Cubs

Don't look at it! Offense hardly the focus as Cubs do it all in win

ross-phillips-0614.png

Don't look at it! Offense hardly the focus as Cubs do it all in win

Joe Maddon has a very passionate message about offense:

Don't look at it!

Practically shouting after Sunday night's 2-1, 11-inning win over the visiting Reds at Wrigley Field, the Cubs skipper wanted the attention to go to what his team did when it wasn't swinging the bats.

That's hard to do, of course, when the biggest moment of the night was Starlin Castro's walk-off single into the left-center field gap, his second walk-off hit in as many nights. The infield party came courtesy of Castro's clutch knock. But it was just a small part of a victory in which the Cubs did just about everything. And that's Maddon's point.

[MORE CUBS: Call him Mr. Walk-Off: Starlin Castro does it again for Cubs]

Runs came via an 11th-inning single and a seventh-inning sacrifice fly. Excitement came from a tremendous effort from starting pitcher Jon Lester, some great defensive plays by outfielders, a sensational relay to gun down a runner at the plate and a bullpen that no matter how much it had been used refused to give up any runs Sunday night.

"Those are the things that get you to the promised land," Maddon said after the game. "So when everybody gloms on offense and just hitting, I don’t. I love the pitching, I love the defense, I love the base running. I love when you play the whole game because the hitting’s not going to be there every night.”

And the hitting wasn't necessarily there Sunday. Reds starter Anthony DeSclafani limited Cubs hitters, as did the Reds bullpen. After a bases-loaded situation in the first inning, the Cubs reached base just three times over the next five innings. It took until the seventh to tie the game at 1, when David Ross trotted home on a Dexter Fowler sacrifice fly. Chris Coghlan's double, which led off the bottom of the 11th, was the team's first hit since the seventh and gave Castro a runner in scoring position for his walk-off hit.

But it goes to show that game-changing moments came elsewhere than from the guy in the batter's box.

[MORE CUBS: Walking off an important part of Cubs' lesson in winning]

Lester went seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits. And though he was pestered by Cincinnati speedster Billy Hamilton — who stole a jaw-dropping five bases — he limited the few scoring opportunities the Reds did have. He coaxed an inning-ending grounder after Hamilton stole his way to third base in the third. He induced a pair of flyouts after the Reds scored their only run in the sixth. He retired 20 of the 25 batters he faced.

The highlight of the game — other than Castro's hit, of course — was the defensive play in the sixth that caught Brandon Phillips at home as he tried to score from first on Joey Votto's double to deep left-center. Phillips scored Hamilton a batter earlier with a single to shallow center that gave the Reds a 1-0 lead. But when Votto blasted his ball to the warning track, Coghlan threw in to Castro, who fired to Ross at home plate, where the catcher made a textbook tag on a sliding Phillips. It took a review to get it right, but the Cubs came out the other end with an out instead of a surrendered run. Lester took over from there, getting two straight flyouts to end that inning.

“These are the things that people don’t talk about," Maddon said. "Our cutoffs and relays have been really good this year, and I’ve really been appreciative of that. Something we talked about a lot in spring training. Everybody digs the long ball. What won the game tonight was execution and great fundamentals by our guys. Simply cutoffs and relays, tag plays at the plate. Just an all-out effort tonight."

[MORE CUBS: Cubs hoping to capture some of the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup buzz]

The defense was solid all around. As was the bullpen. The Cubs, startlingly, used five relief pitchers for the fourth straight game. In every game of the series with the Reds, a total of six Cubs pitchers took the mound. It made for a tired bullpen prior to Sunday's game — Maddon said James Russell, Travis Wood, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop were all unavailable — causing the pregame roster move that added Brian Schlitter to the bullpen. Schlitter's had a tough time in 2015, but he did his job Sunday.

So did Jason Motte. Entering Sunday's contest with 11 consecutive scoreless appearances, Motte allowed a single and a double to leadoff the top of the ninth. An intentional walk to Jay Bruce loaded the bases with nobody out and the game on the line. Motte got a flyball to center, a strikeout and another flyball to center to end the threat in amazing fashion.

“We get out of it because Motte can breath, he’s under control, he’s been there before, he’s not taken by the moment," Maddon said. "That’s really obvious to me. That’s how you get out of that thing.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

If the Cubs are going to get to baseball's "promised land," otherwise known as the playoffs, for the first time since 2008, they'll need to do it all on a regular basis. They have been lately, and Sunday's game was a prime example.

Walk-off hit or no walk-off hit, don't talk to Maddon about offense. He doesn't want to hear about it.

"Just don’t look at offense, though. People look at offense all the time. Offense is at an all-time low in the major leagues in baseball. Don’t look at it," he said. "Of course we’re going to try to get better with that, but if you play the rest of the game well and properly, you don’t need as much. And our guys are playing the rest of the game properly.”

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

adbert.jpg
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.