Cubs

Better than advertised: How Kris Bryant transformed the Cubs franchise

Better than advertised: How Kris Bryant transformed the Cubs franchise

The long con goes like this: Tell the fans you’re going to build this the right way, but never put a timeline on it. Talk vaguely about the future while sweet-talking the prospect gurus and spinning the local media. Promise the money will be there for the right free agents, but only when the team is finally ready to win.

If not, keep cashing those TV checks, collecting shared revenues from Major League Baseball, sell as many tickets and as much beer as you can and watch the franchise value skyrocket.

Other teams can try to tank and copy The Cubs Way. But it took patience from the Ricketts family’s ownership group and a massive payroll infusion. Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations department had the built-in credibility from their World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox to sell it – and also needed the scouting acumen and poker faces to execute a series of shrewd trades. Good luck finding a better manager than Joe Maddon, who still delegates so many of the day-to-day responsibilities to a strong coaching staff.

And no one else can have Kris Bryant until after the 2021 season.

Bryant transformed this franchise, helping the Cubs win 200 games combined across the last two years, following up his National League Rookie of the Year campaign with something close to a unanimous MVP season.

Even that required the Houston Astros giving the Cubs an assist, passing on the University of San Diego slugger with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft and instead taking a different Scott Boras client (Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel).

Even then rookies are supposed to start hot, get exposed by the BATS video system, maybe go back to the minors to work through issues and then become distracted off the field, especially in a city like Chicago that caters to athletes.

When 40,000 fans jam into Wrigley Field on Friday night – and a national TV audience tunes in for Game 1 of this playoff run against the San Francisco Giants – they will be watching a 24-year-old superstar who follows his own script.

“A lot of people in the industry think that you’ll just get better because you’re younger,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “As you get older, you get better – it doesn’t work like that.

“There’s no guarantee just because you’re young, you’re going to keep getting better. That’s not true. You have to be able to adapt and adjust and have the aptitude. Really, the greatest quality is self-awareness to really analyze yourself and go: ‘OK, where can I get better? Where do I need to make an adjustment?’ And then make the right one.

“Even if you (realize you) need to make an adjustment, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make the right adjustment. You can go down a whole path of doing something that actually made you worse.

“For ‘KB’ to do that in such a short span – and put up the monster numbers that he has – is unbelievable.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Coghlan speaks as someone who became a Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins in 2009, a non-tendered player four years later and a Triple-A Iowa outfielder on Opening Day 2014.

Assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske became the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 2002 with a 24-homer, 84-RBI season, but a hand injury led to 12 homers and an 80-point OPS drop the next year with the Toronto Blue Jays, the beginning of a 12-year career that saw him win World Series rings with the Red Sox and New York Yankees.

“Everyone talks about the sophomore slump,” Hinske said. “Well, it’s hard when you’re a Rookie of the Year (and) you get a lot of media attention. I broke my hamate bone, so I struggled with my swing and didn’t live up to the first year. It’s just about being consistent.”

That’s Bryant, who’s been covered nonstop since draft day, in an industry obsessed with prospects, and at a time when his minor-league stats propped up a big-market franchise and kept Cubs fans interested on social media.

“Kris trusts his swing,” Hinske said. “It just comes with experience, honestly. When you first get in the game, your eyes are wide open. You’re like: ‘OK, now I’m good enough to be here.’ (You start) having success and you get hungry. You’re like: ‘Man, I can do this.’

“He’s becoming more professional. He knows what he needs to do to succeed every day. He puts himself in a good position to drive the baseball at all times. He knows there’s going to be ups and downs, but he does a really good job at not getting excited about anything, whether he’s doing well or doing bad.”

Bryant is a two-time All-Star third baseman who can shift defensively all over the infield and play any spot in the outfield – and will still be driven to win a Gold Glove. Finishing with 99 RBI last season bothered Bryant enough – even if that number could have been written off as service-time manipulation – that he responded with a 39-homer, 102-RBI MVP statement.

Whether or not Cubs fans will finally see their team win the World Series this year, they’ve actually seen a Cubs prospect who’s even better than advertised – and just getting started.

“For me, it’s never going to be good enough,” Bryant said. “I’m so stubborn. I’m so hard on myself. There’s always going to be ways for me to look at my game and say: ‘I can do this better.’”

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.