Cubs

Addison Russell made his presence felt during rookie year with Cubs

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Addison Russell made his presence felt during rookie year with Cubs

The Cubs essentially viewed Addison Russell as untouchable heading into this season, and winning two playoff rounds with him as their shortstop only reinforced that idea. 

Russell didn’t generate the same Rookie of the Year buzz as Kris Bryant — and couldn’t match Kyle Schwarber taking aim at the Allegheny River and a Wrigley Field video board — but he showed he’s just as much a core player as those two power hitters.

Just ask manager Joe Maddon if the Cubs missed Russell’s presence during the National League Championship Series. 

To be clear, the New York Mets never trailed during that four-game sweep and outplayed the Cubs in every phase of the game from start to finish. It’s not like Russell’s presence would have meant facing the Kansas City Royals in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.

[MORE: Cubs still don't have all the answers for Kyle Schwarber's future]

Russell — who had been sidelined with a strained left hamstring — couldn’t have stopped Daniel Murphy from turning the biggest games of his life into batting practice. Russell wouldn’t have intimidated that rotation — Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom — or lights-out closer Jeurys Familia.

But Javier Baez committing an error on a defensive shift on the second pitch set the tone for a sloppy Game 3 loss. And it underlined why the Cubs see the low-key Russell as their franchise shortstop and a stabilizing force for low-scoring games in October.  

“Of course, we miss Addison,” Maddon said. “You look at the record that we had with him playing at shortstop. And this is by no means a negative towards Javy. But (with) Addison (it’s) the combination of what he does for us defensively and offensively. This guy could drive in a critical run and (it’s) just (his) understanding of what’s going on in the field. He really grew quickly this year.”

The Cubs had been a 59-48 team on Aug. 7 — when they benched Starlin Castro and moved Russell from second base — and held only a half-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card. The Cubs swept the defending World Series champs that weekend at Wrigley Field, finding another gear and finishing with 97 wins and the third-best record in baseball.   

“In order to get our defense at the level we wanted to, we needed to move Addie over to shortstop,” Maddon said. “With that, Starlin was outstanding regarding how he accepted the new assignment, how he embraced the new role and how he’s made the adjustment to second base and (really) picked up his offense.

“That one particular move right there probably more than anything we did this year set us up for this moment — the fact that Addie has played it as well as he has, the way Starlin has embraced the other side of the infield (and) then the offense coming back. 

“Maybe Schwarber showing up and combining with Dexter (Fowler) in the second half — that really did a lot to boost our offense. But I love the pitching/defense component, and I think that we tightened it up when we went and got Addie at short and Starlin eventually at second base. It kind of tightened things up — and I think we’ve played a better brand of baseball since then.”

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Russell graded out well at second base/shortstop in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (nine/10) and Ultimate Zone Rating (7.3/6.1), finishing seventh in the majors in defensive WAR (2.6). 

During his age-21 season, Russell also finished with 13 homers, 29 doubles and 54 RBI in 142 games after his fast-track promotion from Triple-A Iowa in late April.

“For my standards, it’s not the best season,” Russell said. “But I did a lot of good things this season. I believe I had a decent season to look back on, just looking at how I struggled and then overcame that adversity.

“I know I got better this year. I know the things I need to work on to get better.”

For a team built on a shaky defensive foundation, Russell looks like the Opening Day shortstop in 2016 and beyond.

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.