Cubs

Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central

wellyhr041415.png

Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central

Aroldis Chapman blew away Mike Olt with four straight fastballs. The first one hit 99 mph. The next three clocked 100 mph. Game. Over.

That’s how the dominant, mysterious Cincinnati Reds closer sent everyone home on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, closing out a 3-2 victory over the Cubs. Welcome to the National League Central.

It’s not as glamorous as the old American League East that made Theo Epstein a legend throughout New England for taking down the Evil Empire. Or Joe Maddon a big celebrity for transforming the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in their David and Goliath story against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

But this division features five teams that are going for it now, and the Cubs manager knows what that means for Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara and eventually Kris Bryant and Javier Baez.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon said. “So I love when your own division is very, very competitive. I think young players get better sooner because they got to show up every day. Otherwise, you will be embarrassed.

“When you’re playing good teams, you really have to show up, and I think our division’s going to really draw that out of our young players.”

[MORE: Cubs can't hide Jon Lester's throwing issues]

Jake Arrieta learned that the hard way with the Baltimore Orioles. Arrieta blossomed after that change-of-scenery trade in July 2013, taking two no-hitters into the seventh inning against the Reds last season.

“Nothing is going to be handed to you,” said Arrieta, who retired the first nine Reds before a three-run fourth inning. “You’re having to face guys that are the best of the best, day in, day out, series after series. So, yeah, you have no choice but to grow up quick, or else you’re going to be shipped out.

“Playing that level of competition really escalates your development. It has to. Because if you want to survive there, you have to find ways to get it done.

“We’re in the thick of it right here in the Central. It’s no slouch.”

Except for that one inning, Arrieta (1-1, 1.98 ERA) again looked like a frontline guy against the Reds (5-3). But the only offense this lineup could generate came from pinch-hitter/No. 3 catcher Welington Castillo, who hit a two-run homer off ex-Cub Kevin Gregg in the eighth inning. The Cubs (4-3) ran out of late-game magic against Chapman, falling out of first place.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Epstein’s front office and veteran players viewed as short-term assets have talked about the urgency of getting off to a good start the last few years, so the team wouldn’t get blown up at the trade deadline.

Now, the Cubs hope to be buyers on July 31, and 25 of their first 31 games come against Central opponents.

“The start is just so essential, especially when you’re in a really competitive division,” Epstein said. “We put ourselves in a big hole the last few years. I think we have more talent this year and we have a more realistic chance to go do some damage and really compete.

“(But) focus on getting off to a good start. It’s so important in this division.”

It’s not necessarily the same as going into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.

But everyone knows about the St. Louis Cardinals and their 11 World Series titles. The Reds have made the playoffs three times since 2010. The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off back-to-back seasons winning a wild card. The Milwaukee Brewers spent 159 days in first place last season.

“You got to take charge of your division,” Maddon said. “You have to ascend within your division. Nobody’s going to be just giving us anything here. Not at all. We have to go out there and take that momentum. We have to take our place within the division. As it should be.”

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.