Cubs: Jon Lester endorses Jake Arrieta for wild-card game


Cubs: Jon Lester endorses Jake Arrieta for wild-card game

ST. LOUIS – At this point, Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester sounds more like a conversation starter for newspapers, talk shows and Twitter than a real debate inside the Cubs organization.

All signs are pointing toward the Cubs starting Jake Arrieta in the National League’s wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have already adjusted their rotation with stud right-hander Gerrit Cole (16-8, 2.54 ERA) and the playoffs in mind.

“I don’t really care,” Lester said after Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. “He’s the best pitcher on this team right now. He’s probably the best pitcher in the league right now.

“Listen, everybody has an ego and everybody wants to be that guy. But when it comes down to it, if he gives us the best chance to win that one-game playoff, I’ll be on the top step cheering my butt off for him to do well.

“There’s no competition in here. The competition is on the field. We’re trying to win a World Series, ultimately.

“I don’t make those decisions. You come tell me when you’re going to give me the ball and I’ll run out there and try my damnedest to give you the best start I can.

“I could give two flying you-know-whats (about) who gets picked.”

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Unless the Cardinals completely collapse, it looks like two Central teams with 90-plus wins will have a six-month season come down to a one-game playoff on Oct. 7.

That no-hitter at Dodger Stadium on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” enhanced his reputation nationally and reinforced what the Cubs already understood: Arrieta (18-6, 2.03 ERA) is an intimidating presence, a student of the game, a physical specimen and one of the most dominating pitchers in the majors. Period.

“Yes, he would be able to pitch in the wild card,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But, again, our goal is not just to play in the wild-card game.”

Arrieta will face the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park before getting into playoff mode. The Cubs have positioned Arrieta for the Pirates (Sept. 15 doubleheader at PNC Park), Cardinals (Sept. 20 at Wrigley Field) and Pirates again (Sept. 25-27 home weekend). 

The Cubs woke up on Wednesday morning with a nine-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card. The Washington Nationals had fallen to 9.5 games back. The playoff odds are overwhelming.

The Cubs shouldn’t be in the position where they would have to push Arrieta and Lester hard in late September or early October just to get into the tournament.

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“We’re very much aware of that, but the goal is still to catch the Cardinals,” Maddon said. “I just don’t want our guys to lose track or thoughts of trying to catch the Cardinals. That’s our best way to play outstanding baseball for the rest of the month leading into the playoffs.

“Try to catch the Pirates. Catch them and then you try to catch the next group. I still want us to approach every day that way.”

Lester has pretty much been what the Cubs expected when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal: A very good pitcher (9-10, 3.50 ERA) with a professional attitude and the instant credibility that comes from winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

Lester has a 2.57 ERA in 84 career postseason innings. But in a win-or-else situation, that playoff experience is somewhat diminished by Lester’s issues with throwing over to first base and controlling the running game.

The Kansas City Royals exposed that during last year’s American League wild-card game, when Lester worked as a hired gun for the Oakland A’s. The Royals ran all the way to Game 7 of the World Series before losing to the Giants.

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“That would have to be a consideration under those circumstances,” Maddon said. “Some of that could depend on who you may play and the kind of game they could bring to you.

“Just being honest, I think that would be the primary thing to look at: Who is that team and what kind of game are they capable of playing? (The Pirates) can run a little bit.”

This is a first-world problem for a franchise that has finished in fifth place for five years in a row, a time when 40 percent of the rotation usually signaled a fire sale at the trade deadline.

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“We have a lot of confidence in all our guys,” said David Ross, who caught Lester when the Red Sox surged toward a World Series title in 2013.

“You can’t deny what Jake Arrieta’s been doing this year. He should be in the Cy Young race with some of those guys out in L.A. (Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw). He’s even an MVP candidate for our team.

“Either way, no matter who pitches that game, I think we got a really good chance. We believe in ourselves.”

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.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.