Cubs

Target practice: Cubs end spring training as the hunted

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Target practice: Cubs end spring training as the hunted

MESA, Ariz. – “Everybody’s going to be on our helmet.”

Within all their layers of management, the Cubs don’t have an official Department of T-shirts. But Dexter Fowler nailed it on the head with that quote, putting context to Jason Heyward vs. Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants after an offseason of hype.

If “Embrace The Target” became Joe Maddon’s go-to slogan for deflating pressure in camp – with a bull’s-eye designed onto the front of those T-shirts – then “Buckle Your Chinstrap” might be the takeaway as the Cubs leave Arizona.

The buzz around this team is so loud that the Cubs set a new spring-training attendance record (226,163) during Wednesday’s 10-0 win over the Colorado Rockies at Sloan Park, averaging more than 15,000 fans a game during Cactus League play.

“We just have to keep…it…to…ourselves,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman slowing down the last four words for emphasis. “We’re genuinely cheering for each other. It’s not like we’re out there doing stupid stuff to show up the other team.”

It is not a “narrative” when Cubs players know they are going to get everyone’s best shot this year and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is sensitive to the idea of organizational arrogance, saying this is a third-place team competing to get back into the playoffs.

[MORE: Why Joe Maddon doesn't need an iPad in the Cubs dugout]

Camp Maddon featured mimes, karaoke jams, two cubs from Bearizona Wildlife Park and that sledgehammer-swinging motivational speaker who smashed the cement brick resting on the manager’s chest.

Plus, a surreal presidential race where Donald Trump cryptically threatens the Ricketts family. Coming off a winter where Heyward signs with the Cubs and someone posts on Twitter an image of his red No. 22 St. Louis Cardinals jersey on fire.

The manager is right when he says that the overheated nature of social media warps perception. And Maddon – who definitely isn’t a micromanager – pretty much just lets gonzo strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Buss do his thing before the team stretch.

“I’m a little bit more old-school, too,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “But you know I respect (Maddon’s) philosophy. I’m a guy that likes to get to the field and get to work sometimes and probably try to focus on the game more than maybe some other things. But I respect that (approach). I do my best to fit in.

“Sometimes it’s fun, because you kind of actually take a lot of pressure off your shoulders and see what he’s doing. I (also) like to get to work sometimes and take it a little bit more seriously.

“But it’s OK. Not everybody’s the same. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish over here – (take) everybody’s different personalities (and) pull the same way.”

Jon Lester also didn’t always know how to react while pitching for the tightly wound Boston Red Sox against Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East.

“I don’t think you could ever have a bad vibe with Joe,” said Lester, who threw five scoreless innings and hit a two-run homer against Colorado as the Cubs finished with a 10-17 Cactus League record. “It’s always a positive day.

“That’s one thing I’ve always respected about Joe: No matter where we’re at in the season or where we’re at in the standings – or how we’re playing or how bad we’re playing – it’s always positive. He always brings a positive vibe to the clubhouse. That makes our job a lot easier. We don’t have to make that up.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta ready to put his game face on]

The New York Times, New York Post, Washington Post and USA Today all published stories with Mesa datelines, while Sports Illustrated put the Cubs on a regional baseball-preview cover.

“All the other extracurricular stuff,” Lester said, “is good for some of these guys. It’s something that a lot of us have gone through at different points in our career (with) the hype involved and the hoopla. I think you have to go through stuff like this in order to make yourself better.

“Nothing’s affected them so far, so I don’t see this effecting them. We had bears (out here). You never know what might show up at Cubs camp or Wrigley Field. It keeps us on our toes."

Only these Cubs could have planned-in-advance goodwill gestures (a coach's son bringing out the lineup card for his birthday or welcoming an RBI youth team to practice) and make you wonder if they were trolling the White Sox after the Adam LaRoche retirement fiasco. (They weren't.)

Maybe Jake Peavy is still fuming over how long it took Kyle Schwarber to stop listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and step into the batter’s box before the Cubs swept the Giants last August. Whatever.

Can’t wait to see how The Best Fans in Baseball react to bat flips at Busch Stadium. Can’t wait to hear the boos in Pittsburgh after Jake Arrieta mocked Pirates fans on Twitter, telling them the blackout atmosphere wouldn't matter in the wild-card game.

The Cubs are going to rip up this game's unwritten rules and get chased by baseball’s fun police.

“Enjoy it,” Rizzo said. “Show the emotions. Show it for each other. When I’m in the box, I feel like Heyward and Dex and ‘Ske’ (assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske) and 'KB' (Kris Bryant) – they’re all up there with me. So when I get that big knock, I’m excited for them, because they’re excited for me.

“I talk to a lot of guys around this league. And they say it looks like you guys are having so much fun.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.