Cubs vs. Mets: Big bats, power pitchers and how to build a contender


Cubs vs. Mets: Big bats, power pitchers and how to build a contender

The Big Bat Theory led the Cubs to load up on young hitters at a time when power became a rare commodity and so many other forces tilted the game toward high-velocity pitching.

The New York Mets – another big-market franchise with their own financial issues – looked at the long-term rebuild and wound up stockpiling young arms.

This is an oversimplification, because Mets general manager Sandy Alderson is a “Moneyball” pioneer who inherited Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom from the previous regime. And Cubs president Theo Epstein has overseen the construction of a sturdy pitching infrastructure.

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There will be no instant judgments here, because the Cubs and Mets could both prove to be right (or wrong) across the next several years as they shift gears into win-now mode.

But the Cubs took Round 1 on Monday night at Wrigley Field, knocking out deGrom in a 4-3 victory and seemingly saying to the rest of New York’s heavyweight pitching staff: What else you got?

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo crushed back-to-back pitches from deGrom – the National League’s 2014 Rookie of the Year – in the first inning. Bryant nearly hit the video board in left field, driving a ball toward the top of the newly reopened bleachers for a two-run homer. Rizzo then slammed another 94 mph fastball into the empty right-field bleachers to give the Cubs a 3-0 lead.

Within the first three years of the Epstein administration, the Cubs spent first-round picks on position players Bryant, Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber. They flipped potential big-time pitchers Andrew Cashner and Jeff Samardzija for a future All-Star first baseman in Rizzo and a possible franchise shortstop in Addison Russell. They gave Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract before a new collective bargaining agreement changed the international rules of engagement.

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The Cubs pounced on hitters because they understood all the injury risks with pitchers and realized offense is suffocating right now with tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs, specialized bullpens, extreme defensive shifts and sophisticated scouting reports.

“Pitching and defense got all the toys right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And that’s why you’re seeing them dominate the game. And it’s going to stay that way for a bit. I don’t know what the next item is that’s going to come along that’s going to benefit the offense. But it isn’t here yet.”

For all their natural talent, combined Bryant, Russell and Soler have struck out almost 36 percent of the time this season. In the age of Big Data, this will be an ongoing issue for a Cubs team (16-15) with swing-and-miss issues anyway.

The next two nights, the first-place Mets (20-12) will have their top prospect (Noah Syndergaard) make his big-league debut and then give the ball to The Dark Knight of Gotham (Harvey).

“Now you do scout every game, every day, everybody,” Maddon said, “so you’re building up this really larger cache of information that can really help break somebody down.

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“That’s what these young hitters are facing, because nothing helps the young hitter now. Nothing. Zero.

“I don’t know that there’s anything out there to really accelerate hitters. So when you see a young hitter that’s really good…that’s pretty significant. Because that doesn’t happen, obviously, very often.”

The Cubs understood they would eventually have to overpay for pitching and they found their match in Jon Lester, who’s starting to look more and more like a $155 million ace after a brutal April.

Lester gave up three runs in six innings to improve to 3-2 with a 4.10 ERA. If the Cubs want to start rolling this summer, they will need the All-Star lefty who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

“Now to be kind of the old guy, it’s weird,” Lester said. “I can go back to my days and just how naïve I was to the game and not understanding the game and understanding how to actually pitch. But these guys understand the game.

“That’s a testament to the farm system. The coaches down there, the front office, have done a great job in bringing these guys along and teaching them the game, how to play the right way.

“These guys are impressive. To see ‘KB’ come up – and ‘Addie’ and Soler – and to see the adjustments they make day to day and how hard they work, it’s just a testament to the organization on what they do down there, how they prepare these guys for this stage.

“This is a tough stage, especially in a town like this. When you get here, there’s expectations. You’re expected to do the things that people talk about.”

At some point during Lester’s six-year megadeal, the Cubs and Mets figure to be on a collision course toward late October. That’s where you can settle the hitter vs. pitcher debate.

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.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.