MESA, Ariz. -- As spring training winds down it's time to examine what lies ahead for the Chicago Cubs.
As promised by the front office, none of the team's top prospects will head north in April. All made fine impressions, but because of the Cubs' extra caution -- as well as monetary concerns -- they'll take things slow with all of them. As they've said often, the prospects need to dominate at every level before making it to the major leagues.
But what if the criteria was less stringent and arbitration/free agency wasn't an issue? The "dominate at each level" mantra might be sound practice, but we'll never know if Kris Bryant could handle the big leagues now. It's possible. There's little doubt it's the safer route to leave him in the minors, but let's go ahead and analyze things without those handcuffs.
Who's ready? You can almost never say for sure, so we'll use "who's ready enough" as the criteria. This team isn't winning anything right now, so some struggles are expected and can be tolerated. But the player has to have the ability to survive it, have some success as well as some failures and then make the adjustments. That's "ready enough."
Based on watching spring training, talking with scouts and understanding what can be accomplished at the major league level as opposed to the minors, infielders Javier Baez and Mike Olt as well as pitcher Kyle Hendricks could be playing for the Cubs on Opening Day.
This goes against my offseason thoughts on the subject, especially concerning Baez and Bryant. Late last year in a blog I wrote that Bryant should be the Opening Day third baseman and Baez probably needed more time. But Baez has shown the necessary maturity on and off the field, and after watching just two games of him at second base, he can learn on the job, just as the Cubs asked Junior Lake to do when he moved from third base to the outfield last year.
Baez is going the opposite way with pitches -- he hit another home run to right field on Tuesday night -- and taking borderline ones like he never did last year. His bat speed needs to get used to major league pitching, not Triple-A.
Bryant certainly might be "ready enough," but by his own admission there's some work to do on pitches in the lower half of the strike zone -- and low and away ones are even tougher for the 6-foot-5 slugger. Maybe if he had dominated spring training it might be different, but he didn't. He had his moments, but for the first time since before being drafted he had some struggles. He had dominated everything laid out in front of him since winning collegiate player of the year, and now he'll need to adjust to how major leaguers will pitch him. He's just short of "ready enough," in my opinion.
Olt is an easy one but still a pleasant surprise. After all the struggles of last season, it seemed inevitable he would need more than a few at-bats in March to get his timing down. He quickly dispelled any thoughts that his vision wasn't back to normal as he started hitting right away. Batting practice went fine and even his outs in games were hard hit and right on the money. Then the home runs came, including his fourth on Tuesday against the Texas Rangers.
As long as he gets some playing time at third base and tests his sore shoulder, there is no reason the 25-year-old shouldn't be the Opening Day third baseman. He's mature enough to handle anything after his dreadful 2013 season.
Hendricks is also an easy decision. He navigated major league lineups nicely in limited action this spring and just needs the experience of being in the big leagues. Hendricks is smart. The sooner he learns umpires, opposing hitters and ballparks, the better he will be. He needs to understand how to get major league hitters out, the ones he'll be facing for years if all goes well. There's no reason he needs to learn those specifics at Triple-A. They could start his learning now. If his stuff isn't good enough then it won't matter if it's Triple-A or the big leagues. He's a pitcher not a thrower and he's ready.
It's not to say all three players will be great right away, but they are certainly "ready enough" for the major leagues. The next phase of the rebuilding plan is upon us. The Cubs will take it slow and frankly, a few more months or even weeks won't make a big difference, but they can play here now.