Cubs

Cardinals clinch NL Central, will host Cubs or Pirates in NLDS

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Cardinals clinch NL Central, will host Cubs or Pirates in NLDS

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The St. Louis Cardinals are back in a familiar spot: on top of the NL Central looking down at everyone else.

Jason Heyward's third-inning grand slam powered the Cardinals over the Pittsburgh Pirates 11-1 in the second game of a doubleheader on Wednesday night, giving St. Louis its third straight division title and 11th since 1994.

This one may be among the most impressive. The Cardinals and assured themselves of the best record in the majors this season despite losing several stars to injury for long stretches.

Heyward's shot off Bobby LaFromboise, who replaced an ineffective Charlie Morton (9-9), gave St. Louis an early six-run lead. Tyler Lyons (3-1) had little trouble making it hold up as the Cardinals reached the 100-win plateau for the ninth time.

St. Louis players jogged out of their dugout to the infield in a businesslike celebration of their fifth straight postseason berth. Their season-long run atop baseball's most competitive division — and the ease in which the team did it — is all the more stunning considering the obstacles it had to overcome.

The Cardinals held off the Pirates and the Chicago Cubs even though ace Adam Wainwright, sluggers Matt Holliday and Matt Adams and high-profile relievers Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle spent large chunks of the season on the disabled list.

Wainwright returned from a torn left Achilles to pitch one inning of mop-up duty during an 8-2 loss in the opener, his astounding recovery four months ahead of schedule. Even made Pirates manager Clint Hurdle break out in applause when Wainwright raced in from the bullpen in the eighth inning of the opener.

Yet to Wainwright, watching what the Cardinals did without him was just as impressive.

"I'm ridiculously impressed," the three-time All-Star said on Tuesday, hours before being activated off the DL. "I think if you asked anybody in the distinguished media before the season if (we) lost (our) No. 1 pitcher and No. 3 hitter, No. 4 hitter and two set-up guys … nobody would have us (here)."

Certainly not the Pirates, who have spent the last four months breathlessly trying to track down the Cardinals only to come up short even though they have the second-best record in the majors. Pittsburgh will play in the wild-card round for the third straight year when it faces the Cubs next Wednesday, with the site still to be determined.

The Pirates missed a chance to inject some real drama into the final week of the regular season when it left 16 runners on base in a 3-0 loss on Monday night. Though Gerrit Cole threw seven strong innings in the opener on Wednesday to briefly pull the Pirates within three games, the Cardinals wasted little time getting to Morton, just like always.

Morton came in winless against St. Louis since April 4, 2011, a span of 11 starts. Tasked with forcing the Cardinals to wrap up the division in Atlanta on Friday, Morton faltered against his long-time nemesis once again.

Carpenter led off the game with a triple to the gap in left-center, with normally sure handed Pittsburgh outfielders Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen letting the ball scoot between them. Carpenter scored on a double play, Heyward singled and then scored on a double by Adams.

Morton temporarily gathered himself only to unravel completely in the third. Carpenter doubled, Morton hit Jon Jay with a pitch and walked Jhonny Peralta. LaFromboise came in for Morton only to watch Heyward send his fourth pitch streaking into the seats in right-center to make it 6-0 and send the attendants in the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park scrambling to prepare for a postgame celebration.

Lyons, who has struggled while starting this season, didn't let the cushion go to waste. He gave up four hits in seven innings, striking out five without a walk.

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.