Cubs

Star power, young talent and new attitudes will be on display for Cubs-Nationals

Star power, young talent and new attitudes will be on display for Cubs-Nationals

The Cubs respected the Washington Nationals for their step-by-step building process – a foundation of first-round draft picks accented by sharp trades and free-agent splashes – and saw the similarities in the Wrigley Field blueprint.

Now these are two National League powerhouses, stacked with blue-chip talent and running on high-voltage personalities, positioned to win now and in the future. There will be so much star power and young talent on display when the Cubs open a three-game series on Monday night at Nationals Park, where it should look and feel like a playoff preview. 

The last NL All-Star voting update featured the entire Cubs infield (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant) leading their positions, plus Dexter Fowler and Bryce Harper listed first and second among outfielders.

That 6-for-8 doesn’t include Cy Young Award winners Jake Arrieta and Max Scherzer. Or the two-time World Series champions in the Cubs rotation (Jon Lester and John Lackey) or the former No. 1 overall pick/Tommy John survivor who recently scored a $175 million extension (Stephen Strasburg). 

Or Daniel Murphy, last year’s Mr. October when the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the NLCS, who’s now hitting .374 for the Nationals. Or Jonathan Papelbon, the throat-grabbing, Irish-jig dancing WWE-style villain now just trying to get by with guts in the ninth inning in Washington.   

Or Joe Maddon and Dusty Baker, who combined have won six Manager of the Year awards and actually like to express their viewpoints and talk about anything other than baseball, at a time when other teams appear to be run by robots.      

It’s time for bat flips, eye black and clown questions, bro. 

“You’ll never bring the game back to where it was,” Baker said. “Young people as a whole are different. They’re more flamboyant, more demonstrative in their highs and their lows. 

“If they don’t mind, I don’t mind. I try to keep it in check somewhat, because I’m still old-school, but with modern ideas and thoughts that they help give me.

“It makes it easier for me, because I got a 36-year-old daughter and I have a 17-year-old son. So I got to kind of be in the middle between them as far as them keeping me hip and me showing them some wisdom and knowledge in life. 

“We’re really kind of helping each other. With the players that are out there (now), they like to kid with me, and I kid with them. But I know how far to go with them, and I think they know how far to go with me.” 

Baker has been exactly what the underachieving Nationals needed after an 83-79 finish last year – even if he might have only been an emergency backup plan after negotiations broke down with Bud Black. Where Matt Williams struggled to communicate with his players and looked helpless during that free fall, Baker’s genius is being able to relate to almost anyone. 

“It feels like we’re playing a lot looser,” Scherzer said. “There’s not a lot of panic when certain situations happen, and we have confidence in each other to be able to come back.”

“He keeps things light,” Murphy said. “He keeps things in perspective and understands if you lose a ballgame, it’s not the end of the world. It’s about winning series, winning road trips, winning homestands. Fortunately, we’ve been able to put ourselves in a position to do that.”

Chicago guy/Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is the architect. Baseball America sees the Nationals having a top-five farm system headlined by a top-five prospect (Lucas Giolito) on track to join Scherzer and Strasburg in the rotation at some point in 2017 (if not sooner). 

After a winter where the Cubs and Nationals chased some of the same big-name free agents – with Zobrist and Jason Heyward wanting the chance to make history in Chicago – they could wind up targeting the same players around the trade deadline. Will the New York Yankees finally give in to the future, drop out of the wild-card race and create bidding wars for power relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman?

The Cubs and Nationals appear to be headed on a collision course toward October, and that would be something to watch. 

“I know our guys,” Maddon said. “They’re really authentic, and I think they’re really charismatic as a group. If you’re a young man or a young woman that really wants to follow Major League Baseball, it’s easy to like our guys. 

“It’s the way they project. They’re good on the field, but beyond that, I think they’re affable, gregarious, interesting. There are all different words you can use to describe our guys besides being good baseball players. Hopefully, we’ll be able (to) help out in regards to regaining younger fans in the game today.

“It’s not unique to us. There’s a lot of that going on in Major League Baseball right now.”

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.