Cubs

10 Cubs storylines to watch in 2012

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10 Cubs storylines to watch in 2012

Happy New Year to all Cubs fans out there. 2012 is the first full year in the Theo Epstein era. It's a new beginning. No looking back now. You know, except when we have to look back to make sure history doesn't repeat itself and for past stats, etc.

So, on the first day of 2012, CubsTalk has a list of 10 things to watch for in this new year. Some may be over and done with before February even hits, while others still be focal points at this time in 2013. We'll count down, just like you all did last night before midnight hit.
10. Starlin Castro career progression

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know Castro is already the team's most marketable player, so there's no doubt he'd be a focal point of the franchise in 2012. But at just 21 (he will turn 22 March 24), he is still so new and raw at this game. Will he develop more power this year? Will he cut down on his errors and utilize his athleticism effectively at shortstop? Will he turn in another .300 season and reach the 200-hit plateau again? How will he continue to handle the attenion he gets playing as the biggest name on one of the most popular franchises in all of sports?

9. Tom Ricketts

You can't have a calendar year without addressing the team's owner, especially when the chairman of the franchise lured the biggest front office name in the game to his town. Ricketts will be front and center all year -- as a fan, as a businessman (deals like purchasing the McDonald's and subsequent land across the street from Wrigley are great business moves) and as a chairman.

8. Alfonso Soriano's contract

If the Cubs are rebuilding, it's hard to see Soriano sticking around. He will turn 36 this week and is one of the most grossly overpaid players in the game because of his declining skills. Will the Cubs be able to deal him, even if they eat a huge portion of his contract? If he's not traded, will he play everyday or will young guys like Tony Campana and Dave Sappelt get playing time as part of the youth movementrebuild?

7. Young pitchers

How will Andrew Cashner fare coming off his shoulder injury? Will he be a starter or a reliever for most of 2012? Will Trey McNutt get back on track as the organization's top pitching prospect? Will guys like Rafael Dolis and Jeff Beliveau spend extended time in the big-league bullpen? Will guys like Jeff Samaradzija and James Russell build off their solid 2011 seasons?

6. Matt Garza trade talks

With the way things are shaking out, it appears one of two things will happen before this offseason is up -- either Garza is traded or the Cubs sign him to a long-term deal a la the John Danks contract. Neither has to happen (Garza is under contract through the 2013 season), but it appears this situation is coming to a head here in the first couple months of 2012.

5. Brett Jackson

As the organization's top prospect, many fans are clamoring for the Cubs to have Jackson crack the starting lineup from Day One of spring training. But if Jackson isn't ready, there's no point in pushing him. After all, it would take an awful lot to go right for the Cubs to contend in 2012, so they can take their time and be patient. But either way, one has to figure Jackson will make his MLB debut sometime in 2012. The only question is...when?

4. Carlos Zambrano

Given his outspoken nature and the entertainment factor, Zambrano will always demand attention as long as he is part of the Cubs' organization. The only question is...how much longer will he be with the franchise?

3. Rebuilding effort

The Cubs are rebuilding. No secret about that anymore. As such, every move made will be examined and analyzed and everybody will have an eye toward the future. The real question is, how far down the road will people be looking? Some seem to be impatient and want immediate results, but things don't work like that, especially considering the shape of this franchise when the new front office took over.
2. Ron Santo's Hall of Fame induction

I would love to move this higher up, but there is good reason, I promise. The HOF induction is long overdue for the most beloved Cub ever. Fans will join friends and family of both the Cubs organziation and the Santo family in late July to honor one of baseball's greatest personalities and most passionate players.

1. Theo Epstein

He's so popular, he is just known by one name. Like Madonna. Or Prince. (The singer, not the slugging first baseman everybody wants the Cubs to sign) Theo has celebrity status like no other front office member has ever had, including Billy Beane, who has a whole movie made off his "Moneyball" tactics. Whereas the Santo HOF induction is a fantastic moment and a truly happy occasion, it will only be the focal point of a couple weeks -- at most -- of 2012. Epstein will be in the news every single day of the new year. Every mistake he makes -- and he will make some, that's a guarantee -- he will be second-guessed like no other. Every success, no matter how small, will only add to his legacy.

2012 probably won't bring a World Series ring for Cubs fans, but it will still be a heck of exciting year. Stick right here at CubsTalk for all the latest on news and rumors each and every day.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.