Cubs

Culture shock: Epstein won't obsess over Yankees anymore

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Culture shock: Epstein won't obsess over Yankees anymore

There was a golf cart parked outside the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium. The years the Cardinals had won the World Series were painted onto the back 26, 31, 34, all the way to 06 and filled up the entire bumper.

The rumor was that the cart was positioned like that only when the Cubs were in town, so that the players would see it each time they showed up for work (as if theyd bother to take off their sunglasses, turn off their cell phones and notice). Thats St. Louis.

Theo Epstein grew up rooting for the Red Sox, and went to Brookline High School, which sits about two miles from Fenway Park. He was braced for the Boston media, and understood how much the fans there hated the Yankees.

Cubs-Cardinals wont generate as much heat as Yankees-Red Sox. Fighting George Steinbrenners Evil Empire is a bigger national story. But theres no doubt that Epstein will have to close the gap on the Cardinals.

Because while the Cubs just spent nine days haggling with the Red Sox over two prospects as compensation to get an executive with two championship rings the Cardinals were chasing their 11th World Series title.

Does Epstein really have an idea of what hes getting himself into? The answers will start coming Tuesday, when hes introduced as the new president of baseball operations at Clark and Addison.

The Red Sox viewed almost everything through the Yankees prism. The Cubs arent as obsessed with the Cardinals, but Epstein can learn something about this group by how they responded against their biggest rival.

Just ask Carlos Zambrano, minutes after Carlos Marmol blew the save on June 5 in St. Louis: We played like a Triple-A team. This is embarrassing. Embarrassing for the team, for the owners. Embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassing. Thats the word here for this team. We stinks.

Or Mike Quade, who sat in his Busch Stadium office on July 30 and was asked if he felt like he was managing for his job: I feel like that every day. When the blame game starts, you cant sit in this seat and not take some of it. I understand that. But me sitting here and cowering because of that is absurd.

Decisions should be coming soon on Quade and his coaching staff, and eventually Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. Epstein whiffed big on several free agents in Boston Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, to name a few and hes coming to an organization that has been crippled by the wrong long-term contracts.

When Albert Pujols hugged Jim Hendry behind the batting cage at Wrigley Field on May 10, the Cubs general manager at the time immediately knew it would become a runaway national story. (The Cardinals were also in town on Aug. 19 when chairman Tom Ricketts publicly announced Hendry was fired.)

Chicago reporters may not become as obsessed with Epsteins personal life, because he didnt grow up here, but its not like hell be getting a free pass. Just ask anyone who covered Dusty Baker or Lou Piniella how worn out they were by the end.

That Pujols ducked out of the clubhouse without speaking to the media after Thursday nights Game 2 loss to the Rangers probably shows that life inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl would get real old, real fast for the future Hall of Famer.

When Epstein became the youngest general manager in baseball history in late 2002, he inherited a 93-win team built around Cooperstown-level talents Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, plus foundation pieces like Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe.

The Cubs have been a fifth-place team for the past two seasons, but Epstein will find that the game can be more forgiving outside the American League East. The Cardinals won 83 games in 2006 and the National League Central and another World Series title.

In Epsteins nine seasons on the job, the Red Sox won at least 90 games seven times, and never less than 86. Even if you are a tortured Cubs fan, you have to like those odds.

If its all about getting in the tournament and getting hot, then these Cardinals are the perfect example. They were 10 12 games back on Labor Day. They snuck into the playoffs by one game as a wild card.

It helped that the Cardinals won 10 of their 15 games against the Cubs, including two on the seasons final weekend in St. Louis. Immediately after that loss on Sept. 25, the Cubs had their rookie hazing. Young players dressed up in short skirts for the long flight to San Diego.

One coach couldnt hide the disgust on his face as he walked out of the dressing room, though it was hard to tell whether it was all the laughter, or another one-run loss to the Cardinals, or some combination of both. It remains to be seen how many will be back in that clubhouse next year.

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.