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Cub problems? Talented roster blocks road for Chicago's prospects

MESA, Ariz. -- It’s the elephant in the locker room for any Chicago Cubs prospect who has his sights set on the big leagues.

No matter what numbers they put up in Triple-A, it won’t change these simple facts: Four infielders playing for the big league team made the All-Star squad last season, the right fielder is a Gold Glove winner with seven years remaining on his contract and the left fielder looks like a prodigious hitter just coming into his own.

In other words, there aren’t many open spots if you want to be an everyday player for the World Series champions.

"It’s impossible not to think about it," infield prospect Chesny Young, 24, said from Cubs camp recently.

"It’s human nature to envision what’s coming. The standard answer is control what you need to control. At the same time you have to be smart and savvy to work your way up. Playing different positions is really important. It can put you at another level where you might not get stuck behind someone."

Chesny isn’t at the top of the Cubs' prospect list despite hitting over .300 at every level of the minors (outside of a two-game Rookie League cameo) since being drafted in 2014. To get playing time in Chicago, all he has to do is beat out Addison Russell, Javier Baez or Ben Zobrist -- along with a group of talented Cubs prospects vying for a chance. You can see why he’s adding the word "versatility" to his resume.

Even a player with Ian Happ's pedigree as the team’s 2015 first-round pick finds himself in a similar spot. Happ and fellow top prospect Eloy Jimenez have shown themselves well in their first big league camp this spring, but face a crowded road to Wrigley Field.

"You can’t think about it (being blocked)," Happ said. "You have to learn from those guys that are here. It’s important to be appreciative we have a good team that can be competitive ... Make it difficult for them (front office). That’s the best thing you can do for the Chicago Cubs."

And that’s the message the Cubs are sending to their prospects. It worked out for former minor league first baseman Daniel Vogelbach, albeit not with the Cubs. He was traded to Seattle for Mike Montgomery because perennial MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo stood between him and Chicago’s lineup. Shortstop Gleyber Torres -- a player who would be untouchable in many other systems -- netted the Cubs' closer Aroldis Chapman.

"Every player has weaknesses to develop no matter the level in the minor leagues, and the player plan really helps keep the focus on that," vice president of amateur scouting and development Jason McLeod explained. "Of course, there is a reality of players looking at what’s in front of them, and we tell them to control the controllables. Go out and perform at your highest level. Whether or not you get moved up is out of your control, so don’t dwell on it."

If anyone is completely blocked by a player ahead of him, it’s 23 year-old third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who is the most major league-ready player in the system. The switch-hitter had a cup of coffee with the big league team last season, but a bench role wouldn’t do much for Candelario or the team this year.

"I’m not worried about who’s in front of me or who’s in back of me. I just want to be a good teammate," Candelario said. "If you do your work, good things are going to happen."

Candelario referenced his former minor league teammate Vogelbach, as well, showing this group of young players is well aware of what the ultimate fate could be.

With July 31 -- the day of baseball’s trade deadline -- a crucial time for Chicago prospects, the Cubs could be best served by having their top talent on display every day in the minors where scouts can watch their progress instead of watching them sit on the bench in the majors.

"The team has to decide what I’m going to do," Candelario stated. "I just want to take advantage of any opportunity."

Young even embraces the uncertainty, taking a page out of Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s psychological book of tricks.

"It’s good to be in uncomfortable situations," he said. "I got thrown into the fire here, but it’s good to just roll with it."

Former third-round pick Mark Zagunis sees the writing on the wall as well.

"Obviously, the team we have here is truly special, but I’m not thinking about it that way. I’m trying to learn from those guys," Zagunis said. "There are trades and injuries. You always have to be ready. I’m just enjoying being up here."

Happ simply added: "If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do you’re going to get a chance. Here or somewhere."