Cubs

Cubs know Willson Contreras still needs time to develop

Cubs know Willson Contreras still needs time to develop

Willson Contreras is here, with a shiny new nameplate adorning his locker in the palatial home clubhouse on Clark and Addison. But the latest Cubs top prospect to be called up won’t be counted on to initially make a significant impact as he slowly wades into big league waters for the first time.

Manager Joe Maddon and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein both talked Friday about easing the 24-year-old into the lineup, with the plan to carry three catchers for the time being. He won’t be an everyday player, and a large part of his time in The Show will be spent learning from Miguel Montero and David Ross, as well as the team’s coaching staff and veteran group of pitchers.

“We think it’s great timing to get Willson some experience up here, get acclimated to the big league level at a time when he doesn’t have to step in and carry the catching load,” Epstein said. “He’s got a great opportunity to learn from David Ross, from Miguel Montero, from Joe and our coaching staff to get a feel for what it’s like, the responsibilities of being a catcher at the big league level. He’s going to get some playing time and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

This isn’t like when the Cubs called up Kris Bryant or Addison Russell and quickly were able to insert them into their starting lineup on a regular basis. Contreras will need plenty of time to learn not only his own pitching staff, but also opposing hitters across the National League. While he’s athletic and has a strong arm, his receiving skills need refinement, too. 

Montero was in a similar position as a 23-year-old rookie on the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that won 90 games and reached the National League Championship Series. He was eased into things by then-manager Bob Melvin, primarily catching veteran right-hander Livan Hernandez (Montero caught 32 of Hernandez’s 33 starts). In 2008, Montero caught 20 of Hall of Famer Randy Johnson’s 30 starts, and between his first two full years in the major leagues only played 154 games. 

That kind of narrow focus helped Montero, who’s now in Year 11 as a major leaguer, successfully assimilate into the major leagues and take over a starting gig in 2009. 

“At that age when you come up, normally it takes two, three years to actually see the guys that you played against them in the minor leagues at the big league level every day, and it’s going to be easier to call the games, recognize different hitters,” Montero said. “And that’s something that it takes a little bit more time because he’s going to come here and he doesn’t really know much about their lineup, their hitters and you really have to study and sometimes that’s kind of the hard part.”

Maddon wasn’t sure if Contreras would wind up specifically catching one pitcher and then filling in elsewhere, as Montero did, or if he’d be deployed in a different manner. The Cubs’ combination of veteran pitchers and catchers has produced an MLB-best 2.66 ERA entering Friday (and second-best 3.36 FIP), and tinkering with that chemistry requires a careful touch.

But the plan has always been to get Contreras to Wrigley Field sooner rather than later to give him that opportunity to methodically develop as a big league catcher. That was made clear in spring training, during which Contreras began working with Cubs pitchers in earnest.

Things may not go as smoothly with Contreras as they would with Montero or Ross behind the plate, but Maddon said everyone’s on the same page about having to potentially be a little more patient with the team’s catcher of the future. 

“That was a big part of our camp this year was to have the veteran pitchers understand what we thought of him and how good we thing he’s going to be, so be more patient,” Maddon said, “because veteran starting pitchers tend to be not patient. 

“So let’s get on the same page and really try to help this kid, and they’ve done that. Everybody’s on the same page with this. This is a well thought out program or plot for this particular fellow, and everybody is reading from the same sheet of music right now. We’ll do our best to ease him into this and we have the right coaching staff to do that besides the players themselves.”

While Contreras didn’t think he’d be in The Show this quickly, he did take a proactive approach to his future call-up by watching Cubs games while with Triple-A Iowa. He tried to put himself behind the plate while watching guys like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester to figure out their tendencies and how Montero and Ross called the game. 

Contreras’ work ethic was roundly praised by everyone who talked about him Friday, and the Cubs expect him to successfully absorb all the information provided to him over the coming months. But there’s no substitute for actually being behind the plate to call and manage a game. That’s where Contreras’ growth will come, even it’s a slow process. 

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, now is my time,’” Contreras said. “Since I got here, I’ve been living my dream.”

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.