Cubs

Joe Maddon’s message to Cubs before playoff pressure turns up

Joe Maddon’s message to Cubs before playoff pressure turns up

Joe Maddon doesn’t believe in meetings or rah-rah speeches or dress codes. The Cubs manager doesn’t want his players showing up to the ballpark early or taking extra batting practice, refusing to pigeonhole them into one position or follow baseball’s unwritten rules.

If players became frustrated with the spring-training feel at the end of the regular season, then Maddon also sounded annoyed at the passive-aggressive comments to reporters. If Maddon sometimes seems to make it about himself, then there’s also no denying his hands-off, big-picture, media-friendly style has been a spectacular success for a World Series-or-bust franchise. 

The cold water sprayed all over Maddon’s white hair, Great American Ball Park’s visiting clubhouse and the manager’s office after Sunday’s 7-4 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds marked a Game 162 release and a celebration of his 200th win in a Cubs uniform.

 “Just look around the clubhouse,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “(With) the character of the people and the players that we have – if we hold each other accountable – that’s the kind of regular seasons that we can have as a unit if we stay healthy and we perform to our ability. 

“Yeah, 200 wins in two seasons is no easy feat. But after we win a ring, we’d like to make it three seasons with 100.”   

“Try Not To Suck-tober” is here, so when the players gather before Tuesday afternoon’s simulated game at Wrigley Field, Maddon will give a rare State of the Cubs address, something simple and to the point, an updated postseason version of what he told them in spring training and around the All-Star break.    

“Most of the guys have been there (before),” Maddon said. “I don’t want to give them any stark advice regarding how they should deal with any of this stuff. It’s not going to be a long meeting. It’s primarily going to be about: In playoff baseball, things are going to go wrong. And how do you deal with (it) when things go wrong?

“You have to be able to maintain your focus. When things are going well, it’s easy. We all can do that. I just want to remind them to be able to maintain our focus, maintain our methods, even if something goes awry.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon wants his team to play the same game all the time. In theory, it shouldn’t matter if it’s April and the Arizona Diamondbacks are filling Chase Field with noise pollution, or an August weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 40,000 in Wrigleyville, or the October spotlight that can be blinding. 

So before Friday’s Game 1 against the winner of the National League wild-card game – either the New York Mets or San Francisco Giants – batting practice will be optional.

“Nothing should change,” Maddon said. “We’ll have our workout Tuesday (and) get some pitchers involved. Wednesday and Thursday, we will do different things, just to brush up. And then Friday it will be normal pregame. 

“If you don’t want it on the field and want to hit in the cage, please do. If you want to go hit on the field, please do. I don’t want anything to change. I want minimal or no changes whatsoever.”

Theo Epstein’s front office may have handed Maddon the keys to a Ferrari, but as Lou Piniella once said: This is not some push-button operation.

Even with multiple candidates for MVP (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo) and the Cy Young Award (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks) and a range of personalities that goes from a 22-year-old All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) to accomplished veterans in their mid-to-late 30s with World Series rings (Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, David Ross) to the role players (Javier Baez, Matt Szczur, Travis Wood) who have thrived with Maddon’s keep-everyone-involved philosophy.

“Joe has that great sixth sense when it comes to people,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “He knows when to be where he needs to be, and the tone he needs to set for us. We’ve done a good job of being ourselves and policing ourselves on things and fighting through the ups and downs of the season.”

So the Cubs will rely on the daily routines, natural talent, emotional intelligence and scouting reports that got them to this point – and not try to reinvent the wheel just because the fans and the TV networks will be so focused on 1908.

“I want them to go out and play with a free and clear mind,” Maddon said. “There’s no information right now that’s really that above and beyond pertinent. You might grab a nugget or two. You might. Might. I’m all about the nugget. But I don’t want them carrying anything differently than when we’ve been seeing them (while) winning (103) games this year. I don’t want them to be any different.

“This is what we want to do. But don’t go nuts and try to do anything differently right now.”

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

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.