Cubs

Cubs got their money’s worth with Joe Maddon at the microphone

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Cubs got their money’s worth with Joe Maddon at the microphone

Exactly one year ago, Joe Maddon killed it at The Cubby Bear, immediately talking playoffs, comparing Wrigley Field to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” and grabbing the microphone and offering to buy the first round.

The Cubs haven’t been the same since that shot-and-a-beer press conference on Nov. 3, 2014, when Maddon took over a team that had sunk to fifth place for five years in a row, finishing an average of 25 games out of first.

The Cubs won 97 games and two playoff rounds this year, and everyone around the team agreed that doesn’t happen without Maddon’s influence. 

While it might be a stretch to say Maddon misses his daily media sessions before and after every game, he clearly enjoys playing to the cameras and hearing the sound of his own voice. 

Even if there’s an expiration date to Maddon’s act, the Cubs still feel like that deal, which has four years remaining and guarantees at least $25 million over the life of the contract, will go down as a franchise-altering investment. (Compare that to the way the Nationals reportedly lowballed Bud Black and hired Dusty Baker as their fallback option.)      

On Opening Day 2016, the National League will feature at least six new managers from the year before, while a Cubs franchise that had been unstable and dysfunctional will be a trendy pick to win the World Series.

[MORE: Cubs, Royals and the myth/reality of a World Series blueprint]

One year after Maddon sipped a Guinness can at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee, a look back on some of his best material, in the same free-association style that drives his press briefings:

Zen Master

• “I do vibrate on a different frequency, man.”

• “I never want to be dictatorial regarding the way I teach or suggest. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

• “You might have seen the body for a couple years, but the brain has not arrived yet.”

• “You don't have to go to an Ivy League school to overthink it. You could go to a state school, too.”

Bathroom Humor

“One time I overreacted as manager in Midland, Texas, in 1986, when I actually went to a local newsstand and bought newspapers from throughout the country and took the classified ads and pasted them all over my locker room, because I told my players those were your alternatives to not playing baseball well and hard.

“I learned from my own mistake there – had them on the back of the stalls in the bathroom. So the guy would sit down there, and all of a sudden he’d close the door and there would be classified ads in San Antonio.

“I did all that. I was wrong. But as you go forward, I’d never seen an uptight moment be beneficial to any group. Never. Never. So I thought if I ever got an opportunity to do this, I’d really work against that concept.

[RELATED: Cubs enter MLB offseason as 2016 World Series favorites]

“Baseball, you play every day. Football, you have a once-a-week gig. You can go through the whole week and there are different ways to get through the week and a different mindset entirely. In baseball, man, you’ve got to be in the present tense and be tension-free. I learned that, I think, and in a roundabout way.”

Gimmicks  

• (Pajama trip): “It works both ways. If you’ve won, it always makes it even better. And if you’ve lost, it’s kind of like: ‘Let’s put this behind us and let’s move on.’ So I see it as a ‘win-win-win,’ as Michael Scott would say.” 

• (Simon the Magician): “It’s hard to grab a zoo animal on the road. You can do it at the last minute at home. You always have the home connection when it comes to animals. It’s much easier to acquire a magician on the road than it is a 20-foot python. I’ve always felt that way.”

• (Talking to a zoo animal in Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon): “My goal is life was to eventually own a bar named ‘The Pink Flamingo.’ If that ever happens, then I’ve made it. And if that ever does happen, Warren’s going to be at the opening night. Thank you, Warren, you did not disappoint.” 

Outcome Bias

“The fans should always worry. It’s always the prerogative of a fan to worry. I absolutely believe in that. That’s what barrooms are for. That’s what little forums are for online in this 21st-century stuff. The fans should always worry. I’m always about fans worrying. Go ahead and worry as much as you’d like.

“From our perspective, we have to just go out and play the game like we always do. I’m here to tell you, man, I just can’t live that way. The line I’ve used is I don’t vibrate at that frequency. It has nothing to do with anything. 

“The process is fearless. If you want to always live your life just based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot. And when you’re doing that, you’re really not living in a particular moment.

“I’m 60, I’ll be 80, and if by the time I’m 80 20 years from now I’ve just been worried about outcomes, I’m going to miss a lot. So you’ve really got to get involved in the process. And from our players’ perspective, that’s all I talk about. I’ve not even mentioned about winning one time to these guys during this whole time. 

“If you take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours in a day take care of themselves. So for our fans back home, please go ahead and be worried. That’s OK. But understand that from our perspective in the clubhouse, we’re more worried about the process than the outcome.”

The Geek Department

“I had one of the first laptops ever. I was like roundly laughed at and criticized: ‘How is a computer ever going to win a baseball game?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, no, it’s about organizing your information.’

“If Branch Rickey in the 40s had all this information, this stuff would have been done 50, 60, 70 years ago, if it was available. It wasn’t available. It’s new stuff. It’s color TV. It’s air conditioning. It’s power brakes. When it wasn’t invented, you could never miss it.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right now

“But it’s been invented, and now you utilize it, so to run away from technology and change and advancement…why? 

“(That’s) an archaic form of thinking. It was definitely rooted in old-school, which I really respect. But for me, old-school has nothing to do with being stuck.”

@CubsJoeMadd

“The social-media component – I don’t know if that’s going to keep getting bigger – or honestly is it going to become less? At some point, it’s oversaturated with nonsense. 

“How much nonsense do you want to hear? I don’t really want to know about everybody else’s thoughts all the time. I really don’t. That would be the next level, like if I eventually become a mind reader.

“At that point, that would really suck, because if you know too much, man, that would be awful. It’s good that you don’t know everything. So all this stuff is getting to the point now where I don’t even know – what would be the next level of communication, outside of reading someone else’s mind? 

“And I don’t want to read any of your minds at all under any circumstances. Because once you get in there, you may never get out, and you could be contaminated for the rest of your life.”

Pre-tay, Pre-tay Good

“There’s also ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ which I’m a big fan of. I got a photograph. Actually, there was a common friend. There was that one episode when he picked up a hooker to go in the diamond lane to go to the ballgame at Dodger Stadium. There’s a picture of her draped over the front seat and he wrote on her butt: ‘How bout that for a strike zone?’ Signed, Larry David.”

On Personal Grooming

• “I don’t like when it gets puffy on the side. Remember Paulie from ‘The Sopranos?’ I feel like Paulie. I get into that Paulie mode and it really bothers me. So whenever I start looking like Paulie, I get a haircut. That’s the indicator.” 

• “I’m a product of the 60s and the 70s. Every generation has its own little gig going on. Back in the day, I had long hair. It was down to my shoulders. I was very proud of it. It was actually brown at that time, too, from what I remember. So why do you always want to impose your will on everybody else?” 

Classified Information 

“If you get it on your own, then what am I going to do? I’ve already told you: I can’t tell you everything right now. And I’ll say I can’t tell you. Your job is to do what you do. And my job is to not give it up. 

“Your job is to find it out. And that’s cool. At the end of the day, what does that mean? I keep going back to the barroom. It’s great barroom banter, man. 

“And also at the end of the day, we’re not trying to conceal weaponry being sold to Iran.”

Don’t Ever Change

“If I change, I want you to slap me in the face.”

You got it.

“If you do it to me one day and just go – boom! – I’ll know why.”

You won’t see it coming.

“I won’t see it coming, then I’ll say thank you.”  

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.