MESA, Ariz. -- All the losing the Chicago Cubs have endured over the past few seasons is about to pay off. At least in a small way.
If all goes right in 2014, fans should finally be able to see some of the team's heralded prospects, some of whom have vaulted the farm system into the top five in all of baseball. By being out of the playoff race by midseason, the front office has been able to focus on the future by trading aging veterans for younger players, and to pick high in the annual June draft.
And now some of those young players are nearly ready for prime time.
The Cubs have a "big four" of position player prospects in No. 1 draft choices Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant to go along with Cuban-born outfielder Jorge Soler. But the first of the major names to make it to Wrigley Field may not be any of those players.
Right-handed starter Kyle Hendricks (13-4, 2.00 ERA in 2013) could arrive quicker than any of them, while reliever Arodys Vizcaino is also waiting in the wings. They'll start the season at Triple-A Iowa just like Baez. Hendricks was acquired for Ryan Dempster in 2012, while Vizcaino came for Paul Maholm while Vizcaino was still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Now healthy, Vizcaino can get near 100 mph with his fastball; he impressed observers in the first bullpen sessions he threw this spring. Hendricks is your classic thinker on the mound.
Pitchers rather than position players are more likely to come up for an appearance or two if they're needed. While the Cubs want to make sure Baez is ready at the plate and in the field, guys like Hendricks and Vizcaino along with rising prospect Eric Jokisch could be at Wrigley Field anytime.
But when Baez shows up, people will take notice. After hitting 37 home runs at Class A and Double-A last season, he came into Cubs camp and put on a show. He crushed the ball to the opposite field and made adjustments at the plate he wasn't always doing previously. He also got a taste of playing second base since he'll have to play somewhere besides shortstop when he's called up with Starlin Castro entrenched there.
But Baez has to prove he's matured as a hitter for longer than a few weeks during spring training. The Cubs can also save some long-term money by waiting to bring him up until late June or July. When they do, pitchers beware. His swing is as vicious as they come.
The other major names are at the lower levels of the minor leagues, but all can make big jumps. Bryant could finish the season at Triple-A Iowa, as could Soler. Almora is a baseball rat and should make major leaps from Class A, if he stays healthy.
But first up probably are the pitchers, and then Baez. There could be a surprise or two, as well -- infielder Arismendy Alcantara is getting close and outfielder Matt Szczur played great defense this spring. They're both in Triple-A. The good news is that the wait to see these players in the major leagues is nearly over.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein promised that the Cubs wouldn't rush their prospects but would call them up when they're ready.
They're almost ready.