On deck: As Cubs open spring training, next wave of prospects on display

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The Cubs’ top pitching prospect, Duane Underwood, is in his first big-league camp this spring. Pitchers and catchers report Friday.

MESA, Ariz. – Spring training hasn’t even officially started, and Kyle Schwarber already is making national headlines for breaking things with home run balls during batting practice in Arizona.

Even before that, the National League rookie of the year, Kris Bryant, caused a social media stir by posting video of him in the water with sharks.

In less than a season of major league experience, this first wave of celebrated Cubs prospects – don’t forget Addison Russell and Jorge Soler – not only has helped build the latest winner on the north side, but also seems well on the way to legend-building.

So what’s next?

More to the point: Who’s next?

A Cubs farm system that ranked No. 1 by most accounts a year ago is all over the media-ranking spectrum with last year’s rookies graduated out of the system – afforded No. 4 (ESPN), No. 10 (Bleacher Report), No. 17 (Fangraphs.com) and No. 20 (Baseball America) rankings on recent minor-league lists.

Just how good the next wave might be – and, by extension, how strong, so far, Theo Epstein’s “foundation for sustain success” looks – will get at least a handful of cameo appearances this spring.

And for a team whose big-league roster is all but set, barring injuries, the first impressions of these prospects could be among the more intriguing, if not entertaining, storylines of the spring.

The farm system still leans heavily toward hitters. Among the players earning first-time 40-man roster status (and first big-league springs) are two of the organization’s top breakout players from last year, with the chance to become the Most Interesting Men in Mesa over the next month or so: third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Willson Contreras (the Southern League batting champ many expect to debut this season).

Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ top player development executive, said the fast and stunning rises of back-to-back first-rounders Bryant and Schwarber to big-league rookie success has caused his staff to regroup.

“Kris and Kyle have warped even my sense of where [other prospects] should be sometimes,” he said.

But that’s not to say the Cubs don’t have a strong group of prospects behind them. They just might have to develop at a more traditional rate.

Contreras and Candelario already had shown strength defensively before their big offensive seasons in 2015, including exceptional performances in the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Both should open the season in the wings at AAA Iowa – although some scouts suggest Contreras is ready for a big-league job now.

Former second-round draft pick Dan Vogelbach, a DH-looking first baseman with a big left-handed bat, also is in his first big-league camp this spring.

The bigger question for the state of the Cubs’ farm system is where the pitching will come from. The Cubs have yet to send a pitcher to the big leagues from the first four drafts under team president Epstein.

“I do think it’s a year that the pitching is going to burst upon the scene a little bit,” Epstein said early in the offseason – talking especially highly of a handful of pitchers with big arms in the lower minors.

Somebody from that group might be ready by the time Jon Lester is on the back end of his six-year contract. But if anybody’s going to keep Epstein from being forced to look for more free agent help for the rotation before that, it’s probably going to be someone from this trio of AA and AAA prospects in this camp: right-handers Duane Underwood, Pierce Johnson and Ryan Williams.

Underwood and Williams are in their first big-league camps. All are expected to get extra attention and evaluation from the staff this spring, with an eye toward building depth for this season – and making plans to contend beyond.

“There’s a wave of talent that’s starting to come up through the system,” farm director Jaron Madison said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of guys that take a big step forward this year and put themselves on the radar.”

Other spring-loaded thoughts

On-field intrigue: Even more than in most camps and in most years, health might be the biggest consideration for these Cubs in their first year of high expectations this decade – particularly for a pitching staff that could quickly show the stress of depth issues if the wrong arm gets the wrong twinge this spring. With that in mind, the Cubs are putting together a preservation plan for Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, who threw a career-high number of innings – by 72 – last year. In fact, back-end rotation candidates and swingmen are expected to get the first few starts of the spring, with Travis Wood likely to get the opener in what could be an especially big spring for him.

Off-field intrigue: Epstein headed to spring training entering the final year of his original five-year, $18.5 million contract with the Cubs and with no substantive talks started with ownership, according to insiders. This despite low-level rumors in recent weeks suggesting significant progress had been made toward five-year extensions for Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer – chatter that might simply be the byproduct of widespread sentiment that Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts are thinking in lockstep on the subject. That sentiment could change considerably if the season opens without an extension. Consider Andrew Friedman’s five-year, $35 million deal with the Dodgers a year ago a key talking point in negotiations.

Bold spring prediction: Javy Baez, the infielder who failed to stick after starting the final weeks at second base in 2014 and spent most of last year in the minors, said he adjusted quickly to a winter-ball trial in center field. This time around? He’ll be in the Opening Day lineup.

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