Cubs

Cubs ready to challenge Bryce Harper and take on Nationals in potential playoff preview

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USA TODAY

Cubs ready to challenge Bryce Harper and take on Nationals in potential playoff preview

Joe Maddon can’t play the same mind games with Bryce Harper that he did early last season – when the Cubs walked the Washington Nationals superstar 13 times during a four-game sweep at Wrigley Field – because Dusty Baker eventually moved Daniel Murphy up in the lineup for protection and Ryan Zimmerman is now having an All-Star year.

But the Cubs may have found another way to try to contain Harper and Murphy – Mr. October when the New York Mets swept them out of the 2015 National League Championship Series – and slow down the Los Angeles Dodgers if they meet again in October.

That will become the backdrop this weekend in Wrigleyville – likely first-round playoff preview – even if the Nationals don’t start Max Scherzer (neck spasms) and Stephen Strasburg (nerve impingement, right elbow). 

To get that dominating left-handed presence, the Cubs aimed high and tried to acquire All-Star closer Zach Britton before the July 31 trade deadline, but worried about the Baltimore Orioles stringing them along and how the chain of command and medical-review process works inside that organization.

The Cubs ultimately decided to strike a deal with the Detroit Tigers that would fill two needs at once – lefty reliever Justin Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila – and primarily cost a Triple-A prospect (Jeimer Candelario) who struggled during cameo appearances in the big leagues and would be blocked by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo anyway.    

“Our guys went after what we perceive to be the best fit,” Maddon said Thursday. “But the discussion wasn’t necessarily about getting another lefty because of these other teams.”       

Consider it a bonus, like Wilson coming with an extra year of club control and the potential to be the 2018 closer. A full-strength rotation already moved lefty swingman Mike Montgomery back into the bullpen, where left-hander Brian Duensing (2.45 ERA, 49 strikeouts/10 walks in 44 innings) has emerged as an underappreciated/overlooked asset.

[MORE: Joe Maddon getting Cubs into playoff mode: ‘You cannot be thin-skinned right now and win’

“The boys are just going after a good arm,” Maddon said. “There were some right-handed guys involved possibly, too. For me, if you look at (Wilson), he throws really well against both sides, so he is a strong neutral guy.”

Harper came into that marquee series in early May 2016 with a 1.021 OPS that dropped to .950 by the end of that month to .891 at the All-Star break to .814 at season’s end. Whatever contributed to that relative down year, Harper is back playing at an MVP level, hitting .324 with 27 homers and 80 RBI.   

But pick your poison when Murphy and Zimmerman are both hitting above .300 with 41 homers and 149 RBI combined and OPS totals north of .925.

“At that time, I didn’t know exactly where we were bullpen-wise,” Maddon said. “Zimmerman was hitting behind (Harper) and not having the season that he’s having right now. So I think the dynamic is more about the guys hitting behind him, for me, as opposed to who’s in our bullpen.

“We have three really solid left-handers. But last year, I did all that stuff based on Ryan was just struggling at that time. That was it. If Murphy was hitting behind him, I probably would not have done it.”

Harper enjoys the Wrigley Field stage and appreciates the sense of history here. During the four-game series the Cubs split at Nationals Park in late June, Harper went 5-for-16 with zero homers, two doubles, three walks and five strikeouts, driving in two runs and scoring two more.

At that point, the Cubs had a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), a Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) and a Cy Young Award finalist (Kyle Hendricks) on the disabled list.

Of course, one way for the Cubs to handle Harper – and troll the Nationals and counteract the Dodgers – would be signing him as a free agent after the 2018 season and reuniting him with Bryant, the friendly rival he grew up playing with and against in Las Vegas.

But that is a discussion for another day. The Cubs are healthy after that wave of injuries, confident from their post-All-Star break surge and improved by those trade-deadline additions. The Dodgers are playing .700 baseball, but the Cubs aren’t going to concede home-field advantage to the Nationals in the first round of the playoffs.      

“It’s going to be interesting to see how we match up against them now,” Maddon said. “The way this is trending right now, I’m looking at (it like) of course the Dodgers are out of reach, but I think everybody else is in play.” 

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.