Cubs

Cubs will see what they’re made of against Nationals

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Cubs will see what they’re made of against Nationals

PHOENIX – Men vs. Boys.

That’s how Dale Sveum summed up the four-game beatdown the Cubs got from the Washington Nationals in D.C. in September 2012, when there appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

The Plan won’t be something so far off in the distance when the Cubs return to Wrigley Field on Memorial Day as a wild-card leader, even after Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

The Cubs didn’t clean up during this 3-3 road trip through San Diego and Phoenix. It again exposed the defense (eight errors). It led to questions about closer Hector Rondon and a shaky bullpen. It saw the end of an 0-for-31 streak while hitting with runners in scoring position. All these issues won’t disappear overnight.

[MORE: The friendly rivalry between Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper]

But the buzz is still building. The national TV networks want a piece of the Cubs again. Sports Illustrated already did a feature on Kris Bryant. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin have been hanging around the team.

Now the Cubs can see how good they really are during this six-game homestand. The Nationals – a World Series team on paper – are coming to the North Side. The Kansas City Royals – the defending American League champs – will be the second act.

“Bring it on,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure the place will be raucous.”

[MORE: Maddon thinks Kyle Schwarber could help Cubs this year]

Sveum, the ex-manager, will be there with the Royals as their hitting coach, and he must be wondering about the type of job he could have done in Wrigleyville with $155 million lefty Jon Lester fronting the rotation and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo maturing into an MVP candidate.

Even Maddon admits a lot of the heavy lifting had been done before he left the Tampa Bay Rays, signed a five-year, $25 million contract and offered to buy everyone at The Cubby Bear a shot and a beer. The Cubs are 24-19 on Memorial Day weekend and you probably would have taken that back in spring training.

“We’ve been aware that we have a tough schedule coming up,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “But I think we approach games with equal importance, regardless of who the opponent is, because we know that at the end of the day, every one counts. We’ve seen several times how seasons can come down to that final four or five days determining who gets in and who’s going home.

“But it’s kind of a measuring stick with a team like Washington. Kansas City has continued to grow and get better as a team. It’s going to be an exciting couple series at home for us. We know what we have to do to win, and we’ll be ready.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

A young lineup that leads the majors in strikeouts will have to face Washington’s nasty rotation – Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmermann, Max Scherzer – before dealing with Kansas City’s nightmare bullpen.

“This will be a good test for us,” Bryant said. “It should be fun. It’s always good to see how you fare against the top guys in the league. I’m excited for the challenge and look forward to it.”

The Nationals notched 96 victories last season and then signed Scherzer, a Cy Young Award winner, to a seven-year, $210 million megadeal. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, a Chicago guy, reshaped the franchise through the top of the draft, gutsy trades and targeted free-agent signings.

The Cubs are running a few years behind the Nationals in their rebuild, but that’s essentially how the Theo Epstein administration is trying to construct a sustainable 90-game winner at Clark and Addison.

“I always like playing good teams,” Maddon said. “I always believe that’s going to bring out the best in your team. That’s the part I’ve always enjoyed about playing good teams. And I also think with young teams that are getting better, they need to see that kind of competition to really get to that level you’re looking for them to get to.”

This week we’ll see just how close – or far away – the Cubs are from being real contenders.

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.