Cubs getting off to the fast start they absolutely needed


Cubs getting off to the fast start they absolutely needed

Anthony Rizzo must be feeling pretty good about his winning-the-division prediction.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Rizzo said, sounding annoyed at the wise-guy question.

The Cubs had completed less than 12 percent of their schedule after Monday night’s 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. But a young team that’s used to being buried by this point will take 11-7, running one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.

“Huge,” Rizzo said. “We preached it in spring training: We got to survive April. We can’t put ourselves in a hole like we’ve done in years past. We’re doing a good job of coming to the park every day and playing with a lot of energy, having fun and really playing with a purpose.”

Surrounded by reporters, Rizzo stood in front of his locker, inside the cramped clubhouse that now has a shiny disco ball hanging from a ceiling fan. Loud rap music blasted from the sound system when the media entered the room.

Joe Maddon likes to say the heavy lifting had already been done by the time he left the Tampa Bay Rays and scored a five-year, $25 million contract. But after winning the offseason – and dealing with their fifth manager in six seasons and an overhyped group of prospects, not to mention the usual Wrigleyville distractions (see Porta-Pottie-Gate) – the Cubs absolutely needed a sense of momentum.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon hates the idea of the DH in National League]

The Cubs generated 10 hits from the first six hitters in their American League-style lineup and wore down the Pirates (11-9) in front of 29,159 at Wrigley Field. Jason Hammel – last year’s sign-and-flip guy – put up eight scoreless innings and now has allowed one walk against 23 strikeouts through 25-plus innings.    

Inside the interview room/dungeon, a reporter asked Hammel: Is it too early to project this is going to be a really good team this year?

“We’ve been doing that since January, right?” Hammel said, delivering another great one-liner. “We know what we have in this clubhouse. We’re excited. It starts with Joe. He’s given us one hell of a feel. He came in and made us know that we’re going to have a good time while we were winning.

“It wasn’t the drill-sergeant type. It wasn’t looking over our shoulder being the mother, the dad, whatever. It’s letting us go out and be ourselves and just play baseball.

“We’ve worked really hard at understanding that we don’t care what anybody else says. It’s what we have.”

The Cubs have Rizzo (2-for-3, one walk, two RBI) leading the majors with a .494 on-base percentage. Kris Bryant (2-for-4, two RBI) has been as good as advertised, putting up a .938 OPS through his first 10 games in The Show. Starlin Castro is hitting .324 and pushing himself to be in the Gold Glove conversation at shortstop.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“We were wanting a good April, and we’re on our way to having one,” team president Theo Epstein said. “But I think it’s been earned. The guys have really fought hard every game, and I really like the identity that we’re creating for ourselves.”

The Cubs have already notched five victories in their final at-bat. They are 8-4 against the division and 3-0 in extra-inning games. All this without $155 million ace Jon Lester (0-2, 6.23 ERA in four starts) coming close to hitting his stride.

“I really think it’s a best-case scenario as far as the identity of the team,” Epstein said, “the mood and the spirit surrounding the team, how they really have bonded with one another and are fighting through all 27 outs.

“That’s been fantastic. It’s been a lot of fun to be around. But I don’t really overanalyze the early-season performance, because baseball’s all about grinding it out through six months. And you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”

It’s a good sign when Addison Russell’s Wrigley Field debut (1-for-3, one run scored) might be the sixth-most interesting headline that night. Compare that to the way the Chicago media treated Rizzo and Castro with wall-to-wall coverage when they first arrived at Clark and Addison.

“It’s just the strength of our lineup,” Rizzo said. “Anyone can do it at any time. We’re really happy with the way we’re grinding out at-bats early in the game, which can be setting us up for later in the game. We’re making pitchers work. That’s what we want to do every time. Every at-bat (should) be a stressful at-bat on the pitcher.

“We just have a really good feeling in here right now. And we just got to keep rolling with 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.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.