Cubs

Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

642318.png

Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epsteins reserved parking spot is clearly marked by the entrance to the main building at Fitch Park.

Even if the compensation issue with the Boston Red Sox still isnt resolved word from commissioner Bud Selig is expected soon theres obviously no turning back now.

The baseball operations staff is here in Arizona for organizational meetings, where they will try to define and explain The Cubs Way. Several groups of players were working out on Thursday at the teams complex in Mesa, including Marlon Byrd, Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija, Bryan LaHair and Tony Campana.

That morning, the front page of USA Todays sports section featured a photo collage of 10 players Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes among them. But Epstein was at the center of the spring training preview, standing in front of the Wrigley Field marquee.

The new president of baseball operations doesnt really want to be the face of the franchise, so here are 10 other story lines to consider before pitchers and catchers officially report on Saturday:

1. Camp Sveum

Dale Sveum doesnt want his players to take the easy way out and slide. He believes catchers should fear you when youre coming into home plate. He doesnt want to see any dogs or hear about any excuses. Win or lose, he figures, at least make it a fistfight.

Sveum met with Red Sox ownership last November in Milwaukee, sensing hed be getting an offer to manage a win-now team that never came. Instead of answering questions about fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse, hell be on the ground floor of Epsteins rebuilding project. The first-year manager will be given every opportunity to develop into the next Terry Francona. This is Sveums time to put his stamp on the team.

2. The next big thing

The Cubs were shocked by the changes to the collective bargaining agreement, which limit the amount of money teams can spend in the draft and on the international market. Jorge Soler wouldnt count against that cap if hes signed before July 2, one reason why the 19-year-old Cuban defector could spark a bidding war.

The Cubs own the sixth overall choice in the June draft, plus supplemental picks for losing Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Now,their talking point is that its going to become a scouting contest. New executive Jason McLeod who once ran drafts for the Red Sox that produced impact players like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard becomes one of the most influential people in the organization.

3. Strength up the middle?

At the age of 21, Starlin Castro made the All-Star team and led the National League in hits, but the gifted shortstop still has much to prove. The Cubs expressed support while his lawyers had to deny sexual assault allegations last month. But even without the negative publicity, hed still have to show that hes learned what it takes at this level. This will be his third season in the big leagues, time to cut down on the careless errors and improve his focus. Because of his personality and big smile, there will be many people rooting for him to become a franchise player.

4. Whos on first?

It is LaHairs job heading into spring training. Last years Pacific Coast League MVP will get a chance to show that he belongs in the majors, where he has only 195 at-bats on his resume. The Cubs insist that Anthony Rizzo will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa, where the top prospect will try to erase last years audition with the San Diego Padres (18-for-128 with 46 strikeouts). At 22, Rizzo is seven years younger than LaHair, and projected as someone who will be a force in the lineup and the clubhouse when the Cubs see their next window to contend.

5. Coach em up

Sveum knew exactly who he wanted to be his pitching coach, and this might be the most important relationship in the dugout for a first-year manager. Chris Bosio pitched more than 1,700 innings in the majors, and that should give him some instant credibility. It will be on Bosio to unlock the potential in former first-round picks Travis Wood and Chris Volstad, and help push Matt Garza and Randy Wells to their next levels. The Cubs have talked a lot about the depth theyve added to their pitching staff. Bosio will have to sort it all out.

6. Endgame

Twelve months ago, Carlos Marmol was rewarded with a three-year, 20 million deal. It was a nice story about the 16-year-old kid the Cubs once signed out of the Dominican Republic, who eventually had to be talked into pitching and emerged as a dominating closer. Marmol didnt live up to the contract in 2011. No one in the majors finished with more than his 10 blown saves. Between the return of Kerry Wood and the progress shown by Samardzija and James Russell, the bullpen could be a real strength. But it starts with the closer regaining the feel for his slider, and then his confidence.

7. Follow the money

Local television deals helped juice the baseball economy this winter and shift the balance of power to the American League. Fox Sports regional networks helped bankroll the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, who combined spent more than 425 million to sign Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish. The Cubs have multiyear broadcasting commitments to both WGN and CSN, and their business executives are no doubt wondering: Wheres ours?

8. Your ad here

The newsiest item out of last months Cubs Convention was the plan to steal business away from the surrounding rooftops by building a patio deck in the right-field bleachers and installing a big LED board to show game information and advertisements. Skeptics will wonder where this is all heading (Jumbotron?) and how it could change the look and feel of Wrigley Field. Either way, this should be a pivotal year for finding a way to finance those stadium renovation plans, which hopefully wont include any yellow noodles outside the building.
9. Ready for prime time?

The crosstown series against the White Sox wont be nearly as explosive without Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano, who took their talents to South Beach, but there are still dates to circle on the calendar, like April 17-19 in Little Havana. The Cubs will be there at Busch Stadium when the St. Louis Cardinals unveil their World Series banner and hand out championship rings (April 13-15).

Fielder will swing away at Clark and Addison, but only in a Detroit Tigers uniform (June 12-14). The bars around Wrigleyville will be jam-packed when Red Sox Nation invades (June 15-17). By then, it could be time to count down the days until the trade deadline, to see how the market develops for Garza, if a contender needs Byrd and if anyones desperate enough to take on a fraction of Alfonso Sorianos contract.
10. Are we there yet?

Epstein joked that the Cubs led the league in press conferences. The narrative now will be how they stick to their plan, and if everyone will really have the patience to see it through.

What we want to do is create a sustainable team that every single year has a chance to make the playoffs, general manager Jed Hoyer said last month. Its like taking a shot on goal. The teams that win World Series are teams that make the playoffs year after year.

The Florida Marlins' model of making the playoffs and winning the World Series every time they do itthats not really one to follow. We need to get to the point where we make the playoffs every single year and once we do that, a championship should follow. How long its going to take to build that sustainable team? I cant tell you. But I can tell you thats what were working on and, hopefully, it will come sooner rather than later.

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

adbert.jpg
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.