Cubs

Cubs believe their pipeline will keep producing big-time talent

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Cubs believe their pipeline will keep producing big-time talent

This is Theo Epstein’s fifth year running baseball operations at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs still haven’t really given up a significant long-term asset while constructing a playoff contender.

Except for trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and adding versatile swingman Adam Warren to a deep pitching staff. That deal also cleared a path for Ben Zobrist, a professional hitter, super-utility guy and World Series champion, all part of a $276 million spending spree.

So the Cubs can take a step back in spring training and see how Joe Maddon manages all the egos and personalities, assess what they will need as the season unfolds and respond to roster emergencies this summer.

“We haven’t really touched our base of young players, outside of Starlin Castro,” Epstein said. “That does allow us – whether it’s (at) the trade deadline or next offseason – to be a threat to make significant trades that can help the ballclub going forward.”

The smashing success of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber completely distorted our view of what a normal path to the big leagues should look like. Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, became an All-Star third baseman last season and the National League’s Rookie of the Year. Schwarber, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, debuted last year and blasted 16 homers in 69 games, plus five more in the playoffs.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It’s a challenge every year,” farm director Jaron Madison said. "You’re not always going to have the Schwarbers and the Bryants and the (Addison) Russells (all) coming up every year. So you’re constantly looking for guys who can step in behind them and take their place.”

Who’s next? Here’s a look at the organization’s 10 best prospects ranked by Baseball America:

1. Gleyber Torres: Still only 19 years old, the Venezuelan shortstop finished last season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach.

2. Willson Contreras: The potential catcher of the future won a Southern League batting title with Double-A Tennessee last year.

3. Ian Happ: The Cubs hope the ninth overall pick in last year’s draft can become a reliable second baseman. If not, they believe in the switch-hitting profile at the University of Cincinnati. Jason McLeod – the vice president overseeing scouting and player development – used a comparison from his time with the Boston Red Sox: Jed Lowrie with a little more power.

4. Duane Underwood: Probably the most promising pitching prospect in a farm system that doesn’t have many projectable frontline starters, though right elbow inflammation limited him to less than 80 innings last season.

5. Dylan Cease: There are only 24 innings on the right-hander’s professional resume, but the Cubs used money saved from Schwarber’s below-slot deal to take a chance on a Tommy John case with 100-mph velocity.

“The upside is tremendous,” McLeod said. “But where he is right now is very, very far away. He’s one of the guys we’re really excited to see coming into 2016.”

[MORE: Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite]

6. Albert Almora: The first player drafted here by the Epstein administration (sixth overall in 2012) is projected to begin this season as Triple-A Iowa’s centerfielder.

7. Billy McKinney: The Oakland A’s packaged their 2013 first-round pick with Russell in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade and the outfielder has put up a .798 OPS during his minor-league career.

8. Oscar De La Cruz: With mid-90s velocity and a 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame, the Cubs hope this right-hander can develop into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. But he is still years away, approaching his 21st birthday and with no experience above the A-ball level.

9. Eloy Jimenez: Coming out of the same international class as Torres, the Cubs gave the outfielder a $2.8 million signing bonus in the summer of 2013.

10. Jeimer Candelario: The Arizona Fall League Fall Star appears to be blocked as long as Bryant is playing third base on the North Side.

The Cubs landed six players on MLB.com’s rankings of the 100 best prospects in the game: Torres (No. 28); Contreras (No. 50); Happ (No. 76); Underwood (No. 77); Almora (No. 86); and McKinney (No. 88).

Baseball Prospectus included six Cubs prospects on its Top 101 for 2016: Torres (No. 41); Contreras (No. 57); Happ (No. 67); McKinney (No. 74); Almora (No. 83); and Eddy Julio Martinez (No. 97).

The Cubs finalized a $3 million deal with Martinez during the middle of their October playoff run. In a dispute involving the Cuban outfielder’s family and handlers and agency (Beverly Hills Sports Council), Major League Baseball sided with the Cubs after the San Francisco Giants believed they had agreed to a $2.5 million signing bonus for Martinez.

[RELATED: Cubs, Jake Arrieta agree to $10.7 million deal, avoid arbitration]

“We always love to bring in impact-type talent,” McLeod said. “He’s a kid with a really strong body (who almost) looks like an NFL defensive back. (He’s got) plus speed, plus power pull side. He can really throw and it’s very accurate. Right now, we’re not sure if it’s going to be center field.

“We haven’t spent a lot of time with him and haven’t seen him too much. We’re actually really excited to see him (up close). He’s one of those multi-tool players and we’ll get a much better feel for how he handles an actual at-bat.

“We know he competes in his at-bats, but we just simply don’t have enough visual of him yet. We’re not really certain about how much contact there will be or how much the power will play.”

Remember, prospect rankings can on some level reflect how much time and energy a front office puts into courting the media, and which players an organization wants to spotlight, perhaps talking them up for a potential trade sometime in the future. The Cubs should be in position to put together a blockbuster deal when they need it.

“You never make it a goal to not move any prospects,” Epstein said. “That’s one of the reasons you build up a farm system – the ability to use some of those prospects to make trades. It just so happens (that) we traded one player off our big-league team – a really good player who is just 26 and has a tremendous future – and we spent a lot of money. But I think we’ve done so in a way that complements the core that we have – and it’s preserved our flexibility.”

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.