Cubs

Jon Lester, the right Cubs free agent at the right time, takes care of business against Phillies

Jon Lester, the right Cubs free agent at the right time, takes care of business against Phillies

PHILADELPHIA — Once Jon Lester finally made The Decision and signed that six-year, $155 million megadeal with the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo told his family: I’m going to play on a contender for the rest of my career.

The Cubs were coming off their fifth consecutive fifth-place finish when manager Joe Maddon escaped his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and Lester took the leap of faith with Theo Epstein’s front office. That seems like ancient history now.

But Lester is still an anchor for the majors’ first team to 40 wins this season, even with the well-chronicled issues throwing to first base and even as Jake Arrieta gets most of the rotation headlines as the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.

At a time when two of Epstein’s biggest free-agent mistakes with the Cubs (Edwin Jackson) and Boston Red Sox (Carl Crawford) are now in designated-for-assignment limbo, Lester again showed he’s the right player at the right time.

Lester dominated the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park, throwing eight scoreless innings before the Cubs bullpen hung on for a 6-4 victory. Lester retired 13 straight batters during one stretch, threw 95 efficient pitches, finished with nine strikeouts against zero walks and got enough support from an offense that has been years in the making.

“Some guys didn’t believe it — they didn’t believe in that plan,” said Rizzo, the first baseman/clubhouse leader on track for his third All-Star selection before his 27th birthday. “And Jonny did. Obviously, with Joe signing and Jon coming over and us progressing last year like we did, it couldn’t have been better.”

Jason Heyward — who blasted a two-run homer off Phillies starter Adam Morgan — had been listed in the projected 2016 lineup when the Cubs unveiled a diamond diagram as part of the elaborate presentation during Lester’s recruiting visit to Wrigleyville.

Monday also marked the three-year anniversary of the Houston Astros drafting Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel No. 1 overall, allowing the Cubs to select future Rookie of the Year/All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant (3-for-5, RBI, two runs scored) with the second pick.

Lester — who notched a complete-game victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers last week at Wrigley Field — is now 7-3 with a 2.06 ERA and should be in the conversation for his fourth All-Star selection.

And if you needed another sign of Lester’s increasing comfort level around this team, he collaborated with strength coach Tim Buss and came up with the idea for the NBA Finals-themed road trip, personally paying for all the blue Under Armour tracksuits and white Nike sneakers.

“Maybe reading into it (too much),” Lester said. “But like I’ve said from Day 1 this year, I really do feel more comfortable.

“Obviously, winning last year and going to the playoffs kind of helps everybody relax. We really didn’t know what to expect last year, and we kind of exceeded the expectations. That really allowed us to come in and have everybody play relaxed and have a good time.

“As the year went on, you could really see Joe open up, too, and become more Joe. We had a little bit more fun when we started winning. That just carried over to this year, (and) you can pretty much go down the line — everybody feels more relaxed.”

This from an old Red Sox who admitted he didn’t know if it was — with all due respect — a little tacky or unprofessional when Maddon’s Rays teams did those types of dress-up gimmicks.

“It’s just the personality of our team, too,” Rizzo said. “We’re just all so close that I can see some outsiders looking in (that way). But everyone who knows this team — and is around this team — knows how we are.

“Jonny came up with a really veteran (group), a lot of old-school players that taught him the things that he teaches guys (now).”

The Phillies (28-30) — a completely undermanned offensive team — tried to get in Lester’s head by bunting and aggressively running the bases. But personal catcher David Ross easily threw out Maikel Franco when he tried to steal second base in the second inning. And it ultimately didn’t matter moments later when Lester recoiled at the sight of a Peter Bourjos pop-up bunt, stepping away from the ball and waiting for Ross to pick it up.

“That’s just a tough play — it was like right in the middle between both of them,” Maddon said. “(Bourjos) bisected the mound and the plate. It’s just a tough play for either guy, but I thought overall we’ve been handling that stuff pretty well.

“Everybody says ‘bunt.’ Just go down the list of the bunters in the league who are good bunters. Everybody just thinks it’s that easy. It is the lost art. There are certain teams that do bunt better than others. There are some hitters that bunt betters than others. But just to say ‘bunt’ doesn’t necessarily (work) when the guy’s throwing 94 (mph) with a cutter on your fingertips. It’s not that easy to do.”

Lester — a 32-year-old lefty who’s thrown almost 2,000 innings in The Show when you include the playoffs and those two World Series championships with the Red Sox — can minimize those issues and beat teams in different ways. Nine-figure contracts for pitchers almost never end well, but right now nothing says comfort like a personalized tracksuit.

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

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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.