Cubs

Addison Russell in the middle of red-hot start for Cubs

Addison Russell in the middle of red-hot start for Cubs

“No,” Addison Russell said with a laugh, he didn’t see this coming when he stopped being Billy Beane’s most prized prospect. Playing for a team on pace for 120-ish wins? Partying in the Celebration Room built into a state-of-the-art clubhouse? Owning this city with the Blackhawks already eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs? “Absolutely not.”  

Two years ago, Matt Garza sent a message to Jeff Samardzija through the media: The Cubs are a team without hope. Pitch your way out of Chicago.  

Garza had heard enough trade rumors – “I’ll pitch on the freakin’ moon” – and was riding high with the Milwaukee Brewers during the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract. The Brewers improved to 17-6 after Garza beat his old team on April 25, 2014 at Miller Park and would finish that month with 20 wins and a five-and-a-half-game lead in the National League Central.

But the Brewers faded away and finished that season in third place, only two games over .500. Garza is now on the disabled list with a right lat strain. A Milwaukee franchise that once resisted the full-scale teardown and thought bigger than its small market isn’t going for it this year. The Brewers will also probably punt on the 2017 and 2018 major-league seasons and try to follow The Cubs Way. 

Hope? That’s so 2014. The Cubs are now a destination where free agents actually take less guaranteed money for the chance to play at Wrigley Field and make history. 

This is a team that goes into every game expecting to win, and Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory pivoted in the sixth inning with a big swing from Russell, who had been acquired from the Oakland A’s two years ago in the – wait for it – Samardzija Fourth of July blockbuster deal.  

Russell – who’s only 22 years old and still just scratching the surface of his offensive potential – drilled a Carlos Torres fastball into the right-center field gap and hustled for a two-out, two-run triple that broke open a tie game.  

“We’re the frontrunners right now,” Russell said. “We’re embracing it. We love it.” 

Last year’s Cubs didn’t make it to 10 games above .500 until August, when Russell bumped Starlin Castro off shortstop to stabilize the defense and Joe Maddon aggressively managed his bullpen like it was already October. 

These Cubs got to 15-5 with Russell’s clutch hit and Maddon lifting Kyle Hendricks for a pinch-hitter after five innings, getting the game-tying run and using swingman Adam Warren for two scoreless innings.  

“Last year, we were just getting a lot of young guys broken in,” Maddon said. “I thought we were good last year, but it took a while to really get it all working. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) had to show up. Addison eventually playing shortstop was a big play for us. Starlin going to second base was a big move for us. Dexter (Fowler) getting on fire. (Kyle) Schwarber getting here. 

“There were a lot of parts that did not arrive early enough, regardless of lack of experience or we just hadn’t played well enough to that point.” 

The Cubs still wound up winning 97 games last season and now look like a well-oiled machine. This began a stretch where the Cubs are scheduled to play 16 of 19 at Wrigley Field (weather permitting) with six straight games against the Brewers (8-12) and wait-until-next-year Atlanta Braves. Tanking or reloading or retooling or whatever you want to call it isn’t as easy as Theo Epstein’s front office made it look. 

It takes good scouting, strong player development, big-market spending power and a certain amount of luck. Between 2012 and 2014, the Cubs identified 10 major trades and gave up 13 players (average age: 31) – like Garza – and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 years of future control. That haul included future Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.

Within that churn, the Cubs also picked up Hendricks from the Texas Rangers in the Ryan Dempster trade minutes before the July 31 deadline in 2012. Hendricks – who is as reliable and as competitive as just about any fifth starter in baseball – allowed one run across five innings to improve to 2-2 with a 3.52 ERA.   

A 101-loss season in 2012 also yielded a future Rookie of the Year in Bryant as well as another No. 2 overall pick – in the Rule 5 draft – which yielded Hector Rondon. The closer worked a scoreless ninth inning to notch his fourth save and has now struck out 11 of the 20 batters he’s faced this season.

“We love playing here, but so does everybody else,” Maddon said. “I talked about ‘Embrace the Target.’ When you’re going to play teams that possibly aren’t doing as well, they’re going to come in and there’s going to be 40,000 people. The place is electric all the time. It’s a playoff atmosphere. So you got this big old target right on your chest, and we have to respond to that. To this point, we have.

“We’re learning to play a better, complete brand of baseball.”

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

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USA TODAY

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.