Cubs

Better than advertised: Cubs roll to 8-1 start

Better than advertised: Cubs roll to 8-1 start

The Cubs don’t believe in billy goats or black cats, but team officials have sort of acknowledged the curse of winning the offseason, how teams slapped together at the winter meetings with big-name free agents and go-for-it trades usually seem to disappoint. 

It won’t be this easy all season. The torn ACL and LCL in Kyle Schwarber’s left knee is part of the game and not an outlier occurrence. The Cincinnati Reds are in the teardown/sell-off phase the Cubs found themselves in while writing off the 2012, 2013 and 2014 major-league seasons.

Still, the Cubs have looked even better than advertised after funneling almost $290 million into a team that won 97 games and two playoff rounds last year.   

“We’re ready to play baseball,” manager Joe Maddon said after Thursday night’s 8-1 win over the Reds at Wrigley Field. “The things you talk about in camp or in meetings, our guys are doing it. That’s about as well as I can explain it – following game plans, great at-bats, playing catch on defense, being in the right spot.”   

The Cubs are 8-1 for only the sixth time in franchise history and off to their best start since 1969, when a Hall of Fame core built around Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins eventually faded down the stretch. 

If that happens to the Cubs, you can probably point to injuries, underperformance and the back of the rotation. But Jason Hammel – who got booed in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series as the New York Mets rolled to a sweep at Wrigley Field – symbolizes the unfinished-business attitude. 

After an offseason body makeover and mechanics breakdown, Hammel looks more like the guy who’s pitched at an All-Star level in the first half of the last two seasons (and not the one recovering from a leg injury that messed up his alignment last summer and had him running on fumes). 

“It was a look-in-the-mirror type of moment,” said Hammel, who threw six scoreless innings, lowered his ERA to 0.75 through two starts and chipped in with a key fifth-inning RBI double that sailed over the head of Reds rightfielder Jay Bruce.

“You got to find out, figure out what’s inside and continue to work hard. I dedicated myself to making some changes this offseason. It was important. I felt bad, obviously, about the way things panned out last year. But that’s last year. I was able to focus on some good things this year and simplify as much as I could.”

Kris Bryant – who didn’t hit his first home run until the 21st game of his Rookie of the Year campaign last season – homered for the second night in a row to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead in the second inning. And this lineup goes for the jugular, with late-February addition/leadoff guy Dexter Fowler getting on base 23 times in his first 39 plate appearances this season.   

The pitching staff fronted by Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has a 2.34 ERA, a 0.89 WHIP and 69 strikeouts against 17 walks. 

The Cubs also drew more than 112,000 for a three-game series against a team that should be in the running for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft – on week/school nights where the temperature was between 48 and 43 degrees at first pitch. 

“The expectations narrative is kind of over,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “I know it’s going to come up from time to time, but that’s more of an offseason thing to have to answer those questions. 

“Now it’s about: How are we winning games? And why aren’t we winning more games? Who’s doing what right on the field in order to get a W? How are we coming together as a team? What kind of adversity do we have to overcome? 

“(It’s) what I need to do better, what we need to do better 162 times. If we stick with that process enough, keep focused on that night’s game enough, then we can maybe get where we want to go. 

“But if we start trying to put everything in the context of the postseason or the World Series or things like that – it’s just not a way a team can operate.”

Good luck with that. Ownership and the front office framed this season with the free agents who turned down bigger guarantees elsewhere, flocking here on the quest to end 1908. And then Maddon unveiled “Embrace The Target” T-shirts in spring training and started walking around with a bull’s-eye on his chest. 

“We all understand each other,” Hammel said. “We’re close-knit and fighting for each other. It makes it easy to go out and have some fun instead of just go out and do your job.

“With long seasons like that, you need to have some guys that can loosen it up a little bit and we got enough of that. We got some professionals here, too. The goal was to get off to a hot start and try and continue that as long as we can.”

There’s also The Celebration Room in the new space-age clubhouse that becomes a Miami nightclub after each win at Wrigley Field.

“They’re going to need to put in new carpeting pretty soon,” Hammel said. 

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.