Cubs

Another win over D-backs sends Cubs back to Wrigley riding wave of momentum

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Another win over D-backs sends Cubs back to Wrigley riding wave of momentum

PHOENIX — The wall of sound will keep building and building once Cubs fans get their first Wrigley Field look at this team since last year’s National League Championship Series.

Any disappointment from that four-game sweep by the New York Mets quickly disappeared. It didn’t sting a franchise used to heartbreak because nobody predicted 97 wins — and everyone saw how much talent would be in place for years to come.

After being anointed as a preseason World Series favorite, the Cubs haven’t quite played 4 percent of their 2016 schedule yet, but the early returns make them look as good as advertised.

The Cubs packed up after Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field and will ride a wave of momentum into a brand-new, state-of-the-art clubhouse and their 101st Wrigley Field home opener.

Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta punctuated a 5-1 road trip where the Cubs had a one-run lead with two outs in the eighth inning of the only game they lost.

After throwing seven scoreless innings against the Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Day, Arrieta showed off a different kind of power by crushing a two-run homer off Shelby Miller in the second inning, again showing that this lineup really doesn’t have any breaks.

“Felt like hitting it off the sweet spot on a 7-iron,” Arrieta said.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs should give Kyle Schwarber his moment at Wrigley Field opener]

Within his last 22 regular-season starts, Arrieta has now hit three home runs while allowing only four, according to Comcast SportsNet Chicago stats guru Christopher Kamka.

Arrieta set impossible standards after last year’s breakthrough season and admitted he didn’t have the same stuff to attack the Diamondbacks (2-5) with surgical precision. But he did manage to navigate a dangerous Arizona lineup, giving up three runs on eight hits across seven innings.

Maybe the Cubs will feel the pressure and expectations by September and play tight in October. But this is an extremely loose group that welcomes the hype.

Before the game, David Ross and Anthony Rizzo sung along with the Justin Bieber song (“Love Yourself”) playing on the clubhouse sound system. Hitting consultant Manny Ramirez bounced around the room, playfully tapping one reporter on the shoulder and hugging another. Justin Grimm asked who sang “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (Whitney Houston) and explained how it would be an awesome walk-up song out of the bullpen.

The only what-if image would be Kyle Schwarber walking to his locker in crutches after suffering season-ending damage to his left knee. The Cubs still outscored the Angels and Diamondbacks, 42-15, combined.

“Relentless at-bats,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s nobody giving up anything. It’s bleeding up and down the lineup. It’s really fun to watch that part of it. We’re accepting our walks. We’re seeing a lot of pitches. Everybody’s feeding off the other guy.

“It’s a nice vibe to be riding back home.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Jorge Soler — the gifted-but-inconsistent player the Cubs hope will grab the left-field job and run with it — responded by hitting the go-ahead home run off Miller in the sixth inning and driving in an insurance run with a sacrifice fly in the seventh.

“It’s really tough to replace a guy like (Schwarber),” Arrieta said. “But when you have a young guy with the talent that Soler has, it makes you feel pretty good about where you stand.

“That’s what I expect from our guys — top to bottom, we’re going to see contributions from (everyone). All the way up and down our lineup — that’s kind of going to be a theme of our year. We’re going to be a tough team to face — regardless of who you are.”

By late Sunday afternoon, the noise at Chase Field became a mixture of boos and the “Let’s go Cubbies!” chants from the crowd of 33,258. The Cubs will be an attraction everywhere they go this season.

The playing-for-tomorrow Cincinnati Reds have to know it will be cold and loud on Monday night at Clark and Addison, with Jon Lester taking the ball and a booming lineup ready to get the bleachers rocking again.

“It’s going to be an atmosphere that we’ve seen before,” Arrieta said. “We’ve seen some pretty incredible turnouts. Our fans are locked in from the start until the very end. That’s something you don’t see everywhere.

“Everybody’s going to be excited and ready to get after it.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.