Cubs

Cubs' timeline for Willson Contreras with Miguel Montero on DL

Cubs' timeline for Willson Contreras with Miguel Montero on DL

Willson Contreras isn’t walking through that door – at least not yet – but the Cubs still envision their catcher of the future making his mark at some point this season.

It won’t be an immediate impact since the Cubs placed Miguel Montero on the disabled list with lower back tightness before Thursday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, promoting Triple-A Iowa catcher Tim Federowicz to Wrigley Field and having David Ross catch Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.

That’s the biggest concern now, how Contreras would handle a veteran pitching staff with strong personalities and how much he still has to develop defensively at the Triple-A level. Because last year’s Southern League batting champion is hitting .375 through his first 14 games with Iowa and has all the physical tools that essentially made him an untouchable prospect during trade talks over the winter.

“When I came up to the big leagues my first year, I thought it was going to be easier,” Montero said. “I wondered the same question for myself: ‘Man, how difficult could it be?’ To be honest, I didn’t realize until I had a couple years in the big leagues that it was harder than you think.

“Especially when you have these kinds of pitchers that have been around for a long time. You’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, trying to call the perfect game for this guy. It’s a lot of weight on your shoulders.

“I guess they’re trying to avoid that. Obviously, the time will come for (Contreras). But the only way to figure it out is to let him catch out here with them. I think that’s the only way to prove (yourself) and learn.

“If you keep saying he’s not ready to catch a major-league staff yet, when is he going to be ready, right?”

Montero didn’t know what triggered this injury – “I guess it’s age, right?” he said with a smile – but he felt something similar with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013 and missed almost a month while recovering from a lower back strain.  

Montero – who will turn 33 this summer and earn $14 million in the final guaranteed season of his contract next year – had been awaiting the results of an MRI and mentioned a couple of bulging discs in his back.

The Cubs need short- and long-term insurance policies and succession plans because “Grandpa Rossy” intends to retire after this season and Kyle Schwarber will have to prove he can still catch at the major-league level after undergoing surgery on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL.

It’s not realistic to think Ross can catch 100-something games at the age of 39. Federowicz looks like a decent backup option after playing parts of four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“We just had to make a choice right there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “‘Fed’ was here for a reason. ‘Fed’ had a great spring training and you’re looking at the overall development of Contreras.

“In your mind’s eye, if you’re putting this whole thing together, with a guy like Willson, you’re probably going to wait until the second half, hopefully, to get him involved here. Or the latter part of the season to really get him here (and) get his feet on the ground.”

It’s probably not fair to drop Contreras into the clubhouse of a World Series contender before his 24th birthday and expect him to take charge of one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

Remember, the Cubs left Contreras exposed in the Rule 5 draft after the 2014 season and didn’t add him to the 40-man roster, partially because the infielder signed out of Venezuela hadn’t played above the A-ball level at that point.

“You bring in a guy like ‘Fed’ for a specific reason and here the specific reason just popped up,” Maddon said. “He’s a veteran. He understands the major leagues. He understands veteran pitchers.

“There’s a lot of different reasons why you sign ‘Fed’ in the first place – and then you don’t run away from him when the opportunity jumps up there. Contreras’ time will come.”  

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.