MESA, Ariz. – The graveyard of Chicago Cubs prospect careers brims with tombstones, each a unique homage to two decades of player-development disappointment.
PIE: PECAN > FELIX
PATTERSON: DIED OF ALLERGY TO WALKS
CHOI: WORST HR DERBY PARTICIPANT EVER
It would be unbecoming to blaspheme more expired careers. So a list of names shall suffice and give poor, suffering Cubs fans a bit of acid reflux: Mark Pawelek, Brooks Kieschnick, Brian Dopirak, Kevin Orie, Gary Scott, Lance Dickson, Earl Cunningham, Ty Griffin. This is the detritus of past youth movements. This is the gravamen of Chicago baseball misery.
So it is with understandable skepticism that people see what's happening this spring at the gorgeous new Cubs Park and wonder whether it's too good to be true. Javier Baez's swing can't be that fast. Kris Bryant's power can't be that natural. If the last 105 years have taught us anything, it's that good things don't happen to the Cubs.
Well, Baez and Bryant are good. Really, really good. And they are happening sooner than later.
Do not take Bryant's reassignment to minor league camp Wednesday as anything other than the normal progression of a 22-year-old entering his first full season of professional baseball. He will take his lanky, 6-foot-5 frame to Double-A perhaps, amble into the batter's box with his closed stance, do his little timing toe-turn and transfer his weight just so, making contact with gymnast-quality balance and launching to center and right and left and everywhere, because spraying the ball around is not mutually exclusive with hitting it over the fence for truly elite hitters.
Baez, 21, remains with the Cubs, and so remains, for now, the most incredible swing in the game. Not the minors. The whole game. To see Javier Baez swing a baseball bat is to see the most compelling argument yet why God gave human beings wrists. Bryant's swing is understated beauty; Baez's is what Bamm-Bamm Rubble grew up to do. His high school coaches tried to temper it, Baez said, only to find a rigid truth: "I just can't slow it down. It's my swing. I can't swing nice and easy."
It's a big leg kick, and a torso angled forward at about 15 degrees, and a back elbow bent so high his bat, for a split second, is pointing at the second baseman, and then somehow his wrists propel it from that awkward position down through the zone where it whip-cracks like it belongs in a torture dungeon. Baez's hips separate, he carves the path of his uppercut swing and the ball is read its last rites. The pain ends quickly.
In today's game, with great pitching and bullpen specialization and fewer pumped-up steroid monsters, power is the single most valuable attribute. And in Baez and Bryant, not only do the Cubs have two of the best embodiments of it in the minor leagues, they could share the left side of the infield together for years to come. Bryant is a third baseman by trade and is sticking there, even if his size portends a position change at some point. And Baez plays shortstop, if a bit erratically, and is likely to try out second and third base over the last couple weeks of spring training before his likely Triple-A landing spot for opening day.
Sometime this season, both could arrive in Chicago. Whether that happens this year or next, Wrigley Field will see batting practice the likes of which have been missing since Sammy Sosa left. Albert Almora, another of the Cubs' core four everyday prospects that includes Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, has hit with Baez and Bryant and can't peg who hits the ball farther.
"They both put the ball to the moon," Almora said. "Tough to say."
The excitement has grown this spring, and understandably so. It's not just the long line of disappointing prospects or the most recent batch of overhyped, oversold disappointments that fosters greater expectations on this current group. It's the substance behind them, the fact that they're not glorified because they're Cubs but because they're good.
Bryant sees Baez's swing and marvels.
"The ball just jumps off his bat," Bryant said. "He's got incredibly quick hands. If I'm playing third base and he's up, I'm in the grass. He hits the ball really hard."
Baez sees Bryant's opposite-field power and swoons.
"He hits to the right side so easy," Baez said. "It's like nothing to him."
The mutual-admiration society should flourish for years, and it's enough to make all the Cubs' organizational problems feel a little less daunting and worrisome. Luck must've smiled on the Cubs in 2011, when the spectacular talent in the first round allowed Baez to drop to the ninth pick at which they nabbed him. And they can thank the Toronto Blue Jays for not ponying up the cash to buy Bryant out of his commitment to the University of San Diego after drafting him in the 18th round from Bonanza High in Las Vegas. Three years later, he was there for the Cubs with the second overall choice.
And now they get to experience life as a Cub, potentially the most fulfilling in baseball. When the Cubs win, there is no better place to play. Part of that is the charm of a classic ballpark, part of it is Chicago's embrace of its sports heroes. Part of it, too, is the unspoken ideal, that maybe this actually is the group that does it. Nobody needs to say what it is, either.
An unfortunate residue filters through: The expectations are commensurate with the potential payoff. So guys like Brett Jackson or Josh Vitters were, if not anointed, then at the very least acclaimed more than their skillset warranted, and disappointment emanated from their troubles. This is the risk of turning around a franchise with kids, and as Bryant made sure to note: "We're still prospects."
Which means they could bust, or they could get traded like Josh Donaldson and Chris Archer and Andrew Cashner, three of the best players the Cubs have developed in the last decade, or they could, as the entire industry expects, arrive as Cubs, thrive as Cubs and send the Cubs back to where they belong, as one of the major leagues' marquee teams instead of a debt-riddled franchise whose upper management is held back by its ownership.
"It's going to be a great lineup," Baez said. "We're going to be a good team. Hopefully, we get back to the World Series."
It's not happening this year. Next year is unlikely, too. There's too much work to be done, too many holes in the pitching staff to fill, too many at-bats for Bryant and Baez and Soler and Almora and Arismendy Alcantara and others to take before everything crystallizes.
The hope is real, though, and not far-fetched. There are pieces in place, building blocks coming, talent to at least position the Cubs as a contender before the crap shoot that is October. And should it all happen to align, the stars on the field and in the sky, perhaps there will be one more tombstone to add, one that every Cubs fan gladly would etch.
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