Are Cubs’ top prospects ready to handle the pressure?
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter January 15, 2014 9:23PM
Updated: February 17, 2014 8:50AM
Anyone fortunate enough to be hanging out with the Northwestern women’s cross country team at its indoor practice in Evanston on Wednesday got a glimpse of what figures to be the best one-day showcase of talent the Cubs have to offer in 2014.
Whether that says more about the waiver-claim team the Cubs plan to field or the hope, hype and hysteria surrounding the group of prospects that worked out across from the NU women probably will get sorted out over the next year or so.
Until then, these 20- and 22-year-old minor-leaguers are the marquee players for an iconic, major-market franchise facing the likelihood of a fifth consecutive losing season.
They represent a projected core that has become the justification for all the patience demanded of fans, all the answers to the 105-year-old question — or, as one media member simply referred to them in an interview, “saviors.”
Talk about pressure.
“We hear stuff,” top hitting prospect Javy Baez said.
“But it doesn’t add pressure,” top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards said. “It adds excitement.”
Edwards echoed the sentiment expressed by many of the 15 players invited to the Cubs’ second annual rookie development program, designed to introduce the organization’s near-ready prospects to the city, ballpark, facilities, staff, ownership and big-league expectations and pressures.
But it’s a sentiment easier to believe from the safe distance of Iowa or Tennessee. While it’s still theory.
In reality, there might not be another core group of minor-leaguers from any organization that has faced the kind of hype and scrutiny — or higher expectations — in recent history, especially considering the stature of the franchise, the lengthy rebuild, the relative lack of veteran core guys on the big-league roster and lack of big-market resources given to the baseball department. Never mind the 105-year thing.
“I think they understand,” said Jason McLeod, senior vice president for scouting and player development. “They’re fully aware of the attention they’re getting.
“We always talk about, ‘Don’t get caught up in the headlines and all that.’ But we’re also realistic with them, telling them, ‘Hey, this wave of guys coming up, you’re going to be the first wave since we’ve been here, since we’ve talked so much about changing the culture and mind-set of the organization.’ ”
Maybe even the saviors.
Those expectations are why the Cubs believe this rookie development program is especially valuable to this group of players, which include the top seven-ranked players in the organization, according to Baseball America: Baez, third-baseman Kris Bryant, Edwards, outfielder Albert Almora, outfielder Jorge Soler, pitcher Pierce Johnson and second baseman Arismendy Alcantara.
No. 10 prospect Arodys Vizcaino also attended, along with the Cubs’ 2013 minor league pitcher of the year, Kyle Hendricks, and former touted prospect Mike Olt, the third baseman acquired in July from Texas who says his concussion-related health issues are behind him.
“From physical ability, the impact potential here is as good as I’ve seen anywhere in my career, in terms of if every player hits his upside,” said McLeod, a former player-development executive in Boston and San Diego. “It is Impact Central with four or five of our guys. You don’t normally have that. You might have one or two. …
“We know that they’re not all going to hit their ceilings probably. If they do, God bless us. But having the volume of impact potential there. … If they make it, they’re superstars; we have that kind of potential here.”
Talk about pressure.
“There’s no pressure,” Bryant said. “Baseball’s a fun game.”
Speaking of which, the entire group attended a Blackhawks game Tuesday night.
“Watching all those people go crazy, even during the national anthem — that was awesome,” Johnson said. “I can just imagine what it’s going to be like when we turn it around and actually win a World Series. It gives me chills.”