Cubs

The Nationals NLDS rotation spells good news for the Cubs

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USA TODAY

The Nationals NLDS rotation spells good news for the Cubs

Barring anything absolutely nuts or Bumgarnerian, the Cubs will only face Max Scherzer once in the National League Division Series, even if it stretches to five games.

There's also the possibility the Cubs don't even have to face Scherzer at all.

Dusty Baker announced the Washington Nationals' Game 1 starter only Thursday morning, but MASN's Mark Zuckerman is hearing from sources Gio Gonzalez will get the ball in Game 2, pushing Scherzer back to Chicago for Game 3 Monday, at the earliest.

Scherzer "tweaked" his hamstring in his final start of the regular season last weekend and that issue will keep him out of the first two games in D.C. this weekend.

He was supposed to throw a bullpen Wednesday, but that was pushed back to Thursday. Baker explained why:

"We didn't want him to test it [Wednesday]," Baker said. "He threw some flat ground, but every day is important. When you have a nagging injury, every day is important for our trainers to evaluate it, put hands on him, and see if he's still sore or if he's feeling great."

[RELATED — Breaking down Cubs' NLDS rotation decisions]

Based on the typical routine of starting pitchers, they rarely throw a full bullpen only two days before they are to appear in a game. Which means if Scherzer is first getting on a mound Thursday to test his hamstring, it's hard to see him getting the ball Saturday evening in Game 2, which lends credence to what Zuckerman's sources are telling him.

If Scherzer cannot go in Game 2, that would almost assuredly take him out of the running to throw at all in a winner-take-all Game 5 if the series gets that far. Doubt the Nationals would throw a less-than-healthy Scherzer on Monday and then have him start or relieve on a sub-100 percent hamstring Thursday with just two days of rest in between.

With the scheduled off-days Sunday and Wednesday, the starter for Games 1 and 2 for both teams would be fresh and on normal rest to throw in a Game 5.

"We realize that if he pitched Game 2, he could probably pitch Game 5 if necessary," Baker said. "We realize that, but is that worth, you know, taking a chance, and if you get past the first round and then are you jeopardizing the second round? So you have to kind of weigh both. But you know, the health of Max, I think, is number one."

We've already seen the Nationals prioritize the long-term health ramifications of their players over winning when they shut down Strasburg in the 2012 postseason. But then again, that move hasn't worked out so well for the franchise, so maybe the added pressure has changed things in our nation's capital?

Scherzer is the frontrunner (in my eyes, at least) for the NL Cy Young Award, as he went 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA in 31 starts. He led the league in strikeouts (268), WHIP (0.902), hits per nine innings (5.7) and complete games (2). 

[PODCAST: NLDS X-factors]

To be sure: Strasburg, Gonzalez and Illinois native Tanner Roark are no slouches. 

Strasburg has been lights-out since the All-Star Break, going 6-1 with a 0.86 ERA, 0.814 WHIP and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings. But he also only pitched 62.2 innings due to an elbow issue that kept him sidelined from July 23 to Aug. 19.

Gonzalez actually led the Nats staff in innings (201) and games started (32) while pitching the second-best year of his career with a 15-9 record and 2.96 ERA.

Roark  a Wilmington, Illinois native who played his college ball at the University of Illinois — had a 4.67 ERA and 1.335 WHIP this season, but last year, he had a 2.83 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and won 16 games. But he's alowed 14 baserunners in 7 career postseason innings between 2014 and last fall.

No matter what way you look at it, the Cubs would catch a serious break by not having to face Scherzer twice.

Whenever Scherzer does throw in this series — if at all — the Cubs and Joe Maddon will have some serious lineup questions. The veteran right-hander is absolutely, insanely dominant against right-handed hitters, holding them to a microscopic .136 average and .425 OPS. Lefties, meanwhile, are hitting .215 with a .692 OPS and have hit 16 homers off Scherzer compared to only 6 llongballs from righties.

That means Maddon has two choices: 1) write out a lineup with Alex Avila catching over Willson Contreras and only one of Javy Baez or Addison Russell playing shortstop with switch-hitters Ian Happ or Ben Zobrist or the left-handed-hitting Tommy La Stella playing second base or 2) Keep Contreras, Baez and Russell all in the lineup vs. Scherzer and be forced to sacrifice offense for defense.

We'll see what way the Cubs opt to play it when the time comes, but it's really hard to envision Contreras, Russell or Baez ever out of the starting lineup for any game this October if they're all fully healthy.

Now, at least, it appears Maddon only has to make those tough decisions for one 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.