Cubs

Cubs need to step up their defensive game

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Cubs need to step up their defensive game

SAN DIEGO — The Cubs will eventually have to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

How long do you keep Starlin Castro at shortstop? Does Javier Baez become trade bait or a core player (at shortstop, second base or third base)? Do you move Kris Bryant off third base to left field? Or will Kyle Schwarber have to play there if the catching experiment doesn’t work?

Addison Russell is a natural shortstop learning how to play second base. He’s 21 years old, the second-youngest player in the National League, with broad shoulders and big legs that made one rival scout wonder if he will outgrow the middle infield.

What seems obvious is the Cubs aren’t good enough to keep having these defensive breakdowns and become real contenders this season.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs could shake things up with Javier Baez and Kris Bryant]

“We’ve given too many games away this year,” manager Joe Maddon said, “whether it’s pitches out of the bullpen or (our) defense. We got to tighten it up all the way around.

“That’s how you stay hot. That’s how you really get to that record where you go from five over to 10 over to 15 over .500. You got to get to those numbers. And you got to play a complete game nightly to accomplish those goals.”

Maddon likes to say he comes from The Land of Run Prevention. The Tampa Bay Rays did it with pitching and defense and on a small-market budget.

The Cubs are making sacrifices while breaking in rookies and trying to generate more offense, building their team around a younger generation of power hitters. Defensive stats can also be inherently flawed or misleading, representing a next frontier in the age of Big Data.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs should be in position to make much bigger moves]

But even in giving all those concessions, this is still a team with question marks across the board, unless you ignore the eye test and think all the defensive metrics have an anti-Cub bias.

Only four teams in the majors had committed more errors than the Cubs (30) heading into Wednesday, while only three had a worse fielding percentage (.979). In its defensive efficiency ratings, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs at No. 22. This is also a bottom-10 team when it comes to double plays turned.

You couldn’t miss it during Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, where Bryant, Castro and Russell combined for three errors that led to three unearned runs.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” Russell said. “I know the type of baseball I’ve been playing is not the baseball that I’m used to playing (while) being at this new position. But I can’t be so hard on myself. I’m learning how to play second base at the big-league level. So I’m trying to cut myself a break.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs trade Welington Castillo to Mariners for Yoervis Medina]

All these issues are magnified for a pitching staff working off the basic philosophy of throwing away from slugging percentage, trying to get as many groundballs as possible and using the data to shift defenders into the right positions. The bullpen also has to compensate for a rotation that’s only made 20 quality starts through 38 games.

“It’s about pitches that you make a pitcher throw because you don’t make a play,” Maddon said. “Why are starters able to go more deeply into games? Because you play good defense. That’s not just about errors. It’s about making plays you’re supposed to make.

“When you make plays you’re supposed to make, pitchers throw less pitches, thus they pitch deeper into games. People always talk about pitch counts and all this other kind of crap. It’s about making plays.

“They’re definitely interrelated. They’re connected. So when you make plays, your pitchers pitch more deeply, thus the bullpen gets less stressed. And that’s what we’re shooting for.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs are seeing The Kris Bryant Effect]

The pitch-framing metrics are kind to Miguel Montero and David Ross and grade out those veteran catchers as good receivers. The Cubs had only thrown out four of 32 runners trying to steal, but the pitchers deserve some blame in that department.

Dexter Fowler has good range and a 2.5 Ultimate Zone Rating after finishing at -21.8 last season with the Houston Astros, but that probably says more about the fleeting nature of defensive statistics than some major breakthrough in center field.

But the defense should inevitably see some improvement across the next several weeks and months as Russell and Bryant gain more experience (and maybe with the addition of Baez from Triple-A Iowa).

“Oh yeah,” Russell said. “It’s new faces this year in this organization here at the big-league level. We’re just going to have to keep communicating, keep working. And we’ll see how that works out for us.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cubs also seem to have the right manager for the job, someone who won’t single out young players and rip them publicly.

“I don’t get bummed out or worried about this,” Maddon said. “Our guys are going to make mistakes. People have to understand that. (But) you got to cover through your offense sometimes.

“Sometimes your pitcher can pitch through a rough moment, too. But I don’t expect these guys to be perfect. I ask them to be present. I don’t ask them to be perfect.”

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.