Now Cubs will be the hunted in October, starting with Mets or Giants: ‘Who gives a s---?’

Now Cubs will be the hunted in October, starting with Mets or Giants: ‘Who gives a s---?’

CINCINNATI – If you had any lingering doubts about Jake Arrieta’s swagger – or how much the Cubs wanted to get these meaningless games over with – just listen to his answer to this question: Mets or Giants?

“Who gives a s---?” Arrieta said. “Who cares? Now the fun starts.”

Welcome to “TRY NOT TO SUCK-TOBER,” where this team will either live forever as the 2016 World Series champs or cause massive heartbreak for Cubs fans all over the world.

Suffocating pressure? Unfair expectations? Random crapshoot? The Cubs signed up for all this and put the bull’s-eye on their chests, beginning with last year’s joyride into the National League Championship Series – where they got swept by the Mets – and an offseason spending spree on free agents that zoomed toward $290 million and a spring-training circus that featured mimes, zoo animals and karaoke.

Ringmaster Joe Maddon will now lead the Cubs into what they believe will be a parade down Michigan Avenue. Assuming they can stay focused and healthy, get a little lucky and perform at the optimal level needed to win 11 postseason games. After Sunday’s 7-4 comeback victory over the Reds at Great American Ball Park, the best team in baseball left Cincinnati understanding that they are now the hunted.

“The boxes have been checked for the regular season,” Maddon said. “All the stuff we’ve talked about in camp regarding embracing the target and utilizing the words ‘pressure’ and ‘expectations’ in a positive way – I think we’ve done all those things.

“Give our guys credit, man, because going into camp, a lot of times when you have all those words attached to you, it can lead to a bad result during the season. But our guys have handled it well.”

The Cubs notched 103 victories and won the NL Central by 17.5 games, the Giants clinching the second wild-card spot with Sunday’s 7-1 win over the Dodgers and sending the Cardinals into a long winter. The Cubs will next face the winner of the wild-card showdown between Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday night at Citi Field.

“We know that nothing’s handed to you,” said Jason Heyward, the Gold Glove outfielder who defected from the 100-win St. Louis team the Cubs shoved out of last year’s playoffs. “You got to earn whatever you have. You see teams built with certain rosters and they don’t perform. It’s not throwing shade at the Nationals, but they’ve been picked to win for a while. They won their division again, but (it’s been the same thing with) the Dodgers – you see teams that are slated to do things and it doesn’t pan out that way.

“We don’t feel like we’ve done anything yet. We’ve punched our ticket to get in – and that’s the bottom line. You want to be in the dance and play for that last game.

“Obviously, we’re not above the game, so we’ve got some work to do to get ready and try to go where we want to go.”

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The Cubs got off to a fast start, winning 25 of their first 31 games before taking over the All-Star Game this summer, flying seven players to San Diego. Anthony Rizzo could see Kris Bryant pulling away in the MVP race and believes his teammate deserves the award. Together, Bryzzo generated 71 homers and 211 RBI. Kyle Hendricks (2.13) beat Jon Lester (2.44) for the ERA title in a rotation that featured four 15-game winners, with the fifth guy being two-time World Series champion John Lackey.

But the Cubs also have a next-man-up philosophy. With two outs in the ninth inning, Matt Szczur knocked a go-ahead, two-run double that bounced past Reds first baseman Joey Votto and into right field. Pinch-hitter Miguel Montero followed it up by blasting a two-run homer into the right-field seats off Reds reliever Raisel Iglesias.

By Sunday night, splashes of water covered the door to the manager’s office in the visiting clubhouse, the walls and the black leather couch still drenched from the postgame celebration recognizing Maddon’s 200th win with the Cubs.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Rizzo said. “In two years – 200 wins – for him, for us, for this organization.”

The Cubs will enjoy Monday’s off-day in Chicago before returning to Wrigley Field on Tuesday for a simulated game, the first of three straight workouts leading into Friday’s Game 1. Maddon’s message: Don’t change a thing. 

Maybe that’s why Arrieta – who trolled Pittsburgh fans on Twitter before shutting down the Pirates in last year’s wild-card game and silencing the blackout crowd at PNC Park – doesn’t give a s--- who the Cubs play in October.

“Whether you’re an underdog or the favorite, you still have to win,” Arrieta said. “Regardless of who we face, they’re going to be good. The guy on the hill’s going to be good. And their lineup’s going to be good. If we execute more pitches than they do – and we get a couple timely hits – I like our chances.

“It’s a roll of the dice. But with the group we have, we’re set to make a really deep push. And hopefully get over that hump from last year and get this thing done for Chicago.”

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

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.