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The art of the walk-up song: A reflection of the Cubs' personality

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The art of the walk-up song: A reflection of the Cubs' personality

Even if you forget about his play on the diamond, Starlin Castro will be sorely missed by the Wrigley Field faithful in 2016.

With Castro shipped off to the New York Yankees over the winter, Cubs fans can no longer enjoy his catchy walk-up song - "Ando En La Versace" by Omega.

There's something magical about seeing 42,000 people - Cubs players and coaches included - all clapping and stomping along to a beat. It was chill-inducing, really.

Music has an enormous psychological impact. But, apart from the fantastic workings of organist Gary Pressy and a few mainstream songs sprinkled around the game action, music had not been an integral part of the in-game product at Wrigley Field until last season, when walk-up songs debuted along with the two new video boards in the outfield.

"Last year, everybody was excited for Starlin's walk-up and the clap," Cubs catcher David Ross said. "I'm definitely gonna miss that this year. That was exciting. It just made us have fun in the dugout. No matter what was going on, no matter if it was a negative time or we're down - it was one of those things where Starlin came up and we started clapping.

"Clapping's one of those things like smiling and laughing - it makes you feel good on the inside and the negative energy kinda can leave the area or you or whatever it is."

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Before he came to the Cubs, Ross spent two seasons playing with the Red Sox in Boston, where they have made a tradition out of singing "Sweet Caroline" at Fenway Park.

Ross also remembers former Red Sox outfielder and current Cubs teammate Shane Victorino using Bob Marley's "Everything's Gonna be Alright" as his walk-up song and the entirety of Fenway would keep on singing the song in unison even after the music stopped.

"It was the coolest thing," Ross said. "I'm getting chills [just thinking about it]. You feel that energy when you're hitting and everybody's locked into you and what you're doing, so you try to get locked into the box."

Ross also spoke to the power of music as intimidation tools for pitchers as well as hitters, citing dominant closers Trevor Hoffman ("Hells Bells"), Mariano Rivera ("Enter Sandman") and Craig Kimbrel ("Welcome to the Jungle") using rock songs as they enter the game. When Metallica's hit starting ringing out through the Bronx, everybody knew Rivera was coming in to shut the door for the New York Yankees.

The Cubs also see music as a reflection of their personality. Every time Ross hears "Flicka Da Wrist," he would think of Dexter Fowler, who used that song as his walk-up music last season.

Everybody has a different strategy for why they chose their respective songs.

Kris Bryant used "We Own It" from the Fast and Furious 6 soundtrack all season. He wanted to use a country song, but felt he needed something more upbeat.

Anthony Rizzo had a different song for each at-bat in the game and switched his music up several times throughout the year, even working in Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's "Good Vibrations" along with Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen." Rizzo is a big fan of using fresh, mainstream music that will appeal to the masses.

Fowler also used two Fetty Wap songs ("679" and "My Way") last season and said he takes choosing a walk-up ditty seriously.

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Ben Zobrist uses music from his wife, Julianna, as his walk-up songs as some free marketing and to show the two are a team even when he's on the field playing for a different type of team.

Late in the season, Jake Arrieta used Major Lazer's "Lean On" as his warm-up song, which was symbollic considering how much the Cubs did lean on the National League Cy Young winner down the stretch.

Cubs reliever Justin Grimm warmed up to Skrillex's "Bangarang", a high-tempo electronic rock song. He briefly switched to "Turn Down for What" before switching back to "Bangarang" midseason.

"It was different," Grimm said. "I don't know if [my song] mattered that much. I think it was more for the fans instead of just sitting there, watching a player warm up. Now, they get a little music and maybe they can just dance a little bit."

With roughly a month before the Cubs play their first home game at Wrigley Field, players either don't have their songs picked out right now or don't want to ruin the surprise just yet.

Several Cubs players admit they bounce walk-up song ideas off each other in the clubhouse.

"Sometimes we'll be flying on the plane and you'll hear a song that really resonates with you and you're like 'Oh, you should walk up to that,'" Ross said. "You'll hear a lot of that early on here in spring training - new songs and stuff like that. Guys talking about what you should walk up to, kinda messing around a little bit.

"Songs that get them bobbing their head a little bit and makes 'em feel sexy, as we say in here. That's how you come up with it. Some guys are into it more than others."

Every Cubs player acknowledged they take the fans into account when making a choice.

Ross was the oldest player on the Cubs' roster last year, but used "Forever Young" as his walk-up song in a twist of irony. He said he may have gone a different route if "Forever Young" wasn't such a big hit with his teammates and fans.

"It's been easy how much positive perception a song gets and you're like, 'OK, everybody else is diggin' it, so I still like it,'" Ross said. "It helps make up my mind, just speaking personally. I like to feel the fans' energy when I'm coming to bat.

"We'll tell somebody if they have a bad walk-up song. If your teammates are not feelin' it, how are you supposed to? We're all in this together. That's a big part of it. If I'm not diggin' your walk-up song, we need to have a conversastion about it."

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When Kyle Schwarber was called up to the big leagues, he surprised some by utilizing "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Blackstreet's "No Diggity," despite the fact he was just a toddler when both songs came out.

Yet the young slugger didn't just choose songs at random. He had good reason for going with two '90s hits.

"You gotta have something that sounds good and matches your personality," Schwarber said, before letting on he may have a twist coming with this year's music. "It's a jam you want to listen to when you're riding around the car. Just that slow beat when you walk up to the plate that gets the emotions down. Everything these days is more upbeat.

"I like to control my emotions. If I get a slower beat, I take my time to the plate, get my thoughts together before I do go up there. The calm before the storm, pretty much."

But songs don't have to be well thought out or have a purpose beyond just getting a laugh.

Zobrist heard one guy using the "Let it Go" song from the Disney hit "Frozen." Fowler said former Colorado Rockies teammate Troy Tulowitzki used to use Miley Cyrus as walk-up music. In Cincinnati, Ross played with Ken Griffey Jr., who used the "Soul Glo" song from "Coming to America."

Regardless of reasoning or thought process, walk-up songs are an important part of a player's identity.

"Music is so underrated as far as how it brings people together and how it gives a calming energy over maybe some chaos," Ross said. "Music can really do that.

"If you walk into the weight room, it's blaring. You walk [into the clubhouse] and it's on or in season, you walk into [Cubs manager Joe Maddon's] office and it's on.

"For me, the music thing is really cool and important."

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.