Cubs

Cubs: Let the David Price madness begin

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Cubs: Let the David Price madness begin

CINCINNATI — Let the David Price madness begin.

There’s been so much speculation about Price being right for the Cubs, from Theo Epstein’s front office hiring his old Vanderbilt University pitching coach (Derek Johnson) to be their minor-league pitching coordinator, to luring his beloved manager (Joe Maddon) away from the Tampa Bay Rays.

Price certainly made it sound like the Cubs would be an attractive — if not ideal — destination in free agency when he spoke at length with a group of Chicago reporters last month inside Comerica Park’s home clubhouse.

Within nine hours on Monday, you had the bromance between Price and Jake Arrieta on Twitter, followed by a buzzworthy USA Today report that the Detroit Tigers will “surrender” and become sellers by the July 31 trade deadline.

“That’s news to me,” Arrieta said before Tuesday’s 5-4, 13-inning win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. “But we all know what the situation is. Like (Johnny) Cueto here is a looming free agent, as well as a number of other guys. There’s talk of us — as well as other teams — looking for a top-of-the-rotation guy. But that’s just what nearing the trade deadline brings.”

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Arrieta stood at his locker and explained the Price connection. They had played together on Team USA and competed against each other in the American League East. Coming out of Texas Christian University, Arrieta had admired Price and viewed him as the standard, trying to measure himself against the best. The Rays drafted Price No. 1 overall in 2007, the same year Arrieta dropped to the Baltimore Orioles in the fifth round.

“I’ve known Price for a long time,” Arrieta said. “We’ve kind of kept close tabs on each other over the years. That’s really it, though.”

Fast forward to Monday’s Twitter exchange, which started with Jon Lester giving a shout-out to Arrieta and a fan suggesting Price would make an excellent No. 3 starter for the Cubs.

Arrieta responded by posting a crying-with-laughter emoji: “Price a #3?”

Price retweeted that and wrote: “Jake I always loved you...but that right there makes me love u more!!”

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A lot of teams love Price, which means the Tigers could create a bidding war, possibly prevent a franchise crash and restock the farm system after winning four straight division titles but no World Series championship. Detroit also began the day at 46-46, only four games out of a wild-card spot.

It’s doubtful the Cubs would have the stomach to deal elite prospects for basically a two-month rental and maybe one playoff game on the road, knowing their best years should still be ahead of them.

It’s also unclear if the Cubs even have that close-to-impact headliner, since Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber have graduated to the big leagues and are off the table.

That’s not even getting into all the questions about the organization’s financial flexibility, from this year’s deadline to how a $200 million megadeal would fit in the future.

“I think what we have here is good enough to make a push in the playoffs,” Arrieta said. “We’ve shown we can win one-run games. At this stage of the season, we can’t blow leads. That’s really it. Obviously, a top-of-the-rotation guy’s going to help anybody.

“(But) we’re set up pretty well. We just need to continue what we’re doing on the mound. We’re playing better defense. We just got to score a few runs a game. We don’t really need much. Really, with the guys we got, we don’t need much from the offensive side.”

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Price appreciated Maddon’s gimmicks with the Rays, playing dress-up on road trips and bringing zoo animals into the clubhouse. Tampa Bay went to the 2008 World Series, and four years later Price won the Cy Young Award while pitching for Maddon.

But Price didn’t want to get into the idea of reuniting with Maddon when asked about free agency again during last week’s All-Star festivities in Cincinnati.

“I’m not gonna answer those questions,” Price said. “You guys are going to get me in trouble, man. I love being a Tiger. I have fun at the field every single day. Wherever I’m playing baseball next year, it’s not going to be because of a manager. I promise you that. It’s not gonna be the reason why.”

If Price gets traded, he can’t be tagged with a qualifying offer and the attached draft-pick compensation. Lester getting traded from the Boston Red Sox to the Oakland A’s at last year’s deadline certainly opened his eyes to the world outside Fenway Park.

“That was probably my biggest worry last year,” Price said. “Whenever I was with Tampa and the trade deadline was approaching, I was like: I don’t know if I can pitch for another team. I don’t know if I can go play for another team or be close to or as comfortable as I was in Tampa.

“Being traded to Detroit last year, and going through that process, and more importantly coming back this year, and going to spring training, and just being with the guys for a full year, it makes me feel like I can do this anywhere. I guess it’s just kind of a sigh of relief.”

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.