Cubs

Bring on October: Cubs ready to handle the playoff pressure

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Bring on October: Cubs ready to handle the playoff pressure

As the Cubs popped champagne bottles and crushed beer cans, Jason Motte looked at Kyle Schwarber and said: “This is way better than college!”

The mosh pits formed outside the home dugout after Saturday afternoon’s 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had already clinched their playoff spot before the game – thanks to the San Francisco Giants losing on Friday night on the West Coast – but there was no way this group would turn down the chance to party.

That scene summed up the unique chemistry within this team. There was Motte – a veteran reliever who closed out the 2011 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals and now on the disabled list with a shoulder injury – messing with Schwarber. The rookie catcher/outfielder played his last game for the Indiana Hoosiers in June 2014.

Are the Cubs ready to handle the pressure in October, the weight of expectations from a reenergized fan base and the blanket coverage from the national media?

“We’re about to find out,” catcher Miguel Montero said.

The Cubs won’t be tourists in October this time. Kris Bryant watched a playoff game last year inside the Boras Corp. suite behind home plate at Angel Stadium of Anaheim and (obviously) posted a photo on his personal Twitter account.

“I can only imagine what it would be like in Wrigley Field,” Bryant said. “We’ve turned it around pretty quick. We’ve got a lot of good players here. And I hope it’s like that for a long time.”

[RELATED: Belief in young players pays off for Cubs]

At that point, Schwarber hadn’t played a single game above the A-ball level. Addison Russell had 13 Triple-A at-bats total on his resume. Joe Maddon hadn’t yet opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. Jake Arrieta had a 4.48 career ERA in the big leagues.

The Cubs hadn’t made their big moves yet, hiring Maddon for his aura/confidence, signing Jon Lester and David Ross as a package deal for the rotation/clubhouse, and trading for Montero and Dexter Fowler to fill specific needs behind the plate, in center field and at the top of the order.

The Cubs embraced Lester’s “Play Stupid” message, Maddon’s groovy Zen philosophies and DJ Anthony Rizzo’s over-the-top clubhouse celebrations.

But don’t overlook the mental toughness it took to win 60 percent of their one-run games (32-21), go 12-5 in extra-inning games and survive in a division that should produce three 90-win teams.

“Playing like this all year has helped guys prepare for now,” said Lester, who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and has a 2.57 ERA in 84 postseason innings. “(It’s) the mindset – how these guys prepare every single day. Every day’s the same to them. They prepare the same. They show up ready to play.

“When you’re prepared and you’re ready to play, I’ve always felt like that nervous energy is easier to control or deal with while you’re in the game, because you have something to fall back on (when) the game speeds up a little bit.”

[WATCH: Maddon 'eager' to see Wrigley's playoff atmosphere]

All the attention and glowing stories didn’t make the young Cubs soft, either. Ross is 38 years old now after coming up with the Los Angeles Dodgers, going to the playoffs with the Atlanta Braves and winning a World Series with the 2013 Red Sox. He hadn’t seen anything like the wall-to-wall coverage of Bryant during spring training.

“The environment, yeah, it’s different (in the playoffs),” Ross said. “But we’ve been playing a lot of meaningful games where our backs have been against the wall and a lot of people doubted us down the stretch.

“I don’t think it’s something that changes that much. It’s a more exciting environment and mistakes will hurt you. But this team came up with a lot of hype and a lot of people going: ‘These guys are supposed to do this, that and the other.’ They’ve lived up to everything that you could possibly imagine.

“(People) talk about how young guys these guys are. Yeah, age-wise, but mentally these guys are maybe even a little more polished than I am.”

Ross – an invaluable veteran presence Lester has called “The Grey Wolf” – laughed at his own line.

“I’m not worried about the postseason,” Ross said. “We’re going to take each day as it comes and play as hard as we can. That’s the one thing I love about this group. They’re not looking ahead. They’re not looking behind. They’re focusing on the day.”

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.