Cubs

Cubs: Dexter Fowler plays the waiting game in free agency

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Cubs: Dexter Fowler plays the waiting game in free agency

The sense is Dexter Fowler returning to Wrigley Field as Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” leadoff guy is highly unlikely, but the Cubs won’t completely shut the door on that remote possibility until he signs somewhere else.

The White Sox didn’t turn Fowler into their SoxFest splash over the weekend, even though he would make a lot of sense on the South Side as a top-of-the-order complement to Adam Eaton.

The White Sox have already built a foundation with Cy Young/MVP award candidates Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, plus elite closer David Robertson and young starting pitchers Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon.

After giving up five young players to get Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie into their everyday lineup – at a time when the Cubs appear ready to dominate the Chicago summer for years to come – why stop now?

The draft pick attached to Fowler has clearly had a chilling effect on his market after he declined a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Cubs. But back in November, no one was saying he should take that deal.

It’s now February and Fowler still hasn’t cashed in after a strong platform season on the North Side.

“I am a little shocked by that,” Cubs hitting coach John Mallee said Sunday in Tinley Park before receiving a coach of the year award from Chicago’s Pitch and Hit Club. “He was a big part of our offense. He was a big part of what we were doing. To (watch) him every day – and look at the (board now) and see he hasn’t gone yet – it is a little surprising. It’s actually really surprising.”

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Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t like to rule anything out, always trying to keep all options open. But in both public statements and private comments, the Cubs have repeatedly signaled that pretty much all of the heavy lifting for this team is done, not expecting another major move this winter.

The Cubs have a full 40-man roster and need to preserve some flexibility for in-season adjustments and trade-deadline deals after dropping more than $276 million on outfielder Jason Heyward, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist, pitcher John Lackey and swingman Trevor Cahill. 

The Cubs have found the cost of acquiring a young starting pitcher to be outrageous, meaning it would be difficult to flip Jorge Soler in a worthwhile trade that would clear a spot in right field for Heyward. Plus, the Cubs understand Soler has untapped potential and Fowler is not a standout defender in center field.

The Cubs would also like to recoup a draft pick after giving up two selections – and the corresponding bonus-pool money – in signing Heyward and Lackey.

What’s a pick in the mid-60s range worth? Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development, has pointed to his first pick in his first draft with the Boston Red Sox in 2004, when they found an undersized Arizona State University infielder at No. 65 overall: Future American League MVP Dustin Pedroia.   

Leading into Cubs Convention weekend in the middle of January, Maddon predicted Yoenis Cespedes making a decision would help clarify the market for Fowler.

[MORE: Cubs invite Albert Almora and Duane Underwood to big-league camp

“That just seems to be the last shoe to fall,” Maddon said. “I don’t know why. I’m sure he’s going to be fine, because he did have a good year and he’s young and he’s good. I don’t even know if there’s going to be like a pecking order with Cespedes and then him. I guess it depends on the financial (terms) – how they view what they’re worth or not probably matters.”

Fowler went into 2016 still looking for a four-year deal, but there aren’t many obvious fits left on paper.

The Seattle Mariners traded for Leonys Martin in the middle of November. The Cubs reached an eight-year, $184 million agreement with Heyward coming out of the winter meetings. The San Francisco Giants gave Denard Span three years and $31 million guaranteed in early January. The Washington Nationals then acquired Ben Revere.

Cespedes circled back to the New York Mets in late January, compromising on a three-year, $75 million contract that contains an opt-out after this season, which could make him a headliner in next winter’s weak class of free agents.  

Maybe a pillow contract will be the blueprint for Fowler, who isn’t an elite centerfielder or a leader in the clubhouse or the most durable player.

[RELATED: Cubs hoping to change offensive identity with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist]

But Fowler also won’t turn 30 until March 22. He’s a switch-hitter with a career .363 on-base percentage. He put up 17 homers and 20 stolen bases for a 97-win team last season. 

“We had a great year with him,” general manager Jed Hoyer said recently, declining to say anything about Fowler’s future. “We really like him as a guy, as a player. He gets on base. He grinds his at-bats. He did a good job for us on the bases and in center field. He was a big part of what we did last year.” 

It’s Super Bowl Week, but there are still two months left until Opening Day, and some team will find the right price point and see an opportunity to jumpstart a lineup and upgrade in the outfield. 

Is @DexterFowler worried about it? Check out the video clip posted to his Twitter account on Sunday night: “Oh Dexter Fowler? He’s just dancing in the rain…”

   

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.