Cubs

Cubs: Jorge Soler will get MRI for latest hamstring injury

Cubs: Jorge Soler will get MRI for latest hamstring injury

PHILADELPHIA — Just when it looked like things might really be starting to click for Jorge Soler, the Cubs are dealing with another injury, the stops and starts so far defining the Cuban outfielder’s young career.

Soler will get an MRI on his left hamstring on Tuesday, and until the Cubs get those results it’s hard to say which direction they will go from here, whether this is something that can be managed short-term or will heighten the need for another hitter by the trade deadline.

Soler walked off the field with manager Joe Maddon and athletic trainer PJ Mainville during the third inning of Monday’s 6-4 win over the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Soler — who has injury history with his left and right hamstrings — had just driven a ball into left field and felt something about two steps before first base.

“Some guys are (injury-prone),” Maddon said. “We’ve been taking care of him, and he really does all the right things. ‘Hammies’ — once you do that, it’s kind of a chronic (issue) that normally does follow (you), hopefully not to a severe degree.

“Again, he’s been doing everything properly. Our training staff has (as well). It just happens. Some people are predisposed.”

Maddon has raved about Soler’s effort levels, improved focus and natural talent, hoping the Cubs can still tap into the “superstar” potential he’s shown in flashes, particularly against the St. Louis Cardinals during the playoffs last year (2.341 OPS).

Soler began the day hitting .286 with a .983 OPS in his last 16 games, finding ways to contribute and force his name into the lineup (even if he didn’t immediately grab the job when Kyle Schwarber suffered season-ending knee damage after an outfield collision in early April).

“It’s a little frustrating,” Soler said through coach/interpreter Henry Blanco. “It happened before, and now it’s happening again. I was feeling better at the plate and (everything) was coming around, but hopefully it’s nothing serious.”

Soler is also getting more comfortable in a new position with Jason Heyward installed as the team’s $184 million Gold Glove defender in right field. Soler perfectly timed his leap at the left-field fence in the first inning, robbing Tommy Joseph with a great catch.

“You hate to see it ever happen to anybody,” Heyward said. “But now of all times, when Georgie is coming around and being Georgie, that’s frustrating. It’s a frustrating game. You can’t control that stuff. I know you can take care of your body as much as you want and things like that, but it’s a hustle play.

“It just sucks. We have no excuses. Players get hurt. Teams have injuries. You got to deal with that. We got to do what we can every day to — not replace him — but just not miss a beat. Hate it for him, hate it for us, because he’s been outstanding.

“You see every day he wants to come in and help, knowing he wasn’t going to play every day, getting a curveball thrown at him in spring training (when) we signed ‘Dex’ (Fowler) back and then (trying to make) the most of every opportunity.”

Injuries begin to explain why Soler was limited to only 151 games in the minors between 2012 and 2014. He spent almost two months on the disabled list last year with a sprained left ankle and a strained left oblique.

The Cubs brought in Matt Szczur — who had been a football/baseball star at nearby Villanova University — to pinch-run for Soler and take over in left field. But it’s unclear what their next moves might be if Soler misses an extended period of time, beyond the built-in versatility with players like Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez.

Maddon said former first-round pick Albert Almora should be in the conversation, but the Cubs aren’t in a hurry with a 22-year-old prospect in his first season with Triple-A Iowa. Matt Murton — a part of Lou Piniella’s 2007 playoff team in Chicago — is hitting .324 during his comeback tour from Japan. Even when Soler struggled, he still brought a presence to this lineup that won’t be easily replaced.

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.