Cubs

Cubs GM Hendry needs a piece of the action

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Cubs GM Hendry needs a piece of the action

Thursday, March 31, 2011Posted 11:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

There used to be a saying around the baseball offices at Creighton University: Jim Hendry could sell ice to the Eskimos and make them think they were getting a good deal.

Elvis Dominguez hesitated to use the word salesman, because in his mind, it implies that Hendry was pushing something that you didnt really want or need.

What Dominguez meant was that Hendry saw how good you could be and would tell you how to get there.

Dominguez was born in Cuba and moved to Miami at the age of eight. He played at Columbus High, the Catholic school where Hendry taught English and made a name for himself as the youngest baseball coach in the state of Florida.

Dominguez became the first in his family to go to college when he followed Hendry to Creighton. He stayed in Omaha, Neb., as Hendrys graduate assistant to begin his climb. Hes now the head baseball coach at Bradley University.

Its The American Dream, a great immigrant story. Dominguez looks back on his experience and speaks for everyone who bought in at Creighton: We walked out never saying, What if.

Its easy to picture Hendry dominating living rooms and reeling in recruits. His personality was perfect for the job shaking hands with parents, schmoozing boosters and telling the best stories at cocktail parties.

But it wasnt enough. By 1991, Hendry had led Creighton to the College World Series. His ambitions drove him back home again, to work for a start-up company based in Florida.

From the ground up

The Cubs will run out across Wrigley Field on Friday with an Opening Day payroll that USA Today calculated to be 125 million, the sixth-highest in the game.

Cubs accounting will probably have it closer to 133 million, which roughly represents a 10 percent drop from the year before.

A quick way to annoy the Cubs general manager is to suggest that hes just found religion about budgets, or suddenly realized the importance of homegrown players. Hendry hates the perception of being a checkbook executive.

Hendrys roots are with the Marlins, in scouting and player development, building something from scratch.

Im not so sure I could have ever done it better entering pro ball (and) going with those guys on an expansion team, Hendry said. We didnt play for two years. It was such an education from the ground up. (They gave me) such a variety of jobs. (It) was tough love. They were hard on me.

I was Joe College, Hotshot Coach and I got reminded of that a few times. (This) wasnt college baseball anymore.

There, Hendry worked alongside Dave Dombrowski, the architect of the 1997 World Series champions and future Tigers general manager. Hendry got the job in part through Gary Hughes, one of the top 10 scouts of the 20th century as judged by Baseball America.

You can still see Hughes in Mesa, Ariz., riding around the teams facilities in a golf cart. Hughes is a Cubs special assistant and that is probably Hendrys greatest strength the people he surrounds himself with.

Staying power

A Google search for Fire Jim Hendry yields 174,000 results. There is obvious impatience with Hendry, whos entering his 17th season in an organization that hasnt won a World Series since 1908.

Pat Gillick the executive who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer described his work this way: The job of the general manager is not to select the correct players. It's to select the correct people to select the players.

This is Year 2 under the Ricketts ownership group. Theyve mostly stayed out of baseball operations, while explicitly saying what they want a strong farm system, the sustainable model to create an annual contender.

The Ricketts family routinely praises scouting director Tim Wilken and vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita as the best in the business. The money is flowing toward their spheres of influence. Those investments in the amateur draft and Latin America are supposed to yield the next generation of Tyler Colvins, Andrew Cashners and Starlin Castros.

Wilken grew up with Hendry in Dunedin, Fla. Hendry recruited Fleita to Creighton and even honored the commitment after the pitcher went to Dr. James Andrews for surgery and had to convert into a position player.

Hendry is signed through the 2012 season, along with his key lieutenants in the front office, including assistant general manager Randy Bush. The group is fiercely loyal to their leader.

I have a good relationship with Tom Ricketts, Hendry said. I dont want to stay unless he thinks Im the right guy for the job down the road.

I got a great group of people under me. Thats (most) important to me what they would think of me, not (necessarily) other factions of the game. Its the same thing with the clubhouse I dont ever try to be everybodys best friend. All I ever want in that clubhouse is their respect.

The next window

Hendrys not a laptop geek, and he strolls through the clubhouse more than most in his position. Only eight general managers in the majors have held onto their job longer than Hendry, who took over in July 2002 and has watched his teams make the playoffs only three times since then.

Hendry is 55 but feels much younger than that. He has built the relationships with Greg Maddux and Kerry Wood that helped bring them back into the organization.

Especially in this business, sometimes you can find that theres a lot of dishonesty floating around out there, said outfielder Reed Johnson, who made the team after signing a minor-league deal in January. Its hard to trust people. (Hendrys) not going to tell you what you want to hear. Hes going to tell you how it is.

No one in Chicago expects the Cubs to do too much this season. The most optimistic predictions seem to have them around 84 victories, if everything breaks right.

A massive amount of money will fall off their financial books after 2011, which means Hendry could be framing their next window of opportunity.

Hendrys Cubs didnt spend a single moment above .500 last season. The fans have to pay for some of the most expensive tickets in the game. Talking up the system will get real old if all these young players regress this season.

Hendry knows all this. But you dont get to his luxury suite by playing it safe and wondering What if.

You look at someone who didnt play pro ball or go to an Ivy League school. Whatever happens good or bad you ask the general manager of the Chicago Cubs if hell ever have a better job than this.

I never worried about it, Hendry said. I never looked at the next job in my life. Ive only worked in four places in my life and Ive loved them all.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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.