Cubs

Dale Sveum laid down the law in Cubs camp

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Dale Sveum laid down the law in Cubs camp

MESA, Ariz. Dale Sveum has been inside the interview roomdungeon where the Cubs manager will have to face the media. He checked it out trying to find space for pinch-hitters to get ready during games. The pillars were in a bad spot.

We searched a lot of little places, Sveum said. There was just nothing where you could get a full swing anywhere, unless you went out on the concourse.

Sveum doesnt want to hear excuses about day baseball or Wrigley Fields facilities. The first-year manager is looking for answers.

So as the clubhouse guys loaded bags onto the orange moving truck parked outside HoHoKam Stadium on Saturday Sveum was supposed to get his chopper on there it seemed like a good time to look at the imprint hes put on this team.

Hes got more tattoos than most managers, pitcher Ryan Dempster said. I cant see Lou (Piniella) riding into the field on a Harley.

Sveum has been the hot prospect who had to make it as a utility guy. He recovered from a freak leg injury and lasted 12 seasons in the big leagues. He was willing to become a bullpen catcher to stick around with the 1998 New York Yankees and get to the World Series.

This is someone the Cubs want to ride with.

Hes been through it all in his career, utility man Jeff Baker said. When you see guys that have a lot of experience and a lot of perspective on that stuff, they are even keel. Its 162 games. Youre going to have your ups. Youre going to have your downs. The worst thing as a player is when you have a manager that rides that rollercoaster.

When youre doing well, everythings great. (And) if the team goes into a slump and youre not playing well, its disappointing when you see the manager get off you or get bummed.

You really dont get that feeling with Skip this year. Hes going to ride with you. He knows theres going to be good times. He knows theres going to be bad times. He understands how hard this game is.

Sveums normal routine in Arizona began by waking up around 4 a.m. and working out at the teams complex before the players walked into the clubhouse. It had all been scripted out long before then.

Theres no: What are we doing today? pitcher Randy Wells said. Theres no guessing.

Veteran left-hander Paul Maholm who had spent his entire career with the Pittsburgh Pirates felt a sense of urgency in Camp Sveum.

Guys on a consistent basis were here early, every morning, getting extra work in, Maholm said. When games start, guys are busting it. You dont see a lot of guys that are just kind of taking it like, Oh, its spring training.

Thats (Sveums) personality: You work hard. You play hard. Have fun later.

You just respect a guy for coming in and kind of laying it down and saying this is how were going to play and this is what I expect.

That sense of structure and purpose began with individual player meetings run by Sveum, team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer at the beginning of camp.

One of the things he focused on in the interview is spring training (as) a tone-setter, Hoyer said. Thats where you build the makeup of your team about having that attention to detail and creating some camaraderie, too. Its not only about being a drill sergeant.

Sveum, whose late father was a Marine, believes its a sign of weakness to show emotion in the dugout. When things do go wrong, he will be able to lean on people he trusts, because he had a voice in choosing his coaching staff.

Everybody stresses fundamentals in spring training. But maybe its hammered home harder this time because Sveum and his new coaches Jamie Quirk (bench), Chris Bosio (pitching) and Dave McKay (first base) have 101 combined seasons of experience as a major-league player or coach.

Dales done a great job of setting the tone for detail, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo said. He teaches the game really well in every phase. We got some great coaches with a lot of experience. Thats real vital. Theyve been on championship teams, in the World Series.

Sveum views himself as a teacher, and still plans to be hands-on around the cage and in the video room, even as the demands on his time multiply. At least he wont have to be out there spinning negative stories about Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano.

This has been a distraction-free zone, and welcoming toward the players of the future.

Dale is a pretty straightforward guy, top prospect Brett Jackson said. Hes so knowledgeable about the game. He wants you want to come out every day and bust your butt.

Some people ask: Why do you act so comfortable? You havent even been on the team yet. Well, I wouldnt want to act like I was uncomfortable. But the real answer is: Its an easy coaching staff to be comfortable with. Its an easy team to be comfortable with.

Sveum doesnt particularly enjoy talking about himself, but its not like he dreads talking to the media. Once the Cubs get back to Wrigley Field for Wednesdays workout, he will almost certainly be asked about changing the culture, as if no one had thought to ask that question the past six weeks.

That statement is kind of oblivious to me, Sveum said, because I wasnt here, so I dont know what the culture was. We all know that its been a long time since the Cubs have won a World Series. But in the meantime, I dont know whats gone on here.

I just wanted to bring in my two cents and get people to do things the way I expect them to do and how I expect them to play the game. Everybodys had a great spring that way. Guys have played hard and worked hard. So I cant ask for anything else.

There is approximately two-and-a-half days left in camp before the Cubs board their charter flight back to Chicago. Well see if there will be a carryover effect. There will be more heat from the fans and the media. Cracks in the foundation will begin to show. That interview room will feel a lot smaller.

Youre going to get more frustrating questions and youre going to get questions that are second-guessing you on a daily basis, Sveum said. Thats the nature of the business. I can sit here and say anything I want about it. But I havent been in that hot seat yet.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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USA TODAY

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.