Cubs

Cubs: Alfonso Soriano turns up the volume

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Cubs: Alfonso Soriano turns up the volume

Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011Posted: 4:05 p.m.

By PatrickMooney
CSNChicago.com CubsInsider Follow @CSNMooney
ST. LOUIS Alfonso Soriano entered the clubhouse on Saturday morning still wearing sunglasses. He heard his teammates start cheering for him and a big smile crossed his face. It seems like this whenever he walks into the room.

HEY BABE!

The night before, Soriano had blasted the go-ahead, three-run homer in a game the St. Louis Cardinals absolutely had to have to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. He also watched with pride as Starlin Castro notched his 200th hit of the season.

To Cubs fans, Soriano will always be the guy who hasnt lived up to his 136 million contract.

Ask Castro and the 21-year-old shortstop will tell you how much Soriano has meant to his rapid development. One by one, Castros crossing off the goals Soriano set for him at the beginning of the season: Hit .300, get 200 hits and make the All-Star team.

My first spring training with the Yankees, I was very shy, Soriano recalled. (Derek) Jeter, Mariano (Rivera), Bernie Williams, all those guys treated me like: Hey, Sori, youre part of the team.

They gave me confidence in myself and I learned a lot from them. I just try to do the same with him. Because when those guys gave me confidence, I changed my game.

Time has changed Sorianos game. Injuries to his lower half quad, calf, knee slowed down an athlete who was once a 4040 threat. Defense was never his first priority. Hes a free-swinger (.288 on-base percentage) who wont star in Moneyball.

This isnt an 18 million player. Yet by the last weekend of the season, Sorianos streakiness had settled at this point 25 home runs and 85 RBI.

Soriano hasnt hit this many homers since 2008. This also marks the most runs hes driven in during his five seasons on the North Side. He has 44 RBI in 60 games since the All-Star break.

Yes, 10 of those homers came in April, and Soriano hit .186 in July. He disappears at times. But the final line could make some American League team think hes worth a shot as a designated hitter if the Cubs pay most of the 54 million remaining through 2014.

Ownership already seems prepared to write off almost all of the 18 million Carlos Zambrano is due next season. The next general manager will have to figure out what to do with Soriano, whos repeatedly made it known that hed be willing to waive his no-trade clause if hes not wanted anymore.

Whatever happens, it wont be because of the corrosive effect Soriano has on a team. While Zambrano and Milton Bradley were islands in the clubhouse, everyone seems to be drawn to Soriano.

There (are different) qualities of leadership, manager Mike Quade said. Some guys (are) willing to look somebody in the eye and say, Lets go (expletive)! (Others) keep guys loose.

Sori has always shown up to work hard and have fun playing. Like all of us, there are days where youre irritated with him. But he comes back with the same outlook and the same smile every day. And that matters.

After a last-place finish in 2006 and with a push from the Tribune Tower the Cubs went on a huge spending spree. They re-signed Aramis Ramirez, hired Lou Piniella and brought in Soriano, Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa and Jason Marquis. They won back-to-back division titles.

It seems unlikely that a new ownership group will respond to another lost season by handing out megadeals. Tom Ricketts has repeatedly said that he wants to build a team from within. The chairman doesnt sound eager to try to buy his way into first place on the free-agent market.

If the Cubs truly commit to a youth movement in 2012, Soriano could in his own unique way have a positive impact on those inexperienced players. Castro will be forever grateful for his friendship.

Hes as loose and as much fun to be around right now as anybody on this club, Quade said. Hes always been that kind of guy. But hes louder now.

In the end, there arent many in Chicago better at blocking out all the noise.

Id take 10 homers, 20 RBI, whatever, if we make the playoffs, Soriano said. Thats why Im here, to make the team better and try to make the playoffs. (It) didnt happen (this season). But I hope next year everybody puts up good numbers and we get one more chance to go to the playoffs.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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.