Cubs

Javier Baez steps into starring role for Cubs to help finish Cardinals

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Javier Baez steps into starring role for Cubs to help finish Cardinals

Javier Baez touched home plate and pointed to the sky, the jet-engine noise filling Wrigley Field as he ran through the gauntlet in the home dugout, hopping up the stairs and raising his arms for a curtain call.

Baez had just crushed John Lackey’s 94-mph fastball out toward the right-field bleachers on Tuesday afternoon, firing back at the St. Louis Cardinals and showing off the natural power the Cubs saw in his boom-or-bust potential.

As darkness fell on the North Side, a crowd of 42,411 and a national-television audience watched the Cubs clinch their first postseason series ever at Clark and Addison, where they’ve only been playing for a century.

After everything that’s happened, what a way for Baez to step up in this National League Division Series, delivering a signature moment with that three-run homer in the second inning, helping the Cubs close out the Cardinals with a 6-4 victory in Game 4.

“It’s been a tough year for me, but life continues,” Baez said. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m living my life, living my dream.”

[MORE CUBS: Bring on the NLCS: Cubs slug their way past Cardinals]

Baez felt the emotional letdown when he didn’t make the team out of spring training, and he took an extended leave of absence after his younger sister, Noely, died in early April. That’s why he pointed to the sky after the biggest at-bat of his life.

“She’s always with me,” said Baez, who has her name scripted onto his glove. “And I’m always with her.”

Responding to what might have been a crisis for another playoff team, the Cubs swapped out one first-round pick for another at shortstop, leaving a three-time All-Star shortstop at second base. That wealth of young talent shows why a rivalry that’s lasted 123 years might never be the same again.

Addison Russell got an MRI on his tight left hamstring on Tuesday morning, and manager Joe Maddon didn’t sound all that optimistic his rookie shortstop would be available for a Game 5 that’s no longer necessary.

The test results weren’t immediately available, but Maddon knows Russell’s game revolves around lateral movement and quickness. Maddon also reasoned Russell wouldn’t have walked off the field in the fourth inning of Monday’s Game 3 win — after hustling for a triple — if he didn’t feel something. So there was Baez starting at shortstop and playing next to Starlin Castro, possibly for the foreseeable future.

“I have all the confidence in the world in him,” Maddon said. “He’s an outstanding defender.”

[MORE CUBS: Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder left speechless after Cubs win NLDS]

Maddon lobbied for Baez to make the Opening Day roster, believing his speed, instincts and take-charge attitude would make up for the severe swing-and-miss issues exposed during his 95-strikeouts-in-52-games audition last year.

Theo Epstein’s front office inherited Baez, the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and believed he needed more time to develop at Triple-A Iowa.

You got the feeling this administration never would have drafted Baez out of Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Fla., not having enough information on a quiet kid who played different levels of competition, not knowing if he would become the next Manny Ramirez or stall as an A-ball player.

Baez then fractured his left ring finger while sliding headfirst into second base during an Iowa game in early June, another setback that left him waiting for a September call-up.

“You just got to play it through,” Baez said. “You just got to keep going.”

[MORE CUBS: Despite 100 wins, Cardinals couldn't slow Cubs' momentum]

To get a front-end starter like Carlos Carrasco (Cleveland Indians) or Tyson Ross (San Diego Padres) at the July 31 trade deadline, the Cubs probably would have had to give up Baez as a starting point in either deal.

Those trade rumors started from the moment the Cubs dealt Jeff Samardzija to the Oakland A’s, making Russell the centerpiece to last year’s Fourth of July blockbuster.

“I don’t think you can have too many shortstops,” Maddon said. “It’s almost like (how) you can’t have too many pitchers, because they can do so many other things. They’re really good athletes. Even if it comes down to playing them in the outfield, that’s possible, too.

“Shortstops can move almost anywhere. That’s the thing. That was one of the old scouting adages: Scout up the middle and sign those guys, because they normally can move to corners.”

The Cubs might need all their shortstops to win a World Series. Baez has always been a baseball gym rat, but he toned down his act, showing a more serious sense of purpose and harnessing that out-of-control swing. Whatever happens next, he will just keep riding this wave of momentum in an unreal Cubs season.

“We know what we can do,” Baez said. “And we’re going to keep doing 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.