Cubs

Cubs still in position to make the big trade when they need it

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Cubs still in position to make the big trade when they need it

Plan A would be the best way to describe this offseason, the Cubs getting exactly what they felt they needed to augment a 97-win team in John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.

That $272 million spending spree only cost money and two draft picks, meaning the Cubs will plan for worst-case scenarios and can still make the big trade when they absolutely need it.    

That day is coming. But the star-studded cast that needed security to move around the Sheraton Grand Chicago over the weekend will largely be the same group that reports to Arizona in February.

This is Year 5 for the Theo Epstein administration and the Cubs still haven’t really sacrificed an elite prospect in assembling a team that advanced to the National League Championship Series last season.  

“We were trying to acquire as much young talent as we could,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development, as Cubs Convention shut down on Sunday. “But I think we’re in that area now where we do have volume.

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“We have some prospects and we have guys that are blocked, so to speak, when you look at the corners with Kris (Bryant) and ‘Rizz’ (Anthony Rizzo). We’ve got a really good everyday lineup up there. (So) I think we certainly would be more open to it now.”

Epstein called the odds of pulling off a major trade this month “pretty slim” and said: “It’s more likely than not that we’re done with any significant moves.”

At least until the Cubs get past Opening Day and see how Jake Arrieta responds after throwing almost 250 innings during his Cy Young Award year, whether or not outfielder Jorge Soler can stay healthy and if Joe Maddon’s bullpen needs another power arm.

“There’s no doubt we’ve transitioned,” Epstein said, “(from) that phase where we’ve been building through the minor leagues almost exclusively to get them to Wrigley and form a core that we can build around.

“There are more players coming who are going to make an impact in Wrigley. But I do think we have surplus in certain areas. And as we get into the 2016 season, we know things are going to go wrong. We know guys are going to get hurt. We know needs are going to arise.

“We like to have the ability to adjust midstream, because we’re not smart enough to know exactly how we’re going to have to fix the team. But we probably know we are going to have to fix certain areas.

“We’re going to probably dip into our minor-league system, at times, and make trades and try to make the 2016 team better midstream, so we can win eight more games than we did last year.”

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The Cubs didn’t have the financial flexibility or the frontline pitching prospects or the stomach to make a huge trade before the July 31 deadline last summer.  

The Cubs were a third-place team at that point and the reasonable position figured to be: Why go all-in for a coin-flip wild-card game? That group caught fire in August, September and early October and there are only World Series expectations now.   

So the Cubs continue to be linked in trade rumors, but as Epstein said: “That’s not our fault.”

If the Tampa Bay Rays were that serious about making a deal, president of baseball operations Matt Silverman probably wouldn’t be talking about the Cubs on MLB Network Radio.

It’s also fair to wonder how much the Rays would actually want to help the Cubs after pushing so hard for MLB to investigate the Maddon hire, turning the manager’s contractual opt-out right into a tampering case.

“We’re very happy with our roster right now,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It fits our manager really well. We have tons of guys he can move all over the field. We have a lot of versatile pitchers.

“If we had to go to Mesa tomorrow, we’d be OK with that. If something makes sense over the next month and makes us better, obviously, we’ll do it. But we’re not looking for big changes.”  

Lackey is the 200-innings workhorse with two World Series rings, a take-charge attitude and a sense of urgency at the age of 37.

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Zobrist is Maddon’s super-utility guy and the clutch hitter who helped turn the Kansas City Royals into champions after a midseason trade from the Oakland A’s.

Heyward is a three-time Gold Glove outfielder whose teams have averaged almost 92 wins during his first six seasons in the big leagues – and he’s still only 26.

But the Cubs can’t count on being as lucky and as healthy as they were last year, and all these young players won’t automatically stay on this upward trajectory.

Willson Contreras – who won a Southern League batting title last year and will begin this season at Triple-A Iowa – is projected as a frontline catcher in the majors and essentially viewed as untouchable. Gleyber Torres – the 19-year-old shortstop who got a $1.7 million bonus out of Venezuela – would also probably be in that off-limits category.   

But scan the rest of Baseball America’s top-10 list and you see first-round picks Ian Happ and Albert Almora – plus outfielders Billy McKinney and Eloy Jimenez and third baseman Jeimer Candelario – in what Epstein still believes is at least a top-third farm system.  

Even after winning the offseason, the Cubs still understand they will eventually have to give up future assets to get the missing pieces for a World Series contender.  

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.