Cubs

Dempster - not Zambrano - to start Opening Day

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Dempster - not Zambrano - to start Opening Day

Monday, Feb. 21, 2011
Posted 11:29 a.m. Updated 5:25 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Ryan Dempster represents what the Cubs would like to project.

Hes the player that young pitchers model themselves after. Hes an established figure in the community through his charity work. He also had enough clubhouse juice to feel comfortable publicly lobbying for Mike Quade to get the managers job last year.

Quade joked that he would milk this for as long as possible, but pitching coach Mark Riggins needed to know in order to schedule out the next five-plus weeks. So on Monday morning the manager called Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza into his office at Fitch Park.

Quade earned the respect of his players through direct communication and reasoned explanations. He informed them that Dempster would start Opening Day at Wrigley Field on April 1, followed by Zambrano and Garza against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

That was really cool, Dempster said. It would be so easy to talk to us each as individuals. But isnt that what were trying to get away from? I think were trying to be a team and unite as much as possible. I know Z was really happy for me. He told me so himself. That probably meant just as much as Quade telling me.

Theres no doubt Zambrano took pride in making six consecutive Opening Day starts, a franchise record. The last time someone else got the assignment was Kerry Wood in 2004. The numbers 1-2 with a 6.99 ERA seem to suggest what Zambrano has admitted: He got too jacked up for those games.

Quade made the decision in part to line up Zambrano for the seasons third series in Milwaukee, where for his career hes 9-5 with a 3.19 ERA at Miller Park. That includes the 2008 no-hitter he threw there in a game relocated because of Hurricane Ike.

(Zambrano) said that I deserved it, Dempster said. It takes somebody big to say that too, especially when you started that many Opening Days in a row. I know hes excited for his start.

Garza won an ALCS MVP award with Tampa Bay and has pitched at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. But Quade feels this will give him a chance to absorb Wrigley Field and a new league for a few days.

Zambrano finished his workouts and left the complex to take his family to the airport before the media had a chance to get his reaction. The Cubs are saying its all good. Its also a window into where Quade feels his relationship is at with Zambrano.

Its a pretty good sign of maturity, and its a sign of a guy that is a good teammate, Quade said. It goes to the three of them and their character and it goes to my feel on Z and how hed handle it. (This) let me emphasize that they are a group."

Dempster said he was surprised by the news, but it wasnt hard to see this coming. This was earned. The reliable right-hander made Opening Day starts in 2001 and 2002 for the Florida Marlins. He went 15-12 with a 3.85 ERA last year and led the team in quality starts (23). He has accounted for 30-plus starts and at least 200 innings in each of the past three seasons.

Last year the Cubs absorbed their worst loss on Opening Day since 1884, a 16-5 defeat in Atlanta that set the tone for all the wrong reasons. They need a good start. Theres no other pitcher in the room that the Cubs would rather follow.

I dont know that Demps status in the clubhouse could really get any better to be honest with you, Quade said. Thats how much respect they have for him and, I think, all three (pitchers). Performance has a lot to do with that. And I hope theyll feed off each other and theyve got each others back when theres a poor performance: Someone picks the next guy up.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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.