Cubs

Could both LaHair and Rizzo find way into Cubs lineup?

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Could both LaHair and Rizzo find way into Cubs lineup?

The Cubs enter 2012 as an afterthought in the NL Central race after cutting ties with Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez who combined for 54 home runs and 173 RBIs last season. Those departures have some in Cubs Nation fearing that the Cubs will be completely devoid of power and have a very tough time scoring runs.

However, some of the newcomers in spring training like Bryan LaHair, Brett Jackson, and Anthony Rizzo can help to make up for that power outage and that combined with better starting pitching, improved defense, and better fundamental play can lead to a better on field performance.

The Cubs may see that Alfonso Sorianos below average defense in left field is greatly affecting their pitching staff and the Cubs' chances for victory. That could open up a scenario that if LaHair and Rizzo both get off to good starts the Cubs could move one to the outfield (most likely LaHair) to take advantage of improved defense and left-handed power.

Both LaHair and Rizzo have tremendous power but neither has ever proven that they can succeed at the major league level. Can either one be the long-term answer at first base? Can both succeed enough that one can make the move to the outfield to give the Cubs two young and left handed middle of the order hitters?

Rizzo has tremendous power and a great approach at the plate but it is his character and makeup that we are most impressed with, said Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. Rizzo was drafted by the Epstein-Hoyer-McLeod regime in Boston, acquired by Hoyer and McLeod from the Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal in San Diego, and then re-acquired from the Padres in a deal for pitcher Andrew Cashner.

It is great to know that I have people who are in the front office that are obviously in my corner. They believe in me and I am trying to do my very best to prove to them that they were right for believing in me, Rizzo said.

LaHair comes to camp knowing that he already has a job on the big league club after spending most of 2011 in Class AAA where he was named Minor League Player of the Year. He led the minors with 38 homers and set career marks in batting (.331), on-base percentage (.405) and slugging (.664) and was named Pacific Coast League MVP. He was only the seventh PCL player in the last 15 years to garner 300 total bases and his 76 extra-base hits were the most in the league since 2006.

So why do people doubt that he can be a productive major league player? Because he is 29-years-old and the list is extremely short of players that finally became big time major leaguers at such an advanced age. LaHair though believes he is ready for the opportunity. I am in great shape and I had a very good off season in winter ball in Venezuela (LaHair slugged an unheard of 15 HRs in the short winter league season) and I have prepared for this opportunity for my entire life. Now I have to go out and prove I can do the job, he said.

While Rizzo bides his time for a chance on the big league club he knows that LaHair is getting first shot to replace Pena. "Right now it's a concrete plan to just let Rizzo have another season in Triple A and let him be comfortable instead of moving him up and down and all that stuff," manager Dale Sveum said. "It's Bryan LaHair's job. It's not his to lose."

However, should Rizzo make it so difficult on the Cubs front office to keep him in Class AAA where he will begin the season then LaHair could make the move to the outfield. "Of course no one wants to play in the minor leagues, especially when you've had the taste of it," Rizzo said Tuesday at Fitch Park.

I can't control anything. I can go to the minors and do what Bryan did last year and still be there all season. I know that I can play up here but I will just continue working as hard as I can until I get my shot in the big leagues. I have never struggled like I did when I was called up in San Diego but I think that experience will help me when I do finally come up, he said before workouts on Tuesday morning in Mesa.

Whether it is one or both in the lineup in 2012 it does appear that the Cubs finally have some of the left-handed power that they have been searching for. In fact, the last legitimate left-handed run producer that the Cubs developed was probably Mark Grace and he left the organization after the 2000 season. Grace was a solid hitter but he never had a 100 RBI season or a 30 HR season so if you use those measuring sticks the last one that the Cubs had was Fred McGriff in 2002 when he had 30 HRs and 103 RBIs.

Balance in a lineup is essential for success and it appears that finally the Cubs have some power from the hard to find left side. The question is who will that be? LaHair or Rizzo? If both guys find their way into the lineup then the rebuild of Theo Epstein and Co. will go a whole lot quicker. That scenario would be just fine with both LaHair and Rizzo.

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.