Cubs

Jorge Soler showing Cubs why he thrives on playoff pressure

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Jorge Soler showing Cubs why he thrives on playoff pressure

Pressure? These Cubs smashed that playoff narrative into pieces, shrugging off the weight of franchise history like it’s nothing.

Pressure? It’s not like these Cubs grew up in the Chicago suburbs, idolizing Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and seeing the 1969 team collapse. They’re not from the generation that sat around college dorm rooms and Lakeview bars watching the 2003 team unravel, only five outs away from the World Series.

Pressure? Try playing for the Cuban junior national team, understanding that you had to produce to keep your spot for the next high-profile tournament, not knowing if you would ever get another chance to make an impression on the scouts in the stands. And then making the life-changing decision that would impact your entire family.

That’s a window into Jorge Soler’s world, the nerves it took to get to this point, the Cubs riding a wave of momentum into the National League Championship Series that begins Saturday night against the Mets at Citi Field.

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Theo Epstein’s front office couldn’t have predicted Soler beginning his postseason career by getting on base in each of his first nine plate appearances, because no one in major-league history had ever done that before.

But the Cubs always believed an outfielder built more like an NFL linebacker possessed the unique combination of power (two homers), patience (six walks) and presence (that Game 4 throw to home plate) you saw against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“This is why we do what we do,” said Louie Eljaua, the team’s director of international operations. “Our scouts are out there beating the bushes, in the trenches, to find guys that are going to help us win championships.

“He’s really come to life here and performed in a big way on the biggest stage possible.”

Eljaua watched it up close this week at Wrigley Field as the Cubs invited scouts and player-development staffers from around the world – including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama and Colombia – to see the payoff for all their hard work behind the scenes.

Soler, 23, is part of a larger story about The Cubs Way and how this franchise is positioned to be a perennial playoff contender. (The hunt never stops: CBS Sports reported the Cubs and San Francisco Giants are waiting for Major League Baseball to decide which team has an agreement with Cuban outfielder Eddy Julio Martinez.)

[MORE: Cubs get back to work after partying it up following NLDS win]

Remember, Soler missed roughly two years of game action during the odyssey that saw him defect from Cuba, train in the Dominican Republic, establish residency in Haiti and finally gain clearance to sign in the United States.

Soler still hasn’t played a full season of professional baseball yet and had only 151 minor-league games on his resume heading into this year. 

“There’s been some bumps along the way with injuries and whatnot,” Eljaua said. “But he’s resilient enough to make adjustments, learn, continue to put together good at-bats and grow from that.

“The ceiling is still very high. He’s scratching the surface right now with what we expect him to do. It’s really scary to think that there’s more room and there’s more upside.”

Eljaua grew up in Miami, the son of Cuban parents, breaking into the business with the Florida Marlins, where he worked with future Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and helped find a future World Series MVP (Livan Hernandez) and Triple Crown winner (Miguel Cabrera). 

While working for the Boston Red Sox, Eljaua and Epstein had once put the full-court press on another Cuban pitcher at a hotel in Nicaragua, thinking they had Jose Contreras locked up until the New York Yankees swooped in with a bigger offer to join the Evil Empire. 

[ALSO: Cubs will rely on Baez with Russell out of NLCS]

Signing Soler became a priority within the first months of the Epstein administration in Chicago, the Cubs looking for long-term building blocks and a new labor deal changing the rules of engagement on the international market.

Chairman Tom Ricketts even took time to meet with Soler’s camp during a trip to the Dominican Republic, the Cubs guaranteeing $30 million in the summer of 2012.

“When we go out there and identify players and sign the guys we sign, we do it with the intent of them coming to Chicago and helping us win,” Eljaua said. “We try to identify specific guys and scout not just ability – but makeup and talent and fortitude and all that – because it takes a different cat to play here.

“It’s kind of like Boston, New York. To be able to handle the grind, to be able to perform on this stage, to be able to deal with what they deal with on a daily basis playing here – and then to enjoy it and continue to do it and be disciplined enough to do it is (difficult).

“You have to tip your cap to a lot of different people that had a hand in this, from Tom Ricketts to our scouts to Theo.”

Eljaua remembered Soler standing out as a teenager at an international tournament in Venezuela – where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado played for Team USA – and looking like he belonged with those future All-Stars.

Soler opened eyes again in 2010 with his performance at the World Junior Baseball Championship in Canada, perhaps a preview for how he would respond in October.

[MORE: Cubs lining up Lester, Arrieta for first two games of NLCS]

“He was always about baseball,” Eljaua said. “He wasn’t really distracted with other things as far as like what kind of car he was going to buy or how big a house he was going to get.

“I always try to get in their heads: What do you want to do when you sign? What’s your first objective?

“He was always about family. He was always about baseball. He was always about getting to the States. And from the time we’ve signed him, he’s been appreciative of that.”

To be honest, Soler probably had a disappointing regular season (10 homers, 47 RBI), at least compared to Kris Bryant’s Rookie of the Year campaign and Anthony Rizzo’s MVP-level performance.  

Soler missed time with a sprained ankle and a strained oblique, playing in 101 games and getting 400-plus plate appearances, leading to more questions about his ability to stay healthy and whether or not he’d be ready in time for the playoffs.     

But Soler already answered that question in October: Pressure? What pressure?

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.