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Cubs keep loading up on hitters, drafting Ian Happ with No. 9 pick

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Cubs keep loading up on hitters, drafting Ian Happ with No. 9 pick

The Cubs continued to stockpile hitters on Monday night, grabbing University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Ian Happ with the ninth overall pick in the draft.

Happ certainly fits the profile, given his consistent college performance, switch-hitting ability and two All-Star selections in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

Theo Epstein’s front office has now used first-round picks on position players in each of the last four drafts, with Happ joining a wave of young talent that already included Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora.

Happ worked out at the under-renovation Wrigley Field last week, taking batting practice and driving balls out toward the bleachers from both sides of the plate. The construction crews are supposed to wear hard hats.

“We were trying not to hit ‘em in the head,” Happ joked on a conference call with reporters.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs VP Jason McLeod: No rush with Kyle Schwarber]

The Cubs hope to bludgeon teams with their offense, but they don’t really have any blue-chip pitching prospects in the upper levels of their farm system, no one who looks like an obvious frontline starter in the big leagues.

As expected, the Cubs didn’t have access to UC-Santa Barbara right-hander Dillon Tate (No. 4, Texas Rangers), University of Illinois lefty closer Tyler Jay (No. 6, Minnesota Twins) or Vanderbilt University right-hander Carson Fulmer (No. 8, White Sox).

“We liked all of them that ended up getting taken there in the top 10 picks,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development.

The Cubs didn’t roll the dice on Brady Aiken, who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery and fell to the Cleveland Indians at No. 17.

The Cubs had rated Aiken No. 1 on their board last year, when the left-hander out of San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High School went first overall to the Houston Astros and failed to reach an agreement amid medical concerns.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs send message in DC: ‘We can play with the big boys’]

“We got to know him very well,” McLeod said. “A team is going to take him and be very happy that they did. We’re going to continue to root for him, because we spent a lot of time with him last year. We did spend time with him this year.

“At the end of the day, we made the selection that we felt was best for our organization. But with how well we got to know him and his family, certainly he’s going to have a lot of people over here rooting for him in his career.”

Gambling on Aiken in that spot would have been out of character for a front office that likes to manage risk this high in the draft.

“We certainly don’t walk away from pitching,” McLeod said. “The history of the draft will tell you that if the players are close on the evaluation, the college hitter is usually the way to go. They’re the ones that usually pan out the best.

“So with talent being equal, probably we would lean towards the college position player. But we’ve taken the guys the last three or four years who we felt was simply the best player at that pick.

“We’re not going to take a player who we feel is a lesser talent or who will provide lesser impact to the organization. We always try to keep the long-term view.”

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez sidelined with fractured finger at Triple-A Iowa]

There was also a feeling the Cubs might try to follow the same playbook they used last year with Schwarber, signing Happ to a below-slot deal ($3.351 million) and moving the money around in later rounds, allowing them to take more chances.

According to CBSSports.com, Happ is being advised by Casey Close, the same agent who represents Schwarber (and works with Aiken).

“We didn’t take him with the financial aspect of it in mind,” McLeod said. “Last year worked out great with what we were able to do with Kyle. But certainly we have an idea of what it’s going to take or where the signing might come in.

“That’s something that we still need to discuss with his advisor, and we hope to get that done here hopefully pretty soon.”

Happ, 20, is listed at 6-foot-0, 205 pounds. He wasn’t drafted out of Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh. There are some questions about where he fits defensively, but the Cubs are stressing versatility, trying to give manager Joe Maddon as many mix-and-match options as possible.

“We feel he’s athletic enough to move around,” McLeod said. “We’re not going to put any limitations right now on where he will play.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get you Cubs gear right here]

But the Cubs didn’t draft Happ for his defense. During his three seasons with the Bearcats, he got on base around 46 percent of the time, finishing with more walks (128) than strikeouts (116).

Happ hit .338 with 120 runs, 44 doubles, 25 homers and 107 RBIs for a Cincinnati program that once produced Kevin Youkilis, a two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox who now works part-time for the Cubs as a consultant in scouting and player development.

In trying to build a grinding American League-style lineup, the Cubs are looking for a type. They took University of North Florida outfielder Donnie Dewees in the second round (No. 47 overall) and can look for pitching across the next two days of the draft.

“I’ve definitely heard about the guys that have come before me,” Happ said. “I had a chance to talk to Kyle Schwarber a little bit last year. Great guy. I’m really excited to add to the college bats they have coming through, and hopefully be the next one to move through the system.”

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.