Cubs

Cubs are seeing The Kris Bryant Effect

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Cubs are seeing The Kris Bryant Effect

For all the hot-take debates and service-time drama in spring training, both sides can now claim to be right: The Cubs are feeling The Kris Bryant Effect.

At 21-16, the Cubs are good enough to where one game could make the difference between making the playoffs and going golfing/hunting/fishing in early October.

And almost seven full seasons of Bryant (1.1 WAR so far) is still greater than six, because, as advertised, he’s a middle-of-the-order force with face-of-the-franchise star power. 

For Bryant, it will be a homecoming of sorts when the Cubs open a three-game series against James Shields and the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night at Petco Park. 

Bryant found the right balance at the University of San Diego, where he excelled athletically and academically, winning the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball’s Heisman Trophy, and turning down the chance to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship.

[MORE CUBS: Despite loss, Cubs leaving Wrigley with a great feeling]

Three years after sending out vibes he would want first-round money coming out of Bonanza High School in Las Vegas – and getting taken by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 18th round – Bryant developed into the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

The Cubs are expected to shake up their roster again before Tuesday's game, with lefty reliever Phil Coke getting designated for assignment and right-hander Brian Schlitter going down to Triple-A Iowa while Tsuyoshi Wada joins the rotation and Junior Lake becomes part of the outfield mix again. But Bryant has been a quick study during his first month in The Show:

•  The Cubs went 5-3 while keeping Bryant down at Iowa and pushing back his free-agency clock to after the 2021 season. Bryant’s big-league debut on April 17 became a hold-up-your-iPhone moment at Wrigley Field, even with Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Shields during a 5-4 loss to the Padres.

“I felt more comfortable after the first day, just to get all the hoopla out of the way,” Bryant said. “It’s definitely a whole lot more comfortable seeing some guys for the second time and seeing how they’re pitching me. It’s still kind of the little cat-and-mouse game that they’re trying to figure me out and I’m trying to figure them out. I think it will be that way the whole season.”

•  Bryant led the National League on Monday by seeing 4.46 pitches per plate appearance. He also ranked tied for fourth in walks (24) and showed up as a top-10 RBI producer (24) despite playing in only 29 games after almost missing the first two weeks of the season. His presence clearly brings another dimension to an emerging team.

“It’s been an issue for us over the years,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “If you add a few veterans that do a nice job of controlling the zone, and a couple kids come up who are good at it, (then) all of a sudden we have a lineup that’s not fun for a starting pitcher to go through three or four times.”

[MORE CUBS: Travis Wood ready for whatever in move to Cubs bullpen]

•  After so much buildup, Bryant didn’t homer during his first 91 plate appearances, which set off an empty-the-dugout, silent-treatment, in-game celebration inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse. That shot against the Milwaukee Brewers began a four-homers-in-seven-days barrage.

“He’ll be pretty relaxed now,” Hall of Famer Billy Williams said. “He wanted to get that out of the way, because just before he came up here, there was a lot of talk about him hitting the ball out of the ballpark, and I think he could have been pressing a little bit.

“Plus the fact you got major-league pitchers up here pitching him tough. This is what happens when a young kid comes up. You got scouts sitting back there and all of a sudden they see what you can hit and they start pitching to things that you can’t hit.”

Williams – who first joined the organization in 1956 and now works as a senior advisor – smiled before a recent game at Wrigley Field.

“He’s going to be the perfect hitter for this ballpark,” Williams said. “The perfect hitter. He’ll hit the ball to right field. He’ll hit the ball to left field. He’ll hit it to any part (of the ballpark).

“He’s a big, right-handed lowball hitter. He’s a flyball hitter. And pitchers like to throw the ball down. So things will come together.”

•  Bryant didn’t ignore the other parts of his game while putting up a .902 OPS. At 6-foot-5, and with a habit of patting the ball in his glove before throwing, there will be questions about whether or not he can stick at third base. But right now, that probably says more about the organization’s stash of position players and potential flexibility than some glaring defensive weakness.

“I’ve been very impressed with how KB’s been playing over at third,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “(With) that big frame, (you kind of) wonder from the outside looking in. But he’s done a great job.”

Bryant’s surprising speed, aggressive instincts and risk-taking on the bases prompted one pro scout to give him this nickname: “The Untaggable Man.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey here]

This shows up in subtle ways. Bryant’s hustle on a routine groundball to third base earned him an infield single during Noah Syndergaard’s big-league debut last week. The Cubs didn’t score during that two-outs, third-inning sequence, but it forced the New York Mets phenom to throw 18 extra pitches during an eventual 6-1 loss.

“Any time you can startle a team – and they don’t expect (something like) that – it sets them off their rhythm,” Bryant said. “I try to do everything I can to shake up the rhythm of a pitcher.

“He was pitching really well up to that point, making us look pretty bad up there. I definitely think that made him throw more pitches.”

•  For all the hype generated by adidas, Red Bull, Boras Corp., the Chicago media, the national writers, Epstein’s front office and the business/marketing wings at the team’s Clark Street headquarters, Bryant hasn’t really let it all go to his head, showing wise-beyond-his-years maturity at the age of 23.

“He’s a mild-mannered kid,” Williams said. “He’s stayed pretty comfortable in his skin. That’s a good thing. He’s not going to be a guy that brags and all that bull----. He’s a guy just going out there and doing his job.” 

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.