Cubs

Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras and where the Cubs go from here

Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras and where the Cubs go from here

The Cubs could activate Miguel Montero as soon as this weekend at Wrigley Field, adding another edgy personality to what’s becoming a heated rivalry with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cubs have stacked up the most wins in baseball (25) without getting a home run from Jason Heyward or a hit from Kyle Schwarber or much of a jolt from Montero, a two-time All-Star catcher who had been hitting .208 when he went on the disabled list on April 28 with lower back tightness.

Until getting swept by the last-place San Diego Padres during Wednesday’s doubleheader, the Cubs made it past a Blackhawks playoff run, the NFL Draft, Cinco de Mayo, the Kentucky Derby and Mother’s Day before finally losing back-to-back games for the first time this season.

The Cubs understand it will be impossible to maintain a .758 winning percentage for the next 129 games. Theo Epstein’s front office is already bracing for the crash, trying to think through worst-case scenarios and how to respond in the middle of a pennant race.

The dynamic between Montero — who’s nearing the end of his rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa — and elite catching prospect Willson Contreras helps show how the Cubs got to this point and where they go from here.

The Cubs won’t rush Contreras, a Southern League batting champion last season, or Albert Almora, the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration in 2012. But Contreras is viewed as a future frontline catcher, and Almora has such good instincts that he could be a plus defender in a big-league outfield tomorrow.

“You always try to balance major-league need with long-term player development,” Epstein said. “We think it’s really important that our best prospects spend as close to a full year as possible at the Triple-A level.

“Especially with catchers, their time at Triple-A is invaluable, because it’s as close as you can get to the major-league dynamic, understanding how to handle pitchers, how to call games, how to maintain a sense of calm, even when things are speeding up during the course of a game.”

With Schwarber recovering from knee surgery, it didn’t become a difficult decision when Montero felt something similar to the lower back strain that forced him to miss almost a month with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013.

This is the kind of situation the Cubs envisioned when they agreed to a minor-league deal with Tim Federowicz, a former Boston Red Sox draft pick (shocker) who caught Matt Harvey at the University of North Carolina and worked with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“When you have a catcher making his major-league debut, there’s a lot that goes into that,” Epstein said. “A lot of guys have to kind of nurse him through that. He’s got to make some mistakes, so that he can learn from (them). He’s got to build relationships. There will be a time for that.”

The Pacific Coast League can create some numbers inflation. But the Cubs don’t doubt Contreras — who’s batting .347 with a .939 OPS through his first 27 games with Iowa — will become an impact hitter in The Show.

“He’s a really talented hitter,” Epstein said. “But we’re not as concerned with his offensive development. He’s a real natural hitter. He hits the ball hard, sprays line drives from line to line, drives the ball through the gaps, doesn’t strike out a lot, has a pretty good feel for the strike zone.

“So I think he’s going to adjust pretty well over time offensively. It’s really the nuances of running a pitching staff that he’s working on. Triple-A is the perfect place to do that.”

The Cubs left their pitchers in the capable hands of David Ross and Federowicz, who have helped the rotation go 24-for-33 in quality starts and put up a 2.29 ERA that leads the majors by a wide margin (with the Washington Nationals second at 2.77).

That’s also a product of the complex game-planning system designed by coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello and supported by Joe Maddon’s Geek Department.

It’s unfair to think Contreras — who grew up in Venezuela and will turn 24 on Friday — can just show up and take charge of a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and two two-time World Series champions (Jon Lester and John Lackey).

“A Triple-A clubhouse is an interesting place to navigate,” Epstein said. “You got some guys on the way up, some guys on the way down who feel they should be back up there. Pitchers are working on things, and sometimes you can learn a lot just keeping those guys happy and being the guy they want to throw to.

“Advance (scouting) reports are more a part of the equation at Triple-A than they are at Double-A or the lower levels. It’s the perfect place for him to be right now and continue to evolve.

“He’s an outstanding thrower, an outstanding blocker, but he’s continuing to work on his receiving as well. Besides the intangible components of catching, he’s working on receiving all the different pitches in all the different parts of the zone.”

The Cubs will hold a seven-game lead over the Pirates when they face Francisco Liriano on Friday afternoon in Wrigleyville, knowing that it will take veterans like Montero and Heyward picking up the pace, energy boosts from the farm system and the trade deadline and even more unexpected contributions (Shane Victorino?) to successfully finish this marathon.

“It’s so early,” Epstein said. “We’re thrilled with the start we’ve gotten off to, but we’re not blinded by it.

“The season’s 26 weeks long. A team could make up a game every other week on us and catch us and pass us. It doesn’t change the thought process at all.”

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

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USA TODAY

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.