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Cubs won't get into a war of words with Donald Trump

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Cubs won't get into a war of words with Donald Trump

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — About to begin a season where anything but a World Series title will be considered an epic disappointment, the Cubs refused to get into a war of words with Donald Trump.

The Cubs have been on the periphery of a surreal presidential race, with Trump sending out a cryptic tweet threatening the Ricketts family last month, and then doubling down during Monday’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, saying ownership has done a “rotten job” running the team.

“Maybe Mr. Trump did not follow the season last year,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Maddon claimed to be unaware of the story and had a reporter read Trump’s comments back to him before Tuesday’s 9-6 Cactus League win over the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark.

After overseeing a 24-game improvement and guiding a young team into the National League Championship Series, Maddon won his third Manager of the Year award, with his own press conferences becoming must-see TV.

“I don’t want to get into a battle with Mr. Trump,” Maddon said. “I have no idea what this is all about. It’s been a very entertaining political season. It’s actually to the point now where I prefer watching Fox and CNN over ESPN any day of the week.

“I’m totally enjoying the sport right now. So regardless of what’s being said or how it’s being said, it’s just posturing, anyway.”

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Trump took aim at Cubs ownership after reports surfaced that Marlene Ricketts contributed $3 million — before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries — to a Super PAC designed to stop the Republican frontrunner.

Marlene is married to Joe Ricketts, the TD Ameritrade founder who is not a visible presence around the team. Board member Pete Ricketts — who made an appearance at Cubs camp in Mesa over the weekend — is the Republican governor of Nebraska. Board member Todd Ricketts is also heavily involved in right-wing politics and helped bankroll Scott Walker in the Wisconsin governor’s failed bid for the White House.

Staying in character, Trump didn’t offer much in the way of substance or specifics when Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt asked him about the Ricketts connection. From the transcript on the newspaper’s website:

HIATT: “You said a few weeks ago after a family in Chicago gave some money to a PAC opposing you, you said, ‘They better watch out. They have a lot to hide.’ What should they watch out for?”

TRUMP: “Look, they are spending vicious ... I don’t even know these people. Those Ricketts. I actually said they ought to focus on the Chicago Cubs and, you know, stop playing around. They spent millions of dollars fighting me in Florida. And out of 68 counties, I won 66. I won by 20 points, almost 20 points. Against — everybody thought he was a popular sitting senator. I had $38 million dollars spent on me in Florida over a short period of time — $38 million. And, you know, the Ricketts, I don’t even know these people.”

HIATT: “So, what does it mean, ‘They better watch out?’”

TRUMP: “Well, it means that I’ll start spending on them. I’ll start taking ads telling them all what a rotten job they’re doing with the Chicago Cubs. I mean, they are spending on me. I mean, so am I allowed to say that? I’ll start doing ads about their baseball team. That it’s not properly run or that they haven’t done a good job in the brokerage business lately.”

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Theo Epstein, who has a wicked sense of humor, thought about it for a moment, but the president of baseball operations declined to respond to Trump. (Epstein headlined a private Lincoln Park fundraiser for Barack Obama during the last presidential election cycle after The New York Times exposed plans for racially charged attack ads linked to Joe Ricketts.)

Chairman Tom Ricketts, who carefully watches what he says to reporters, addressed the Trump situation during his annual spring-training media session.

“We stand up for what we believe in,” Ricketts said last month. “We support the causes that we think are important. That’s what America should be. That’s who we are.”

Maddon had dinner on Monday with David Axelrod, an old Chicago Tribune reporter turned political consultant and a former senior advisor in the Obama White House. Maddon and his entourage — strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Buss and media-relations director Peter Chase — met at Mastro’s City Hall, the Scottsdale steakhouse, the night before the Arizona primary.

Maddon has a libertarian streak and a $25 million contract. He grew up in an Italian-Polish immigrant family in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region and still returns home to support the Hazleton Integration Project, the foundation he launched to try to help ease the ethnic and racial tension in that blue-collar city.

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But Maddon didn’t want to make any endorsements or comment on Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric.

“I think it’s very wise for me not to become political,” Maddon said. “I think it’s very wise for me to remain apolitical at this point. There’s so much time left to get this thing all figured out.

“I am a registered voter in Florida. I exercised my right in the primary, and I’ll continue to watch this whole thing unfold. It’s very interesting. Oh my God, I’ve never gone (home) — (or) back to the RV in this situation — and wanted to put on the news as much I want to do that right now.

“So I think from the perspective of getting more people involved — or paying attention — I think it’s all good. Now whether you agree with somebody or not, it never matters to me. I’m probably the most nonjudgmental person you’ve ever met in your life.

“It’s all about individual tastes, where you’re coming from, what do you think, and obviously it leads to some heated discussions.”

While sitting in the dugout, it took more than six minutes before Maddon got the first baseball question during his daily pregame media session.

“That’s all the political crap you’re getting out of me,” Maddon said. “You know I love all this stuff, but I’m not going there. I am not going there.”

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.