Cubs

Can Cubs recreate their clubhouse chemistry from last year?

cubs_chemistry_slide.png

Can Cubs recreate their clubhouse chemistry from last year?

For a franchise that hasn't won a championship in more than a century, the Cubs have an awful lot of World Series rings in their clubhouse.

That's by design.

Theo Epstein's front office already brought in Jon Lester and David Ross (both were on the 2013 World Champion Red Sox team) last year, and this season have reunited the duo with former Boston teammates John Lackey and Shane Victorino.

Add newly-crowned World Series winner Ben Zobrist (2015 Kansas City Royals) and there's suddenly an abundance of championship pedigree in the Cubs' clubhouse.

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

That veteran experience - along with Joe Maddon's coaching staff - has helped create a culture with the Cubs that can help mitigate the development and eventual bumps and bruises from a roster jam-packed with fresh-faced kids.

"Anytime you've been through the grind of a season and come out on top, you realize how many twists and turns it's going to take to get there," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I think that experience is invaluable.

"It wasn't something we talked about - that we had to go out and get guys who have won championships, but I think player after player, as we kept acquiring these veteran guys, these guys have won.

"They've been a big part of championship teams. And especially balancing some of our youth, I think that makes a big difference."

Zobrist joined the Royals midseason last year, but fit in immediately and helped guide the franchise to the promised land.

In Kansas City, Zobrist saw everybody pulling on one rope, caring only about getting back to the World Series and winning it all. He watched as a group of diverse individuals came together for one purpose.

Sabermetricians claim clubhouse chemistry doesn't matter at all, but Zobrist got a firsthand look at how culture plays a big role.

"If you're playing well, you have good chemistry," Zobrist said. "If you have good chemistry, you're more likely to play well. If teams win early on in the season, they feel like the chemistry is amazing, regardless of whether you got a bunch of great guys in the clubhouse or not.

"You just get along better because you're winning and that's the goal and the mindset. That being said, I do think that there's a special group of personalities here that they all seem like they enjoy each other, they're very easy to get along with and those kinds of players tend to want to win for each other more.

"So when you get out there and you're playing for each other, you're more likely to sacrifice yourself in the moment you need to for the team. That's going to help the team win in the end. I think this team has it."

[RELATED - How Cubs plan to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump for young players in 2016]

The Cubs feel chemistry played a huge role in their surprising 2015 season as the team hit stride in August and soared to 97 regular-season victories, a nail-biting wild card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates and dethroned the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series before getting swept out of the postseason by the New York Mets.

With all the new guys in the mix, can the Cubs replicate that chemistry?

"I always believe that chemistry can be created," Maddon said. "After all, if you've never won before, where's the chemistry coming from? The group that says that winning creates chemistry has never had to attempt to create it.

"And what does that mean? We talked a lot about building relationships last year, creating trust, the interactions that creates this open exchange of ideas. If you haven't had it before, how do you do it?

"You just can't say, 'Oh, we're gonna get a bunch of guys in a room, we're gonna win and we're gonna have chemistry.' I don't believe in that. I believe it can be intentionally created."

Maddon said he sees the young players buying into the culture even more now that they're "more comfortable in their major-league skin."

But those veterans are the ones that set the tone.

Ross joked the retirement of a backup catcher with a .228 career batting average shouldn't be a big deal, but it's not the numbers on the back of his baseball card that make Ross so valuable to the Cubs.

"Too many times, you portray players as being clubhouse leaders and that's done too loosely," Maddon said. "With [Ross], it's legitimate. He is a clubhouse leader.

"Why? In spite of not hitting .275 or better, he still creates this stature or maintains this stature in the clubhouse because of the respect people have for him about how he goes about his business. And then when he says something, it's pertinent, it's right on.

"I really don't care what he hits batting-average-wise. His job is totally different. Whatever he hits is gravy for us. I love what he does - how well he interacts with Jon Lester and all the other stuff that he does for the team. It's almost immeasurable. It's that important."

Part of the Cubs' success last season in instituting a successful culture was removing ego from the equation. That's easy to do for unproven rookies and an upstart team that wasn't expected to contend.

But will that mean the same culture will take effect this year?

Maddon has raved about how egoless his players are, with everybody pulling on the same rope. It will be hard to manage throughout the season with the inevitable speed bumps as guys wish they were hitting higher in the order or playing more or pitching in a more prominent role.

Yet the Cubs are confident Maddon can manage all the egos with his laid back, fun-loving style.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs also have created a self-policing culture within the clubhouse. So if a guy starts to get upset for selfish reasons, other players step in to hold them accountable and keep everybody in line.

"Theo does such a good job," Anthony Rizzo said. "He doesn't bring in just anyone; he brings in high-character guys. You see it already with [Zobrist], [Jason Heyward] and Lackey coming in.

"They just fit right in. This is a clubhouse where there are no egos. That's what worked for us last year. I don't really plan on anyone having one this year, either."

Regardless of what the numbers and advanced statistics say, the Cubs believe chemistry matters.

"I don't think [chemistry] is overrated at all," Rizzo said. "A lot of these guys get paid to crunch numbers up top, but they know how important it is to have chemistry.

"There are a few teams that might win by their talent. But you look at the Royals last year - those guys have played together for almost 10 years coming up together. They're really good friends and that's what we plan on being."

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

adbert.jpg
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.