Cubs

Cubs seeing Willson Contreras fit with their vision for catchers

Cubs seeing Willson Contreras fit with their vision for catchers

Cubs manager Joe Maddon isn’t sure when Willson Contreras will make his first major league start after the 24-year-old top prospect was promoted to The Show on Friday. But Contreras caught Jason Hammel’s 60-pitch bullpen session Saturday afternoon, and the veteran right-hander liked what he saw in working with the greenhorn backstop. 

“Very, very smart kid,” Hammel said. “I was impressed.”

The Cubs know Contreras will need time to develop and gather in-depth knowledge of his pitching staff and opposing hitters. But Contreras has the advantage of parachuting into a team that has an established pitching plan/process and is full of veterans, from fellow catchers in Miguel Montero and David Ross to starters in Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Hammel. 

“I think he’s going to have an easy job because we know what we’re doing,” Hammel said. “We’re going to kind of show him the ropes with us. As long as he follows us around, because we’re prepared. We know the gameplan. If we need to change things, obviously we talk to him. We won’t be afraid to talk to him. But I do think he’s not going to be very far behind.”

Still, Maddon preached patience for his veteran starters when they inevitably have to throw to Contreras. And Friday afternoon’s win over the Pittsburgh Pirates was a good example of how a veteran catcher can impact a game.

During Arrieta’s bizarre spate of wildness in the sixth inning, Montero went out to talk to Arrieta — “a great visit,” Maddon said — to help the reigning National League Cy Young winner get back on track. It wasn’t much, but all Montero did was remind Arrieta of things he already knew to help him start finding the strike zone. 

“Sometimes you have so many things going through your mind that you forget,” Montero said. 

Arrieta wound up striking out David Freese and Matt Joyce — both with three-ball counts — to keep the Pirates off the board in what turned out to be a 6-0 win. 

Moments like that are why a catcher’s offensive ability is a secondary concern to Maddon. During his wildly successful tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon’s catchers combined to hit .229/.297/.340 (76 wRC+); since he came to Chicago, Cubs catchers have combined for a .224/.323/.384 (91 wRC+) slash line. Both are varying levels of below average.

But Montero and Ross are highly regarded for their ability to handle a pitching staff and execute the gameplan laid out by pitching coach Chris Bosio & Co. And that’s where Maddon sees a catcher’s primary value being built. 

“You can never underestimate the importance of what a really good catcher can do for your pitching staff,” Maddon said. “I promise you any catcher worth his weight in salt will tell you that he’d much prefer to catch a winning ballgame than get three knocks. He’d rather get his guy through a really tough moment than get the RBI, winning hit. 

“… So when you get that guy, you have a much better chance of winning consistently than the guys out there worried about his hitting and offense. Believe me, pitchers know that and they don’t like that at all when they have a catcher who’s more dedicated to his offense and his defense, they know that and it shows up.” 

Contreras’ offensive numbers exploded in 2015 between Double-A Tennessee and the Arizona Fall League, and he continued to bash the ball around Triple-A parks before his promotion to the major leagues on Friday. His bat could be a major asset to the Cubs, but he also understands that his receiving and game-calling abilities are of equal or greater importance. 

His locker is right next to Montero’s and is only a few steps away from Ross’, and he plans on picking the respective brains of each veteran. 

“I want to take every advantage from them,” Contreras said. “Ask them questions and know they’ll answer.”

Both Montero and Ross seemed genuinely excited for Contreras to get to Clark and Addison, and seemingly everyone around the Cubs clubhouse had positive things to say about Contreras’ work ethic and confidence. Maybe the advice he gives during a game won’t be as good as what the team’s veteran catchers could dole out, but Maddon expects him to have the right attitude about it. 

“I don’t know that a young catcher would carry the same amount of cache to the mound with him that a veteran can,” Maddon said. “But I know Willson would go out there with some conviction. You never know how that would play out.”

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.