Cubs

Chase Utley? GM Jed Hoyer says Cubs aren’t close to any deals (yet)

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Chase Utley? GM Jed Hoyer says Cubs aren’t close to any deals (yet)

Chase Utley – a six-time All-Star second baseman and a World Series champion with the Philadelphia Phillies – is the biggest name the Cubs have been linked to in a potential August trade.

While Jed Hoyer wouldn’t comment specifically on Utley, the Cubs general manager did say the team isn’t close to any deals. Yet.

“There’s nothing imminent,” Hoyer said before Friday’s 6-5 win over the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. “We’ll keep grinding through the waiver wire, keep looking at what’s available. But nothing’s imminent. We like the way the club’s playing right now.”

The Cubs don’t want to disrupt the chemistry, winning eight in a row and 14 of their last 15 games, moving their playoff odds to around 90 percent on Baseball Prospectus.

Utley does have a 2008 World Series ring and a .902 OPS in 200-plus career postseason plate appearances, though at the age of 36 he’s not quite the same player anymore (.196 average). The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels are among the teams that have reportedly shown interest.

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Utley – who grew up in Long Beach, California, played at UCLA and owns a home in the Bay Area – cleared waivers and ultimately controls his destiny as a player with no-trade rights.

San Francisco general manager Bobby Evans told Bay Area reporters that the Giants have made an offer for Utley, who is owed more than $4 million for the rest of this season, plus a $2 million buyout of his 2016 option (which triggers at 500 plate appearances but looks out of reach now). 

USA Today reported there’s a belief Utley’s decision will come down to the Cubs and Angels, citing anonymous executives involved in the trade talks.

“I wouldn’t be surprised with anything, honestly,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I know that they’re actively (looking). But then again, this time of year, it’s hard to piece it together sometimes.

“I’m really pleased with what we have. We’re kind of finally figuring out how to fit all the different pieces together – and that matters when you get that nice little flow going out there.

“I would not be surprised, but I’m not expecting anything.”

[RELATED: Cubs keeping Jon Lester’s yips in perspective]

The Cubs have options at second base after shaking up their middle-infield defense and anointing Addison Russell as the franchise shortstop. Starlin Castro made his first career start at second base on Friday afternoon and notched three hits.

“I feel pretty good out there,” Castro said. “It’s a little different than shortstop because you have everything in front of you and things are a little bit backwards. But, still, if you play short, you can play anywhere.”

Maddon could see Castro as a short-term answer at second base if the three-time All-Star suddenly gets hot.

“Sure, we’ll see how it all plays out,” Maddon said. “I’m very open-minded about that. Listen, this guy has been a big part of the past several years. Like I said, I’m a big fan of his work ethic. I think he really cares a lot. All that stuff matters. He’s just had a tough year to this point.”

The Cubs are willing to sacrifice defense for offense and play Chris Coghlan at second base. Maddon trusts Jonathan Herrera as a steady defender and wants to keep his players fresh. Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella could also be X-factors in September.  

The Cubs appeared to max out their 2015 baseball budget at the July 31 trade deadline, addressing specific needs with smaller deals for No. 5 starter Dan Haren and hard-throwing reliever Tommy Hunter without mortgaging the farm system.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the stretch run, Cubs fans]

In theory, the Phillies could try to pay down Utley’s salary to get a higher-level prospect for essentially a six- or seven-week rental.

The Cubs also can’t dismiss what a battle-tested veteran like Utley – who’s 7-for-17 in five games since recovering from an ankle injury and coming off the disabled list last week – might bring to the lineup and their clubhouse.

“You’re always very aware of the team dynamic,” Hoyer said. “It’s a fragile thing. The team at this stage of year (has) been together for a long time. But at the same time, I don’t think you can shy away from bringing in a player that – in theory – could make you better.

“It’s a balancing act and one that you talk through and treat with a lot of care. There may never be a right or wrong answer. But I do think you have to pay attention to the team dynamics when you make that kind of move.”

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.