Cubs

Cubs trade Welington Castillo to Mariners for Yoervis Medina

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Cubs trade Welington Castillo to Mariners for Yoervis Medina

SAN DIEGO – The Cubs ended their three-catcher experiment on Tuesday, trading Welington Castillo to the Seattle Mariners for right-hander Yoervis Medina, showing a sense of urgency in trying to strengthen an overworked bullpen.

The Cubs didn’t flip Castillo for some A-ball pitcher. Medina, 26, will first report to Triple-A Iowa, but he should get a real shot to contribute at some point, given all the volatility the Cubs have experienced in the middle innings and late-game situations.

Medina put up a 2.82 ERA in 141 appearances out of Seattle’s bullpen across the last three seasons, going 10-9 with 43 holds and two saves. He notched 140 strikeouts in 137 innings while limiting opponents to a .216 batting average.

Medina had been sent down to Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate after giving up seven walks in 12 innings and hadn’t pitched for the Mariners since May 2. His fastball, which averaged 94.9 mph last year, had dropped to 92.4 mph this season, according to the online database at FanGraphs.

Still, manager Joe Maddon compared Medina’s upside to Pedro Strop, another reliever with good stuff the Cubs fixed after a change of scenery.

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“Nobody’s talked to me about less velocity,” Maddon said before Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. “I’ve heard more about swing-and-miss capability, a breaking ball and sinking the ball in the ground, which are really attractive qualities.”

The Cubs almost got to Memorial Day weekend with three catchers, dragging this situation out longer than anyone expected after Theo Epstein’s front office made it an offseason priority to upgrade behind the plate.

After the Toronto Blue Jays won the Russell Martin sweepstakes, the Cubs traded for Miguel Montero and signed David Ross to be Jon Lester’s personal catcher, investing $45 million and making multiyear commitments to both players.

Castillo – who had been in the organization since 2004 after signing as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic – should get a chance to hit the reset button and maybe show that he can still become a frontline catcher.

The Mariners began the day at 17-20, needing an offensive jolt to make up some ground in the American League West, where they already trailed the Houston Astros by seven games. Seattle’s primary catcher, Mike Zunino, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, was hitting .179 with a .600 OPS.

[RELATED: Why Cubs believe clubhouse chemistry matters]

“I’m pretty sure Wely is going to help them,” said Montero, a two-time All-Star with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “I wish him the best. He’s a great guy, a great teammate, and he’s got really good potential to be one of the best behind the plate. There’s no doubt about that.”

Castillo generated 21 homers and 78 RBI during the previous two years combined and has a .717 career OPS. He is 28 years old and isn’t positioned to become a free agent until after the 2017 season.

Even with diminished playing time and no clear future in Chicago, Castillo still worked hard and maintained the same positive attitude inside the clubhouse. Stuck in the National League, he appeared in 24 games for the Cubs this season, hitting .163 in 47 plate appearances while catching only 64 innings.  

“He needs to play,” Montero said. “He really deserved to play.”

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Castillo has a rocket arm and good reflexes on balls in the dirt, but he lacked an element of creativity in calling pitches at a time when the Cubs overload their catchers with information and want a stronger veteran presence.

“Welington’s good,” Maddon said. “Seattle’s going to get a really good catcher. I’m really happy for him if it permits him to play more often. He’s really good behind the plate. He’s learning how to really call a good game. His physical skills are outstanding – the blocking and throwing are among the best.

“You hate to lose a guy like that, but you always have to give up something to get something.”

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.