The Next Wave: Ian Happ and Eloy Jimenez lead the newest class of Cubs prospects creating a buzz

The Next Wave: Ian Happ and Eloy Jimenez lead the newest class of Cubs prospects creating a buzz

MESA, Ariz. — It was only one inning in a spring training game that doesn't count, but it was also a glimpse into the future for Cubs fans.

A future, that is. Probably not the future, not with so many young stars already reveling in the championship spotlight in Chicago.

The eighth inning of the Cubs' 4-3 win over the Colorado Rockies at Sloan Park Saturday was filled with banner moments for the next wave of Cubs prospects.

First, Eloy Jimenez drilled a line-drive homer to right-center. Two batters later, Ian Happ sent one almost to the same spot for a two-run shot to give the Cubs a 4-3 lead.

Chesny Young followed with a hard single to right field, stole second base and advanced to third on a wild throw before the Rockies finally got out of the inning when Jeimer Candelario flew out to the warning track in right field.

Happ helped seal the win with a nice play at second base in the ninth, charging a slow chopper and throwing out Colorado's Anthony Bemboom on a close play at first.

[RELATED - What to make of Jeimer Candelario, the breakout star of Cubs camp]

Happ and Young were at it again Sunday, combining to go 3-for-4 at the plate in the Cubs' 9-8 loss to the Oakland A's and teaming up for a slick double play on a hard hit grounder late in the game.

With three weeks still left until Opening Day, the Cubs youngsters have been getting a chance to play almost every day in the Cactus League and they've certainly been making the most of it.

"They're just ready to play; they're very focused," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "They're not waiting for the season. They want to show us right now. And I've been impressed. We've all been impressed.

"If it weren't for the fact that these players on the major league team are so young, you'd hear more about these guys. Or if you're in an organization with a bunch of veterans maybe on the way out, these guys would be getting a lot more play."

There's definitely a buzz in camp that there's another wave of young position players coming, even after Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. helped the Cubs win the World Series last year after graduating the system in the last couple years. 

That whole group of young hitters has combined for just two complete big-league seasons from start to finish and all are under team control through at least the 2022 season.

So in some ways, all these prospects are auditioning for other teams and may eventually be used as currency to help add impact pitching at the big-league level in the same vein that Gleyber Torres headlined the package for Aroldis Chapman last summer.

"There's no room for spots on this team," Happ said. "I didn't come in trying to win anything. I'm here to learn. I'm trying to be a sponge and soak up as much as I can from those guys."

Happ —'s No. 28 prospect — has been on fire over the last week and is hitting .407 this spring with a 1.169 OPS in camp that trails only Anthony Rizzo (1.260 OPS) among Cubs players with at least five at-bats this spring.

Maddon sees a different Happ now even from the start of spring training a little less than a month ago.

"Hitting coaches have been really impressed and now he's taking it into the game. He's definitely a major-league player in waiting and his time will come," Maddon said. "... He's more confident at home plate. He went through a stretch there where he was really spinning off pitches. 

"Then he had one at-bat — I think against the Angels — he hit a line drive to right field in the latter part of the game. From then on, he's been locked in. Since that one at-bat, he's been hot."

Happ is a player cut perfectly in the Maddon mold — a switch-hitter who can play second base or outfield — and because of that, the 22-year-old said he's been spending a lot of time this spring picking Ben Zobrist's brain.

Jimenez — the Cubs 2016 minor league player of the year and's No. 13 prospect — is hitting .346 with a 1.033 OPS in 14 games (26 at-bats) this spring.

"This kid is all that," Maddon said. "He's a wonderful student. Watch him take BP. It's a very mature version of batting practice."

Jimenez and Happ are widely considered the Cubs' top prospects, but Candelario ('s No. 5 Cubs prospect), catcher Victor Caratini (No. 13) and Young (No. 14) have turned heads, too. All three have posted very good offensive numbers in the small sample size hitting against other non-roster guys late in Cactus League games:

Candelario: .286/.306/.457 in 35 ABs
Caratini: .313/.389/.500 in 16 ABs plus a homer in a "B" game Thursday
Young: .308/.333/.423 in 26 ABs

So where do all these guys think they fit in the Cubs' big picture?

"You just have to go out there and try to get better every day and play as hard as you can," Happ said. "There's always gonna be opportunity if you keep playing well, so for me, I'm just trying to get better and make the most of it."

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”


Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."