Cubs

The psychology of October: Cubs plan to keep it simple

The psychology of October: Cubs plan to keep it simple

The day before Game 1 of the NLDS, a reporter asked Anthony Rizzo if he was annoyed by all the media attention and pressure heaped on the Cubs.

The face of the franchise just shrugged his shoulders and said it comes with the territory and reminded reporters the Cubs have been dealing with lofty expectations and crazy media attention since February, so this isn't much different.

As the 2016 Cubs officially begin their bid at ending a 108-year championship drought Friday night at Wrigley Field, the weight of a long-suffering fanbase will be on their shoulders.

Every team enters postseason play feeling the pressure, but the Cubs are tabbed as the clear favorites for the World Series and have created an environment where anything short of a championship will be seen as a massive disappointment.

So how can players block out all the noise and keep the moment from getting too big?

"I don't know that you do," veteran catcher David Ross said. "Everybody's different. It'd be hard to say for each individual guy. For me personally, it's about just having your at-bat. 

"We've been talking about it all year: pitch-to-pitch, trying to work your at-bat, game-calling. You're trying to pay attention to the things you've watched all year: Make sure you know the scouting report and you've got the information and then it's about going out there and doing it.

"There's no secret formula."

Rizzo got his first taste of October baseball last year when an upstart Cubs team knocked out the Pittsburgh Pirates in the winner-take-all wild-card game and then bumped the St. Louis Cardinals from the NLDS before running into Daniel Murphy and the New York Mets.

Rizzo believes that experience will help the Cubs' young players slow the game down.

After all, that's what each player is trying to do during the postseason - keep things from speeding up on them.

"Slowing it down is just about simplifying it, really," said Ben Zobrist, who anchored the World Series-winning Royals lineup last fall. "If you start thinking about everything that's going to happen around the game, then that's when it speeds up - when you have multiple thoughts in your head and you're thinking about too much.

"That's when it's gonna speed up. I think when you simplify, you think about the one thing you need to think about at that moment and you stay in the present. That's when things slow down."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Since the Cubs reported to Mesa, Ariz., in mid-February for spring training, Joe Maddon has implored his team to embrace the pressure and expectations.

He also had a message for the players during one of his rare team meetings Tuesday afternoon.

"The one thing I really wanted to get across, you have to understand this - something's gonna go bad," Maddon said. "Something's gonna go wrong. And it happens to everybody. It's how you react to that moment that sets you apart."

When Theo Epstein met with the media Tuesday afternoon a couple hours after Maddon's session, a reporter asked the Cubs president if he thought fans were thinking positively about the team's chances of winning it all.

"Check back if the other team scores the first run or gets the first baserunner," he deadpanned. "Look, I think there's a real connection between the fans and this particular team and there's a lot of trust.

"Therefore, a lot of excitement, but no matter what happens, there's gonna be some rough moments, no matter how successful the postseason. So we just gotta keep this place nice and loud.

"If we do get behind in a game, we know the support will still be there, but we just have to make sure that it comes out, that it's audible and loud and our players can hear it. I know our fans will come through for that."

Cubs players can relate to those fans anxious to get it going. 

Both Ross and Kris Bryant spoke Thursday afternoon about how they're chomping at the bit after four days off.

Veteran catcher Miguel Montero is about to take part in his fourth postseason and he's had no trouble embracing the expectations.

"I don't believe in the pressure," Montero said. "You actually live for these type of moments. As a player growing up, you want to be in this situation. I always said, like, 'I want to be up in the ninth inning with the winning run on third and I want to be up hitting because I live for that.'

"I think that's what we're living for right now - this time of year. We've prepared ourselves to be where we're at right now and go farther."

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.