Expectations high for Cubs' second-year players

What the Cubs' sophomore quintet of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler can do first and foremost is crush baseballs. At an age when many players are still cutting their teeth as prospects in minor league ballparks, they've all proven at least that much under the bright lights of the majors since their debuts within the last 18 months.

Bryant hit 26 home runs last season while Schwarber hit 16 in 69 games. Even the middle infielder, Russell, hit 13 out. The biggest and strongest of the group, Soler, only hit 10 home runs, but there isn't a scout in baseball who doesn't believe he has 20 to 30-homer potential.

And led by Schwarber's franchise-record five October long balls, four of the five have already hit a home run on the pressure-packed postseason stage -- a fact not to be ignored for a group focused on putting 108 years of heartache in the rearview this season.

The sound off their bats is special. Russell, not previously known for power, has changed his style and has slugged the ball in camp with the best of them. Batting practice with the quintuplet is a show.

"I jokingly say all the time 'don't put me in the hitting group with those guys because it kills my self-esteem,'" catcher David Ross said. "I went up to [assistant hitting coach] Eric Hinske, I go, 'Why does it look so easy for them?'"

While getting matched up with the hard-hitting youngsters in BP might be a mismatch for some Cubs, none will complain about having them on their side come game time. The team shocked the baseball world last year with five first-year players contributing to a 97-win season. Rookies are usually reserved for rebuilding teams, but these are no ordinary youngsters.

One year later, they're hungrier than ever, as projected statistics by four different online services say the Cubs' sophomore "Fab Five" are expected to hit at least 15 home runs and drive in 50 runs each in 2016, but all are expected to strike out at least 110 times. That's not a concern for the organization, as one of the most talented freshman classes any team has debuted in recent years gets ready to take the next step in Year 2.

"People forget how young they are for good reason," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said from spring training. "They're past the phase where they're looked at for their age and more for what they can do for the team."

Not since the 2007 Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks has baseball seen a young group of this many position players make such an impact. But neither of those teams were able to get where the Cubs are trying to go: the World Series. The current Cubs have already won 97 games and a postseason series while the five players were just getting their feet wet as rookies. What does that mean for 2016?

"They're all advanced for their ages," veteran second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "That's the common theme. Usually you have 1-2 guys like that. You don't have five like that at the same time.

"It's similar to the Braves' young pitching that came up together. And people wonder why they're so good at that age. They're just so talented. There's only upside for all of them."

Hitting isn't the only thing this group does well, it's just at the top of the list -- Russell could be on a short list to win a Gold Glove this season and Bryant is a fantastic baserunner.

Baez and Soler are still trying to establish themselves while Bryant, Russell and Schwarber are more ensconced. But even the rookie of the year can expect adjustments from the opposition, as can the other young players. How they react will go a long way toward determining how good the Cubs will be this season. They are that important.

"The biggest thing is you just can't keep doing the same thing and keep getting the same result," Zobrist said of when the struggles inevitably come. "You have to make adjustments because they're going to make adjustments. Pitchers will analyze the video from last year and find new ways to get them out. It's about getting ahead of the curve and being a complete hitter."

The Cubs aren't exactly expecting the worst from the group, of course, but they know a player's second year can be his toughest. There's a reason it's called a sophomore slump.

"I look at the Royals, for instance and you went back to (Alex) Gordon, (Eric) Hosmer, (Mike) Moustakas, and their ups and down development path they took," Epstein said. "A good rookie year, a rough sophomore year, in some cases options to the minor leagues to work things out. When they all got good at the same time is when the team finally won. Our ability to maintain performance at the level we saw last year will be dictated to a certain extent by their development."

"People forget how young they are for good reason. They're past the phase where they're looked at for their age and more for what they can do for the team." Cubs president Theo Epstein on the team's second-year players

That's one reason why manager Joe Maddon will protect them by finding the right matchups and giving them plenty of rest. None, including Bryant, will play 150 or more games. In fact, expect them all to play less. In a few cases, it'll be a lot less.

"I don't care what it says on their birth certificates. I want them fresh for September," Maddon said.

Besides talent, the five are bound by a maturity beyond their years. Maybe it's a result of being around a selfless team last season, but they are all over being wide-eyed by their surroundings.

"It's not fair to lump them together because their personalities are all different, but as a group it's fair to say they're pretty grounded, mature and adjusted pretty quickly," Epstein said. "Their primary focus is winning which earned them a lot of respect from their veteran teammates."

It also takes the pressure off them, considering all five will rotate in and out of the lineup. Yes, they'll want to perform, but whether they do or not won't essentially change their playing time. Maddon will keep that rotation intact either way. He did something similar last September. That's not to say Bryant and Russell, in particular, won't play most days, but Maddon can err on the side of keeping them fresh.

"They'll go through their ups and downs but they'll do it together," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "I'm sure they'll have their own little powwow where they can talk to each other and feel comfortable and they know that they can come to the veterans at any time. It's a good support group."

Coincidence or not, Ross started to contemplate retirement as his young teammates burst onto the scene last year. He's OK with that because at least he gets a front row seat for their sophomore seasons. They could be special.

"I see my time passing because these guys are way better than I am," Ross said, only half-joking. "They're still learning the game and not one of them has been through a complete season. We have to realize they're not established big leaguers as good as they are. But when they get there, watch out. They're going to be really good."