Cubs

Cubs: Joe West's cowboy act still bothers Joe Maddon

Cubs: Joe West's cowboy act still bothers Joe Maddon

ST. LOUIS — Joe Maddon hadn’t heard from Major League Baseball’s New York headquarters by the time he met with reporters before Tuesday night’s rivalry game at Busch Stadium.

“Not yet,” Maddon said. So MLB officials might as well put this on his tab after the Cubs manager spent roughly half of a media session that lasted 10-plus minutes criticizing the way umpire Joe West handled the end of Kyle Hendricks’ near no-hitter.

West started trending on Twitter after ejecting Maddon in the ninth inning of Monday night’s 4-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman had already started warming up in the bullpen when Jeremy Hazelbaker led off with a home run, which led to catcher Miguel Montero checking in on Hendricks.

When Montero returned to home plate, West tapped him on the shoulder and told him to go back out to the mound, and then warned it would count as a visit. Instead of rolling with the stall tactics, Maddon felt like “Cowboy Joe” became a distraction from a brilliant pitching performance.

“Absolutely,” Maddon said. “I mean this: St. Louis fans are really, obviously, intelligent baseball fans. The way they reacted to Kyle coming to the plate (in the seventh inning), I’m certain that had he pitched a no-hitter, they really would have given him like a St. Louis reception.

“(It’s) having to take him out of the game properly. He would have left the field in the right manner. So that was so unnecessary what occurred. There was a detraction, I thought, in regards to what the moment should have really felt like for everybody.”

West argued that an umpire has the power to count a catcher walking out to the mound as a visit, saying he’s done this before when Tony La Russa managed the Cardinals.

“Of course you can,” Maddon said. “Technically, there’s a lot of things you can do that aren’t done. Technically, if you ask a player to go speak to a pitcher from the dugout — which you do almost every night with every umpiring crew — (then it’s a visit). Technically, if you relay information from the dugout to a player to the mound, that could be considered a trip. Absolutely, if that’s what you choose to do.”

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Have you seen this rules interpretation before?

“No,” Maddon said. “That’s what I’m saying — it happens all the time. It’s just a method. Let’s give you the full monty right here: We needed time for Aroldis, only because this guy’s pitching a no-hitter. It’s a four-run lead. I don’t want Aroldis just to get totally amped up yet, because it wasn’t necessary.

“I.e., if (Kyle) walks the first guy and the no-hitter’s still intact, Aroldis is still not in that game. So you don’t want Aroldis to get to that level until it’s absolutely necessary. So there’s an 0-2 pitch that goes in the seats, it becomes necessary.

“(Aroldis) was close. Needed about 60 seconds. That’s not an exaggeration – 30 to 60 to get him properly ready for the game. That’s all we needed. That’s why I wanted the guys to go and talk to (Kyle).

“I would have taken the slow walk out there. He would have walked in. The game would (have ended) and nobody would have been wiser for it — or less than for it. That’s exactly what happened. There’s no other explanation.”

Maddon got in West’s face and made an appearance on the mound, leaving the ball in first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and killing enough time for Chapman.

“My only resort was to do what I did to make sure that Aroldis got ready,” Maddon said. “That was absolutely a conscious thought on my part. I will not deny that.”

With the Cubs on the verge of clinching the division, and the Cardinals going through a bridge year, this rivalry needed a little drama and some more entertainment value.

“The fact that I got thrown out of the game — I don’t care,” Maddon said. “Big deal. It’s just something that I had to do in the moment based on an inappropriate reaction by the umpire. That’s it.

“It’s normal protocol. I’m not asking for anything extraordinary. I think any manager ... I’m almost certain the other 29 would have done exactly the same thing. There’s no question.”

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.