Cubs

Cubs: Jason Motte thriving with the pressure back on

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Cubs: Jason Motte thriving with the pressure back on

Jason Motte thrives in the sort of scenario Pedro Strop faced Wednesday night: A one-run lead, the game on the line and a packed crowd of nearly 38,000 on its feet ready to erupt for a win over a heated rival.

The Cubs didn’t have Motte available to preserve a 5-4 ninth inning lead after the 33-year-old right-hander pitched both games of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. So manager Joe Maddon turned to Strop, who blew the game when Jhonny Peralta ripped a 1-2 fastball into the left field basket for a go-ahead two-run home run.

While Motte isn’t the Cubs’ official closer, it was a spot he likely would’ve found himself in had he not pitched in those two games the day before.

Motte is three years removed from leading the National League with 42 saves for a Cardinals team that lost the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013 and is finally finding the success he enjoyed a few years ago, though it’s not because he’s cleared a physical hurdle.

Instead, Motte’s return to pressure-packed situations — be it in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning — has him feeling like himself again.

“I was kind of up and down with when I got in and when I didn’t get in and stuff like that (last year), and this year it’s more of a consistent thing in some roles that I’m used to,” Motte said. “… You get that adrenaline going, you get other things going and you kinda get things going a little more to see where you are.”

[MORE: Cubs feel the sting after Cards deal gutting defeat]

Coming off Tommy John with the Cardinals last year, Motte was mostly used in early-inning or blow situations and posted a 4.68 ERA. Of the 110 batters he faced, 94 came in what Baseball-Reference.com characterizes as low-leverage spots. It’s not a coincidence that opposing hitters had a .921 OPS against Motte in those low-leverage plate appearances.

Motte’s ability to thrive on adrenaline allows the Cubs to be flexible and not pigeonhole him into a defined role as a closer or setup guy. His strikeout of Washington’s Anthony Rendon with the tying run on second came in the seventh inning June 4 and was critical in the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the National League East leaders. In Game 2 against St. Louis on Tuesday, Motte gave up three hits and a run but was able to work his way out of that self-inflicted jam to nail down his fifth save of the season.

With the Cubs, Motte is limiting opposing hitters to a .178 batting average, a .527 OPS and hasn’t allowed a home run in high-leverage situations.

“It speaks really a lot about his ability to slow things down and not get caught up in the moment in a negative way,” Maddon said. “That’s, right now, among all of his best features is that, the fact that he’s able to process that moment without permitting it to overwhelm him.”

[MORE: Maddon comfortable with Bryant, Rizzo in Home Run Derby]

The Cubs bullpen may not have much star power, at least until Rafael Soriano gets his arm strength back and joins the group sometime after the All-Star break. But it’s a group that has a 3.15 ERA, fourth-best in the National League, and its 2.29 mark over the last 30 days is the second-best in baseball — even despite Strop’s high-profile blown save Wednesday night.

Motte’s resurgence — he’ll enter the Crosstown series with 2.97 ERA — and ability to negotiate those tough outs and innings has been a big reason for the overall success of the Cubs’ bullpen.

“I love those situations,” Motte said. “That’s what I did before surgery and that’s my goal after surgery to get back pitching in those situations. I didn’t know where I was going to be or who I was going to play for but (I wanted to) have a manager having that confidence in me that he’d want to put me in those situations.”

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.