Cubs

No drama: Cubs ace Jake Arrieta still owns the Pirates

No drama: Cubs ace Jake Arrieta still owns the Pirates

PITTSBURGH – For all the buildup to this start, the memories of last year’s National League wild-card showdown, the benches-clearing frenzy, the champagne-soaked celebration in the visiting clubhouse and the F-bombs Cubs manager Joe Maddon dropped on the Pittsburgh Pirates the night before, this still felt like another Tuesday in early May, Game 25 of 162.

That’s the calming effect of Jake Arrieta, the new-age athlete with killer stuff and off-the-charts confidence. The Cy Young Award winner is on such a dominant run that there are times where it feels like the only real drama revolves around whether or not he will throw a no-hitter.

That didn’t happen at PNC Park, and anyone hoping for more fireworks between these two teams would have to settle for Arrieta slicing through Pittsburgh’s lineup with surgical precision. After walking the first two Pirates he faced, Arrieta allowed only two singles across seven scoreless innings before the Cubs could pull the plug at 99 pitches with a six-run lead.

“There’s going to be emotion in this division with teams like the Pirates all year,” Arrieta said after a 7-1 victory. “We’re trying to accomplish the same goals. We know there are a couple teams standing in our way. That’s just kind of the heat of the battle (where) you’ve got a couple really good ballclubs trying to compete for a spot at the top of the division.”

The Cubs (19-6) now have a five-game lead in the Central and will be going for the sweep on Wednesday afternoon with Jon Lester on the mound. Arrieta won’t admit he has a psychological edge over the Pirates – and the Cubs can’t come out and say they’re in their heads – but it sort of looks that way.

Combine Tuesday night, the complete-game wild-card shutout and five regular-season starts last year and here’s what Arrieta’s line looks like against the Pirates: Three earned runs allowed in 52 innings with 49 strikeouts against seven walks.

If Arrieta looked out of sync to begin the game – walking John Jaso and Andrew McCutchen on 10 pitches combined – he didn’t allow it to snowball into the big inning that used to haunt him during his struggles with the Baltimore Orioles.

Arrieta recognized early that has sinker had a ton of movement on it, adjusted his mechanics accordingly and started pounding the Pirates with four-seam fastballs. He took some speed off his slider, trying to create enough of a differential against a good fastball-hitting team. He got 12 groundball outs, taking advantage of Javier Baez and the spectacular defense at third base.

Arrieta (6-0, 0.84 ERA) is the first Cub to win his first six starts to a season since 1908, when Mordecai Brown won each of his first 11 starts to begin that championship run. The Cubs have now won Arrieta’s last 19 regular-season starts. Arrieta also broke Rick Sutcliffe’s 16-game winning streak spanning the 1984-85 seasons. It only took a Cole Hamels no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies to beat Arrieta on July 25, 2015.

Arrieta went on Twitter and told Pittsburgh fans he wanted it loud last October, but even the booing from a crowd of 22,195 feels halfhearted when there’s no suspense.

“It’s expected,” said Arrieta, who responded in the second inning with a bases-loaded RBI single. “It’s a good fan base kind of recognizing the recent past and trying to amp the home club up and swing the momentum in their favor.

“It’s not frowned upon from my part. Baseball fans – especially the diehard fans that stick up for their team – that’s what you want to see. Coming here and playing these guys in this park is always a good time.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

adbert.jpg
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

0222-joe-maddon.jpg
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.