Cubs

Jason Heyward will be an X-factor in Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

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Jason Heyward will be an X-factor in Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

Jason Heyward could become the next Cub killer. This also looks like a free agent who would check all the boxes for Theo Epstein’s front office. That left-handed swing and Gold Glove defense would also be perfect for Yankee Stadium.

The St. Louis Cardinals acquired Heyward with the hope that he would be their next great core player, planning for the future and eventually life after Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina.

Otherwise, the Cardinals wouldn’t have done that four-player deal last November, watching Shelby Miller (2.07 ERA) blossom into an All-Star with the Atlanta Braves.

Either way, Heyward should be an X-factor in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. In leaving Atlanta — the city he grew up around and the organization that made him a first-round pick in 2007 — Heyward almost sounded like Jon Lester after signing that six-year, $155 million megadeal.

[MORE CUBS: 'A loss is a loss': Cubs feel sting after Cards deal gutting defeat]

“Everyone here did their part — more than their part — to make me feel at home and welcome,” Heyward said Wednesday, sitting at his locker inside Wrigley Field’s cramped visiting clubhouse. “But I still had to do my part as far as just feeling adjusted and becoming accustomed to everything.

“It’s kind of like the monkey on your back. You have the added element every day (where) there’s something to go along with the natural preparation of getting ready for a game.

“But I’ve had a blast. And it’s been nothing but positive things for me to say about my experience.”

If the Cubs really can afford to hand out a nine-figure contract next winter, you would think they would prioritize pitching, a frontline guy like David Price or Jordan Zimmermann to go with Lester and Jake Arrieta.

[MORE CUBS: Jason Hammel injury shows how much Cubs need more pitching]

But Heyward will turn 26 in August and should have his best years in front of him, though it’s hard to put a price tag on that potential, the flashes of patience, speed, power and defense.

Heyward has already been a top-10 National League position player in terms of WAR — a metric that weighs defense heavily — in three of his five seasons. He gets on base around 35 percent of the time. He stole 20-plus bases in 2012 and 2014. He has exceeded the 20-homer, 80-RBI marks only once (in 2012).

The Cubs have questions marks in the outfield — especially if Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber stay at third base and catcher — and 2016 is too soon to count on the Albert Almoras and Billy McKinneys in the farm system.

“They’re a good team in a really good division,” Heyward said. “That’s plain and simple. They can go out and win any night. They have a good enough team to do so. They have new leadership (and that) can go a long way.”

[MORE CUBS: Maddon comfortable with Bryant, Rizzo in Home Run Derby]

The chain of events that led Heyward to St. Louis began with Atlanta’s decision to promote a hometown, homegrown player and put him in their 2010 Opening Day lineup — and not gain the extra year of club control the Cubs got when they stashed Bryant at Triple-A Iowa to start this season.

Heyward hit a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat as the Braves gave the Cubs a 16-5 beatdown at Turner Field. Atlanta won 91 games that season and made the playoffs as a wild-card team.

“You don’t think about it at that time,” Heyward said. “It’s a business. Certain things you can never control. Just try to control what you can. Don’t take anything for granted.

“You understand that trades and things like that are part of it. Growing up in Georgia, I’ve seen the Braves make plenty of moves like that, and you always wonder why they’re letting go of certain guys, and it just happened time after time after time. So for anybody that was surprised — I wasn’t.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cardinals wanted to use this season as a recruiting pitch and a chance to get to know Heyward, who’s hitting .278 with nine homers and 30 RBIs and slowly heating up from April (.611 OPS) through May (.783 OPS) and into June (.881 OPS) and what should be a huge platform in the playoffs.

“I want to go for a winning attitude, a winning-mindset organization,” Heyward said. “After that, let everything else take care of itself. I’d just like to try to win as many games as possible and know that’s the reason you show up every day for work.

“When the time comes to make decisions, we’ll see what happens. Just tackle it then. Right now, I’m in a perfect place.”

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.