Cubs

House of cards: What if Cubs had traded for Jonathan Papelbon?

jonathan-papelbon-1001.png

House of cards: What if Cubs had traded for Jonathan Papelbon?

CINCINNATI – Jonathan Papelbon choking Bryce Harper became the perfect billboard for the Washington Nationals and their dysfunctional season.

And perhaps a sign the Cubs got another break in a magical year where almost everything seems to have gone right.

While the Cubs crunch numbers against the Pittsburgh Pirates and run through scenarios for the National League wild-card game, they can’t rely on a closer with six All-Star selections, 349 career saves and a 2007 World Series ring from the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs also haven’t had to deal with that many clubhouse headaches or the “Cinco Ocho” alter ego.

There are factors that have nothing to do with computers and can’t be seen on spreadsheets. There’s no doubt this overall vibe has contributed to what has become a 94-win team.

[MORE CUBS: This is the Starlin Castro the Cubs had been waiting to see]

The rookies had to squeeze into ridiculous dresses after sweeping the Cincinnati Reds with Thursday afternoon’s 5-3 victory at Great American Ball Park. Let the good times roll. 

“I’ve known Jonathan for a long time, so I certainly would never disparage him,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He had some pretty unbelievable seasons in Boston. But it does say a lot about (chemistry).

“That’s one of the things you wrestle with a lot at the trade deadline. You always want to improve your team. You always want to add depth to your team. But however you want to say it, it’s a house of cards all the time.

“You don’t know which move is going to topple things, or which move is really going to bolster things.”

With their bullpen in flux throughout the season, the Cubs had extensive talks with the Philadelphia Phillies and tried to trade for Papelbon before the July 31 deadline, but they didn’t have the financial muscle to beat the Nationals.

[MORE CUBS: As advertised: Jon Lester gave Cubs exactly what they needed]

The Cubs have so many Red Sox connections inside their front office and within the clubhouse. Jon Lester publicly vouched for Papelbon, saying his ex-teammate would be more than a WWE villain/cartoon character. Manager Joe Maddon has an open mind and can relate to all kinds of players.

The Cubs had less than $5 million to play with at the July 31 deadline and wound up making smaller deals with the Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, acquiring a veteran No. 5 starter (Dan Haren) and an intriguing/inconsistent reliever (Tommy Hunter).

Three days earlier, the Nationals added Papelbon to a combustible mix, giving up a Double-A pitcher and getting the Phillies to kick in $4.5 million to help cover his salary. Washington also reportedly convinced Papelbon to rework next year’s option, getting it guaranteed at $11 million instead of $13 million, with $3 million deferred to 2017.

The Washington Post just published an excellent three-part series on the rise and fall of the Nationals, a team that won 96 games last year and began this season as a World Series favorite on paper.

It exposed Matt Williams as an overmatched, tone-deaf manager and revealed the insecurities inside the clubhouse, what it did to homegrown closer Drew Storen, who got bumped out of the ninth inning and wound up breaking his thumb while slamming his locker in frustration.

[MORE CUBS: No wild-card game viewing party at Wrigley Field]

The headline to the third story in that ambitious Washington Post project: “In Jonathan Papelbon, Nationals got their closer – and their kiss of death.”

“It’s hard,” Hoyer said. “I’ve seen examples when it worked great – a team makes big changes at the deadline and they take off. And I’ve seen a lot of examples where doing almost nothing or doing small things is the right thing.”

Hoyer once interviewed for the job that went to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo, an old-school scout at heart with strong convictions and a sharp eye for talent.

The Nationals have gone from being a rebuilding blueprint to a cautionary tale for a Cubs franchise that is feeling pretty, pretty good about itself these days and will have to guard against the institutional arrogance rooted in Washington.

But Theo Epstein’s front office should get credit for all the smaller moves that have added up to the third-best record in baseball and a 21-game improvement from the year before.

It’s getting Clayton Richard for one dollar from Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate. It’s signing Trevor Cahill to a minor-league deal. It’s dealing with the Seattle Mariners to get Fernando Rodney and Austin Jackson – who blasted a three-run homer to give the Cubs the lead in the third inning on Thursday, the day after putting up five RBI – as insurance policies.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon believes Cubs will block out all the playoff noise]

It’s allowed Maddon to play mix-and-match with the lineup and push whatever buttons he wants in the bullpen. Since getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the worst team in baseball in late July, the Cubs have gone 43-19.

“We’ve been able to add quite a bit of depth,” Hoyer said, “and that’s really helped us as guys have struggled or as guys have gotten hurt.

“To a man, the guys that we’ve added have really brought something to the clubhouse and brought something to our team.”

Keep playing it out: What if Chase Utley hadn’t been so focused on going home to the West Coast and directing the Phillies to make a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers?

The Cubs tried to get the six-time All-Star second baseman in August for his postseason experience and lead-by-example qualities.

But with Utley, would Starlin Castro have gotten buried and never come close to his red-hot September (1.202 OPS)? Could Javier Baez have showcased his all-around ability, either for the playoff roster, an offseason trade for pitching or the 2016 Opening Day lineup?

“You never know,” Hoyer said. “That’s the hardest part. You have to make decisions at the time not knowing what ripples in that pond are going to happen based on that move.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

0222-joe-maddon.jpg
USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.