Cubs

5 things we learned about the Cubs in May

5 things we learned about the Cubs in May

Memorial Day weekend is typically a good checkpoint for teams trying to figure out what they have and what they will need.

Roughly one-third of the season is in the books now, and the Cubs have the best record in baseball, 20 games over .500, building sizable leads over the Pittsburgh Pirates (6.5 games) and St. Louis Cardinals (8.5 games) in the National League Central.
 
"We're right where we need to be," Kris Bryant. "Our division's tough. The Pirates are going to be there the whole year, the Cardinals are always going to be the Cardinals — they're tough to play.
 
"We just got to continue with what we're doing. But there's going to be plenty more three-game skids like we had there [earlier in May]. There's no reason to panic here.
 
"We're pretty confident in what we do. If we just take that attitude, we'll be fine."
 
With an NL All-Star voting update to be released Wednesday, the Cubs could be ridiculously well-represented at the Midsummer Classic with so many top performers at so many different positions. 
 
As the Cubs continue with their four-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field - a potential playoff preview - let's take a look at five things we learned about Joe Maddon's squad in May:
 
1. The Cubs are not invincible when Jake Arrieta is on the mound.

OK, it took a one-hitter on Tuesday night, and Arrieta wound up with a no-decision after throwing seven scoreless innings. But the Dodgers still ended the streak where the Cubs had won Arrieta’s last 23 starts, tying the major-league record since 1913 (Kris Medlen and the Atlanta Braves, 2010-12).
 
Arrieta is now 20-0 with a 1.01 ERA across his last 24 starts. (If you include playoffs, the streak had already ended, as the Cubs did not win his start against the New York Mets in Game 2 of the NLCS.) But confidence is still sky-high whenever he takes the mound, so just kick back and enjoy the ride. 
 
2. Kyle Hendricks may be the best No. 5 starter in the game.
 
Following Hendricks' complete-game gem against the Philadelphia Phillies over the holiday weekend, he now has a 2.93 ERA and 0.98 WHIP for the season. He found another gear in May, finishing with a 2.23 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in five starts.
 
Any one of the five starters could make a case to represent the Cubs in San Diego for the All-Star Game. Regardless of how great Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey have been, the Cubs boast one of the best pitching staffs in baseball thanks to Hendricks and Jason Hammel being so reliable at the back end of the rotation.
 
3. Ben Zobrist has found the Fountain of Youth.
 
What more can be said about Zorilla? He just turned 35 and yet he's playing the best baseball of his career. He leads the majors with a .445 on-base percentage and put up a ridiculous slash line of .406/.483/.653 in May. 
 
Zobrist is not going to hit .345 all year, but he's proving to be an essential piece to the team's success. It's impossible to imagine where the Cubs would be without him this season.
 
4. Don't give up on Jorge Soler just yet.
 
Soler was oozing with potential when he posted a .903 OPS and drove in 20 runs during his first 24-game cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2014. 
 
He had an up-and-down 2015 season, playing in only 101 regular-season games with a pedestrian .723 OPS before setting a major-league record by reaching base safely nine times in a row to begin the postseason. 
 
Soler got off to a slow start this season, hitting .193 in April and he watched his batting average sink all the way to .174 on May 14.
 
But since that day, Soler has started to heat up with the weather, hitting .273 with a 1.006 OPS in 11 games, including three homers, six RBI and eight runs.
 
"It feels pretty good right now," Soler said through an interpreter after crushing a home run off the left-field scoreboard last week against the Phillies. "Everything has started to click in. I was struggling and now it's starting to come back."
 
If Soler continues to hit, it gives this Cubs lineup a whole different look.
 
5. This is still Chicago.
 

The Cubs showed they aren't bulletproof with a 12-game stretch in which they went 4-8 and lost series against the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers.
 
It coincided perfectly with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein reminding the Chicago media that baseball karma will get the Cubs at some point.
 
Of course, that little valley led to plenty of mini freak-outs on Twitter, proving that Cubs fans are probably always going to be waiting for the other shoe to drop (at least until that elusive World Series championship).
 
The Cubs turned things around in St. Louis and put together a six-game winning streak. Maddon and his players never showed even small signs of panic.
 
"I don't mean to sound pretentious, but I'm not [concerned at all]," Maddon said. "Health, you're always concerned about health. Health and being proactive, giving guys days off, making sure people get their rest.
 
"That would be a really good line of communication among all of us. That'd be the biggest thing right now is just to get guys appropriate rest and somehow stay healthy."
 
No, Maddon doesn’t believe in a “June swoon,” either.
 
“I would never even think in those terms, until you would actually bring it up,” Maddon said before Arrieta’s start against the Dodgers. “What is today? The 31st? The whole season’s about May 31. And then the whole season will be about June 1. And then the whole season will be about June 2. To clump anything negatively in advance of a moment, anxiety lives in the future. 
 
“If you want to live that way, you’re going to be an anxious person your entire life. If you really want to be able to control the moment…you got to live for today only.
 
“So all these brilliant monikers that have been attached to particular parts of the year – I can’t go there. I never even think in those terms. You might read about it in a book once in a while, or if somebody wants to wax philosophically in some negative manner. But for me, it’s only about today.” 

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.