Cubs

Jason Heyward resets after mental break and responds to playoff-lineup talk around Cubs

Jason Heyward resets after mental break and responds to playoff-lineup talk around Cubs

SAN DIEGO – With Jason Heyward looking lost at home plate, could the Cubs be forced to sit their $184 million outfielder in October?

It’s a question Joe Maddon doesn’t have to answer directly now, one that the manager wishes will go away, because Heyward’s Gold Glove defense, baseball IQ and playoff experience should translate in cold-weather, low-scoring, one-run games.

Maddon didn’t frame this as a benching, hoping to reboot Heyward’s offensive game with a four-day break that ended with Monday night’s 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. It shouldn’t be like flipping a switch for a hitter who woke up with an overall .617 OPS, a .170 batting average after the All-Star break and one home run since June 11.

But maybe this fifth-inning sequence shows Heyward’s luck is about to change. Moments after what looked like an RBI double landed just foul on the wrong side of the right-field line, Heyward lifted an Edwin Jackson pitch 365 feet out toward the top of the right-field fence, where it bounced off a fan trying to make a catch for a two-run homer. The way this season has gone for Heyward, you sort of expected an interference call to erase it.

“I’m not worried about the playoffs,” Maddon said. “I just want to make the playoffs and then we’ll take it from there.

“You still got six weeks (left). There’s so much baseball to be played. So many different things are going to occur. He can become the hottest hitter in the National League over the next month. He’s very capable of that. I don’t even think about the playoffs. I don’t think about playoff rosters. I think about Monday night in San Diego.

“To get any further than that along mentally is a trap.”

[SHOP: Get your Cubs gear here, Cubs fans!]

Heyward has talked repeatedly about ignoring his own personal numbers, focusing on how to help the Cubs win that night and getting a chance to start over in the postseason. He laughed when a reporter asked if he felt any better or different and believes his luck will even out and that hot streak could be around the corner.

“You always think you’re going up there every at-bat to get a hit,” Heyward said. “Right now, if I’m going to err, err on the aggressive side. That’s a good way to be. I’m going to be ready to hit and let the ball go if it’s not there. But I’m not worried about six weeks. I’m worried about tomorrow.

“Playoff-wise, my teammates know I can help this team win. My manager, my coaches know I can help this team win. I know I can help this team win. And that’s the bottom line. We’ve done this collectively, so it’s not about one person.”

Maybe Maddon reaching into his bag of motivational tricks and relaxation techniques will help unlock the player who created a bidding war among the Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals during the offseason.

“He’s endured a lot, in the sense that he hasn’t hit like he wanted to,” Maddon said. “Being the free-agent signing, honestly, that’s got to weigh on you a little bit.

“I’ve been really impressed with how he’s been able to maneuver through all of this, not hitting to the level that you would expect, but I know that he’s going to. But in the meantime, he’s just playing (a good game of) baseball.

“I give him a lot of credit. The guy is just dripping with emotional intelligence.”

OK, this home run came against Jackson, an ex-Cub who’s on his third team since getting released last summer in the middle of a $52 million contract. And Heyward committed his first error in a Cubs uniform in the sixth inning, running in hard for Brett Wallace’s line drive and misplaying it for a two-base mistake. But the Cubs are looking for any sort of confidence boost at this point.

“I want to see a smile on his face,” Maddon said. “Just play hard, like he always does. I’d rather see him cut back on his work right now and just play the game. I want him fresh, mentally and physically, because there are so many different ways he can help you win a baseball game.

“I just want him to go play. I mean that sincerely. He can’t do any more work. He can’t try anything differently. He can’t work any harder. He can’t do any of that. It’s impossible. Just go play.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

0223-javy-baez.jpg
USA TODAY

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.