Cubs

At Cubs camp, Jon Lester won’t hide from the yips

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At Cubs camp, Jon Lester won’t hide from the yips

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester took the first step long ago, admitting he had a problem and even telling reporters he experienced the yips way back in high school.  

The Cubs can’t pretend Lester’s throws to first base aren’t an issue. Joe Maddon can’t spin it away with his storytelling and sense of humor during the manager’s daily media sessions.  

The Cubs are trying to attack the problem head-on, even if it meant Lester pitching on Field 1 during Tuesday morning’s controlled scrimmage against minor-league players at Sloan Park.

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It left beat writers comparing notes on how many times – at least three – Lester’s pick-off throws to first base wound up near the chain-link fence. In this intimate setting, you could hear the frustration and listen to the guttural noises as he finished his pitches in front of dozens of fans.

“God damn it!” Lester screamed after one of those wild throws.

But once Lester got out of the Arizona heat and into the clubhouse, he could unwind – we’re talking about practice – and focus on the positives, like throwing out Dan Vogelbach in the second inning when he tried to take a walking lead off first base.  

“I’m really a no-BS guy,” Lester said at his locker. “I’ll sit here and I’ll tell you if I have a bad start. I’ll tell you if I think I threw the ball better than what the results were. I’ve tried to always be honest with you guys – and I hope that you see that and you hear that. This is something that obviously I can’t run from. This isn’t something that you can hide.

“It’s obviously out there. Everybody knows. And it’s something that I’m continually trying to tackle every day and get better at. That’s all that I can do.”

Last week’s rough Cactus League start again exposed the mental block that got so much attention during the first year of a $155 million megadeal. Opponents stole 44 bases off Lester, who led the majors in that category while putting together a strong season overall (3.34 ERA in 32 starts, 207 strikeouts in 205 innings).

“We just got to keep working through it,” Maddon said. “At some point, you have that breakthrough moment – and the epiphany occurs – and then all of a sudden it becomes a lot easier to do those things. You don’t give up on it.

“Just like I’m talking about ‘embracing the target,’ you attack those particular items. You avoid avoidance. And I think if you avoid avoidance, then eventually it can play out.”

Whether or not the light bulb goes off, Lester is trying to manage the issue with personal catcher David Ross, a quick delivery to home plate and varying times to disrupt runners’ rhythm. 

Lester made an underhand throw to first base when he fielded a ball in the third inning. He handled a bunt in the fourth inning with a one-hop throw to second base.     

When the Cubs started the fifth inning with a runner on base, Lester asked for him to go back to first after a rundown, keeping it a stretch situation that would test the weakness and making it look worse from the outside.

“Hopefully, there’s something that clicks,” Lester said. “We find some type of mechanical thing that I can focus on and makes it easier for me. Right now, it seems the thing that really helps me is that step-off (move). It just makes me throw the ball. 

“It’s always been a work in progress. I don’t think this is something that just arose and came up out of nowhere.”

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It’s not something that prevented Lester from throwing more than 1,800 innings in The Show, making three All-Star teams and winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

It’s amazing this didn’t become more of a thing in the Boston market, where so much gets magnified and overblown, though the American League is a different game that doesn’t rely as much on speed.  

“This, for me, is not a matter of picking off the Billy Hamiltons,” Lester said. “This is a matter of keeping (close) the guys that should be close and limiting those attempts. The Dee Gordons, the Billy Hamiltons, those guys are going to get their bags no matter what you do. It’s a matter of limiting the guys like Anthony Rizzo who shouldn’t steal 15 bags.” 

Lester knows the questions will keep coming this spring, and he expects to make his next start in an actual Cactus League game.

“Honestly, I’m not worried,” Maddon said. “If you watch him in practice, he does it well, actually. So it’s something that he’s capable of doing. And the phrase is ‘avoid avoidance.’

“I don’t want us to avoid those kind of moments, or not talk about them, or putting them off in the corner. I think that’s when it gets actually worse. If there’s an ability to overcome all this, we have to continue to be open about it.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.