Cubs

Cubs: Why didn’t Theo Epstein make a splash at the trade deadline?

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Cubs: Why didn’t Theo Epstein make a splash at the trade deadline?

MILWAUKEE — That’s it?

After all the speculation about how the Cubs would be willing to spend big money on the right player, all the talk about these great prospects and all the fantasy trade proposals on Twitter, Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department didn’t make any seismic moves before Friday’s trade deadline.

The Cubs did reinforce two big areas of need, upgrading their rotation (Dan Haren) and bullpen (Tommy Hunter) through solid deals with the Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles that only cost them three minor-league players and around $5 million in salary.

“‘Disappointed’ is kind of a loaded word,” Epstein said before a 4-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “Would we have liked to have hit a home run of a deal? Yeah, absolutely. But if you’re dead set on making a big deal for the sake of making a big deal, you end up making a bad deal.

“We explored everything very thoroughly, very aggressively, came close. But we still have that talent in the organization. Some of them will go on to play up here, and others we’ll probably use in trades another day.”

[MORE: Starlin Castro relieved the trade deadline is over]

The Cubs tried to get Tyson Ross, a frontline pitcher who won’t become a free agent until after the 2017 season, but the San Diego Padres didn’t sell, strangely remaining stuck in neutral.

The Cubs negotiated with the Cleveland Indians, but couldn’t convince them to give up Carlos Carrasco, another prime-age pitcher who could remain under club control through the 2020 season.

While the Cubs would like to write everything off as sticking to The Plan, they don’t really have any elite, high-level pitching prospects to shop now, no one particularly close to being a top-of-the-rotation starter in the majors.

And there’s inevitably a drain on minor-league talent with four rookies in the lineup (Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell).

“I think we have one of the deeper farm systems in all of baseball,” Epstein said. “When half your team is 23 and under, you might not have the impact 23-year-old left in your farm system. But that’s natural. You just have to give it a little bit of time.

“Our players were in demand. It was just a lot of the guys we had targeted — who we thought would make the biggest impact — weren’t moved.

“We weren’t beat for those players. They just weren’t moved. I think our farm system — considering what’s here in the big leagues right now — (is) in excellent shape.”

[RELATED: Cubs strengthen rotation with trade for Dan Haren at deadline]

While the Los Angeles Dodgers kept flexing their financial muscles, Epstein also downplayed the significance of working without a real big-market payroll.

“I don’t think finances played a big part in what we were able to do — or weren’t able to do,” Epstein said. “You see some teams out there who are just absolutely leveraging their massive resources, taking on bad contracts left and right in order to acquire young players.

“I guess in their situation it’s smart and creative. Every team has to find what’s appropriate for their situation.”

The Cubs (55-47) understandably didn’t want to go all-in with rental players when they have maybe a 50-50 chance to make it to a one-game playoff, trailing the St. Louis Cardinals by 10.5 games in the division.

The Cubs now trail the San Francisco Giants — who picked up pitcher Mike Leake from the Cincinnati Reds for the stretch run — by one game for the second wild card.

The New York Mets — who are two games back in the National League East and 3.5 games out of a wild-card spot — added power-hitting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in a deal with the Detroit Tigers. 

“The Mets felt like they needed more offense. The Giants brought in more pitching,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I like the pitching that we got a lot. There’s always going to be this ratings system.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans]

“Look at Haren’s numbers and what he’s done this year. It’s been pretty good. I’m a Hunter fan. I’ve always liked his stuff. He’s not afraid and he’s very durable.  

“The other side of it is the guys out here — we have to get more out of them offensively. Miggy’s (Miguel Montero) getting well. (Tommy) La Stella is not far from becoming well. (Javier) Baez is getting well.

“I kind of like what we got. We just got to pull more out of them right now.”  

The Cubs went out and handled the last-place Brewers, noticing a more relaxed Starlin Castro (two RBI) and thinking Jason Hammel (6-5, 3.13 ERA) is just about back to full strength after that hamstring injury. Four relievers combined to get the final 10 outs, with Hector Rondon notching his 15th save (and third in three days).

“We could care less,” Hammel said. “We’re supposed to come out here and win ballgames with whoever’s on the roster. We like who we’ve got.”

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.