Cubs

If this is it at trade deadline, Cubs believe they have enough to win World Series

If this is it at trade deadline, Cubs believe they have enough to win World Series

With less than 24 hours to go until Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline, manager Joe Maddon expected the Cubs to be quiet this time.

“There’s nothing going on, as far as I know,” Maddon said before Sunday night’s 7-6, 12-inning, walk-off win over the Seattle Mariners. “Nothing. Nothing. Crickets.”

That wouldn’t have gone over well while sections of Wrigley Field booed spot starter Brian Matusz, and might not have initially registered with the casual fans tuning into ESPN to see baseball’s biggest story. Theo Epstein’s front office also won’t be content with the lineup simply because the Cubs came back from a 6-0 deficit and Seattle closer Steve Cishek blew a three-run, ninth-inning lead. 

But the Cubs have a roster that keeps coming at you in waves and a manager who enjoys controlled chaos. This one ended while John Lackey, Wednesday’s scheduled starter, warmed up in the bullpen after seven different relievers combined to throw nine scoreless innings. It took Jason Heyward leading off the 12th inning with a line-drive double, hustling to third base on a Willson Contreras flyball, sprinting home on Jon Lester’s two-strike bunt and sliding headfirst to score the game-winning run.

The Cubs might have already made their biggest move this summer, stomaching Aroldis Chapman’s off-the-field baggage and acquiring the 105-mph closer last week from the New York Yankees.

So is this team good enough – as is – to win a championship? Ask the $155 million pitcher with two World Series rings and now his first career walk-off RBI.

“Yeah, I think so,” Lester said. “Any addition that they can give us is a bonus, (but) there are always other things involved – money, prospects, all that other stuff. We realize that if you just make that (Chapman trade), we still feel that we’re good enough to get where we want to go. Now it’s a matter of us doing it and staying healthy and playing.”

“Expect the unexpected” is also how general manager Jed Hoyer framed this trade deadline. The mighty Yankees became sellers for the first time in a generation, sending an All-Star reliever (Andrew Miller) to the Cleveland Indians on Sunday in another 4-for-1 deal. 

While the small-market Indians – a cautious organization known for slow playing and using trade negotiations to gather better intelligence on their own farm system – also had an agreement in place with the Milwaukee Brewers to acquire Jonathan Lucroy. At least until the All-Star catcher used his no-trade protection to veto that deal.

The Cubs felt enough of a roster crunch over the weekend to send a valuable bench player (Tommy La Stella) and a trusted reliever during last year’s playoff run (Justin Grimm) down to Triple-A Iowa, where Trevor Cahill (knee) is stretching out on a rehab assignment and Albert Almora Jr. is itching for another promotion and the chance to become the 2017 Opening Day center fielder. Jorge Soler (hamstring) – another big-time playoff performer last year – is trying to get his timing down at Double-A Tennessee.
 
“If they do something, great,” Lester said. “That’s just kind of like that shot in the arm, that little boost for you. But if they don’t, I feel like we’re in a good place.”

In Maddon, the Cubs have a manager unafraid to push bullpen buttons by playing Travis Wood in left field, watching the crowd of 40,952 give him a standing ovation for an athletic catch at the brick wall in the seventh inning, and then summon the lefty reliever again for an eighth-inning matchup.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

In Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs have two leading MVP candidates in the middle of their lineup and 50 percent of an All-Star infield. In Jake Arrieta, the Cubs have the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner for what’s been a durable, reliable rotation, at a time when the price for pitching is skyrocketing.

In Chapman, the Cubs added the game’s most intimidating closer to a team that almost had a 99-percent chance to make the playoffs and is now 58-1 when leading entering the ninth inning.

Crickets? To the clubhouse, to the rest of a $10 billion industry, to anyone skeptical of The Plan, the Cubs already sent their message loud and clear with the Chapman trade.

“He was more of like a ‘want,’” Lester said. “We had a great back end of our bullpen. ‘Ronnie’ (Hector Rondon) and (Pedro) Strop have been doing a good job for us. When a talent like (Chapman) becomes available, it’s more of like when you’re a kid. You go to the toy aisle, you’re like: ‘Yeah, I want that.’ I don’t need it, but I want it, because it would be kind of cool. 

“That’s the luxury (this organization has) now. We have that freedom to maybe trade away a few of these (prospects) and try to help us get a little bit better.”

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.