Cubs

Cubs proving they have the right kind of fight

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Cubs proving they have the right kind of fight

The Cubs may not have proved themselves to be playoff contenders yet, not with a team four games over .500 that’s still prone to mistakes.

But in playing close games against established contenders in Washington and Kansas City over the last week at Wrigley Field, they’ve proved something else — at least to themselves.

“Listen man, you have to love the fight,” manager Joe Maddon said after David Ross’ 11th inning walk-off bloop single earned the Cubs a 2-1 win over Kansas City Sunday. “If you’re standing or sitting in the captain’s chair and you have a bunch of guys who can fight like that, what else could you possibly want? We’re not going to be perfect every night, we’re going to mistakes, of course we are. But if you have that kind of fight, I’ll take it.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon embraces loss of September off day]

The Cubs won two of those five games against the Nationals and Royals, but weren’t blown out in any of them. A 3-0 loss on May 27 to Washington was largely the doing of Max Scherzer’s mastery, while a four-run loss to Kansas City on Friday was close until Dexter Fowler misjudged a soft line drive in the eighth. And even in that loss Friday, the Cubs battled back from an early deficit and tied things up when Addison Russell homered off lights-out Royals righty Kelvin Herrera.

Maddon characterized the homestead as “not bad,” and it’s worth repeating the Cubs still lost more games than they won on it. But through two months, the Cubs have already played in 24 one-run games, more than any team in baseball.

And in those games, despite an often-suspect defense and inconsistent bullpen, the Cubs are 14-10. That’s helped grow the kind of mentality that the club hopes pays off as the pressure builds over the summer.

“Everyone’s believing more,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s nice. We stayed afloat through April and May, and now we can really take off and that’s what we want to do.”

[RELATED: Blackhawks or Lightning? Joe Maddon conflicted for Stanley Cup Final]

On Sunday, the Cubs fell behind 1-0 and had to find a way to scratch across a run as Yordano Ventura’s 100 mile per hour fastball and electric arsenal of offspeed pitches cleaved through the batting order. But after a seemingly-innocuous one-out walk and a wild pitch in the seventh, Chris Coghlan — who had three of the Cubs’ four hits off Ventura — laced a game-tying single to left.

The Cubs were poised to break through in the ninth inning off Royals reliever Wade Davis, who hadn’t allowed a run all season. But with runners on the corners and one out, David Ross was unable to successfully lay down a safety squeeze, instead bunting into an out at first and ultimately stranding Rizzo at third as the game careened into extra innings.

But Ross came back in the 11th and blooped a Jason Frasor changeup between left fielder Alex Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar in left for a walk-off single.

“Luckily I drove that ball in the gap right there at the end,” Ross smiled.

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“… This was a tough homestand as far as playing really good competition and I thought we were in every game,” he said. “We believe we have a good team here, guys have a lot of confidence and they don’t give up. That’s the one thing about this team that has been really great to see these guys compete night in and night out.”

While Maddon said after the Cubs’ loss Friday his team wasn’t ready to compete for a World Series — as the Royals did in 2014 — he has seen the kind of signs from his players that make him believe they could get to that point this season. The Cubs aren’t where they need to be in terms of the concepts Maddon wants them to have nailed down, but what he sees his team have team has is that nebulous fighting spirit that any playoff contender ultimately needs.

“Once you get that engrained in the fabric of your culture, all of a sudden it can become the fabric of the day,” Maddon said. “Obviously Kansas City has that, Tampa Bay had it, I believe we got it. It’s there to be nurtured. It’s right there.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.