Have Cardinals done enough to keep up with Cubs?

Have Cardinals done enough to keep up with Cubs?

ST. LOUIS – The conservative St. Louis Cardinals stretched beyond their comfort zone and still couldn’t sign Jason Heyward or David Price, failing to land the counterpunch during a long winter where the Cubs dominated the headlines.

The Cardinals heard all about the big-ticket additions for Wrigley Field and the wacky antics at Camp Maddon during spring training. But a franchise with 11 World Series banners flying at Busch Stadium, three straight division titles and only one losing season since Y2K won’t be conceding anything.

The Cardinals prevented the sweep with Wednesday’s 5-3 rain-soaked win, ambushing No. 5 starter Kyle Hendricks by scoring four runs in the first two innings. Carlos Martinez – an All-Star last season who won’t celebrate his 25th birthday until late September and should be an X-factor in the St. Louis rotation – allowed only one run on three hits across seven innings before the storm rolled through and caused a delay that lasted three hours and 21 minutes.

Heyward offended The Best Fans in Baseball when he explained his decision to jump to Chicago, pointing out the aging core in St. Louis and the uncertainty surrounding Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina, Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright and All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday.

Molina will turn 34 this summer and is signed through 2017 (with a mutual option for the following season). Wainwright is 34, a Tommy John survivor and locked up through 2018. Holliday is 36 and will become a free agent if a team/vesting option doesn’t kick in for 2017.

“One of the hallmarks of the Cardinals is their steadiness,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “In the past, they haven’t really gone out and made big free-agent splashes and it’s been really effective for them. They always re-signed their own guys – think about the guys they’ve traded for like (Mark) McGwire and (Jim) Edmonds and Holliday.

“They know they have a really good team. They won 100 games last year (and) were probably on pace for 110 wins most of the season. I don’t think they felt like they had to do that much (during the offseason).”

[RELATED: Is Joe Maddon getting in the Cardinals' heads?]

Holliday flexed his muscles in the first inning when he lifted a Hendricks pitch and drove it 362 feet into the first row of the left-field seats for a two-run homer that awoke the crowd of 43,093.

Whether or not Holliday fades away, the Cardinals have their own 25-and-under group of position players in Kolten Wong, Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, who stole a two-run homer away from Anthony Rizzo with a leaping catch at the left-center field wall in the first inning.

There might not be anyone you’d rather have in a Game 7 than Jake Arrieta. But the Cubs still haven’t been able to consistently draft and develop pitchers like All-Star starter Michael Wacha and All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal, who all benefit from Molina’s reassuring presence behind the plate.

Baseball America still ranks the St. Louis farm system within the game’s top half and the Cardinals will benefit from a reported $1 billion TV deal that begins with the 2018 season and includes an ownership stake in Fox Sports Midwest.

“They’ve done a pretty good job so far of making the market-size thing irrelevant,” Hoyer said. “When you pack this place with 45,000 people every night, the size of the city doesn’t matter that much. They bring in a lot of revenue because they have great fans and they have great teams.”

The Cubs (11-4) still won this three-game series, plus the only playoff matchup in the rivalry’s 124-year history and six of the nine games before that in 2015. That led to fun with small sample sizes. Even when there’s more than 90 percent of the 2016 schedule remaining and the Cardinals should probably have a better record than 8-7 given their plus-31 run differential.

“I don’t think it suggests anything other than this group as a whole has more experience under their belt together,” said Heyward, who put up a 6.5 WAR for the Cardinals last season and won his third Gold Glove in right field before signing an eight-year, $184 million megadeal. “That’s what it’s about, man, being with some of the same guys and jelling and using their experience to go forward.

“It’s knowledge, there’s some comfort and it’s peace of mind.”

The last word from Heyward, who took less guaranteed money to come to Wrigley Field and hinted the Cardinals could never match what the Cubs offered in terms of the chance to make history: “I don’t think anybody that’s a baseball person will ever see St. Louis as the team that’s going to try to rebuild.”

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.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.