Cubs

Two months into season, Cubs looking like buyers and contenders

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Two months into season, Cubs looking like buyers and contenders

MIAMI — Two months into the season, it’s not like the Cubs are playing way over their heads or doing this with smoke and mirrors.

Besides the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals — and the West Coast arms race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants — are there any National League teams out there that really impress you?

Besides the Cubs, the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates were the only other NL teams that woke up above .500 on June 1, meaning this could be a wide-open race into October.

The Miami Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers have already fired their managers. The Philadelphia Phillies should be obvious sellers. The Cincinnati Reds keep dealing with trade rumors and hot-seat speculation, the kinds of distractions that had followed the Cubs for the last five years.

[MORE CUBS: Will Cubs use Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez as interleague DH?]

Now the conversation is starting to revolve around the actual games again, who the Cubs could add before the July 31 deadline and which big-time prospects might come to the North Side and influence a pennant race.

“I’ve said it all along: I really believe we can play with anybody,” manager Joe Maddon said before Monday’s 5-1 victory at Marlins Park. “I’m not just trying to stretch that. I’m not trying to sell anybody a bill of goods. I really believe that we can.”

There’s not enough time to list all the ways this year feels different around this team. But Jason Hammel is a good place to start after last season’s sign-and-flip guy limited the Marlins (20-32) to one run across 6 2/3 innings, notching a career-high 11 strikeouts and throwing 117 pitches in Little Havana.

Hammel never wanted to leave, but he didn’t have a choice when the Cubs included him in last summer’s blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade with the Oakland A’s, the forward-looking deal that brought Addison Russell into the organization.

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Hammel (4-2, 2.82 ERA) made Chicago his No. 1 priority in free agency and has responded by putting up 69 strikeouts against seven walks in 67 innings, strengthening a rotation that has looked top-heavy with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.

“I felt good here last year,” Hammel said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?”

That’s not how Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will look at it, knowing this 27-22 team could use another starter, some bullpen help and a veteran hitter.

“We’re always looking to add,” Epstein said. “We recognize that part of the benefit of having a deep farm system is to make moves to improve your big-league team during any relevant season.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to get better. We know that some answers will come from within through good player development, through young talent acquisition and doing it the way that we’ve done it.

“Some answers — both this year and in the future — will come from outside the organization, converting some of the prospects we have to more mature, more advanced solutions.”

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This is still a flawed team. On June 1, the Cubs led the majors in strikeouts (476), hitting .223 with runners in scoring position. They now have 43 errors through 49 games. Their bullpen has eight blown saves.

The Cubs will keep watching rookies like Russell and Jorge Soler go through their ups and downs, expecting improvements as they learn the league while also wondering if/when they will hit the wall.

The Cubs have stayed relatively healthy, outside of injuries to key relievers (Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm) and bench players (Chris Denorfia, Tommy La Stella). Their luck could begin to change in the medical department or one-run games (14-10).

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“We’ve played a lot of close ballgames,” Hammel said. “This season could (have seen) a big difference in both directions. We could have lost a lot (of those games), and we could have won a lot, too. (But) we’re in the middle of it.

“We’re going to have to start winning those games. But we’re in it. I’m very excited about where we’re at.”

The Cubs also have Anthony Rizzo forcing his way into the MVP conversation, Kris Bryant making a Rookie of the Year case and a front office that’s not afraid to think big and take risks.

“Once Theo and Jed came in, they had their plan,” reliever James Russell said. “Everybody talked about their plan and how it would kind of transpire. It’s nice to see the wheels in motion and the plan is taking its course. Right now, we got one thing on our mind: That’s winning ballgames and bringing the playoffs to Chicago.”

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.