Cubs

Cubs: Joe Maddon doesn’t like Junior Lake’s ‘punk’ move

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Cubs: Joe Maddon doesn’t like Junior Lake’s ‘punk’ move

MIAMI – It’s easy to picture the Cubs turning into a team that people love to hate.

Junior Lake stood at home plate on Wednesday night, admiring the flight of the ball he launched out toward the left-field seats inside Marlins Park.

Gripping the bat in his left hand, Lake walked at least five steps before beginning his home-run trot. He tossed the bat aside, far enough that it almost landed on the dirt track by the visiting dugout.

As Lake rounded third base, he looked into Miami’s dugout and held his right index finger up to his lips, as if to say: “Ssshh!”

Until that big swing in the sixth inning, the Cubs trailed by six runs…in a game they would lose 7-3…to a dysfunctional team that’s now 10 games under .500.

“We don’t do that here,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward, “and that will be the last time you see it.”

Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto said something to Anthony Rizzo as he crossed home plate. Jose Fernandez – the Miami ace still recovering from Tommy John surgery – looked like he couldn’t wait to jump over the dugout railing.

Both benches emptied as Rizzo tried to restrain Lake, who waved his arms and yelled right back at the Marlins. Maddon has talked a lot about the Cubs playing with confidence and taking the fight to the National League, stressing that nothing will be handed to them.

“I don’t want us to take the fight there by acting like a punk,” Maddon said. “I don’t want that at all. I want us to take the fight there by playing the game properly and hard and fundamentally sound.

“You know that we’re coming after you – that’s what I want. I don’t want us to take a page out of ‘Major League’ and flamboyantly flip a bat after a long home run. I don’t want that at all. That has nothing to do with us ascending.

“I’d like to use this moment for our minor-league guys – that doesn’t play. For kids watching – that doesn’t play. Don’t do that. That’s not cool. That’s very, very much not cool. If you’re watching the game back home in Chicago tonight, don’t do that if you hit a home run. Don’t do it. It’s not cool.”

[MORE: Cubs could change the equation with Kris Bryant in left field]

Maddon delivered that message to Lake, who seemed genuinely contrite as he stood at his locker. Lake wanted catcher Miguel Montero to be his interpreter, to accurately express his feelings and make sure nothing got lost in translation.

Lake wanted to apologize to Dan Haren, because he respects the Miami pitcher and didn’t mean to “pimp” that home run. Lake also confirmed he doesn’t have a history of bad blood with Fernandez or any of the Marlins.

Lake – who’s been given an opportunity to prove he belongs in The Show with outfielder Jorge Soler (sprained left ankle) on the disabled list – admitted he got caught up in the emotions.

“After I crossed first, I knew I didn’t do it right,” Lake said through Montero. “But after that, I heard them chirping from the other dugout, and that’s why I kind of lost control a little bit. I already knew I didn’t do it right.”

[MORE: The Javier Baez Watch is heating up]

Lake then wanted to make a point in English: “I give it everything when I play. I don’t want to (have) people yell at me like I’m scared. I’m not scared of anybody. But I recognize (what I did) was a bad thing.”

Montero next translated another takeaway for Lake: “I don’t want to be a bad influence.”

The crowd of 22,962 booed Lake during his next at-bat, cheering when he struck out to end the seventh inning. He also grounded out to end the game. But at the age of 25, he has shown a much more disciplined approach at the plate. And he can always fall back on his defensive versatility and the physical gifts that once made him an intriguing prospect.

Lake’s bat-flipping show is just the tip of the iceberg as The Plan accelerates.

Theo Epstein’s front office represents an Ivy League influence that creates some resentment – maybe jealousy – among the old-school types inside this industry.

The Tampa Bay Rays pushed Major League Baseball to launch a tampering investigation after the Cubs hired Maddon, a star manager who loves playing to the cameras and hates all these unwritten rules.

The Cubs keep telling everyone how great their farm system is, how they’re so young and so talented. They want to play loose and free and plan postgame dance parties in the clubhouse.

There also could have been some spillover from Monday night at Marlins Park after “SportsCenter” timed Starlin Castro’s home-run trot at 30 seconds.

To learn how to win and finally get through October, the Cubs will have to develop some sense of swagger, almost an arrogant vibe around the team.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

That’s part of the reason why the Cubs gave Jon Lester six years and $155 million guaranteed. Their ace didn’t look particularly sharp against the Marlins – giving up six runs in five innings – but he knows what it takes after winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs (27-24) just lost a series to a reality-show team on the brink, and now head to the nation’s capital for a four-game series against the Washington Nationals, a World Series favorite that might show them how far they still have to go.

“This game’s competitive,” Lester said. “Nobody wants to – in their minds – get shown up.

“I don’t know if you can compare this one instance to a team that’s in it at the end. I know that we talk about tonight, and then get on a plane, and move on and play tomorrow. That’s what makes a good team.

“Tonight stunk. Move on. And we’ll come get Washington tomorrow.”

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.