Cubs

Cubs trying to protect their farm system from Red Sox

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Cubs trying to protect their farm system from Red Sox

Tom Ricketts told Jim Hendry he would be fired on July 22. They buried the secret and the chairman kept his general manager on the job for almost a month, right up to and through the trade deadline.

The Cubs left their roster mostly intact, sending only Kosuke Fukudome and almost 4 million to the Cleveland Indians for two prospects. Several players had no-trade rights, and there wasnt a blockbuster deal to make, but fans wanted to see some change.

At the news conference on Aug. 19, Ricketts was asked why Hendry was the one working the phones.

Nothing was all that compelling, Ricketts said that day. If you look at the trade deadline stuff, I think a lot of people have this perception that its a great chance to retool your organization. But teams are careful with their prospects these days.

People are a little more thoughtful about giving up a high-end prospect for an existing star. There wasnt anything out there that we thought was best for the organization.

The Cubs feel like theyre getting a rock star in Theo Epstein, and the Boston Red Sox know that. There really arent many high-end prospects to be had in this negotiation, and thats why the Cubs desperately want to hang onto them.

Industry sources have said how Ricketts and team president Crane Kenney did this deal backwards, that they should have completed the compensation part first, before coming to terms with Epstein.

The White Sox already had a compensation agreement in place with the Florida Marlins when Ozzie Guillen was released from his contract last month.

By Wednesday, there was some optimism that the talks had progressed. The feeling is that it will take two prospects the Marlins set that precedent in the Guillen deal to free Epstein from the final year of his contract in Boston.

All indications are that the new head of baseball operations will be coming to Chicago within the next few days. Commissioner Bud Selig would have to green light any formal announcement during the World Series.

As much as Major League Baseball doesnt want to distract from the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers, thats already happened with the protracted Epstein talks.

The next windows to unveil Epstein at a stadium club press conference could be the World Series off-days scheduled for Friday and Tuesday. A potential Game 7 would take place on Oct. 27.

The Cubs a franchise that has essentially been in a holding pattern for almost three months, since the moment Ricketts told Hendry he was fired wont want to have it drag out that long. Their calendar year for employee contracts runs through the end of October. They also have organizational meetings tentatively scheduled for the middle of November.

Thats a time for Epstein to get a deeper understanding of whats coming next. In trying to place a value on their general manager, the Red Sox wont be overwhelmed by what the Cubs can realistically offer.

The Tampa Bay Rays raided the system last winter in the Matt Garza deal, grabbing five players, including three Baseball America judged to be among the top 10 prospects in the organization. That haul included pitcher Chris Archer (No. 1), plus shortstop Hak-Ju Lee (No. 4) and outfielder Brandon Guyer (No. 10).

There may not be any future All-Stars that are easy to identify in this organization. The Cubs certainly havent set the industry standard, but the player-development system isnt quite as bad as its been portrayed in the Boston media.

There is the sense that Brett Jackson is a five-tool player who does everything well, though there may not be an exceptional part to his game. He still could be roaming the Wrigley Field outfield next summer.

If Trey McNutt had put together a stronger season, he might have been included in the rotation plans for 2012. But given that there are so few impact arms at the highest levels of the system and that the rotation should be the No. 1 priority this winter its difficult to see the Cubs giving up their top pitching prospect.

Cubs people will remind you that Josh Vitters just turned 22, and can still show everyone why he was the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. They think that by 2014, the athleticism that made Matt Szczur an NFL prospect could turn him into the leadoff hitter theyve been searching for all these years.

Double-A Tennessee featured 12 Southern League All-Stars and advanced to the championship playoff round for the third consecutive season.

No one at the bargaining table truly knows how good these players are going to be. Theyre all just guessing, though Epstein has a good track record of putting the right people in place, which is why the Red Sox should make demands.

But its about time to let Epstein get to work and start building around Garza and Starlin Castro.

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.