Cubs

Cubs weighing options in center field beyond Dexter Fowler

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Cubs weighing options in center field beyond Dexter Fowler

Joe Maddon kept telling Dexter Fowler: You go, we go. And the Cubs went all the way to the National League Championship Series. But after a sensational walk year for the leadoff guy, it could be looking more like: He gone.

Fowler will cash in somewhere as a free agent, and if the Cubs have to choose between investing in center field or pitching, that money will probably be transferred into the rotation.

Even during a subpar first half, the Cubs planned to give Fowler the $15.8 million qualifying offer, knowing they would either get a good one-year solution or the draft pick. And then Fowler caught fire after the All-Star break, getting on base almost 39 percent of the time and finishing with 102 runs scored, 17 homers and 20 stolen bases.

“I believe God has a process,” Fowler said. “At the end of the day, if this is where I need to be, this is where I need to be.”

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President of baseball operations Theo Epstein didn’t rule out a return during Thursday’s state-of-the-team address at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs also know an athletic player with on-base skills will get paid this winter.

“Dexter Fowler had an unbelievable year,” Epstein said. “He fit in tremendously well in this organization. I think really highly of him as a player and as a person.

“He’s a free agent. He’s earned that status. It’s not something I take lightly. Players rarely have the ability to go out and see what their market is and what teams are interested in them.

“We’ll see what the future holds. But certainly there’s an interest in sitting down at the appropriate time with Dexter and his agent, Casey Close, and seeing if there’s a way to keep him as a Chicago Cub.”

If healthy, the Cubs see Denard Span as another possible option for center field in 2016. Injuries limited Span to only 61 games, and the Washington Nationals missed his presence during a massively disappointing year. Span, who hit .301 with a .796 OPS, will be 32 next season and would probably be a defensive upgrade.

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Maddon’s mix-and-match philosophy means the Cubs could move Kris Bryant from third base to the outfield, but it’s hard to see center being his permanent home.

There are too many injury risks – collisions with the wall and teammates – for a premium power hitter with superstar potential. Bryant hasn’t fully developed all those defensive instincts yet – the sense for speed and angles and positioning – and ideally would prefer to play third base.

After watching Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler misread too many balls hit by the New York Mets during that NLCS sweep, the Cubs see outfield defense as a glaring area for improvement.

After watching Schwarber and Bryant rocket through the farm system, the Cubs also need to remind themselves to be patient and remember how long this process usually takes with prospects.

Albert Almora – a strong defender and the first player drafted by the Epstein administration in 2012 – won’t be ready to play center field on Opening Day 2016.

Almora didn’t have an exceptional wire-to-wire season at Double-A Tennessee, but he’s still only 21 and seemed to hear the wake-up call as other players debuted and made their marks at Wrigley Field. Almora hit .301 with an .834 OPS in the second half for the Smokies, though that surge and first-round pedigree could make him an interesting trade chip this winter.

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Fowler and Epstein said all the right things publicly, but the Cubs are probably looking for a free agent or a trade target to help bridge the next two seasons in center field.

Given the franchise’s wave of young talent, we’ll see how many years the Cubs are willing to go for someone who will be 30 next season. And Fowler will never be in a better position to maximize his earning potential.

“This is a great organization,” Fowler said. “Awesome city. And the fans were awesome. This is Wrigley Field. Not a better place to play.”

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.