Cubs

Theo Epstein doesn't see any quick fixes for Cubs on trade market

Theo Epstein doesn't see any quick fixes for Cubs on trade market

Even after this downturn, the Cubs still have a 100-win pace, almost a double-digit lead in the division and more than 20 shopping days left until the Aug. 1 trade deadline. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein doesn’t see any quick fixes or a need to overreact.

“We’re still kind of in the early innings as far as determining what we’re going to be able to do,” Epstein said before Thursday night’s makeup game against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field. “We have a feel for what we’d like to do. I think we understand the basic dynamics of the marketplace right now. But there’s going to be an element of patience involved.”

Needs and priorities can also change by the time you look up from your iPhone. The sight of manager Joe Maddon and athletic trainer PJ Mainville walking out to the mound to check on Jason Hammel in the sixth inning highlighted that point.

Hammel had just thrown two pitches to Gordon Beckham and finished off the at-bat with a four-pitch walk before leaving with cramping in his right hand and his team down 2-0 in a game that would take 11 innings and end in a 4-3 loss on Friday morning.

“I think he’s fine,” Maddon said. “I don’t anticipate anything awful.”

“I have no idea” what happened, Hammel said. “It ticks me off.”

Strengthening the rotation would be a different way to reshape a worn-out bullpen, by shortening games and creating extra rest. But it’s hard to see the upgrade if Rich Hill — the ex-Cub who used four good starts for the Boston Red Sox last season to score a one-year, $6 million deal with the Oakland A’s — is the best option out there.

“We are still looking for a starter for a couple reasons,” Epstein said. “For the long-term, because we’re just not that deep organizationally in starting pitching, and because you can’t assume health.”

It took 84 games before the Cubs finally had to use a sixth starter. That’s why Epstein felt so encouraged by Adam Warren’s spot start in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, showing the stuff — one run across five innings with six strikeouts and no walks — that helped push the Cubs toward the Starlin Castro deal with the New York Yankees.

“It’s a tough market for starting pitching,” Epstein said. “There are teams that are in probably more desperate straits for a starter that might pay a higher price than we would. But we’ll see. We’re going to pursue all avenues.”

Epstein didn’t want to put all the blame on the bullpen for 13 losses in the last 18 games. That relentless offense has been losing its identity, getting shut out for seven-plus innings by journeyman Lucas Harrell after a rain delay that lasted 90-plus minutes.

The rotation couldn’t keep up a low-2.00 ERA forever. Injuries have sapped the overall depth. The 24-games-in-24-days grind is almost over. Ideally, the Cubs would have staggered the big-league debuts of Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario a different way.

But it’s obvious the Cubs need bullpen reinforcements, whether or not the Yankees ultimately sell and break up the Big Three of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. Maddon used Kyle Hendricks — who’s not scheduled to make his next start until after the All-Star break — to throw two scoreless innings against the tanking Braves (29-57) before closer Hector Rondon blew his fourth save in his last eight chances in the ninth.

“That’s certainly an area that we would look to upgrade externally and also internally,” Epstein said. “If I had to make a prediction, I’ll say that we’re going to get some help from somebody who’s currently in the ‘pen, but not locked in yet. At least one of those guys will lock in and pitch really well. And then someone who’s not with us now — but he’s still in the organization — will come up and pitch really well.

“And then I think we’ll add. There’s a good chance that we’ll make a deal that will help us in the ‘pen as well. When things don’t go well, there’s always a rush to look outside, especially this time of year.

“It’s important, and we’re doing it. But it’s really important to remember that Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard and Justin Grimm threw really big innings in the postseason for us last year. And they are certainly capable of doing it again.”

So the Cubs will hope Richard gets healthy (blister on his left middle finger) and back in a groove (7.30 ERA) while Grimm (5.59 ERA) works through his issues at the big-league level and maybe Carl Edwards Jr. steps forward into a prominent role.

Perhaps the Cubs can catch lighting in a bottle with Joe Nathan, a six-time All-Star closer with 377 career saves now at Double-A Tennessee, trying to come back from a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow at the age of 41.

Until the end, Maddon will put a positive spin on all this, believing it will only make the Cubs stronger.

“Of course, we’ve lost some games and things haven’t been going well,” Maddon said. “Poor us. Happens to everybody, man. I’m sorry, it just does. For anybody out there that believes it doesn’t happen to every team, you’re wrong.

“It’s just our turn. We got to fight through it. Like Winston Churchill once said: ‘When you’re going through hell, just keep on going.’”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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USA TODAY

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.