Cubs

Cubs getting their money's worth with Anthony Rizzo

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Cubs getting their money's worth with Anthony Rizzo

WASHINGTON – While the Cubs tried to pretend Kris Bryant had a chance to make the team in spring training, a reporter brought up the service-time issue and mentioned to Anthony Rizzo that 2021 would line up with the final club option on his contract.

“I have no idea,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know where I’m at on that.”

Rizzo doesn’t like to overanalyze things while standing at his locker, usually declining to break down his game in detail and writing almost everything off as “just baseball.”

But Rizzo can also be very engaging and surprisingly unfiltered, whether it’s ripping management for the Wrigley Field renovation delays or predicting the Cubs will win the division this season.

When it came to the seven-year, $41 million contract extension Rizzo signed in May 2013, the All-Star first baseman didn’t look back.

[MORE CUBS: Love it or hate it, Cubs creating their own identity]

“No, not at all,” Rizzo said. “You know if I go out and play, that will take care of itself.”

Rizzo has gone out and dominated, elevating his game to a new level, joining the MVP race and finding different ways to beat you. Just fast forward to Friday morning and the end of a 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals that began on a rainy Thursday night. 

With two runners on and closer Hector Rondon struggling with his command in the ninth inning, Rizzo noticed Clint Robinson taking an aggressive secondary lead off first base and flashed a pick-off signal to catcher David Ross.

Ross called for a slider, popped up and turned to fire the ball to Rizzo, who had snuck over to first base and dropped the tag on Robinson. Anthony Rendon couldn’t be the hero at Nationals Park. Game over.

[SHOP: Buy an Anthony Rizzo jersey]

“He’s a stud,” Ross said more than once, describing Rizzo as “one of the best young players in the game. He should be talked about with the best young players in the game.

“He’s a leader. He brings it every day. He doesn’t take an at-bat off. I honestly can’t sit here and say enough good things about him and what he brings to this team.

“He’s our three-hole hitter. He’s dangerous. He has the best two-strike approach I’ve seen in my career. He’s the heart and soul of this team.

“He wants to take this organization to the next level. And he’s doing it.”

The Cubs (28-24) have been years behind the Nationals (29-25) in their rebuild, but they also don’t have the same win-or-else urgency now. 

Washington has a key leadoff guy/centerfielder (Denard Span) and an All-Star shortstop (Ian Desmond) positioned to become free agents. Frontline starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are also in their walk years, while Stephen Strasburg can hit the market after the 2016 season. 

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon doesn’t like Junior Lake’s ‘punk’ move]

The Cubs are building this around Rizzo, who’s making $5 million this season and next year, guaranteed $7 million in 2017 and 2018 and owed $11 million in 2019. The club options for 2020 and 2021 are worth $14.5 million apiece.

“We want to make sure we have that window of success,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Knowing ‘Rizz’ is going to be right there with the Bryants and the (Addison) Russells and the other guys we bring up is really important.”

That obviously looks like a team-friendly deal now with Rizzo getting on base around 44 percent of the time, ranking fourth in the majors with a 1.017 OPS, putting up more stolen bases (10) than home runs (nine) and keeping up his face-of-the-franchise image.

At the time, Rizzo’s camp wanted to beat the $32 million the Arizona Diamondbacks guaranteed Paul Goldschmidt, who will stay there through 2018 if the club picks up a $14.5 million option.   

Before the 2014 season started, the Atlanta Braves locked up another All-Star first baseman – Freddie Freeman – with an eight-year, $135 million extension.

You also have to remember that Rizzo is someone who beat cancer and got traded from the Boston Red Sox to the San Diego Padres to the North Side.

Of course, Rizzo said, those experiences will change your perspective. Knowing Cubs executives Hoyer, Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod for years also added to the sense of security.

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez Watch is heating up]

“I’m happy where I’m at,” Rizzo said. “I’m just playing baseball now. I don’t have to worry about what people say here and there now. I just go out and play and have a good time.”

Don’t forget Rizzo bombed during his 49-game audition with the Padres in 2011, hitting .141 with one home run and 46 strikeouts. And only a few weeks before the Cubs announced the extension, their manager at the time – Dale Sveum – threatened to send Rizzo and Starlin Castro to Triple-A Iowa.

“There are guys who want to go out every day and earn more money, whether it’s in free agency or in arbitration,” Hoyer said. “There are guys who (believe) comfort is really important. There are guys who – if you give them comfort – they back off the gas pedal.

“Anthony is very proud and he really likes to come out and play. He really loves to hit. I think the contract gave him the confidence that he’s going to be in Chicago for a long time. After two trades, he can just relax and play.

“He’s really taken off. He knows he’ll be here. He knows he’ll be a big part of what we’re doing.”

Rizzo keeps evolving, putting up more walks (30) than strikeouts (25). He’s hitting .429 against lefties. He’s crowding the plate and daring pitchers to hit him (which they’ve done 13 times already). He’s the steadiest defender on the 25-and-under infield (at least until he turns 26 in August).

The Plan means the National League will have to deal with Rizzo and Bryant from here until the end of the 2021 season. Good luck with that.

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.