Cubs

The ring isn't everything to Kerry Wood

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The ring isn't everything to Kerry Wood

This is the new Mr. Cub. Kerry Wood has too much invested here to leave now and become a mercenary and chase a ring.

Who knows how long the Cubs will be playing meaningful baseball this summer, or how much Wood will have left when theyre good again. But the 34-year-old reliever has spent almost half his life in this organization, and his family has made this city their home.

Ultimately, that outweighed the interest Wood received from contenders like the Detroit Tigers (before they signed Prince Fielder) and the Philadelphia Phillies. Thats why hes traveling to Arizona this week to begin spring training with a team that has almost no external expectations and is playing for the future.

Even if it took until the middle of January to agree on a one-year, 3 million deal that was synched up to the opening of the Cubs Convention. It was perfect public relations timing, though even chairman Tom Ricketts had to admit: We probably could have done it a little sooner.

One offer from an unidentified team got to the point where Wood thought he was going to take a physical.

It was a three-week rollercoaster there for a little while I was in four different cities, Wood said Monday night before the Comcast SportsNet Sports Awards at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. It worked out perfect. This is where we want to play. But, yeah, its definitely tempting to go win a ring. Thats why we play the game.

If I (had) won a ring with the Yankees in 2010 that would have been great. But I dont think it would have meant as much as spending the time that you spend here on all the bad teams and then turning it around and getting so close. It means more for me (to) be part of a winning organization that maybe turns some things around.

There were veteran guys when I was younger I still remember things that they told me and that still helps. I dont want to be labeled as that guy, but its nice to tell a young kid something and see them go out and figure it out and have success.

Wood can still pitch, but this is a team that will need that presence in the clubhouse.

This winter, the Cubs were content to let the media feed the perception that they were in on all the big-ticket items, and then watch them all the fall off the board: Albert Pujols; Yu Darvish; Fielder; and Yoenis Cespedes, who on Monday agreed to a reported four-year, 36 million deal with the Oakland As.

Looking toward 2014 and beyond, Theo Epstein showed no desire to make a splash, instead buying low on young players with potential upside who are under club control. The new president of baseball operations might be the only one with the credibility to sell a long-term rebuilding process to the fan base.

If these fans are going to be patient, this is the guy theyre going to be patient with, Wood said. Hes got a track record with what he did in Boston and turning that organization around and bringing (that) city (the) championship they desperately wanted and needed for so long.

He was the guy that got it done there. Does it mean hes going to do it here? There (are) no guarantees, but hes got a great owner he works for and hes in the best city, in my opinion, for baseball. He gets the owner on his side and the fans on his side hell do great things.

Epstein has promised that the Cubs will build a sustainable model where theyre playing in October every year. Wood, whos about to begin his 16th season in the organization, has lived through the boom-and-bust cycles at Clark and Addison. His contract includes a 3 million club option for 2013.

At this point, its one year, Wood said. At this stage of the career, I think its a re-assess at the end of the year to take a few weeks off and see where everythings at and see if its something that I want to continue to do. But I feel like Ive got two or three years left. My body feels good.

Theres no announcement or anything (like): This is going to be the last one.

It seems like Wood enjoys not being the story anymore. He understands the pulse of the city better than most players, and knows that right now no ones making big predictions.

Its Chicago, Wood said. Its a result-oriented city. Thats just the way it goes, especially with baseball on the North Side. I dont think anyones expecting us to walk out there and run away with the thing and win the World Series. (Thats) a little delusional. But I think weve got a good enough team to surprise some people and compete in our division.

If any of those future core players emerge in 2012, they might follow Woods example, and ask him about doing your job while handling the spotlight, and what it might be like if the Cubs ever win.

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.