Cubs

Epstein sees Sveum making a power play

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Epstein sees Sveum making a power play

Dale Sveum flew to Milwaukee and didnt bother to pack a blazer for his interviews with the Cubs and Red Sox. They had to stop on the ride down to Chicago to pick one up for the press conference the next morning.

They walked into a Mens Wearhouse in Racine, Wis., on Thursday and you definitely got the sense that Theo Epstein doesnt shop there. Sveum also had to get fitted at a tuxedo shop because hell be the best man at the wedding for a Brewers clubhouse attendant.

The Cubs president of baseball operations cracked up on Friday telling the story: The kid working behind the desk goes: Oh, please dont leave us Dale. He looked at him and (said): Youre a lot taller than you seem on TV.

Sveum isnt flashy and doesnt have a big ego. But he will cut a bigger figure in the organization than you think. Cubs executives say they didnt just hire a puppet manager, and that perception bothers the front office.

I want to correct that right off the bat, Epstein said. Its his call what he does with the players and what buttons he pushes on the field and what lineups he writes out. Thats all him. Hes going to grow into this job, but hes strong from Day 1.

That Sveum organized the bachelor party for a clubhouse guy this weekend tailgating in Green Bay and going to a Packers game says a lot about how he builds relationships and influences people.

Dales not afraid to walk up to (anyone), Epstein said. Whether youre the 25th guy on the roster, a clubbie or a superstar player making 100 million, hes going to talk to you like a man.

Epsteins management style is to be surrounded with people wholl challenge him. Epstein saw the speculation that Sveum would be weakened because he hasnt done it before at this level (except for 12 games and a playoff series as the Brewers interim manager in 2008).

Epstein insisted that you dont need 10 years of experience as a big-league manager to be strong. Sveum has credibility after playing parts of 12 seasons in the majors and working six years as a Brewers coach.

Sveum wont be the face of the franchise that Lou Piniella once was here, but he will have a say in his coaching staff. He said he already has an idea of names Im going to interview to be his pitching coach. (Mark Riggins is not signed for next season.)

Sveum called Robin Yount his best friend, but said the Hall of Famer wont be joining his staff. Coaches Pat Listach (bench), Rudy Jaramillo (hitting) and Lester Strode (bullpen) are well-regarded and under contract for 2012.

The information age and the Moneyball culture Sveum hasnt read the book or seen the movie has glamorized executives and eroded the power of managers.

The idea that you want someone you can control? general manager Jed Hoyer said. Not at all. You want someone thats incredibly well-prepared. Well probably offer some information (and) hell probably offer some input on player transactions. Thats the way it should be. We should have that kind of relationship.

That exchange of ideas sold the Cubs on Sveum during the interview process, an intense and revealing series of questions and game simulations. If they didnt believe in how he would run a game, they wouldnt have hired him.

Sveum had to trust Epstein and Hoyer who knew him as the Red Sox third-base coach in 2004 and 2005 because he felt like he was about to get an offer from Boston.

It was getting to that point, Sveum said. I had the second interview and I met with the owners, so you sensed it, but it never happened. It was irrelevant at that time once the Cubs offered me the job.

The Cubs made an offer on Wednesday after Sveum had lunch with Red Sox ownership and closed the deal the next day.

The head was probably spinning, he said, but I think the arrow fell in the right spot.

The Cubs had to act fast because Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux a very compelling candidate wasnt going to ignore his family considerations. Maddux called his friend Sveum one of the best baseball people I know in a classy statement issued by the Rangers.

Its the man that matters more than the experience, Epstein said. You look at all the great managers in the game the (Jim) Leylands, the (Tony) La Russas, the (Joe) Torres, Terry Francona everyone (needed) a first chance.

Youre looking at the attributes that can make a great manager (because) once they get that opportunity, they go on to have 20 years in the game and become a household name. I hope Dales going to become known as one of the great managers in the game. And I think he will over time.

So Sveum wont get paid like Francona in this three-year deal with an option for 2015. But hell have every chance to earn the next contract. Just dont expect him to buy any fancy suits with the money.

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.