Cubs

Jake Arrieta is human against Cardinals — but Cubs are that good

jake-arrieta-cubs-1012.png

Jake Arrieta is human against Cardinals — but Cubs are that good

Jake Arrieta is human and not some cyborg sent to destroy the St. Louis Cardinals. But just remember the T-shirt cut into a tank top to show off his muscles: “We Are Good.”

The Cubs still pounded the Cardinals during Monday’s 8-6 victory at Wrigley Field — even with Arrieta off his game in Game 3 and not inviting comparisons to Bob Gibson or Madison Bumgarner.

That underlines why the Cubs are now in position to end this on Tuesday and clinch their first playoff series ever at Clark and Addison, where they’ve been playing for 100 years.

“It was a huge team win,” Arrieta said. “Special night.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs out-slug Cardinals to take commanding control of NLDS]

This became a missed opportunity for a proud Cardinals team that found a way to beat Clayton Kershaw twice in last year’s National League Division Series, eliminating the Los Angeles Dodgers in only four games.

The Cubs and Cardinals understood this would be a pivot point in a best-of-five matchup between two iconic rivals, with Arrieta becoming a breakout star in October and giving this young team so much confidence.

“You know how tough baseball is,” second baseman Starlin Castro said. “That guy — he does a lot for us. All the time. We score like one run and he picks us up. Today, we scored a lot of runs for him. We got his back.”

Manager Joe Maddon — who likes to say Arrieta’s pitch count goes to infinity — took the ball from his No. 1 starter after 97 pitches. Jason Heyward reached out and drove a curveball out to left field for a two-run homer that inning and Arrieta just hit Brandon Moss with a pitch, leaving a runner on with two outs in the sixth, ending his unbelievable run of 21 consecutive quality starts.

“I got out of rhythm a little bit,” Arrieta said. “It’s a different environment in the playoffs. You have to control the emotions and try and conserve energy when you have the ability to do so. It’s a learning process.

“They made it tough. They made me battle. They made me work for it.”

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell's status uncertain for Cubs-Cardinals Game 4]

Arrieta’s final line: Four runs on five hits and two walks plus nine strikeouts, still earning the victory against baseball’s best team during the regular season.

Arrieta had given up four runs total since the middle of August, a brilliant run of 10 starts that included a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium and a complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in that wild-card game.

It transformed Arrieta into a Cy Young Award frontrunner and a huge national story. Not bad for someone who put up a 5.46 ERA across parts of four seasons with the Baltimore Orioles before getting traded to the Cubs in July 2013.

“He’s human,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “This is gonna happen. I’m actually happy that it happened, because I realize that he’s human. I was a little concerned about it.”

Arrieta looked out of sync, leading off the fourth inning by walking Stephen Piscotty (and almost drilling his helmet) and Matt Holliday (on four pitches). A crowd of 42,411 fell silent when Jhonny Peralta doubled off the ivy in left field, scoring Piscotty to tie the game, but Cubs fans didn’t need to panic. A relentless lineup just kept coming and coming, setting a postseason record with six home runs and turning into a worst nightmare for Cardinals fans.

“These are two big boys duking it out,” Arrieta said. “It’s like a heavyweight fight. The Cardinals won 100 games in the regular season. We had 97 (wins). We can both really play. It’s pretty much going to come down to the team that makes the fewest mistakes.”

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

adbert.jpg
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.