we have to earn it. When they call our name is when they think we're ready."

Call me crazy, but Almora, doesn't seem like a guy ready to wait.

"There's a little part of your brain that goes, my goal is to be here and be a teammate to all these big leaguers," he said. "Then there's the big part of my brain saying you've got to earn that and be patient."

For Bryant, the Cubs' first-round pick last year, this week was a chance to meet friends you might have for a lifetime, not unlike the first week in the dorms at college.

"That's a very good comparison," the 22-year-old said. "That's exactly what it was like."

The power-hitting third baseman from the University of San Diego is going to be a fast riser, and it's possible he's the opening-day starter in 2015.

Bryant got in only 36 games last season. But the 16 he played at Class-A Daytona, the Florida State League champions, left their mark on him.

"The team in Daytona, it was excitement every day," he said. "We went out and we felt like we were going to win every game. We had Pierce Johnson, C.J. Edwards throwing on the mound. I was playing third and I'm like, 'This is awesome, we're going to win today.' Hopefully that just translates on every level on up."

At the end of each interview, I shook the player's hand and said that I hoped to see him soon in Chicago. Because until the prospects get here, Wrigley Field will continue to feel more minor league than Daytona. Mascot and all.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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