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Cubs waiting to see what message front office sends at trade deadline

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Cubs waiting to see what message front office sends at trade deadline

The Cubs won’t feel the same hangover after the July 31 trade deadline. Now it’s just waiting to see how strong the adrenaline boost will be for the playoff hunt.

“We’re used to selling right now,” said Anthony Rizzo, who’s matured into a two-time All-Star first baseman during this rebuilding process. Rizzo’s definitely noticed a lot less clubhouse chatter about all the rumors.

“There’s not guys saying: ‘Oh, where am I going? Where am I going? Where am I going?’ It’s more of a (feeling like): ‘Let’s just keep winning. Keep winning — and see what we do.’”

The Houston Astros jumped the market on Thursday, acquiring lefty Scott Kazmir from the Oakland A’s for an A-ball catcher (Jacob Nottingham) and an A-ball pitcher (Daniel Mengden), which could set some sort of baseline if the Cubs settle for a rental pitcher.

The Cubs will get an up-close look at a potential building block on Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where Cole Hamels is scheduled to make what could be his final start in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform.

[MORE CUBS: Source: Cubs chasing Cole Hamels, David Price not in play yet]

There are many obstacles to a Hamels deal, from the financial restrictions imposed on Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department, to the awkward power structure in Philadelphia, where general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is on the hot seat and Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick is working with incoming president/ex-Cub Andy MacPhail during the transition.

Remember, in the past the Phillies haven’t liked the idea of Javier Baez as a centerpiece to any Hamels deal. And the middle infielder hasn’t played in a game with Triple-A Iowa since early June while waiting for his fractured finger to heal (though his rehab assignment should ramp up soon).

Starlin Castro is a three-time All-Star, but his trade value has nosedived to the point where the Cubs are probably stuck with him (and his bounce-back potential) for now. Castro’s .582 OPS ranks 22nd out of the 23 qualified shortstops in the majors.

Still, Epstein’s style is to kick the tires on everything and never rule anything out, so you know the Cubs will do something to upgrade a team that’s 51-43 and holds a half-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card.

“It just sends a message to the clubhouse that they believe in us,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “We believe in each other. Especially on winning teams, you believe in one another. You believe you’re good. And then when the front office even backs you with that, it just sends more confidence to the guys.”

[MORE CUBS: Trade Watch: Aramis Ramirez is headed back to the Pirates]

Epstein hates the Us vs. Them storyline, pointing out how aggressive the Cubs have been in fast-tracking Kyle Schwarber, patching up the bullpen and accepting the “Super Two” financial implications with Kris Bryant and Addison Russell.

Manager Joe Maddon will take Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks: “You can put them up against any top four with any team in baseball.”

But with Tsuyoshi Wada, Clayton Richard, Dallas Beeler and Donn Roach going 2-for-12 in quality starts, the Cubs at least need someone to stabilize the back of the rotation.

“Everybody else does, (too),” Maddon said. “Honestly, everybody’s looking for that other guy.”

Ross remembered the bounce the Boston Red Sox got from that three-team deal involving the White Sox and Detroit Tigers on July 31, 2013. Jake Peavy was six years removed from his Cy Young season, but he went 4-1 with a 4.04 ERA in 10 starts for the Red Sox down the stretch (and had three up-and-down outings in the playoffs).

[MORE CUBS: Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber]

“At the time, he was probably the best starting pitcher available on the market,” Ross said. “They gave up a guy — Jose Iglesias — who’s really good. So you saw the sacrifice they made to go get another starting pitcher that you needed.

“It was like: ‘Wow.’ And who knows what would have happened without him? But we ended up winning the World Series.

“It just solidifies (that) everybody’s on the same page. Sometimes, you hate to feel that business side creep in, but it’s part of it.

“As a team, you get that boost when they get a strong player. But it’s not like you lose confidence when they don’t, either. It’s kind of a looking-back thing that I’m able to do right now.”

Epstein also looks back on the history of deadline deals and feels like those trades usually favor the sellers. It helped lay the foundation at Wrigley Field and will certainly influence how much of the future the Cubs are willing to sacrifice now.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Once Ryan Dempster stopped playing “Golden Tee” in the office and agreed to go to the Texas Rangers, the Cubs could cash in his final 12 starts in 2012 and add Hendricks to their farm system.

“We got a good group here,” Hendricks said. “It just seems like we can’t hit that stride that we want to hit. But the guys in this clubhouse can definitely get it done.

“It’s just — I don’t know what it is — something’s just got to change. Something’s got to click. But it will.

“If we get some guys at the deadline, or if something happens, great. But if not, we’ll be fine, either way.”

Rizzo — who picks his spots when he wants to send a message through the media — put it this way: “As of now, if the season ends, we’re in the playoffs. That’s where we want to be.”

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.