The Chicago Cubs' second half begins in Phoenix on Friday night with two questions in mind: How many more prospects will make it to the major leagues this season, and who will grab starting jobs heading into 2015?
The addition of Arismendy Alcantara before the All-Star break has already given the baseball world a taste of what the Cubs have on the farm.
Additionally, pitchers Dallas Beeler, who could pitch Tuesday at Wrigley Field on regular rest if needed, Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada will all get more opportunities, as should newly acquired righty Dan Straily.
And 2011 first-round pick Javier Baez could be prepping for a second-half promotion, as well, after playing his first game at second base for Triple-A Iowa on Thursday. The puzzle is starting to take shape for the Cubs, although it's far from complete. But at least the pieces are becoming available to manager Rick Renteria as he tries to incorporate the newcomers.
The significance of Baez playing second Thursday -- he also homered against Round Rock -- shouldn't be overlooked. Junior Lake played six games in the outfield last season before being called up, while Alcantara played 11 this year.
A move from shortstop to second for Baez signifies that the Cubs believe his offense has improved enough this year to give him another challenge. They said long ago Baez would have to play somewhere other than shortstop when called up from the minors, considering they employ a three-time All-Star at that position in Starlin Castro.
If and when Baez makes it to the majors, it means Alcantara might move to center field full-time. That's the smart decision, considering the Cubs are light on major league-ready outfielders while they have waves of infielders getting closer to the big leagues.
Unless internal All-Star break meetings have changed their minds, the Cubs aren't bringing up ESPN.com's No. 1 prospect Kris Bryant this season. Bryant hit his minor league-leading 32nd home run Thursday, but the Cubs would potentially put him a year closer to free agency if they brought him up this season instead of waiting until early 2015.
The Cubs might need to do some roster maneuvering moving forward in order to fit in some newbies, but that shouldn't be a problem with the trade deadline approaching and two struggling players -- Lake (.218/.245/.402) and Mike Olt (.144/.230/.367) -- eligible to be sent to the minors. Any 40-man roster shuffling won't be a big issue, considering the Cubs have some dead weight that could be moved off there, as well.
If the Cubs finish the season with Alcantara playing every day in center field and Baez at second, then the second half might be deemed a success based on that alone. Any emergence on the mound of a starting pitcher would be a pleasant surprise, as well. Beeler and Hendricks have a chance to turn the tables on their scouting reports and prospect rankings. Neither is thought of as a top-of-the-rotation guy -- nor necessarily a lock for a starting spot. But that doesn't mean it can't happen. Hendricks is still the most intriguing of the candidates, but he'll need time through the league before a true assessment can be made.
If things realistically pan out, by May 2015, Bryant could be at third base, Castro at shortstop, Baez at second and Anthony Rizzo at first. Alcantara would be manning center field, while the corner outfield spots would be open for business with Lake possibly holding one for Jorge Soler or someone else. Hendricks, Beeler or Straily could be in the rotation. Olt simply might be the odd man out considering his dismal season at the plate.
In the meantime, the Cubs still have some housecleaning to do. Outfielders Nate Schierholtz or Justin Ruggiano could be moved before too long, as will undoubtedly one of the Cubs' lefty relievers, James Russell or Wesley Wright.
But those are small storylines compared with the successes and failures of the prospects. The Cubs' win-loss record won't be a day-to-day headline, but how they achieve it -- and with whom -- certainly will be. That's what this second half is all about.