Cubs

Jake Arrieta, Cubs continue to own Pirates

Jake Arrieta, Cubs continue to own Pirates

Are the Cubs in the Pirates' heads?

It's a question that has been posed by reporters the last two weeks and every time, Joe Maddon and Cubs players have brushed it aside.

Whether the Cubs have a psychological advantage over the Pirates or not, the simple fact of the matter is the head-to-head series has been completely one-sided after the Cubs picked up a 8-2 victory in front of 40,953 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday.

That's now five straight wins over the second-place Pirates to open the 2016 season, as the Cubs have built a sizable lead in the National League Central (nine games over the Pirates, eight over the St. Louis Cardinals, who play the Dodgers Saturday night in Los Angeles). 

In those five wins, the Cubs have outscored the Pirates 37-11.

"That's surprising," Jake Arrieta said. "But every game's a different story, really. We've fared well against them thus far, but we know the quality they have over there and that hasn't changed. 

"We've just been playing some good baseball. We've been throwing well. Bullpen's been great and obviously our offense has been doing their thing. You just want to see your guys stay as hot as they can for as long as possible."

Arrieta actually permitted the Pirates to score a couple runs, but still wound up with a mostly-dominant start, going eight innings and striking out 11 (six of the looking variety).

He seemed to lose things a bit in the fourth inning when he gave up three hits and hit a batter, leading to two runs. That ended Arrieta's streak of 26 straight shutout innings against the Pirates dating back to last September (and including that complete-game shutout in the one-game playoff).

After Arrieta walked Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke on four pitches in the fifth inning, Cubs catcher Miguel Montero went out to have a chat with the reigning NL Cy Young winner.

Montero thought Arrieta was getting too fine with his pitches.

"We had a little talk and I said, 'You know, just throw the ball, man. Just let it go. Let it eat. That's when you're the best,'" Montero said. 

Montero called some of those called strike-three pitches "Hall of Fame" caliber.

"When you catch Jake, you don't need to even be on the same page," Montero said. "Any pitch he wants to throw is gonna be a really good pitch because he's got plus pitches.

"As a catcher, you don't worry about him shaking you off or not because it's gonna be a good one."

The Cubs immediately bailed Arrieta out on Anthony Rizzo's three-run homer in the bottom of the fourth inning. 

Addison Russell stayed hot, chipping in a two-run shot of his own in the sixth inning. He now has nine RBI in his last four games and 13 RBI in his last seven contests.

Dexter Fowler delivered a bloop single to score Miguel Montero later in the sixth and the Cubs rallied for two more runs in the eighth on four straight hits to close out the scoring on the afternoon.

Arrieta is now 7-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 0.84 WHIP on the season.

Since the start of 2015, Arrieta has a ridiculous 0.75 ERA and 0.617 WHIP against the Pirates, striking out 60 and allowing just 28 hits in 60 innings.

Arrieta also became the first pitcher since 1893 to allow three or fewer runs in 28 straight starts. He has won his last 18 decisions and the Cubs have won his last 21 starts, which is a franchise record.

Despite Arrieta's ridiculous run, the Cubs actually see room for their ace to grow and improve.

"He's not been as sharp as he can be yet this year," Joe Maddon said. "I mean that. I'm not trying to be casual about it. He just hasn't been as sharp as he can be. There's another level of sharpness for him."

Montero agreed, though he also offered that Arrieta hasn't lived up to the absurd expectations that have been placed on him after last year's second half.

"He hasn't been as sharp as everybody wants him to be," Montero said. "Maybe he's thinking a little bit too much. He's trying to actually find his arm slot or make every pitch a perfect pitch, and that's pretty much impossible to do.

"... Don't worry about pitching. Just worry about throwing the ball. Because that's when he's actually getting in trouble - when he's nibbling and trying to be too fine with pitches. He doesn't need that. He can throw it down the middle and it's gonna be hard to hit it."

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.