Cubs

No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs

addisonrussellmodeling.png

No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. - Addison Russell didn't go through the same physical transformation as Jason Hammel, but the 22-year-old shortstop still looks like a new person in Cubs camp.

Russell no longer looks like a rookie - on the field or off - and he proved it with a two-run shot onto the lawn in left field in the third inning of the Cubs' 3-0 win in the Cactus League home opener at Sloan Park Friday afternoon.

This year won't have a trial period where he will have to prove he deserves to be in the big leagues. Now he knows he belongs.

"Conversationally, he's much more confident," Joe Maddon said. "Easier to joke around with you. Just much more comfortable in his major-league skin.

"I love it. He knows he belongs here. He knows he's good here. He's in great shape. He was in fine shape last year; I think he's in even better shape right now.

"There's a lot going on in his personal life and family life, which is all positive. He's growing up a little bit."

[RELATED - Kawasaki Karaoke: Joe Maddon 'abhors' monotony in Cubs camp]

At times last season, Russell looked like he was pressing. After he made his MLB debut on April 21, Russell hit .226 with a .650 OPS before the All-Star break.

But he felt something clicked in the second half, as his OPS jumped nearly 100 points (.744) and Russell showed more power with eight homers and 13 doubles in 71 games.

The Cubs helped incorporate a leg kick into Russell's swing and he said that helped him get more power and drive the ball.

That power - which he flashed during Friday's win - also jumped out to Maddon last spring when he got his first up-close look at Russell.

"I didn't know he had that kind of power," Maddon said. "I'm watching him in batting practice right now - he's really strong.

"Last year at this time, we primarily talked about his defense, what a good kid he was, he'll be ready at some point, he's gonna help us, the shortstop of the future - all those kinda commentary.

"I did not know he had this kind of power. He's got real power."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Russell posted a career .520 slugging percentage in the minor leagues, with 30 homers in 178 games between 2013-14. Could that start translating in the majors in 2016?

Maddon has talked up Russell's defense at shortstop a ton (even saying Russell could be a Gold Glove contender), but it's the offensive side that has the Cubs manager excited.

"When I stand behind the cage and I watch him, two things stand out - how big and strong his hands are and then when he hits the ball, it makes a different sound," Maddon said. "So as he gets more acclimated to the major-league game, contact's going to be more consistent and more consistently hard.

"The improvements on defense are going to be more subtle. The improvements offensively are going to be more dramatic."

Part of Russell's comfortability level is also knowing all the guys in the clubhouse. Russell only spent about nine months in the Cubs organization before making his big-league debut.

He's also gotten to know the newcomers this season, like veteran second baseman Ben Zobrist who Russell immediately felt like he had a natural connection with.

[RELATED - 'Match made in heaven': Russell, Zobrist already clicking for Cubs]

Zobrist didn't use Russell's phrase - "a match made in heaven" - but he did gush about the 22-year-old's defensive ability at shortstop.

"Very, very extremely good, quick hands," Zobrist said. "Quick feet. His transitions [from glove to ball] are as quick I've seen. His athleticism is out of this world, too. The sky is the limit for him.

"It's a matter of him getting comfortable, finding out his style, getting the reps for this level, figuring out the way he wants to make extended plays because he's gonna have a chance to make more extended plays than other people will make just because his range is so good.

"I mean, it's impressive. He's still very young and he's got a lot of work to do to perfect this, but he's got all the tools that are necessary to be a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop."

Who knows if Russell will contend for a Gold Glove this year or not, but as far as the comfortability goes, he believes he's got that part down.

"Especially with a year under my belt, I feel a lot better coming into spring," Russell said. "You got these guys here that I played with and I grinded it out with here last year.

"It makes things a lot easier. Coming into the fieldhouse, it's definitely a lot more loose. I feel a lot more confident.

"It's both [comfortability and confidence]. Also just knowing I belong. I think I deserve to be here."

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

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.