Cubs

Cubs will keep their foot on the gas pedal with chance to clinch in St. Louis

Cubs will keep their foot on the gas pedal with chance to clinch in St. Louis

Cubs-Cardinals coverage begins on CSN Monday night at 7 p.m. with "Bases Loaded" airing at 6:30 p.m.

The Cubs celebrate every win with loud music and dance moves, the fog machine pumping so much that it sometimes sets off the fire alarms inside Wrigley Field’s underground clubhouse. So imagine how much this group would love to clinch the division at Busch Stadium, party in front of The Best Fans in Baseball and trash the visiting clubhouse, spraying bottles of champagne everywhere and dumping beers all over each other.

The St. Louis Cardinals are still the gold standard in the National League Central, and would be a dangerous team in a best-of-five series – if they can make the playoffs and win the wild-card game. The Cubs actually have a losing record (6-7) against the Cardinals, a hard-to-read, bridge-year team with a losing record (32-39) at home. With the magic number at five, it would take a three-game sweep for the Cubs to fly back to Chicago on Wednesday night as division champs. 

“We’ve proved that regardless of what our lead is, we got the gas pedal down,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “I don’t see anybody letting up.”

Clinching at Busch Stadium would be an exclamation point to the Cubs eliminating the Cardinals from last year’s playoffs and signing Jason Heyward and John Lackey as part of a $290 million spending spree – or another middle finger in a heated rivalry that began in 1892 and has seen St. Louis win 11 World Series titles.  

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who grew up as a Cardinals fan in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining territory, used his first year on the job to play mind games with St. Louis (“I don’t know if Tony Soprano was in the dugout…we’re not going to put up with that from them or anybody else”) and emphasize how a young team needed to go into hostile environments and learn how to win, the way his Tampa Bay Rays teams couldn’t become intimidated in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.   

Except for misunderstandings between Cubs fans wearing his “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts in April – and ushers enforcing ballpark policy on clothing with explicit language – Maddon has mostly let his team do the talking at Busch Stadium. The 2016 Cubs are a fully formed contender with blue-chip talent, a relentless attitude and a unique clubhouse culture.

“I anticipate hair on fire,” Maddon said. “I don’t care what our record indicates – I expect our guys to go out there and play the game right.

“From spring training right to now, man, I’ve been really pleased and impressed with our ability to come ready to play every night.”

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The Cubs responded to their worst month (12-14 in July) with their best month (22-6 in August), giving them a chance to clinch before Week 2 in the NFL, in a division that produced three teams with at least 97 wins last year.

As much as the Cubs feasted on the rebuilding/tanking Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds (20-8), they also ruined 2016 for the Pittsburgh Pirates (winning 12 of those 15 division games) and won the season series against the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

“I don’t think that anybody is looking at where we’re at and celebrating,” Zobrist said. “We celebrate after the wins, one at a time. But outside of that, we know that there’s a lot of work to do. We come to play every day. And we come to get better every day. And we feel like our work is still a long ways from over.”

Zobrist earned a World Series ring last year with the Kansas City Royals and had been a key piece of the Rays team that shocked the baseball world by winning the 2008 American League pennant. The Cubs wanted that focus and experience to help them get back to October.

“The contributions are coming from everywhere, so everybody wants a piece of the pie,” Zobrist said. “In a way, you feel like if you haven’t done anything recently, you haven’t done anything, because there’s so much good play happening around the clubhouse here.

“You look at the starters, to the relievers, to the starting position players, to the bench players, there’s been contributions everywhere. So everybody’s kind of hungry to contribute and do what they can and prove that they (belong) on that postseason roster.

“That’s a good thing. That’s a good problem to have.” 

The Cubs have lined up their rotation for St. Louis with two Cy Young Award candidates going on Monday night (Kyle Hendricks) and Wednesday afternoon (Jon Lester), with Jason Hammel in between trying to show he’s a viable option for the playoffs. A Cardinals team that’s a half-game out of a wild-card spot will try to keep pace with Mike Leake (9-9, 4.61 ERA), Jaime Garcia (10-12, 4.58 ERA) and Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.05 ERA).

Whether or not it happens near the Gateway Arch, it’s almost time for the Cubs to get their goggles ready.

“We haven’t slowed down since Day 1,” Hammel said, “so there’s really no reason to see why we would now.”

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.