Cubs

Information is everything for Cubs, Epstein

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Information is everything for Cubs, Epstein

Information is Theo Epsteins most valuable currency.

It will be traded this week in Milwaukee, where general managers and owners will gather for their annual meetings. Deals will be advanced, maybe even closed. There could be a new collective bargaining agreement. Commissioner Bud Selig might have to mediate the Epstein compensation issue.

Once Epstein left the Boston Red Sox, he got out from under the bad contracts given to Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. But as the Cubs new president of baseball operations, hes now on the hook for the roughly 72 million still owed to Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano.

This is an organization thats been paralyzed by the wrong long-term commitments. But really the entire industry is still trying to figure out: How do you pay for future results?

So as the Cubs look at past performance and prepare for the winter, will Carmine have a seat at the table?

Way too much has been made of that, Epstein said of the Red Sox computer model. We developed in Boston a program that was simply an information-management system. Every team in baseball has (one in some form).

Every business in the modern world (has) an information-management system that they use to gather their information, consolidate it, analyze it, dig deep. (They) use it as a resource to sort of balance certain variables and not make decisions but inform decisions that the company ultimately has to make.

General manager Jed Hoyer is not a stats geek. As a Division III player out of Wesleyan University, he was good enough to spend one summer sharing an infield with future big-leaguers Mark DeRosa and John McDonald in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

People try to paint us in different corners, Hoyer said. Its about information, whether its scouting (or) quantitative (or) medical (or) background. (The) key is to really get all the information together. No piece of information is too small.

At that point you can make a determination and take the best guess whether that player has good years left. A lot of its about old-school, baseball scouting and figuring out what a guy has (left). A lot of its about using quantitative analysis to figure out where that guy is in the curve of his career.

Youd be missing out on so much if you just focused on the quantitative part of the game. Where I am on the scale is hopefully something that youll never figure out, because I want to be right in the middle.

The war between traditional scouting and sabermetrics has already been fought. Everyone considers both viewpoints. Its just a matter of degrees. So the battles will never stop.

That tension could be felt from the dugout to the front office. The four managerial candidates brought into Wrigley Field had to go through game simulations and explain what theyd do and why in certain situations.

As part of the interview process, they also had to meet with the media afterward. Each man was asked some version of the question: How do you balance statistical analysis against going with your gut?

Philadelphia Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin said bring it on (after a wandering explanation in which he mentioned leveraged indexes and replacement value).

Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum has been portrayed in the media as someone who understands data and uses spray charts, but he seemed to downplay that idea (which could just be part of his low-key public persona).

Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux already works for another young Ivy League executive (general manager Jon Daniels, Cornell University, class of 1999).

Statistics (are) art, Maddux said. You can make some things out of them, but theres a lot of real stuff to them also. Bad numbers can be a little deceptive, but good numbers dont lie. So you use all the information that you can, but when it comes down to it, you got to trust yourself and trust your players.

Cleveland Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. whose big-league career stretched from 1988 to 2007 witnessed firsthand the information explosion.

It doesnt tell the whole story, Alomar said. There (are) also a lot of gut-feeling decisions youve got to make. But if you have a stat (thats) a flashy number (where) you think: Oh, this guy is doing very good against this other guy, you can use that during the game in a key situation.

But we cannot just depend on stats alone. I dont like to become a fantasy manager. I want players to be able to manager themselves. The goal for a good manager is to have players that are able to manage themselves on the field and be team baseball players, not fantasy baseball players.

For Epstein and his inner circle, its time to start putting the pieces together.

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.