Cubs

Cubs see Addison Russell taking a big step forward

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Cubs see Addison Russell taking a big step forward

Addison Russell spread his arms out wide before taking off his helmet and getting lifted up into his teammates’ arms. The Cubs jumped up and down at Wrigley Field, the mosh pit moving from second base into shallow center.

The crowd roared after Russell blasted the game-winning double off Washington Nationals lefty reliever Matt Grace with two outs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night. It soared out into the gap in right-center field, past Washington centerfielder Denard Span, hitting the grass at the edge of the warning track, rolling into the ivy and bouncing off the brick wall for a 3-2 victory.

“They’re at the top,” Russell said after beating the Nationals with his first walk-off hit at any level of professional baseball. “If we can compete with them, we can compete with anyone. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can compete with anyone. We just got to keep grinding it out.”

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The next night, Russell would commit a throwing error that helped create an unearned run the Cubs couldn’t afford to give up when Max Scherzer performs like a $210 million ace with a Cy Young Award on his resume. The Cubs lost 3-0 after splitting two one-run games with the National League’s most talented team on paper.

The Cubs (25-21) are willing to live with the growing pains, knowing they need Russell if they want to make the huge leap you saw last year from the Kansas City Royals, who come into Wrigley Field this weekend as the American League’s defending champs.   

“You have to understand this guy just turned 21,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Most of the time, those guys are in Double-A, or even sometimes A-ball, and they’re making all these mistakes. They’re swinging at bad sliders in Davenport.”

Maddon turned to the cameras in Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon and kept rolling: “Which I love Davenport, by the way. Or, say, Salinas, and I do love Salinas. That’s where you make these mistakes. But he’s making them here in front of everybody with cameras and the newspapers.

“Understand, it’s not easy to fight through that at that age with that lack of experience. His mental toughness is really incredible to me, how he’s fought through all these kind of difficult moments for himself. He’s not used to failing. He’s always been the lead bull.

“So as you’re watching him, specifically, and all of our guys blossom, understand where they’re at developmentally. Understand where a lot of guys that age and that experience level are. They’re not here. They’re in some obscure place without the spotlight on them learning their craft. He’s having to do it on the fly here. And he’s doing a great job.”   

A natural shortstop, Russell is learning how to play a new position in the big leagues, leading the team with four defensive runs saved, according to the online database at FanGraphs, while also leading all NL second basemen with seven errors.

“He’s extremely talented,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s got so much room to grow. And those are things that he’s going to have to go through – and we’re going to have to go through as a team – to get better.”

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Russell is also hitting .275 with three homers, eight doubles, eight RBI and a .788 OPS through 25 games in May. Maddon tries to relate to his players by remembering what he was doing at that age. (A fraternity party at Lafayette College would be a good guess.) 

“Unbelievable,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “He obviously is a talent at 21. God, there’s no chance I’d be doing that.”

“I was in the minors,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “I was down in the ditches, in the bushes, trying to make a name for myself. That’s what I was doing. I sure as hell wasn’t doing what he’s doing right now.

“He’s 21 years old and he’s not just hanging in there. He’s creating himself a nice little niche.”

Hammel had been a piece in last summer’s blockbuster Fourth of July trade with the Oakland A’s. The assumption was the Cubs would get a big-time pitching prospect back in the Jeff Samardzija deal, but Oakland general manager Billy Beane made president of baseball operations Theo Epstein an offer he couldn’t refuse by including Russell.

“When he came up, his first week, he looked like he was just trying not to make waves, playing a little bit tight,” Epstein said. “His swing didn’t have its normal looseness and the bat speed that comes with it. He was a little robotic in the field.

“There comes a point where every player sort of takes a deep breath and relaxes and lets their natural ability come out. You’ve seen more and more from him.”

As much as Scott Boras loves ripping Cubs ownership, the super-agent also made a point to say how much his client has improved since getting traded from Oakland, crediting the organization’s coaches and player-development infrastructure.

“I’ve come pretty far,” Russell said. “There’s still a long ways to go. I’m just trying to get better every day. Just trying to get my early work in, take more swings in the cage. Just keep up my routine and do all the small things that make me ‘me.’

“Each day, it just seems like the game is slowing down, and I want to continue and stay on that process.”

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Russell had 57 career at-bats on the Triple-A level before getting promoted in late April, and then he struck out 12 times in his first five games. He’s learning the angles at second base, the footwork that goes into turning a double play, getting more comfortable moving to his right. He’s diving, popping up and throwing to first base again, which he jokes is his signature move. 

Russell has been accountable, answering postgame questions at his locker, and he doesn’t draw attention to himself in the clubhouse. 

For someone who entered this season as Baseball America’s No. 3 overall prospect, Russell has managed to fly under the radar – thanks to Kris Bryant – and not believe all the hype.

Whether it’s making highlight-reel plays, or errors on routine groundballs, Russell expects to be the same guy every day. That’s why the Cubs believe he’s one of their untouchable core players.

“It just goes back to maturity,” Russell said. “You’re going to have those games where you do punch out three times, maybe four times. But tomorrow’s a new day. You got to come back with that whole new mindset.”

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.