Cubs

Cubs clinch NL Central, but Wrigley bash will wait another day

Cubs clinch NL Central, but Wrigley bash will wait another day

Miguel Montero stood at his locker late Thursday night with his hands behind back his back, holding designer sunglasses, not high-tech goggles. The Cubs catcher wore a white Miami Beach Golf Club hat and a pinkish-orange Lululemon polo shirt instead of 2016 National League Central Champions gear.

There was no ear-splitting music blasting from the sound system. The reporters surrounding Montero after a 5-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers could actually hear what he was saying inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse and not worry about getting drenched in champagne and beer. 

With the magic number still suspended at one, the Cubs didn’t wait around to see if Johnny Cueto and the San Francisco Giants would beat the St. Louis Cardinals at AT&T Park and hand them the division title.

“There’s no reason to be disappointed,” Montero said. “It’s a great feeling, because regardless, we can actually have a chance tomorrow and the next day and the next day. It’s not like we have that much pressure on our back because they’re going to catch us or something like that.” 

Exactly. By the time the Cardinals lost on the West Coast, a few minutes before midnight Chicago time, the Wrigley Field video boards had turned to black and the night crews were cleaning up from a raucous crowd of 41,362 that didn’t get to see the party that will now wait until Friday.

Up in the Wrigley Field press box, you could hear the car horns and cheering throughout the neighborhood once San Francisco’s 6-2 victory over St. Louis went final. Instead of that game, the TV screens inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse had broadcast a message:

Schedule for Friday
DRESS AT 11:30 a.m. 
Game at 1:20 p.m. against Brewers

And if the Giants did win Thursday night…

“I’ll probably go to a club,” Montero said. “No, just kidding. I’m going home. I’m going to watch a TV show or something like that, because I don’t really watch baseball that much. The reality is that I don’t care what happens (to the Cardinals). I want to come back tomorrow and win a game and celebrate on our own.

“It tastes a little different.”

Yes, the Cubs are a different team, with their ritualistic celebrations, a Party Room built into their state-of-the-art-clubhouse and a nonchalant attitude toward advancing to consecutive postseasons for only the fourth time (!!!) in franchise history (1885-86, 1906-08 and 2007-08, when they last won the division and captured back-to-back titles).

“Well, I’m sure they’ll have it taped off, plastic everywhere, to make sure nothing’s ruined,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said before the game. “But I don’t know how crazy we’ll get. We’ll enjoy it, for sure. But the next one – as they continue to come – will get bigger.” 

After changing the culture around this team, pushing so many of the right motivational buttons and pulling all those in-game levers, manager Joe Maddon didn’t plan to extend his 30-minute rule or change his morning Starbucks routine.

“Sure, go home,” Maddon said. “I am.”

Because ultimately a World Series-or-bust team with multiple MVP and Cy Young Award candidates will be judged in October. And, once again, Maddon delivered a win-or-lose line that would hold up for this news cycle.

“This is just the first step,” Maddon said. “We have much larger baseball fish to fry in our skillet.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your postseason gear here!]

Now the Cubs can align their rotation for October, deal with any nagging injuries, lock up home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series and prepare for whatever team – St. Louis, San Francisco, New York Mets – emerges from the wild-card battle. 

“It’s what we envisioned all along,” Arrieta said. “I’m just proud of all the guys in here for growing and learning at such a quick pace, especially the young players in this locker room. And to all do that together has really put us in this position we’re in right now. It’s given us the ability to have this lead, give guys rest and move forward into the most important part of our season.”

When Maddon came here with the Tampa Bay Rays in August 2014, the Cubs were a fifth-place team playing out an 89-loss season, but he still felt the energy at Wrigley Field, looking up at the lights and the crowd and feeling like he was in the middle of a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator.” 

As Maddon kept listening to modified versions of the disappointment question during Thursday’s postgame news conference, he should have snapped and screamed: “Are you not entertained?”

“To some it might be anti-climactic,” Maddon said. “But 93 wins, that’s not a bad season. However we get this accomplished, I’ll take it.”

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

adbert.jpg
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.