With Baez, future getting closer for Cubs

Development of renowned prospect, others paves path to success

With Baez, future getting closer for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. -- In any discussion of the Chicago Cubs, the most pleasant time is still the future.

At least now, the Cubs are in a place from which the future can be glimpsed. In that regard, let me say two words:

Javier Baez.

Of the Cubs' top-shelf position player prospects, Baez is the closest to Major League readiness. When he hit a mammoth 450-foot home run Wednesday night at Salt River Fields, it was a vivid demonstration of his wonderful potential. Baez's Wrigley Field arrival is a question only of when, not if. When in this case will probably not be soon enough for long-suffering Cubs fans.

Baez has been projected to start the season at shortstop in Triple-A. But the possibility of him making the big league club out of Spring Training will not extinguish itself. The media ask Baez about it. His friends and family ask him about it.

"They ask me pretty much every day, and I don't know what to answer," Baez said. "I know I will figure it out and let them know as soon as I know."

It is difficult not to be drawn into a discussion of the Cubs' future. On one hand, it is generally held that there are genuine impact players on the way. On the other hand, 2014 does not appear to hold the promise of a breakthrough season for the North Siders. This club has recorded four straight fifth-place finishes in the National League Central.

The master plan of the Theo Epstein administration does not demand success now. The issue is creating a bridge between a less-than-imposing present and a presumably glowing future; say 2016, for instance.

A significant part of the job of new manager Rick Renteria is to foster a positive atmosphere, a sense that progress is being made, that real growth is occurring. Offered a chance Thursday to find progress that was not immediately measured by victory or defeat, Renteria eagerly took the opportunity.

"I've seen some significantly improved approaches at the plate," Renteria said. "As an example, [Wednesday night against Colorado] we fought, we battled, we put some good at-bats together. [Second baseman] Darwin Barney is swinging the bat real well this spring, hitting the ball the other way a little bit more, putting together some really well-fought at-bats, grinding out at-bats. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's seeing it, but some of the at-bats have been really good with a lot of the hitters.

"As we see with pitching, we've seen some nice arms and some nice execution. Guys are still chipping away, trying to find their place right now, and we're moving forward.

"So there are a lot of things. We've been playing pretty decent defense. But there are things other than numbers that are playing well, in my opinion."

Mike Olt, 25, who came from the Rangers in the Matt Garza trade, had been stinging the ball. Shoulder soreness had kept him from starting at third base, but he was able to make his first start at third on Thursday against Seattle.

"His at-bats have been really, really good, obviously driving the ball well," Renteria said. "Whether it's been coming off the bench, whether it's been starting at first base or DH-ing, he's put some really good at-bats together. So we're happy with the way he's progressing."

One Cub mentioned frequently and prominently this spring is starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija. This is because he is the Cubs' single most salable commodity for a trade that could yield more talent for the future.

Samardzija didn't hurt his value Thursday, giving up two runs in 5 1/3 innings, but striking out eight, against the Mariners. He has had more than enough trade speculation. But Samardzija remains focused on his real job, pitching.

"I love to compete, it doesn't matter if we're in a parking lot or a big league field," Samardzija said. "I just love to compete. It's just fun to go out there and measure yourself, especially now when everyone's letting their starters go deep into games and they're getting three, four at-bats."

Samardzija sees hope in the short-term future for the Cubs.

"Just to see our youth out there and how we're playing," he said. "I've seen us create more runs than we did in the past, which is exciting, whether it's stealing bases or taking advantage of miscues on the other team's defense. And we're taking long at-bats. I think that's going to be a big key for us."

The "youth" remark brought the topic around once again to Baez.

"He's a heck of a player, and that's what you need," Samardzija said. "We don't just need one Baez, we need six, seven more. And that's what it's all about."

The one Javier Baez may have to suffice for the time being, along with some other highly talented prospects following in the foreseeable future. And that is the Cubs' best time frame. The past offers hard lessons in life. The present Cubs aren't going to overtake the St. Louis Cardinals. But the future offers the promise of brighter days and higher winning percentages.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.