Cubs

How Cubs can jumpstart slumping offense at Dodger Stadium

How Cubs can jumpstart slumping offense at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES - Toward the end of the regular season, a reporter asked Joe Maddon if he would consider changing the batting order around with a couple guys struggling.

Maddon looked at the reporter incredulously, laughed and then said the lineup is staying as is. After all, the Cubs had the best record in baseball. Why mess with a good thing?

Fast forward a few weeks and Maddon fielded two separate questions about possible lineup changes during his media sesson on Monday's workout day and both times he admitted alterations could be on the way.

"You don't have 75 games left in the season to play where you can catch up from a bad moment," Maddon said. "You have to try to make your best guess right now to take advantage of the moment.

"So yeah, moving forward, there are certain things we may attempt to do, absolutely. But it won't be wholesale."

[RELATED - Joe Maddon sees good things coming for slumping Rizzo]

On the one hand, the Cubs woke up Monday morning with the second-most runs scored in the postseason, only three behind the high-powered Toronto Blue Jays offense.

The Cubs are averaging 4.1 runs a game, down a decent amount from the 4.98 runs per game they averaged during the regular season. The Los Angeles Dodgers, meanwhile, are averaging only 3.4 runs per contest.

But of the Cubs' 25 runs scored, nine came in two late-game rallies (four in the ninth in the epic NLDS-clinching comeback in San Francisco and five in the eighth of the NLCS opener - four of which came on one swing).

Another six of those runs were driven in by pitchers in the NLDS. Even though the Cubs boast an athletic group of hurlers, it's not plausible to expect them to continue to drive in 35 percent of the team's runs in each series.

The Cubs have won four of their six postseason games based on timely hitting and elite pitching, a great formula for success.

The problem is: The Cubs have the lowest batting average (.193) and on-base percentage (.251) of the eight teams that advanced beyond the wild-card games.

After getting shut out and tallying just two hits and a walk against Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen in Game 2 Sunday night, the Cubs admitted they are a little surprised by their lack of offense after scoring the third-most runs during the regular season.

But they also pointed to some bad luck, like Javy Baez crushing Kershaw's offering with a runner on base in the seventh inning only to see the ball settle into Joc Pederson's glove in the deepest part of the park.

They aren't striking out at a much higher rate - 8.83 whiffs per game compared to 8.26 strikeouts per game in the regular season.

"They're not always gonna fall," Jason Heyward said. "You're gonna hit 'em at people at times. Pitchers are gonna make their pitches. Guys are gonna be in the right spot. 

"But you want to keep having at-bats. You want to keep having opportunities to do so. That's all you can ask for."

The Cubs understand each new day presents a chance to reset and know they need to get back to that American League-style lineup that wears down opposing starting pitchers.

Low offense is also just a product of the time of the year with only the best pitchers getting in games and thanks to so many built-in off-days, elite relievers can appear in nearly every game.

The four teams left alive right now - Cleveland (.238), Toronto (.230), Los Angeles (.218) and the Cubs (.193) - all have batting averages well below the .255 MLB average in the regular season.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

At the same time, the urgency has ramped up in the playoffs and inside the clubhouse, the Cubs know some changes could be coming.

"Just because it's the postseason doesn't mean we're going to change our M.O.," Ben Zobrist said. "I mean, Joe changed the lineup all the time during the season. So if he changes it now during the postseason, it shouldn't be any different to us.

"It's actually more different if nothing changes. That's kinda the way the things have always operated with our team."

Entering a three-game set in Los Angeles, the Cubs are choosing to look at the glass as half full, understanding they've won two-thirds of their postseason games despite five everyday starters batting .182 or below.

"It's such a small sample size right now that you don't even want to look at the numbers, 'cause that really doesn't matter," Zobrist said. "All that matters is the wins and losses. I think even the guys that are hitting well would tell you that.

"For the guys that maybe feel like they're scuffling a little bit, turn the page right now. If you're thinking about yesterday, then it's already passed you by. You need to focus on the next at-bat, the next pitch.

"You can turn that around at any point because that's in the future. What's in the past is in the past. We don't really care about stats or numbers up to this point. We really just care about the wins and losses."

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.