Cubs

Cubs should be in position to make much bigger moves

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Cubs should be in position to make much bigger moves

SAN DIEGO – The time will come for the Cubs to put their money where their mouth is.

If this team really is that good, then it’s up to Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and their baseball operations department to find the right pieces between now and the July 31 trade deadline, perhaps dealing from what’s arguably baseball’s best farm system.

If this team stays in contention, then it’s up to president of business operations Crane Kenney to deliver on that memorable quote from a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story: “Basically, my job is fill a wheelbarrow with money, take it to Theo’s office, and dump it.”

Chairman Tom Ricketts put it this way during his state-of-the-team news conference in spring training: “We’ll have the flexibility to do whatever Theo needs to do in the middle of the season.”

The roster churn won’t stop, not with the Baseball Prospectus calculations giving the Cubs a 63-percent chance of making the playoffs before Tuesday night’s sloppy 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. 

This team clearly isn’t a finished product yet, not with Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro and Addison Russell combining for three errors that led to three unearned runs, and a young lineup striking out 14 times against James Shields and San Diego’s lights-out bullpen. 

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

The Cubs needed a bigger wheelbarrow for Shields, who waited to sign until after Super Bowl Sunday and almost fell into their lap just before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. Shields had played for manager Joe Maddon and helped lead the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals to the World Series.

“It was very close,” Maddon said. “It came down to the wire. He and I talked often. I’m a big fan of his. We had a great relationship in Tampa Bay.” 

Shields got the no-decision after limiting the Cubs to two solo homers (Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler) across seven innings and notching 11 strikeouts. Shields is 5-0 with a 3.74 ERA at a time when the Cubs are struggling to squeeze innings out of the back of their rotation, already exiling Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson to the bullpen. 

Maybe investing in a 33-year-old pitcher who’s put up eight straight seasons with 200-plus innings would have backfired. But the Cubs floated a three-year, $60 million concept that included a significant amount of deferred money and a vesting option that would still cap the overall value at less than $80 million. 

Shields wound up grabbing four years and $75 million guaranteed from the Padres and the chance to max out at $91 million with a club option for 2019. 

“Yes,” Maddon said, he’s confident the resources will be there if the Cubs keep doing their part between the lines this summer.

[RELATED: Javier Baez will be an X-factor as Cubs stay in contention]

“But I don’t even think about that,” Maddon said. “Just win tonight’s game. I’ve talked about that a lot, just staying in the present tense. I really have tried to train myself to win tonight’s game.

“Keep doing that often enough, and then that moment will take care of itself. Organizationally speaking, ownership, front office – fabulous. So if we just take care of our job on a daily basis, then that will take care of itself. I don’t worry about stuff like that. Ever.”

The 25-and-under infield didn’t take care of business as the Cubs wasted a strong performance from Jason Hammel, who took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and made his fifth straight quality start.

As the Cubs (21-17) slowly unraveled, Bryant fielded a chopper near the third-base line in the fifth inning and made a high throw that ricocheted off the top of first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove. Castro couldn’t handle a routine groundball in the seventh inning. Russell got caught in “no man’s land” in the eighth inning and dropped a pop-up in shallow center field as the Padres (20-20) kept capitalizing on mistakes.

“I got to make that play,” Castro said. “When you make an error, that kills the team.” 

“I got a good read, a good bead on it and it just kept drifting away,” Russell said, “and no one else really called it.”

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“We gave them that game,” Hammel said. “We should have won that game. Everything we did tonight, there’s no way we should have lost that game.”

The Cubs are going to have to live with some of these growing pains. But inside the clubhouse, they’re not talking about this being a stepping-stone season or trying to build a bridge to 2017. Epstein and Hoyer don’t have to mortgage the future now, but there should still be bigger moves out there.

“Since December, I saw the front office doing the best they can to put a team together to compete,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “They put a really good team together with the addition of (Jon) Lester, (Jason) Motte, (David) Ross. The young guys are big-league players already. They’ll still develop, but they’re (doing it) in the big leagues. 

“Maybe they think about next year or the year after. But it can be this year – and then next year and the year after. Because these guys are just getting better.” 

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.