Cubs

Swept out of St. Louis, Cubs waiting for trade market to accelerate

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Swept out of St. Louis, Cubs waiting for trade market to accelerate

ST. LOUIS — This isn’t fantasy baseball, and there aren’t many teams like the 2012-14 Cubs out there hanging “For Sale” signs right now.

Even if the Cubs wanted to overreact to getting swept out of Busch Stadium after Sunday night’s 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals — which finally ended at 12:05 Monday morning — they probably couldn’t. They still have to be patient after sitting through a tornado watch, two rain delays that lasted two hours and 29 minutes combined and a season-high five-game losing streak. 

But the Cubs (39-35) will eventually have to do something to close the gap on their biggest rivals and keep playing meaningful games into September. Setting aside the legitimate questions about how much financial flexibility they will have, the second wild card already changed the calculus for the July 31 trade deadline.

“There’s a chance this is one of the tightest markets we’ve ever seen,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We’re going to have to be creative. A lot of teams will have to be creative, because there’s not going to be a lot of sellers. We keep on assuming that the next four or five weeks will shake some of that out, but it may not.”

[MORE: Cubs: Pedro Strop accepts apology from Bob Costas]

It’s fun to play connect the dots with Cubs hitters and New York Mets pitchers, which will happen during the three-game series that begins Tuesday night at Citi Field.  

You can wonder about which players to prioritize from the Oakland A’s — left-hander Scott Kazmir or super-utility guy Ben Zobrist? — when the Cubs don’t have a clear No. 5 starter and their lineup generated only four runs in 28 innings over the weekend, going 2-for-27 with men in scoring position against the Cardinals (51-24).

“They’ve beaten us with their experience,” manager Joe Maddon said. “They come up with the hit, we don’t. They make the pitch, we don’t.

“We’ve blinked and they haven’t. That’s what it’s really come down to.”

Go ahead and debate over Twitter the prospects you would give up in a deal. But all that won’t change the illusion of contention when only three teams entered Monday more than eight games back in the wild-card race: 

The Milwaukee Brewers fired manager Ron Roenicke in early May and have sunk to 19 games under .500. But would they trade within the division and with their rivals 90 miles south?  

[RELATED: Cubs get reinforcement with Neil Ramirez back in bullpen]

The Miami Marlins fired manager Mike Redmond in the middle of May and just lost superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton for at least a month with a broken bone in his wrist. Good luck trying to guess what happens next on that reality show.

Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg resigned last week before the Philadelphia Phillies could fire him as part of the major shakeup that franchise desperately needs. Ex-Cubs executive Andy MacPhail is reportedly on the verge of being named Philadelphia’s new head of baseball operations. 

Delusional or not, teams like the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds can try to tell themselves they’re one good week away from jumping right back into this, or one good player away from being relevant. 

“You never know how that’s going to work,” Hoyer said. “Some teams might claw themselves back into the race and decide not to sell. You have to think about it creatively. You have to think about what would happen if there weren’t deals to be made, because there may not be a lot of deals out there.”

The Cubs already trail the Cardinals by 11.5 games in the National League Central. But they now have enough going for them — star manager, young blue-chip talent, veteran leadership and good clubhouse vibes — to justify the investment in the big-league team.

“It’s the same balancing act that we always go through,” Hoyer said. “This is a very important season. Every season that you’re in the race you have to take seriously, because you can’t always count on tomorrow. As much as we’re built for the future, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“You don’t want to do anything that you’re going to look back on and say: That was hasty. But you never want to only look towards the future and ignore the fact that: Hey, this has been a really fun season with a lot of big positives. And can we improve some of the weaknesses we have to keep that going?”

Also remember the Cubs said things about the slow pace of deal-making at this time last year, just before shipping Jeff Samardzija to Oakland in the Fourth of July blockbuster that yielded Addison Russell. The Cubs also “jumped the market” in 2013, flipping Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles on July 2 and remaking their pitching staff with Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

“We’re going to have to wait awhile to see how this trade market shakes out,” Hoyer said. “But there’s a chance it’s an extreme sellers’ market with so few teams selling. And only the next 25, 30 games will tell whether more teams end up in that sellers’ column.”

The Cubs won’t be selling like crazy, the way they did the last three summers, but a lost weekend in St. Louis also showed that maybe we shouldn’t automatically assume they will be such big buyers this time.

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.