Cubs

Cubs shouldn’t take their window to contend for granted

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Cubs shouldn’t take their window to contend for granted

The Cubs shouldn’t take their window to contend for granted.

That will mean pouring resources back into the on-field product and restoring the payroll to a big-market level, giving up draft picks to sign free agents, sacrificing precious prospects in win-now trades and not getting too comfortable while everyone tells them how great this team should be.

That’s not being a hater or not understanding The Plan.

The Cubs know they will have to be aggressive across the next five years if they want to keep playing meaningful games in September and producing binge-watching episodes like Tuesday’s huge doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

Just ask Chris Coghlan – the National League’s 2009 Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins – about how fragile this business can be.

Coghlan tore the meniscus in his left knee during a postgame pie-to-the-face celebration in the middle of a TV interview in 2010, got non-tendered after the 2013 season and had to sign a minor-league deal and go to Triple-A Iowa before rebuilding his career with the Cubs.

“It’s very easy for people to just think they’re a genie and that they just know the future,” Coghlan said. “That’s natural, because you look at the pieces, you go: ‘Whoa, we’re good this year and look at this – we have control of X-amount of (players) for the next (several) years.’

“People don’t understand that there are very few people in the game that put up consistent numbers and continually produce and stay healthy.”

As much as the Cubs want to become a bigger, badder version of the St. Louis Cardinals, that franchise is a total outlier with 15 winning seasons since 2000.

Remember how the Washington Nationals laid out the blueprint for a steady, smart rebuild? The Nationals invested $210 million in Max Scherzer, adding a Cy Young Award winner to a 96-win team, only to watch their playoff odds shrink to 0.3 percent by Monday morning on Baseball Prospectus.

“It’s very hard,” Coghlan said. “Look at the Nationals and how many injuries they have. It’s very hard to do (it) consistently like what the Cardinals have done. You have to have a deep farm system. You have to have the right pieces. You got to have professionals. And you have to have really good talent.

“That’s a model for success.”

[MORE: Cubs will take their shot at Pirates in potential playoff preview]

The Cubs will play four games in three days against the Pirates, the team they trail by four games for home-field advantage in the wild-card playoff. Right now, it looks this runway will go on forever, with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber all potentially under club control through the 2021 season. Javier Baez (age: 22) and Jorge Soler (age: 23) should also have their best years in front of them.

The Cubs might have the best manager in the game (Joe Maddon) and a president of baseball operations who helped build two World Series winners with the Boston Red Sox (Theo Epstein).

If only it was that simple.

With the Cubs “playing stupid” and running at a 93-win pace, the surface-level comparison has been Maddon’s 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, a last-place team the year before that won the American League pennant.

But the postscript to that narrative is the Rays haven’t gone back to the World Series, winning one wild-card game and zero postseason series since then.

“We kept winning 90 games and it’s not a bad thing to do,” Maddon said. “If we could sort of create that same culture here and get into that 90-wins-on-an-annual-basis mindset – and actually do it – what happens is in a shortened five-game series almost anything can happen.

“Sometimes it is a little bit of luck involved. A bounce there, the starting pitching, how it plays. But we’ll take our chance that we could eventually turn into that kind of a team.”

The Nationals converted 100-loss seasons into No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, using trade chips to get a leadoff guy (Denard Span), rebuild their pitching staff (Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister) and continue augmenting their homegrown core.

Washington overpaid Jayson Werth (seven years, $126 million) to strengthen its lineup and change its clubhouse culture the same way the Cubs overpaid Jon Lester (six years, $155 million) to anchor their rotation and lead by example.

“The Nationals really did everything right,” pitcher Dan Haren said. “But some teams (have) cracks in them that you don’t see at the beginning of the season and they end up showing.”

[MORE: Ready or not, Cubs will find out if bullpen is ready for October]

After the Cubs killed the Carlos Marmol trade with the Los Angeles Angels, Haren signed with a Washington team coming off a 98-win season. The Nationals dropped to 86 wins and out of the playoffs in 2013.

For all of its savvy trades and scouting-and-player-development success stories, Washington hasn’t won a postseason series since shutting down Strasburg in September 2012.

“It should show people that you should never take for granted any time a team gets to the playoffs,” Coghlan said. “We’re not guaranteed we’re going to be back here tomorrow. Because I don’t know if this guy’s going to stay healthy next year and I don’t know if he’s going to put up the same year that he put up this year.

“Everybody just assumes you’re just going to continue to get better and better and better. That’s the hope for everybody. But everybody has a plateau. And nobody knows their plateau.”

Haren pitched for the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series the Red Sox owned. He got back to the playoffs two years later with the Oakland A’s – and hasn’t thrown a pitch in the postseason since then. Even while making 30 starts for a 2012 Angels team that featured Albert Pujols and Mike Trout and finished in third place with 89 wins.

The Los Angeles Dodgers put Haren on a playoff roster last year and watched the Cardinals beat Cy Young/MVP winner Clayton Kershaw twice in a series that only went four games.

Haren will turn 35 on Thursday and is leaning toward retirement after this season – whenever it ends for your 2015 Cubs.

“Every team is different – (this) team is going to look different next year,” Haren said. “Players change. And I think that the best way to look at it is that this is going to be the only time that this group is going to be together. So try to make it as special as you can.”

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.