Cubs

Cubs drafting Kyle Schwarber over Michael Conforto could tilt NLCS

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Cubs drafting Kyle Schwarber over Michael Conforto could tilt NLCS

NEW YORK – For all the talk about power hitters vs. power pitchers, the Cubs and New York Mets view players through similar lenses. Imagine how different this National League Championship Series would look if the Cubs took Michael Conforto instead of Kyle Schwarber.

The Cubs wouldn’t be here without Schwarber, last year’s No. 4 overall pick out of Indiana University and already a playoff legend for blasting a two-run homer out of PNC Park in that wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates and helping eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals with another home-run ball that landed on top of Wrigley Field’s video board in right.

Schwarber connected again on Saturday night at cavernous Citi Field, blasting a home run to right-center off Matt Harvey during a 4-2 Game 1 loss to the Mets. With that eighth-inning shot, Schwarber became the fifth player in major-league history to hit four postseason homers before his 23rd birthday. The others: Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones, Miguel Cabrera and Bryce Harper.

There is so much young talent on display here in this best-of-seven matchup. The Mets already got their own shot of adrenaline with Conforto, who jumped from Double-A Binghamton, made his major-league debut on July 24 and put up nine homers and an 841 .OPS in 56 games.

The Cubs scouted Conforto extensively at Oregon State University and also spent a lot of time on a high-school shortstop with great bloodlines (Nick Gordon, Tom’s son) and a fast-track college pitcher (Aaron Nola, who made 13 starts for the Philadelphia Phillies this year). The Mets grabbed Conforto – who played with Schwarber and Kris Bryant on Team USA – with the No. 10 overall pick.

“We liked him,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. “We definitely had him as obviously one of the top three college bats for that year. (But) we had a pretty strong feeling we were getting Kyle, so we didn’t have to really delve too much into it.”

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There are no do-overs in the draft, but the perception had been the 2014 class revolved around three high-profile pitchers and the Cubs reached with Schwarber, a designated hitter with questions about his ability to catch at the major-league level. A below-slot deal – Schwarber got a $3.125 million signing bonus – only reinforced that idea.

“I expected that to be the reaction,” McLeod said. “Just because we all know the whole beauty’s in the eye of the beholder thing. But we felt so strongly about who he is as a player, who he is as a person. Totally get why there would be naysayers because of the body and what they thought the position might be.”

But McLeod and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein remembered taking a scrappy Arizona State University infielder in the second round of the 2004 draft and watching Dustin Pedroia develop into an American League MVP winner for the Boston Red Sox four years later.

The Cubs believed the hard-charging Schwarber – a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school – could impact their clubhouse culture in the same way.

“It takes me back to Pedroia,” McLeod said. “It was the same thing. People saw the body. Didn’t run fast. But we knew the player so well. He had always (been an) elite (performer). The guy’s just a winner and he refuses to lose. Competing is everything. And Kyle is that same guy with power.”

The Cubs Way is not that much different from The Mets Way. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson graduated from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School and helped shape the Oakland A’s into a “Moneyball” franchise.

Paul DePodesta – New York’s vice president of player development and amateur scouting – once worked for the San Diego Padres alongside McLeod and future Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. New York’s big arms like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz were drafted during the Omar Minaya administration. The Alderson regime has used five first-round picks on hitters since 2011.

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Here’s Epstein’s scouting report on Conforto, the son of a Penn State University linebacker and an Olympic gold-medal winner in synchronized swimming:

“Compact powerful swing,” Epstein said. “Uses the whole field. Very disciplined hitter. Ability to elevate the ball with backspin and plenty of raw power. Hangs in there well against lefties.

“In the field, he wasn’t always the prettiest out in left field, but he was a playmaker. When a big play had to be made, he could leave his feet and make those plays at the end of his range.

“He’s a team-first player. Seemed like a great character guy. Really (those) left-handed bats (are) hard to find. It wasn’t too hard to project it to succeed against the best pitchers in the world.”

It’s hard to project where the Cubs would be without Schwarber right now, a gutsy decision that might tilt an NLCS featuring two teams positioned to be contenders for years to come.

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.