Cubs

Cubs-Giants: Jeff Samardzija knows Jake Arrieta’s winning streak can roll into free agency

Cubs-Giants: Jeff Samardzija knows Jake Arrieta’s winning streak can roll into free agency

SAN FRANCISCO – Theo Epstein’s front office and Jeff Samardzija both won the game of chicken, the Cubs getting a franchise shortstop in Addison Russell and Shark scoring a five-year, $90 million contract with the San Francisco Giants.

Samardzija hasn’t entered Jake Arrieta’s stratosphere or won a Cy Young Award – and the win-now Cubs are in such a different place as an organization – but this is right around the time when the two sides had to pick lanes in 2014.

Less than 18 months away from becoming a free agent, Arrieta is betting on himself, the same way Samardzija did, at a table with even higher stakes. When you’re on a roll like this, why not?

The Cubs have now won Arrieta’s last 22 regular-season starts after Friday night’s 8-1 victory over the Giants at sold-out AT&T Park. Arrieta is 24-1 with a 0.99 ERA in his last 29 starts since June 21 of last year and figures to be looking for a seven-year megadeal north of $200 million.

“Alpha male,” Samardzija said. “You see (David) Price gets $2-(hundred million)-whatever (from the Boston Red Sox) and (Zack) Greinke gets ($200 million-plus from the Arizona Diamondbacks). 

“Maybe you feel you’re better than those guys and you want to show that. There are a lot of different things that play into it. And sometimes there’s just a number that you’re happy with, that you know if they get there, then you’ll say yes. 

“Maybe they just haven’t got there yet. It’s so individually based on what you want and how you feel. 

“But I could imagine if I was in Jake’s shoes – with what he’s done since August of last year – I would be thinking pretty highly of myself also. I wouldn’t be selling myself short. I would ride that train until the wheels fell off.

“It comes to a point where – when you get close to free agency – there’s no turning back.”

The Cubs reached that point with Samardzija during his All-Star season and engineered a Fourth of July blockbuster trade with the Oakland A’s, grabbing Russell as Starlin Castro’s eventual replacement.     

After getting traded again to the White Sox and having a down season on the South Side last year (11-13, 4.96 ERA), Samardzija still wound up with his first choice, playing in a great city and a beautiful ballpark for a franchise that won three World Series titles between 2010 and 2014.

With his long-term future secured – and throwing to Buster Posey in an ideal pitching environment/division – Samardzija is living up to his top-of-the-rotation stuff (6-2, 2.66 ERA) alongside Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto. 

Arrieta only had what he called his “B stuff” for a Giants team coming off the franchise’s first 7-0 road trip since 1913. Arrieta felt like his cutter was flat and his timing has been off, but he still ended San Francisco’s eight-game winning streak, limiting the Giants to one run across seven innings, allowing only four hits and two walks against eight strikeouts.      

Just as the Samardzija trade to Oakland had its own logic, the Cubs made another franchise-altering deal with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season, helping Arrieta transform into an ace.

“(Jake’s) in a great spot,” Samardzija said. “There’s probably a little bit more want to keep him around, just because of where their current situation is. Obviously, you take Jake out of there, that’s a big hole to fill with what he’s been doing lately. 

“But I’ve watched Jake from the beginning. It’s been fun to watch. Everybody likes to write people off. It’s pretty much people’s favorite thing to do – say a guy’s done. And to see what Jake’s done has been amazing.”

Don’t let the long hair and chill off-the-field demeanor fool you. Shark is an insightful observer and a shrewd businessman. Samardzija pointed out that Arrieta has a better resume than Stephen Strasburg, another Scott Boras client/Tommy John survivor who recently signed an extension with the Washington Nationals that guaranteed him seven years, $175 million and opt-out flexibility.     

“Jake’s not dumb,” Samardzija said. “But honestly a lot of it probably (will be determined by) how he does this year or next year. If they’re where they are (now) and winning, it’s hard to leave a team that’s in that situation.”

That’s why the Cubs can play this out with Arrieta and not rush into a deal with a pitcher who will be 32 on Opening Day 2018.   

“Eventually, it doesn’t become about the money,” Samardzija said. “It just becomes about having the guys that you want there. And if that’s a guy you feel is an essential part of it, then you do what it takes to keep him.”

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.