Cubs

Kris Bryant shows Cubs he has one agenda – winning

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Kris Bryant shows Cubs he has one agenda – winning

CINCINNATI – Kris Bryant could worry about blindly crashing into the wall – or another outfielder – and the career-threatening injury. He could wonder if all the defensive shifting will pull down his offensive numbers. There could be hundreds of millions of dollars at stake here. 

Bryant is only a rookie – very likely the National League’s Rookie of the Year – but he still has enough stature inside the organization to tell the Cubs what he really thinks.   

Even with all the hype surrounding his big-league debut, Bryant hasn’t complained or turned into a clubhouse prima donna, believing the versatility will someday pay off and buying into the team concept.

“I really think it comes down to the personal agenda of the player,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s 4-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. “KB’s about winning. Only. He’s a real selfless player, man.

“He’s not worried about embarrassing himself. He knows he’s prepared to play there. He’s (just) out there playing baseball, so he’s not worried about the kind of stuff that prevents people from doing those kinds of things. His ultimate goal is to win the game.”

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Of course, super-agent Scott Boras also knows this will enhance Bryant’s value if/when he becomes a free agent after the 2021 season, marketing someone who can play all four corner positions, hit 40 homers in the middle of your lineup and accept all the face-of-the-franchise responsibilities.    

Bryant played catcher in Little League but didn’t like the foul tips off his mask. He had 90-mph velocity as a part-time pitcher at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas – and even lobbied his University of San Diego coaches to let him throw – but ultimately his right arm couldn’t bounce back.

Maddon moved Bryant all around during Monday night’s 1-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals at Wrigley Field, starting him at first base before shifting him to center field, right field and third base in a game that lasted 11 innings.  

“If you really want to understand why he’s able to do that – and then do it without any kind of like dissent – it’s because it’s one agenda,” Maddon said. “And that’s to win the game. I really believe that. Not everybody’s like that. They might be more worried about themselves.”    

When they made the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, the Cubs projected Bryant’s athleticism and 6-foot-5 body and made comparisons to Troy Glaus (third base) and Jayson Werth (outfield).

“Absolutely,” Bryant said, he has a preference. “There’s more value in playing third base, especially if I can do it and continue to get better at it and make the routine play over there. That’s definitely where I want to play. That’s where I’m more comfortable, too.

“My hard work has definitely paid off over there, and I think I can only get better from here, so that’s exciting to me.”

Maybe the Cubs will sign someone like Denard Span to play center field and allow the Albert Almoras of the farm system to develop.

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But with Dexter Fowler about to become a free agent and the Cubs looking for a short-term solution next year, Bryant didn’t dismiss the idea of regularly playing center field.

“I think I can do it,” Bryant said. “I’ve said it before: Not to take anything away from Dexter, but I think center field is the easier position for me, considering in right field and left field you have to deal with the hooks on the ball. 

“Those are tough to catch for a guy that’s kind of new out there. But whatever they have in store for me, I think I can definitely do it.” 

That unselfish attitude means the Cubs will have options this winter if they want to trade from their surplus of hitters to get more pitching. It also provides insurance at first base in case one of those fastballs drills Anthony Rizzo in the wrong spot.

Bryant just keeps on hitting, setting franchise rookie records in homers (26) and RBI (99). Whatever the answer to this multiple-choice question, Maddon has shown he doesn’t like to keep things static. 

“I’m pretty confident out there,” Bryant said. “So whatever he has up his sleeve, we’ll see what he’s got.”

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.