Cubs

How Cubs are positioned for a Giant run – right now and in the future

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USA TODAY

How Cubs are positioned for a Giant run – right now and in the future

SAN FRANCISCO – Since last October, the San Francisco Giants have gone from nearly pushing the Cubs into a dreaded elimination game against Johnny Cueto to racing the White Sox to the bottom for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
 
The Cubs are headed for that Giant crash someday. Maybe Theo Epstein leaves Wrigley Field in a gorilla suit, the players tune out Joe Maddon’s “Easy Rider” act and Jon Lester’s $155 million left arm finally breaks down and the pitching infrastructure collapses.
 
Who knows? Perhaps all those young hitters weren’t quite as good as we thought they were. Years of drafting near the bottom of the first round and spending restrictions within the collective bargaining agreement will slow down – if not stop – the flow of young, blue-chip talent to Wrigleyville.

Nothing lasts forever.

But San Francisco’s free fall into last place in the National League West – 36 games behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers – is a reality check for the relative struggles of a first-place team and a reminder of how well the defending champs are positioned for the future.

Because as much as the Cubs obsessed about the Boston Red Sox during the rebuilding years, the Giants represented an ideal of business/baseball synergies with stable leadership, a spectacular waterfront stadium, big-market payrolls, a talented homegrown core and the mental toughness to win World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

To put it in perspective now: Anthony Rizzo will turn 28 on Tuesday and is only 14 months older than Joe Panik, the Gold Glove/All-Star second baseman viewed as the young guy in San Francisco’s clubhouse.

Jason Heyward was born the day after Rizzo in 1989. Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. are all between the ages of 25 and 23. Ian Happ will turn 23 this weekend. It won’t just be seeing the black and orange all around AT&T Park during a three-game series that begins Monday night and returning to the scene of last year’s epic Game 4 comeback and raucous celebration in the visiting clubhouse.

“When we go play other teams, I’m still struck by how we’re always the youngest team on the field,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have this young core of position players at basically every position who are guys that were all top-10, top-15 prospects in baseball who are wearing rings on their finger from last year.”

So, no, the Cubs aren’t worried about the “Bottom of the Barrel” label that Baseball America put on their farm system, ranking it as one of the industry’s worst after the July 31 trade deadline and aggressive moves for Jose Quintana, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.

“Certainly, we’ve traded a number of prospects to go out and win a World Series and strengthen ourselves for the future,” Hoyer said. “Prospect rankings are valuable in some ways. I think how big your prospects are is – in some ways – a good view into sort of organizational health. But we’re unusual in that way.

“It’s really difficult or challenging to look at our organization in that way, because on the one hand, yes, we’ve traded a number of prospects. But on the other hand, we’ve really protected that core of players that are in the big leagues. And that’s a very deep core of super-talented players who are young and under control for a long time. We’re an incredibly healthy organization from a young-talent standpoint.”

The guess here is that the Cubs brand is so strong, team officials are so good at marketing their young players and there are enough legitimate assets to get some names on Baseball America’s 2018 top 100.

But looking back at those rankings heading into the 2012 season – the first full year for the Epstein regime – shows how unpredictable this business can be: Brett Jackson placed 32nd on a top 100 where the top five went Bryce Harper, Matt Moore, Mike Trout, Yu Darvish and Julio Teheran.

Baseball America slotted Rizzo at No. 47 in between Randall Delgado and Billy Hamilton. Matt Szczur landed at No. 64, or one spot ahead of Sonny Gray. At No. 61, Baez fell two spots behind George Springer, who got this blurb: “Figures to battle Rangers’ Mike Olt for title of best UConn position player in the big leagues.”

Sooner or later, the Cubs will have a new TV deal that will enhance all their built-in advantages over the small-market franchises in the NL Central. The potential departures of free agents like Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Wade Davis, Jon Jay, Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing and Avila could create more than $50 million in payroll space.

Quintana’s club-friendly deal – which will make him an anchor for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations at just under $31 million – allows the Cubs to think big and add another star player. Epstein’s front office also structured long-term contracts for Lester and Ben Zobrist with a curve that made upfront payments, took their ages into account and decreased the financial commitment on the back end.

So while 1908 hung over everything the Cubs once did, in reality the operating philosophy could be summed up like this: Get into the playoffs, say, seven times in 10 seasons and there should be a year – or two or maybe even three – where your team stays healthy, gets hot, runs into the right matchups and makes enough plays for a parade down Michigan Avenue.

The 2017 Cubs are staying in the picture.

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.