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Travis Wood ready for whatever in move to Cubs bullpen

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Travis Wood ready for whatever in move to Cubs bullpen

Prior to Saturday, it had been four years since Travis Wood last appeared as a relief pitcher.

But the 28-year-old lefty will have to get used to pitching out of the bullpen now with the Cubs.

Wood was officially demoted to the bullpen Saturday and made his first appearance in his new role, picking up a save while giving a badly depleted bullpen a rest. It was the first save of his 11-year professional career.

"That was cool," Wood said Sunday. "To be able to come in and just give (Hector) Rondon the day off and go 1-2-3 and get the save was special."

Wood said manager Joe Maddon, pitching coach Chris Bosio and bullpen coach Lester Strode sat down with him before Saturday's game to let him know they might need him in relief against the Pirates that day but also that Wood would be in the bullpen for the near future.

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Wood is rather quiet and mostly keeps to himself but is known as a solid teammate and a good guy in the clubhouse, so his response was standard:

"On a personal level, maybe it is a little (disappointing), but as long as I'm here and can help the team win," he said. "We're playing great baseball right now, and everything I can do, regardless of what it is, I'll do it."

Wood admitted working as a reliever will take some getting used to after making 96 starts with the Cubs over the last three-plus seasons. He's used to throwing 100 pitches an outing and said that will be the biggest adjustment in this role change.

"(Not much changes) from a mental aspect," he said. "I'm still going out there and trying to get hitters out. The routine part will be a little different for me. I'll have to figure that out. I'm sure it won't be a problem."

[MORE CUBS: Cubs' Joe Maddon: The world revolves around confidence]

The Cubs believe Wood can find success in the bullpen, and he hopes he can iron some things out and get back to his 2013 All-Star level.

"I know we were pressed to do what we did (Saturday), but I have a lot of faith in this guy coming out of the 'pen," Maddon said. "He's had some really good games this year and some really good moments in other ones. Just to go out there and be aggressive and just let it go for an inning or two.

"If he does that, I think he'll be really good. I'm eager to see that. I think there's something there."

Maddon left the door open for Wood to return to the rotation again down the line if the situation presents itself.

The Cubs announced Sunday evening Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada will come off the disabled list and take Wood's spot in the rotation, beginning with Wednesday night's start in San Diego. Wada, 34, was 4-4 with a 3.25 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 13 starts for the Cubs at the end of 2014.

Maddon loves to get creative with guys like Wood, who is athletic, runs the bases well and typically swings a good bat. Wood hit six homers in 2012 and 2013 and has nine for his career to go along with eight doubles, one triple and 30 RBIs.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

With the move to the bullpen, Wood's pinch-hitting and pinch-running appearances will be limited to those days he's unavailable to pitch. Though, that, too, might be a good thing as Wood admitted his at-bats "aren't what they used to be" and that he needs to iron his offense out as well.

Wood was laughing and joking around with the media Sunday, outwardly showing no ill effects from the demotion to the bullpen.

His attitude on the matter can be summed up perfectly in his response asking if he was bummed the baseball from his first career save was accidentally thrown into the stands and can't be kept as a memento:

"It's just a ball," Wood said. "I can grab any dirty ball and write on it."

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.