Cubs

How Jon Jay brought Cubs clubhouse together for big finish

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USA TODAY

How Jon Jay brought Cubs clubhouse together for big finish

Jon Jay didn’t feel the World Series hangover. While the 2017 Cubs got pulled in so many different directions, Jay wasn’t living off last season or focusing on his personal brand or thinking there’s always next year for a young team with money and big names.   

Sensing another moment that could become a distraction, Jay called a team meeting immediately after the Milwaukee Brewers swept the defending champs on Sept. 10. There were three weeks left in the regular season as the Cubs gathered in a Wrigley Field weight room after getting outscored 20-3 that weekend. The Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals had both pulled within two games of first place. What the Cubs did next would define their season.

“It was just a reminder of how much we had fought at that point to be in the position we were at,” Jay said. “Everything was OK. That was the message all year with the veteran guys: ‘Hey, we’re going to be fine.’ That’s something I just preached all year: ‘Hey, we’re good enough. We got enough talent. Just keep playing baseball.’ Sometimes, it’s unexplainable what happens in baseball.”

That last line won’t fit easily on yet another Joe Maddon T-shirt, but it sums up a team that staggered into the All-Star break with a 43-45 record, a zero run differential (399-399) and questions about whether the front office would be trade-deadline buyers and if the clubhouse would come together or completely collapse.

Jay would never take credit for this, because at the age of 32 and after eight seasons in the big leagues he understands how complicated this game can be. His face remained expressionless when a reporter approached his locker and asked him about the short meeting. He won’t be holding court with the national media before and after the playoff games that begin Friday night at Nationals Park in Washington.

But from that point, the Cubs won seven games in a row, nine of their next 10 and 13 of their last 16 before clinching the National League Central title and eliminating the Cardinals from the wild-card race. That run included a 9-2 burst against Milwaukee and St. Louis, the Cubs committing only two errors during that time while outscoring their division rivals 58-29.

The Cubs played with a focus and an urgency that had been lacking at times. Jay’s 15-pitch at-bat and leadoff single against Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff became a symbol for the grinding team that won 10-inning games on back-to-back nights at Miller Park. Ben Zobrist retweeted the MLB.com Gameday sequence from the official Cubs Twitter account and called it the “best at-bat all season by anyone anywhere.”

“Jon Jay, to me, the 2017 Cubbies don’t go without him,” Zobrist said. “He picked us up on the field and off the field in a lot of ways when we struggled. He wasn’t around last year to talk about last year, so he was so focused on this year. He’s like: ‘OK, well I want to win a championship with you guys now. You guys did it last year, but turn the page.’ He definitely helped us do that.”

This meeting won’t go down in history next to the Jason Heyward Rain Delay Speech, but it illuminates how fragile and puzzling this team could be in the aftermath of an epic celebration. Maddon can say his methods are validated now – and no manager had guided this franchise into the playoffs for three straight seasons in more than a century – but he doesn’t have that many buttons to push beyond his patience and positive nature.

“Joe goes hands off, even when he knows things aren’t going the way we expect,” said Zobrist, a Maddon ally from their years together with the Tampa Bay Rays. “He just expects (it from) the players: If you feel like something needs to be said, then bring everybody together and say it.

“When there was some moments where people felt something needed to be said, they called the team meetings. That’s what good teams do. They don’t talk behind each other’s backs. They say: ‘Let’s come together. Let’s talk about this. Let’s turn the page and figure it out.’

“Yeah, it had to happen a little bit more this year, probably because we all knew that we were underperforming.”

The players met near the end of an 0-for-6 West Coast trip (and didn’t bother with Maddon’s “Anchorman” costumes for the long flight back home to Chicago). The Cubs had to deal with the fallout from Miguel Montero’s classic rant in Washington in late June (when roughly half the group skipped a visit to Donald Trump’s White House). Maddon called a we’re-still-in-good-shape meeting before a July 6 game at Wrigley Field (and then watched the Brewers maul the Cubs in an 11-2 game).

“So the second half, how many meetings did we have? One,” Zobrist said. “That Milwaukee series was not good for us, so I think it was good just to say, ‘All right, so what? Forget it.’

“There were multiple times beyond those meetings that I think just kind of kept everybody together as a team. Team dinners, guys hanging out, going to somebody’s room at a hotel, things like that, which nobody knows about or nobody talks about.

“Those kinds of things are not technically team meetings. They’re not saying everybody’s got to be there. But it’s a way that we connect.”

Jay has been the exact glue guy the Cubs envisioned when they signed him to a one-year, $8 million contract in late November, hoping he could take over some of David Ross’s leadership responsibilities, mentor Albert Almora Jr., the young outfielder who also grew up in Miami, and change the lineup dynamics (.296 batting average, .374 on-base percentage) as a different kind of left-handed hitter.

Now Jay – a player drafted and developed under The Cardinal Way – sees the parallels to the 2011 St. Louis team that didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season and wound up winning the franchise’s 11th World Series title.

“Absolutely,” Jay said. “Just get in and get hot. It’s not how you get in. It’s just about getting in.”

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.

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

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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.