Cubs

Theo, Cubs staying realistic with trade deadline bearing down

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Theo, Cubs staying realistic with trade deadline bearing down

Theo Epstein's front office is still determining how to proceed during the 2015 MLB trade deadline.

Heading into the July 4 weekend, the Cubs stood at 42-35 with a 1.5-game lead on the National League's second wild card spot. 

That puts the chances of the Cubs making the playoffs at 68.7 percent, according to FanGraphs.

The Cubs are a young team with three rookies in the everyday lineup once Jorge Soler returns and questions at the back end of the rotation. It's not a guarantee Epstein and Co. are going to go all-in to try to get a major piece down the stretch.

"You have to assess realistically what your chances are and be honest," Epstein said.

[MORE: Cubs: The power dynamic between Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein]

The Cubs returned to Wrigley Field on Friday for a 10-game homestand heading into the All-Star break on the heels of an impressive three-game sweep of the Mets in New York in which the pitching staff gave up just one run in 29 innings. 

But Epstein cautioned that even though things looked rosy Friday morning, it's best to avoid "snapshots" of how a team is doing during a small sample of games.

The Cubs are 2-7 against the St. Louis Cardinals, who entered play Friday leading the majors with 51 victories despite a three-game losing streak.

There may be a sense around the Cubs as a team on the rise once the young players figure things out more and some key guys return from injury, but they still won't hit the halfway mark on the season until next week.

"You don't win any blue ribbons or gold stars for half a decent season," Epstein said. "We're just trying to get better, trying to see what we need to do to make sure that we're still relevant three, four months from now. That's what matters.

"It doesn't matter too much where we're at right now. It's part of the process, part of the grind and our guys are doing a great job of working hard and staying focused."

[RELATED: ESPN poll: Cubs' Joe Maddon voted best players manager]

With the addition of the second wild card in each league and the fact that one of those wild card teams will be going home after just one postseason game, Epstein explained that the current system does change the way teams think heading into the trade deadline.

"It maybe increases the number of buyers, but it also adds — for teams that are more in wild card contention than division contention — an element of caution, too," Epstein said. "There is a natural inclination not to go too hog-wild on the short-term rental because you may be only looking at one [playoff] game.

"So you don't let that dominate your thoughts, but it's in the back of your mind, I think, for most clubs that are clear wild-card contenders and not division contenders. I'm not saying we're in that boat, just speaking generally."

Epstein also mentioned how the second wild card keeps more teams in contention longer, increasing demand while decreasing the number of teams looking to sell with months still left in the season.

This is the first time in Chicago Epstein's front office will be looking to buy at the deadline instead of sell, but the Cubs president of baseball operations built two World Series winners with the Red Sox in Boston and understands the trade market in July isn't always what it seems. 

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"You have to be creative, you have to be patient, you have to be understanding and you have to recognize that the trade deadline is not a panacea," Epstein said. "It just gets a ton of attention for natural reasons, but if you go back and look, rarely is it a defining factor.

"Maybe the trades in Boston in 2004 really helped. But more times than not, when we've made deals, it's just kind of hit-and-miss. The guys you get, sometimes they don't perform and then other players you've had all year step up and you play well.

"If you look at the history, teams that go to the World Series, it's very rarely a deadline deal. It's just an opportunity to address things, maybe for this year, areas of need or maybe do something to set yourself up for next year if you've got something that might be hard to address in the offseason. 

"Yeah, we know what we'd like to do, but we're realistic about what we might be able to do."

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.