Cubs

Not-so-usual suspects helping Cubs to baseball's best record

Not-so-usual suspects helping Cubs to baseball's best record

Joe Maddon knew what Tommy La Stella could do.

But surely there weren’t many who predicted that La Stella would be among the best hitters in a lineup that features Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Dexter Fowler.

Of course, many of those guys have swung a good bat, too, as the Cubs have surged out of the gate to an incredible 22-6 start during which they’ve posted a jaw-dropping plus-98 run differential. But La Stella’s efforts — as well as those of Matt Szczur, David Ross and even Cubs pitchers — have been an important key in making the Cubs the best team in the big leagues.

“It shows how deep we are,” La Stella said Friday. “And it’s important because you have your horses — the guys who are going to carry the offense and the pitching and everything like that — but it’s important as you go down the stretch to have that depth, to give those guys days off so they’re fresh for the end of the year and to be able to fill in in big situations.”

La Stella has hit the cover off the ball this season, posting a .356/.420/.667 slash line with a trio of three-hit games. He continued that type of play Friday, hitting the first of the Cubs’ four home runs off Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

And he hasn’t been the only one. Szczur has a .367/.441/.600 slash line with 10 RBIs. Ross  has gone from an offensive liability to a consistent contributor. He’s batting .250/.360/.450 after posting a gruesome .176/.267/.252 line last season and is just one RBI away from matching his 2015 total after already hitting twice as many homers as he did a year ago. Javier Baez was expected to be a prime offensive contributor, but he counts as a bench player, too, and he’s hitting .311.

“When you have bench players like that, you give your regular guys days off comfortably, game in progress, you can do things without any concern. It matters a lot,” Maddon said Saturday. “You don’t have the record that we have right now without a really wonderful supporting cast or other members that are able to participate as if they’re a regular.”

In a season with World Series expectations for the Cubs, a key would undoubtedly be to stay healthy. That hasn’t exactly been the case through nearly 30 games, as numerous players have hit the disabled list. Most notably, Kyle Schwarber’s season ended on the team’s season-opening road trip with that cringe-worthy knee injury. Miguel Montero, the team’s starting catcher, remains on the DL. Even Szczur is currently on the shelf.

But the Cubs haven’t missed a beat through any of it, getting offensive contributions from every spot in the order and every name on the roster. Maddon raved about up-from-the-minors catcher Tim Federowicz before Saturday’s game. In his first start with the team this season, outfielder Ryan Kalish reached base twice and scored a run in Thursday’s win.

“I think it speaks to the depth that we have. We’ve got a ton of guys that are capable of filling in,” La Stella said. “There’s a lot of talent on this team, and we’re deep and we’re young. Guys really pull for each other, I feel that makes a big difference. It doesn’t matter who’s in there, everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s pulling for each other.”

While it’s impressive seeing not-so-usual suspects fueling the Cubs’ remarkable start, the inverse might be true, as well. With so much talent, such high expectations and a clubhouse staying loose thanks to Maddon’s managing and all this winning, newcomers are finding it easy to jump in and contribute.

“It’s contagious in here. There’s confidence brewing in all aspects,” Kalish said. “The more everyone gets out there, the better. When you see guys like Tommy and people making names for themselves, it’s really good to watch.”

“That happens when you’re with any good team,” Maddon said. “The Patriots in football is a good example of that particular concept. I would say right now if you showed up at Golden State you’d become a pretty good basketball player. So I think when you get talented people that show up in a good environment, it’s going to bring out the best in you. And I’m not just talking about our clubhouse. I’m talking about the city, the fan base, the ballpark, the ownership. All those things matter.

“Ask any guy that’s new here ask how good they feel if they’re sitting on that bench or on that field when that game begins. There’s energy. There’s energy in the moment. I think maybe energy and expectation should become synonymous terms.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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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.