Cubs

Joe Maddon sees Matt Szczur playing 'tension-free' baseball with Cubs

Joe Maddon sees Matt Szczur playing 'tension-free' baseball with Cubs

Joe Maddon is the king of chill.

The relentlessly positive Cubs manager could never be described as uptight and he spends a lot of time making sure his players feel loose and free.

Matt Szczur has looked awfully comfortable in the early going, hitting .385 with a 1.192 OPS in 16 plate appearances. He also has five RBI - the same total as Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler and one more than Ben Zobrist.

Maddon chalks up Szcuzr's small sample size of success to a more relaxed approach and mindset.

"What you're seeing now is what he's done in the minor leagues," Maddon said. "I think he's finally getting comfortable here. If you watch him in batting practice, there's more of a tension-free approach to his game. He's not uptight.

"He is thinking here as he had done in Triple-A or Villanova or wherever. I think that's the difference. I like that. 

"He's very talented. He has a lot to contribute. He's a tremendous athlete - runs well, throws well, hits well, he's got great power. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but the ball really jumps for him."

Szczur was always pretty highly regarded as a prospect, going in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB Draft and passing up a possible pro football career. He was ranked as the No. 64 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2012 season and posted a .733 OPS in six minor-league seasons with 26 homers and 140 stolen bases.

Now the 26-year-old Szcuzr is getting his chance on the big-league level, making his first Opening Day roster when Javy Baez started the season on the disabled list and now with Kyle Schwarber lost for the season, Szczur could be in Chicago to stay as a key role player in the outfield.

Maddon has already utilized Szczur in almost every game on the young season, whether as a defensive replacement, pinch-hitter or spot-starter to give an outfielder a rest (as he did Saturday, playing right field to spell Jason Heyward).

Szczur has worked with Cubs hitting coach John Mallee to stop rolling over on the ball so much and grounding out to the left side of the infield and the results are showing on the field right now.

"He's made a lot of nice adjustments," Maddon said. "The biggest thing I'm talking about - I've only known him for a little over a year now, but I can see a definite difference in just his approach to the day here at the major-league level."

Szczur said the major difference in his mindset is a change in confidence and knowing he belongs in the big leagues. He is out of options, so the only way the Cubs can send him down to the minor leagues is if they put him on waivers and risk losing him to another organization.

"I'm not thinking that I'm gonna go down," Szczur said. "Last year, I feel like I was playing very tight. Didn't want to make a mistake and get sent down, because I knew if someone got hurt or if we used an extra pitcher or someone had to come up, I was gonna go down.

"This year, I'm able to play a lot looser. I think it's helped me a lot. A lot of weight off my shoulders, for sure."

Szczur said he spent a lot of time learning from veteran Chris Denorfia last season. Denorfia has made a career out of being a role player and his game is similar to Szczur's - right-handed hitter, solid defense all around the outfield, a blend of power and speed.

But no matter what he learned from Denorfia, Szczur couldn't shake that feeling last season that he could be sent down to the minors at any moment.

"I feel like more of a part of the team now because I know I'm not going down," Szczur said. "I feel like an everyday guy here. I know everybody. I'm comfortable here.

"For me, it's much easier. I know I belong here and I know I'm not going down."

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

adbert_alzolay.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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

0222-joe-maddon.jpg
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.