Cubs

Sveum tells Cubs: No more excuses

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Sveum tells Cubs: No more excuses

Dale Sveum dazzled Cubs executives with his information, the video analysis to help hitters and the spray charts to position defenders. But this statistic he called up could be the most telling indicator of the manager hell become.

In all my dealings in baseball, Sveum said, 99.9 percent of all players want to be looked in the face and told to get their crap together.

Clark and Addison is an increasingly corporate place, being filled with people educated at elite private schools on the East Coast. But they recognized the potential and saw themselves in Sveum, who rides motorcycles and is covered in five tattoos (he had to pause to make sure he counted them all).

Sveum knew hed be asked about how he got the nickname Nuts during Fridays news conference at Wrigley Field. He couldnt go into details about what he did as a young Brewers player, other than: It has nothing to do with my lower half.

Sveum will need a sense of humor in this job. The predictable questions came about Prince Fielder and Carlos Zambrano, though it would be shocking if either one is in a Cubs uniform next season.

Theo Epstein wasnt surprised that Fielder grew close to Sveum. The Brewers hitting coach develops those relationships all the time.

I dont think that was unique, Epstein said. Its hard in this game to find someone whos willing to go up to a superstar and just talk to them and be able to tell them sometimes what they dont want to hear. And that, ultimately, wins players respect.

The president of baseball operations was looking for someone with a backbone who could connect with players without enabling them. It will be interesting to see what happens when Alfonso Soriano stands at home plate admiring his shot or Starlin Castro fails to hustle after a ball he booted.

Youre trying to create a situation where the other team knows how you play that game, Sveum said. The worst thing that happens in baseball is when we look over and (say): Theyre dogs. Nobody plays hard over there.

You want to have catchers fear you when youre coming into home plate and not just take an easy way out and slide. That was one thing I think we established in Milwaukee. (Win or lose), they knew they were at least in a fistfight.

Sveum doesnt want to hear about the day games or the facilities or what happened in the past. These are the things managers say their first day on the job, but its exactly what Cubs fans want to hear.

Everybodys got excuses, Sveum said. Thats just a cop-out or your own insecurities if youre whining about things.

Sveum is now working for an organization sensitive to its public image and a front office that wants to control the information. It was disorienting to hear him call catcher Geovany Soto an average thrower and describe pitcher Randy Wells as easy to run on.

From Sveums perspective, those are just the details that will help you get better. You cant just let it slide because youre in the big leagues. His first coaching job in the majors came in 2004 on a Red Sox team that had Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez and won the World Series.

He came into (Bostons) superstar culture and he didnt back down at all, general manager Jed Hoyer said. He earned that respect right away. And I think some of the players at first were like: Whats this guy doing? He never backed down and the guys really embraced it.

Sveum, who will turn 48 next week, certainly saw enough of the Cubs across the years as a utility player who found a way after shattering his leg and a Brewers coach looking for every possible edge.

Sveum has three tattoos honoring his late father, who served in the Marines. One is what the son heard before he walked out the door going to a game: Give em hell. Another is a rattlesnake with the words: Pain is inevitable, suffering is just an option.

This could be the counterweight to a young, polished front office. And a sledgehammer through the clubhouse.

Whether its physical, whether its mental, Sveum said, suffering is your option if you want to whine and cry about it.

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.