Cubs

Larkin, Santo and the calm before the Cooperstown storm

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Larkin, Santo and the calm before the Cooperstown storm

The Hall of Fame vote is supposed to be all about the past, but its perfect for right now. Its another thing to fill the 247 news cycle. All the crossfire arguments are there for Twitter and talk radio. You have to have a take.

Barry Larkin will share the stage with Ron Santos family. Each player was identified by, and loyal to, one team. Theyll have a place in Cooperstown, N.Y., forever. Consider that non-controversy the calm before the storm.

Mondays election results showed overwhelming support for Larkin, who received 86.4 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America. The longtime Cincinnati Reds shortstop will be inducted on July 22, the same day the Cubs will be celebrating Santos life.

The volume will be turned up for the class of 2013, which includes Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling and Craig Biggio. By 2014, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine will be eligible for the first time.

This will be an endless debate, and it will be interesting to see what information comes out between now and then. Look for more voting explanations based on rumors and innuendo, plus more people begging for clarification on the character clause.

Bonds has a legal team appealing his obstruction of justice conviction. Voters wont forget how Clemens starred in the Mitchell Report, or Sosas performance in front of Congress. Schilling and Thomas were two of the most outspoken critics from the steroid era.

Everyone on the ballot is under suspicion on some level because of the period in which they played. This round was another clear rejection of Mark McGwire (19.5 percent) and Rafael Palmeiro (12.6 percent).

Combined those two players linked to performance-enhancing drugs have been on the ballot eight times and have never received more than 24 percent of the vote, nowhere near the 75 percent needed for induction.

Momentum seems to be building for big-game pitcher Jack Morris, who got 66.7 percent of the 573 votes cast (nine were left blank) and still has his 14th and 15th chances left to get into the Hall. The same goes for Jeff Bagwell, who rose from 41.7 percent to 56 percent during his second year on the ballot.

If you have an opinion, its so much easier now to find a platform and shout it out. The explosion of information on the Internet and the growing awareness and understanding of sabermetrics has shifted the way people look at the game.

Perceptions changed about Larkin. In his third year of eligibility, he finished with a vote total that represented a 24.3-percent gain from the 2011 ballot, the largest jump in one year to gain election in more than 60 years.

Larkin, 47, grew up in Cincinnati and was drafted twice by the Reds. In between he played at the University of Michigan where legendary coach Bo Schembechler wanted him on the football team and in the 1984 Olympics.

Larkin lasted 19 seasons with the Reds, helping Lou Piniella and The Nasty Boys win a World Series title in 1990. His resume includes 12 All-Star selections, nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves and the 1995 National League MVP award.

This summers Hall of Fame ceremony will also honor two media award winners television analyst Tim McCarver and Toronto Sun writer Bob Elliott along with Santo.

Santo was voted in by a veterans committee last month and his legacy will be front and center at this weekends Cubs Convention. WGN Radios Pat Hughes will host a panel expected to include Santos widow Vicki, son Ron Jr. and former teammates Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley and Billy Williams.

The family didnt want to use the word bittersweet, even though Santos Hall of Fame call came one year after his death. Thats because future generations will be able to go and see the plaque and remember the man.

Larkin was asked the other day what it would mean, but couldnt quite answer the question. Theyre about to find out.

Baseball immortality, Larkin said on the MLB Network. To be recognized as one of the best of all-time (made me think about my) young kids. Theyre out there doing their thing. But 20, 30, 40, 100 years from now, when theyre old and gone, their grandkids (and kids will) always be able to say, Yeah, that guy right there (was) one of the best in the game.

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.