A big part of the Cubs' future arrived, quite literally and figuratively, Sunday in Los Angeles.
Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters made their much-awaited major-league debuts in the Cubs' 7-6 loss to the Dodgers. Jackson went 2-for-4 with a walk, a strikeout and a run scored, and Vitters flied out as a pinch hitter.
If you take a look around the diamond, it feels like one of those Baseball America "Cubs of the future" graphics come to life: Jackson in center field, Vitters at third base, Starlin Castro at shortstop, Darwin Barney at second base, Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger at catcher and, last but not least, Anthony Rizzo at first base.
Whether the "future" becomes the present once the future gets here remains to be seen, but clearly, that future is on the clock.
If you count Rizzo as a "homegrown" product and for our discussion, we'll do so because the new Cubs management team drafted him in Boston, the Cubs now have 12 of their own farm products on the active 25-man roster. (They'll add another when lefty Brooks Raley starts Tuesday's game in San Diego in place of the injured Matt Garza.)
This includes such veterans as closer Carlos Marmol, whom the Cubs signed as a nondrafted free agent in 1999.
Now, too, we can begin to judge the labors of former scouting director Tim Wilken, an old salt whose plain-spoken manner might be nice to keep around after this year in a front office that has become increasingly clinical. Wilken currently reports to new scouting-and-development boss Jason McLeod as director of amateur and professional scouting.
When former general manager Jim Hendry brought Wilken aboard in December 2005, the Cubs' farm system was in dire need of a talent infusion after several years of largely barren drafts under John Stockstill.
So far, 19 of Wilken's Cubs draft picks have made it to the major leagues, with the Cubs or other teams, either for a cup of coffee or longer looks.
Vitters and Jackson are two of the highest-profile Wilken selections, having been drafted in the 2007 and 2009 first rounds, respectively.
Other players include reliever James Russell, starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, Gold Glove candidate Barney, Clevenger and recently called-up reliever Jeff Beliveau.
Part of having a good farm system is using those players to trade for other players. The new Cubs front office traded Andrew Cashner, Wilken's top pick in 2008, for Rizzo last winter.
New bosses Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer also traded former first-rounder Tyler Colvin (2006) and second-rounder DJ LeMahieu (2009) to the Rockies for now-injured third baseman Ian Stewart. So far, Epstein-Hoyer are batting .500 in these two trades.
Wilken picks from 2006-09 have bubbled up to the major leagues; the jury is still out on the 2010 and 2011 drafts, but there are some interesting developments with these players.
Last year's first-rounder, Javier Baez, recently was promoted from Class A Peoria to high-A Daytona after tearing up Midwest League pitching. Big first baseman Dan Vogelbach is mashing the ball in the low minors, and pitcher Dillon Maples is back on the mound after suffering a bout of elbow soreness.
Pitcher Hayden Simpson, whom many considered a reach in the 2010 first round, seems finally to have found it in the bullpen at Class A Boise after a debilitating illness slowed his career even before it got started. Outfielder Matt Sczur recently moved up from Daytona to Class AA Tennessee. Lefty Eric Jokisch, a product of Northwestern University, has a record of 7-2 with a 3.14 ERA at Tennessee.
Epstein and Hoyer are doing what they said they'd do when they took over last fall: moving veterans off the major-league club (Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Geovany Soto, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker) and infusing the big club's roster with young, homegrown talent.
The immediate effect figures to be a lot more losses at the major-league level this year. Cubs fans who have clamored for the organization to "tear it down and rebuild" are getting just that, and they'll have to grin and bear it through the final weeks of this season.
These are exciting times, to be sure, but we'll know a whole lot more about the real future of the Cubs a year from now.