Cubs prospects adjusting to life in the limelight

Cubs prospects adjusting to life in the limelight
March 12, 2014, 2:30 pm
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Tony Andracki

These prospects haven't made it yet, but you wouldn't know that by how Cubs fans and the Chicago media have treated them.

It's evident in spring training, with sellouts at Cubs Park, where national writers talk to Kris Bryant and Javier Baez at their lockers inside the clubhouse.

[RELATED -- It’s not just Baez and Bryant: Cubs building deep farm system]

It became obvious at Cubs Convention, where fans mobbed the stage like a group of teenagers flocking to One Direction after more than a dozen of the organization's top prospects finished a Q&A session.

It’s not clear if this homegrown core will live up to the hype and turn the organization around.

"As a whole, it would be nice to do that," said Kyle Hendricks, the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2013. "But in order to do that, you got to focus individually on getting better and doing what you have to do.

"But, yeah, we have a great rapport, all the young guys. We're all buddies and we all hang out together."

As they move through the system, they're forming a bond and a sense of unity that has been hard to accomplish in Chicago with so much turnover on the big-league roster.

Bryant, Albert Almora and Dan Vogelbach are living together in Arizona during spring training. Bryant said he taught Almora how to do laundry. Pierce Johnson accidentally broke Almora's hamate bone with a pitch last spring, but the two have turned it into an inside joke.

[RELATED: The buzz building around Kris Bryant and Javier Baez]

Bryant and Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler may not speak the same native language, but they have formed a friendship based on hand signals and gestures. Almora served as the translator between fans and the Spanish-speaking prospects at that Cubs Convention panel.

While the big-league club may not have similar rapport with each other just yet, they set the example for the young prospects still learning what it takes to become a professional baseball player.

"Every guy here takes care of his business and knows what he has to do," Hendricks said. "That's honestly a reflection on the veterans, also, because those are the guys we watch. And if they're not doing their work, we might not do ours.

"But they go about their business, do what they have to do and we learn from that and take notes."

[MORE: Ryan Braun and the education of Kyle Hendricks]

The Cubs invited some of the most big-league ready prospects to a rookie-development program in Chicago in January to give them an idea of the city and the market. They took in a Blackhawks game at the United Center and got an idea of what it would be like when Wrigley Field is rocking during a playoff series.

"It gives them a small taste," said Jaron Madison, the director of player development. "Taking them to the Hawks game and allowing them to experience how excited the fans are from the national anthem throughout the game, I think it really shows them how passionate — and just how great — Chicago fans are in general."

For most of the prospects, like third baseman Christian Villanueva, it was their first experience in Chicago.

"It was awesome," Villanueva said. "The best fans ever. It's humbling. That was a good experience."

The Cubs hope those are the kinds of experiences that help form bonds and build team chemistry. The advanced Class-A Daytona team — headlined by C.J. Edwards, Johnson, Bryant and Vogelbach — is coming off a Florida State League championship.

"You have to think of your teammates as brothers," Madison said. "With the rookie-development program and as they play together, they truly care about each other. They want to be successful.

"They want to do it together. You can see the camaraderie and the chemistry between them in just how they interact together. They understand that 'Hey, we're competing against each other for jobs. But at the same time, we're all working together toward that same goal.'"

[MORE: Welington Castillo wants to be a big part of Cubs' future]

In the age of Twitter and instant information, prospects are no longer total mysteries. Now, people can see streams of minor-league games and GIFs of home runs and strikeouts at every level. Incidents like Soler grabbing a bat and charging toward the opposing dugout while with Daytona last April become plastered all over social media immediately. And then dissected by everybody.

While the Cubs have racked up 197 losses across the last two seasons, the focus is squarely on the prospects moving through the system. That magnifying glass is only intensifying with guys like Baez knocking at the door.

"They see their names," Madison said. "They can go to Twitter and read all about themselves. C.J. Edwards gets scrutinized for how he eats every day.

"They understand that they're in the limelight, that there is pressure on them. But I think they've taken it in stride and they've done a great job of handling it."

With all the attention and focus on their every move, it may be easy for any of the young players to feel like they can just coast toward the big leagues. But the Cubs are working on keeping the prospects grounded.

"All those guys are extremely competent players," Madison said. "They love this game. They have passion, they have aptitude and they're real professionals about how they go about their business.

"And they also understand what people think about them and the speed at which they move to the big leagues is out of their control. Everyone — to a man — understands.

"We continuously hammer away at 'Control the things that you can control. Don't worry about what people think about you. Do your work and things will take care of themselves.'"