Cubs

Once again, Joe Maddon’s Cubs respond to the win-or-else pressure

Once again, Joe Maddon’s Cubs respond to the win-or-else pressure

The Cubs are going to need a bigger target. Just imagine the circus atmosphere and suffocating expectations when Joe Maddon’s team reports to spring training next year in Arizona – either as the defending World Series champs or after coming agonizingly close without winning the franchise’s first title in 108 years.     

Both of those possibilities are still in play after a gutsy 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians on Oct. 30 – the latest the Cubs have ever played a game at Wrigley Field in franchise history. The Cubs went into Game 5 with one primary thought in mind: Just get back to Cleveland.    

Maddon managed with a sense of urgency, pulling big-game pitcher Jon Lester after 90 pitches, trusting rookie reliever Carl Edwards Jr. for two batters in the seventh inning and using superstar closer Aroldis Chapman to get the last eight outs.  

With last year’s Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) lined up to start Tuesday night on extra rest, this season’s ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) positioned to start a Game 7 if necessary and Kyle Schwarber ready to change the entire complexion of this lineup as the designated hitter at Progressive Field, the Cubs are set up for either an epic comeback or a massive disappointment.

“Again, it doesn’t matter,” Maddon said. “It really doesn’t matter. From Day 1, we’ve been engulfed, surrounded, inundated with these thoughts. And my guys have handled it great. You cannot handle it any better, I don’t think, than our guys have handled it.

“I don’t think there’s any Cub fan throughout the universe actually that would not be happy with where we’re at – at this particular moment – based on what’s occurred over the last century and over the last several years.”

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The last time the Cubs faced an elimination game, Maddon invited Simon the Magician to perform in the Wrigley Field clubhouse. That idea sounded more like a manager running out of ideas with his team down 3-0 in last year’s National League Championship Series.

Except for the Chapman move, Maddon didn’t pull anything out of his bag of tricks with the Cubs down 3-1 in the World Series, knowing that the New York Mets and all their power pitchers posed different problems than a Cleveland team built around a No. 1 starter (Corey Kluber) and a deep, versatile bullpen that has covered up so many holes in the roster.

Plus, the 2016 team is a year older and a year wiser, with so much more across-the-board talent and a $155 million ace on the mound. The Cubs (obviously) made batting practice optional and instructed their players to be dressed by 5:30 p.m. for a 7:17 first pitch.

“No magicians,” Maddon said. “The guys have been fine all year. I don’t want to confuse things out there right now. There were moments last year where I thought it was necessary. Right now, I think they’re able to stand on their own without all the diversions.

“Bill Murray was walking around here yesterday before the game though.”

The Cubs brought some of this upon themselves, from Maddon’s look-at-us stunts to John Lackey’s “didn’t come here for a haircut” act to Lester reminding everyone at various points in the season that this team hasn’t done anything yet.

But if the young Cubs looked like they were trying too hard in Games 3 and 4 – and feeling the enormity of Wrigley Field’s first World Series events in 71 years – then they settled down to win a tense Game 5.

“I really anticipate that we’re going to be able to finish this off,” Maddon said. “You still look at the steppingstones, the building blocks to get to this point. You can’t tell me last year wasn’t successful just getting to the (NLCS).

“You can’t tell me this year wasn’t successful getting to the World Series. I just don’t buy that kind of logic. You get to this moment and there are so many micro pockets that can occur. Like right now, we’re having a hard time with their pitching staff in a seven-game series. Over the course of 162, you can absorb those moments and move on and get to the next team and right yourself.

“I’m not of that mindset at all that the winner-take-all is the successful one and the one that doesn’t is not.”

This might be remembered as the defining momentum swing, the Cubs starting to look like that 103-win team again. The heart of the order pieced together the big inning the Cubs needed in the fourth against Trevor Bauer, scoring three runs with a mixture of Bryzzo power (Kris Bryant homered into the left-center field bleachers before Anthony Rizzo settled for a double when his ball didn’t go over the right-field wall) and small-ball creativity (Ben Zobrist’s line-drive single, Addison Russell’s infield single, Javier Baez’s bunt, David Ross’ sacrifice fly).

Now some of that pressure the Cubs felt will shift onto the Indians. Two wins from baseball immortality? The Cubs would have taken that when the mimes and zoo animals showed up in spring training.

“Of course, the goal is to win it all,” Maddon said. “But there’s also the building component, the culture component, all the different things that permit you to be excellent on an annual basis that are now in place. All those things matter.”

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.