Cubs

Best way for Cubs to weather Jon Lester's absence is to pitch well, and that's just what they're doing

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USA TODAY

Best way for Cubs to weather Jon Lester's absence is to pitch well, and that's just what they're doing

The best way for the Cubs to weather Jon Lester’s absence?

Pitch well.

Fortunately for the Cubs, that’s exactly what they’re doing of late.

Lester was placed on the disabled list ahead of Friday’s 7-4 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, but the news was about as good as it could’ve been for the North Siders. Lester’s DL stint will effectively be just a stretch of time off to rest after pitching so deep into October in recent seasons. The official description of his injury is left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

Of course the team will miss the ace of its starting staff while he’s on the shelf, but there’s a perfectly good way to make up for his absence: the rest of the pitchers pitch in a Lester-like fashion.

Jake Arrieta did just that Friday, turning in another stellar start with 6.1 innings of one-run ball.

“Jake was outstanding,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You could see it, fastball command, man. When it’s there, this guy’s pitching deep into games and he’s giving up very few runs. He just had good stuff again.”

It’s been a trend of late for Arrieta, who after a shaky start to the season has been terrific since the start of July. In his last nine starts, Arrieta has a pencil-thin 2.03 ERA, giving up more than two earned runs in just one of those starts (and he gave up just three in that one).

He was at it again Friday, with minimal damage done by a Blue Jays lineup featuring the likes of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Justin Smoak.

“I’ve located the ball really well,” Arrieta said, describing what he’s done lately that’s made him so good. “I've established certain things early on in the ballgame that allow me to do certain things differently as the game progresses. I’ve shown the ability to spin multiple breaking balls for strikes and for put-away (pitches) late in the count. And then obviously, pitching to contact early in the game and having certain things that I can use for put-away pitches later on is really the way you pitch and the way you pitch successfully. I think the game plan is always to utilize strengths, point out and try to expose a weakness here and there with the opposing offense and try and pitch into the seventh inning.”

“I love the way he’s gone about his business this year,” Maddon said. “There was a moment there when he was struggling. A lot of people were asking him different questions. He did not alter, he continued along the same path. Right now, maybe he’s not as good as he was a couple years ago, but he’s pretty darn close.”

Arrieta isn’t the only Cubs starter to pick things up of late, either. Kyle Hendricks has been great since his return from the disabled list, boasting a 2.00 ERA in his last five starts even if longevity hasn’t necessarily been there. Even John Lackey, who has surrendered more homers than any other National League pitcher, has a 3.29 ERA in seven starts since the beginning of July.

A lack of consistency in the starting rotation was the No. 1 issue for the Cubs during their sub-.500 first half. Now consistency is starting to come for those who struggled to find it during the season’s first three months.

The continued strong performances from these starters is the best way to make sure the Cubs stay on top of the NL Central standings — with and without Lester.

“It balances the whole thing out. We definitely need that,” Maddon said. “We got on a nice roll post-break because we pitched so well. And the next roll is going to be because we pitch so well. We’ve got to pitch well and catch it, give them their minimum number of outs per game. And when we start doing that consistently, you’re going to see us start piling up five out of six, eight out of 10, et cetera. But you need to pitch and play defense well to do that.”

See, even with Lester making his starts in recent weeks, the rest of the rotation has been shouldering the load. That’s the reason Lester went on the DL in the first place. After that nightmarish final start before the All-Star break in which he allowed 10 runs in less than an inning to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had three tremendous outings after the break. But in four August starts, Lester turned in a grotesque 7.85 ERA. Thursday’s start was the straw that broke the camel’s back, Lester allowing eight runs and recording just five outs against the Cincinnati Reds.

“I think the big thing is obviously the overall performance wasn’t there,” Lester said. “That’s just something that we’ve tried to manage for a while and get through. And it just got to a point where you’re doing a disservice to your team by going out there and not being able to perform. It sucks going on the DL, feel like you can’t help. But at the same time, I wasn’t helping out there, so let’s get this thing right and get back to being myself.”

Much pregame attention was devoted to Mike Montgomery, who will start in Lester’s place during the DL stay. Maddon, team president Theo Epstein and other Cubs pitchers have plenty of faith in Montgomery, who has been very good out of the bullpen for the Cubs this season, posting a 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances. As a starter, though, Montgomery’s numbers are much worse: a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

While Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey and the heretofore unmentioned Jose Quintana up their games in their starts to help make up for Lester’s absence, Montgomery will have to do the same.

The Cubs have been hit with a lot of problems in this follow-up season to that curse-smashing World Series win. Underwhelming play told the story of the first half, while critical injuries seem to be telling the story of the second. Lester joins everyday players Addison Russell and Willson Contreras on the DL. All this while the NL Central race is as tight as can be, with both the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals within two games of the Cubs heading into their games on Friday night.

But even with all that, the Cubs are still in first place. There’s a lot of baseball left, and the team expects Lester to be there for much of it. While he isn’t, though, it’s on the rest of the starting staff to pick things up.

They have. Now they have to continue to.

“I still feel that way,” Arrieta said, reminded of his own declaration that his best pitching is still to come. “I think a lot of guys in the clubhouse feel that way about themselves. That’s the way we need to do moving forward.”

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.