Cubs

Cubs hoping to capture some of the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup buzz

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Cubs hoping to capture some of the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup buzz

Kris Bryant has only been here for two months, but he’s already noticed how much Chicago likes its hockey team. 

Hours before Bryant scored the game-winning run in the Cubs’ 4-3 win over Cincinnati on Saturday, he and his teammates got a first-hand look at how popular the Blackhawks are in the city — and, if this World Series-starved franchise is allowed to thing big, just how much buzz there could be around the Cubs if they make a playoff run this year.

During a rain delay that lasted 2:48, Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Blackhawks and Lightning played on the newly-installed Wrigley Field video boards — except, ironically, when a message had to be shown urging fans to seek shelter due to lightning in the area.

The crowd of 40,693 roared when a replay of Patrick Sharp’s goal played on the left field video board and the Blackhawks’ goal horn and Chelsea Dagger blared over the Wrigley Field loudspeakers. Chants of “Let’s go Hawks” broke out after Antoine Vermette scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal. What was left of the crowd when the Blackhawks game ended erupted in cheers to celebrate the team being one win away from their third Stanley Cup since 2010.

“It’s kinda cool, you got a baseball game and a hockey game in one. You don’t get that too often,” Bryant said. “But yeah, the Chicago fans are the best in baseball, the best in sports, I think. It’s pretty cool to see that first-hand.

“… I hope that they’d be doing that for us, too, and I know they would. We can’t look really too far ahead right now.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon not concerned as strikeouts pile up]

In beating Cincinnati on Saturday, manager Joe Maddon observed the kind of victory he feels could be characteristic of a team playing into October as soon as this fall.

Starlin Castro’s walk-off single came nearly five and a half hours after first pitch thanks to that lengthy rain delay that stopped the game after five innings. Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks only allowed a solo home run to Joey Votto and struck out seven while needing just 57 pitches to roll through his five innings of work.

The Cubs took a 3-1 lead into the delay on Miguel Montero’s two-run blast and some smart baserunning from Bryant, who hustled in from third on Castro’s grounder to shortstop Eugenio Suarez — who was playing back but still threw home — and was ruled safe after a lengthy review. But that lead quickly evaporated after the rain stopped, as James Russell served up an equalizing two-run home run to Suarez in the sixth.

Addison Russell led of the bottom of the eighth with a double, though, and with the top of the Cubs’ order up it looked like a perfect chance to end the late-night stalemate. But Dexter Fowler whiffed on a bunt attempt and Russell stumbled trying to get back to second on catcher Tucker Barnhart’s throw, falling victim to a 2-6 pickoff.

Fowler promptly doubled and advanced to third when second baseman Kristopher Negron could only keep Chris Coghlan’s smash in the hole in the infield. That set up Anthony Rizzo for an opportunity to break out of his mini-slump, but the first baseman bounced into a double play to end the frame.

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Cincinnati put the go-ahead run on third with two out in the ninth, though Jason Motte was able to pitch over it to set up Castro’s heroics.

Bryant led off the ninth with a hustle double to left, and after Montero was plunked, Castro lined a Tony Cingrani fastball into center for the walk-off hit.

Maddon said, despite the lengthy delay and some mishaps after it, he never saw the fight go out of his team. The dramatic victory proved his point, and the guy who managed the Tampa Bay Rays to the playoffs four times feels he saw the right kind of attitude from his team Saturday night.

It's the same kind of attitude that could lead to massive celebrations for a Cubs win at an October Blackhawks game someday.

“We had double, double, single and don’t score (in the eighth). That’s hard to do, actually,” Maddon smiled. “Frustrating to a certain extent, very gratifying on a bigger scale because of the way we did it and what it means and how our guys should feel about it. That’s what I want to really highly emphasize, is that’s what gets you to play in October, to win a game like that.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.