Cubs

Cubs can’t hold onto prospects forever but could cash in at trade deadline

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Cubs can’t hold onto prospects forever but could cash in at trade deadline

Mortgaging the farm system doesn’t make sense when the Cubs are a third-place team on a five-game losing streak that just got swept in St. Louis to fall 11.5 games behind the Cardinals.

But there’s also risk in holding onto too many unproven minor-leaguers, because prospects get overhyped, prospects get injured and prospects get exposed at higher levels of competition. 

Buyers and sellers is the easiest way to break it down in 140 characters or less. But it’s more complicated than that, because the Cubs are fun to watch again after five straight fifth-place finishes, don’t appear to have that much financial flexibility right now and want to stay relevant in 2015 while still building for the future. 

In Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration, the July 31 trade deadline could be a huge opportunity to cash in some of the chips they have accumulated through the draft, win-later trades and international free agency.

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“No doubt, there is a timing element to it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We haven’t been in the position to move a lot of prospects. We’ve been in a position to go out and get them. But as we move forward, you can wait too long and a guy loses his value.”

Cubs hitting and Mets pitching will be a dominant storyline when these two big-market teams on parallel rebuilding plans meet on Tuesday night in New York. Mets left-hander Jon Niese – one of many pitching ideas the Cubs have reportedly kicked around – will start this three-game series that should have wild-card implications. But the shortstop angle played up by the New York and Chicago media is probably played out by now.

When the Cubs promoted Addison Russell in late April after only 11 games at Triple-A Iowa, it sent the message to any team that didn’t get the hint last winter: This kid is an untouchable piece of the big-league team. 

Starlin Castro’s up-and-down play on both sides of the ball (.630 OPS, 14 errors) would mean selling low on a three-time All-Star who doesn’t fit the profile of the type of hitter the Mets would want to build around anyway.

[MORE: Cubs waiting for trade market to accelerate after getting swept by Cardinals]

Javier Baez is now sidelined with a non-displaced fracture of his left ring finger, but an aggressive swinger with world-class bat speed had started to make some adjustments at Iowa (.922 OPS) before that injury in early June.

The Cubs also might have missed a window to move Arismendy Alcantara during the offseason. Alcantara struggled to adjust to a super-utility role, went 2-for-26 with zero extra-base hits in April and got sent back to Des Moines.    

This is the next phase of The Plan, something the president of baseball operations acknowledged during the welcome-to-camp news conference in spring training.

“The Braves almost created a dynasty out of evaluating their own players the right way,” Epstein said. “Everyone they traded didn’t pan out. Everyone they kept won a lot of pennants.”

The Cubs say they’re getting close, but they haven’t measured up to the Cardinals this season, going 2-7 against the best team in baseball. St. Louis already has 51 wins, even with so many key pieces on the disabled list: Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright; All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday; first baseman Matt Adams; and setup guy Jordan Walden.

“When you look at the Cardinals,” Hoyer said, “you see the value of depth. They have guys that get hurt and they call up good players from Triple-A that can step in and contribute. They’ve done that, in part, because they haven’t made a lot of big prospect deals.

“They’ve been steady and they’ve let those guys come up through their system. When they’re in Triple-A, they don’t rush them up to the big leagues. They let them play. And then when they have an injury, they come up and perform.

[ALSO: Ramirez's return providing a boost for Cubs bullpen]

“Certainly, trading all your prospects can help in the near-term, but there’s a price to be paid for that, and that price is not having that depth.

“It’s something you have to really consider when you make those kind of moves. You can always say: ‘Oh, we don’t think any of these guys is an impact player.’ Or: ‘We don’t think any of these guys is going to start for us.’

“But get a couple injuries, and you’re wishing you had those guys, and I think that’s something the Cardinals have done really well.”

In the middle of January, a fan stepped to the microphone inside a downtown Chicago hotel ballroom and told the Cubs prospects on stage: “We love you like we love our wives and our children.”

If that sounds a little creepy, well, that’s how prospects are treated in the age of social media. They got the boy-band treatment at Cubs Convention, fans rushing forward for autographs as soon as the Q&A session ended.

From that group, Russell is now your starting second baseman and potential franchise shortstop. Kyle Schwarber made his big-league debut in June and could be back this summer as a big left-handed bat for the pennant race.

Carl Edwards Jr. doesn’t seem to project as a starter anymore, though he’s adjusting well as a reliever at Iowa. Pierce Johnson has made three starts at Double-A Tennessee after dealing with a strained lat muscle in spring training.

The Cubs can’t fall in love with their prospects because – as the Baseball Prospectus rankings like to say – they will break your heart.

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.