Cubs collection of young talent may be their best

They can boast 2 budding big league stars and possibly 4 prospects game's top 20

Starlin Castro is 23. Ditto Anthony Rizzo. They're not exactly going to be old men when the Cubs' best-in-baseball wave of amateur talent starts rolling into Wrigley Field, although they might feel like it.

With University of San Diego slugger Kris Bryant signing for $6.7 million last week, the Cubs probably have assembled the biggest collection of position-player talent they ever have had at the same time. In Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora — along with Castro and Rizzo — the Cubs have given themselves a foundation for future success.

That's progress.

Agent Scott Boras represents Almora and Bryant. He has seen Soler and Baez multiple times.

His take: "Albert's a great young player, an instinctive player, a player who is going to be very important for this team in many ways. Kris Bryant … I've been doing this more than 30 years, and I can count on my hand the number of college players who have that type of power. He has very rare power, loft power, easy power. This is going to be a cornerstone player for this franchise.

"As far as Soler, I've watched him play three or four times. The strength, the quick twitch, he has a chance to really have a high ceiling as a player. I saw Baez play maybe three games of rookie ball. He's almost (Dustin) Pedroia-like in generating power from a small strike zone. He has a 6-4 swing in a (6-foot) body. He's fun to watch hit. He's going to be a very impactful guy.''

Baseball America's Jim Callis recently released his midseason prospect rankings. He listed Baez 10th overall, Almora 16th and Soler 18th.

Callis didn't list Bryant because he was unsigned at the time. He says he might put Bryant ahead of Baez if he was updating it now. That means the Cubs have four of the top 20 prospects in the minors.

The Astros (five), Cardinals and Red Sox had at least four players apiece in Callis' top 50. But none of them had more than two in the top 20.

When are the kids going to get to the big leagues? Here's my guess:

•Baez: July 2014. When he gets close to the big leagues, the Cubs will have to move him or Castro to another position or deal one of them. I will guess Castro gets traded, but it's up to Baez's continued development as a shortstop.

•Bryant: August 2014. That might be too soon, given the lack of urgency and Cubs President Theo Epstein's commitment to minor league instruction. But getting to the big leagues in a hurry hasn't seemed to hurt guys like Ryan Zimmerman, Evan Longoria, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

•Soler: April 2015. He was likely to get to the big leagues sooner before suffering a stress fracture in his ankle that could cost him half of this season.

•Almora: June 2015. He has bounced back well from a broken hamate bone and could come even more quickly.

Tough week: Somewhere Jonathan Papelbon is smiling about recent developments with the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig. He shockingly failed to win online balloting for the Final Vote spot on the National League All-Star team, and he is being made to look mortal as teams face him for the second time.

In his second series against the Diamondbacks, Puig was 4-for-15 with no extra-base hits and four strikeouts. He did get two hits against the Rockies before leaving Thursday's game with soreness in his left hip, which he injured last week running into the Coors Field wall, but he entered the weekend hitting .271 in 48 at-bats against teams facing him the second time.

Puig, who joined Tony Oliva as only the second hitter since 1950 to bat .400 after his first 130 at-bats, is a .459 hitter (45-for-98) in his first series against an opponent. But teams are making successful adjustments to him.

Because of Puig's swagger, common in Cuba but frowned up by the MLB fun police, Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero says he's well on his way to becoming "hated'' by other big leaguers. Manager Don Mattingly isn't worried about that.

"Honestly, every team has guys who get under your skin," Mattingly said. "They have a few of them (on the Diamondbacks) too. That's just talk, to me. I don't think he's doing anything that's any different than what other guys do to get under your skin. It's just something you see when you play them 19 times (within the division). …

"I played with Rickey Henderson, and he irritated a lot of people. But he was a pretty good player. I've seen a lot of guys irritate the other side."

Dark-horse candidate: The Braves' Kris Medlen and Dan Uggla were among those lamenting that teammate Freddie Freeman had no chance to beat Puig in the Final Vote. But the Braves scored their first major victory since Andruw Jones' bases-loaded walk beat the Mets in Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, thanks to a team marketing campaign and enthusiasm from an energized fan base.

"It's incredible," said Freeman, who entered the weekend hitting .313 with nine home runs and 60 RBIs. "I didn't know people knew about me. To have people jump on my side and start voting for me, it's incredible.''

Medlen had said Puig would win even if Freeman had six home runs and 20 RBIs in last week's series at Miami, conducted during the voting. Yet the Braves came together around Freeman. The process was invigorating for a team that mostly has treaded water atop the NL East since its 12-1 start.

Ready and slugging: Some hitters shy away from the Home Run Derby because of fear that something will happen in the adrenaline-fueled showcase that will take them out of their groove. But not Chris Davis.

The Orioles' first baseman is pumped to get a chance to swing for the fences Monday night at Citi Field.

"I think as a power hitter growing up, it's one of the things that you look at as kind of your own special thing about the All-Star Game," Davis said.

He is not worried about it messing up his swing.

"I play home run derby every day in BP," he said.

Davis entered the weekend with 34 home runs, on pace for 59. Don't expect him to do a Roger Maris and lose his hair as he chases 60. He has the right wiring for the job ahead.

Different directions: Carlos Gomez was a poor fit with the buttoned-down Twins, who threw him away for next to nothing (one year of J.J. Hardy, whom they then traded to Baltimore with third baseman Brendan Harris for pitchers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson) when he was only 24. His full skills have been on display during an All-Star season for the Brewers as his old boss, Ron Gardenhire, fights for his job with the Twins.

Gardenhire has carried the Twins to six AL Central titles, but they entered the weekend on pace to lose 95-plus games for the third year in a row. General manager Terry Ryan says the front office deserves the blame, not the manager, but Star Tribune columnist Pat Reusse, the most respected baseball voice in Minnesota, points out Gardenhire isn't meeting Ryan's previously stated standard in providing "improvement, hope, direction and leadership'' this season.

Reusse proposes a midseason managerial change, just because it's kinder than letting Gardenhire oversee another "death march'' before not renewing his contract after the season. Giving up on Gomez might have marked the beginning of the end.

Gomez entered the weekend hitting .302 and on pace for 25 home runs and 37 stolen bases. He also is deserving of Gold Glove consideration as a center fielder and has emerged as a true five-tool player.

Gomez has robbed hitters of four home runs this season and made one of the year's most memorable catches with a rumbling, stumbling grab on Tal's Hill in Houston to stun Jason Castro.

"He can accelerate as fast as anybody I've ever seen,'' Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He's really explosive. That type of speed, it makes up for a lot. He would have been a nice running back, wouldn't he?"

Tribune reporter Phil Rogers is a freelance contributor to Baseball America.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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