Cubs

Unfinished business: Epstein built Cubs into World Series contender in Year 4

theo-epstein-cubs-insider-1028.png

Unfinished business: Epstein built Cubs into World Series contender in Year 4

Near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein stood in the middle of the team’s Mesa complex, surveying the back fields and watching anonymous Cubs prospects play in the Arizona sunshine. 

Epstein listened to a question about whether or not he felt true ownership of this team in a way he couldn’t while the Cubs wrote off three big-league seasons, losing 286 games and playing for a future that may or may not come.

The implication being the president of baseball operations would begin to feel the heat in Year 4.

Most of the assets from the Jim Hendry administration had already been auctioned off. The Cubs wouldn’t go into the 2015 season preparing to be sellers at the July 31 trade deadline. 

Epstein had already fired two handpicked managers (Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria) and one he inherited (Mike Quade), lucking into the perfect front-and-center leader for this market (Joe Maddon).

[SHOP: Buy a Kyle Schwarber jersey]

Handing Jon Lester a six-year, $155 million megadeal with a full-no-trade clause signaled the team would be relevant this year. Cubs fans and the Chicago media wouldn’t be as obsessed with what was happening at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa or which college hitter would get drafted with the ninth overall pick. 

Epstein would actually be responsible for, you know, the on-field product.

“That’s a silly thing,” Epstein said. “Like I don’t have ownership before or whatever? Or I’m the only one to contribute? No, we are a team. As a front office, as a baseball operation, we’re all in this together.

“We take responsibility for the things that go well – and the things that don’t go well. Everyone’s been all-in and having each other’s back from Day 1. And I think the organization’s gotten healthier and healthier and it’s going to continue (that way).

“This isn’t going to be our best team. We know that. So we’ll just continue to grow it the right way and compete. And hopefully the standings make us happy in the end.”

Well, the Cubs finished in third place – with 97 wins and the third-best record in baseball – not a bad way for Epstein to enter the final year of his contract and begin discussions about a long-term extension with chairman Tom Ricketts.

The Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card game and won the first playoff series ever against the St. Louis Cardinals in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892. The Cubs also never had a lead in the National League Championship Series, getting exposed and swept out by the New York Mets.    

[MORE: Cubs face another big decision this offseason with Starlin Castro]

Four years ago this week, Epstein won his “Baseball is Better” press conference, the Cubs putting his name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee and buying his brand while the franchise slashed major-league payroll, operated like a small- or mid-market team and tried to build a long-term contender.

The Cubs engineered 10 major trades during those first three years. Within that churn, they gave up 13 players (average age: 31) and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 years of future control.

Anthony Rizzo forced his way into the MVP conversation with a 31-homer, 101-RBI season. Jake Arrieta blossomed into a potential Cy Young Award winner by going 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA. Addison Russell eventually took over at shortstop and put up 13 homers and 29 doubles during his age-21 season.

Kris Bryant – the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft – became an All-Star third baseman and should be a unanimous Rookie of the Year winner. Kyle Schwarber – the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft – is the first player in major-league history to hit five postseason home runs before his 23rd birthday.

“Managing success can be really difficult,” Epstein said during last week’s year-end review inside a Wrigley Field storage room that had been converted into a media workspace for the playoffs. “You have to be really careful that you don’t have an organizational arrogance that takes hold or a sense of entitlement or a sense of complacency.

“But I don’t even think we’re there yet. We’ll deal with that after we win a World Series. We are not there yet. All we did was finally get to October, knock off the Pirates and win a series at home against the Cardinals. But we fell short of our ultimate goal.

[ALSO: Will Cubs hand out another Jon Lester mega-deal?]

“There’s so much that we have to do to just maintain the level that we accomplished this year, let alone improve upon it and then win the ultimate prize.”

The Cubs created an identity and started to play more like Epstein’s old Boston Red Sox teams, leading the majors by seeing 3.97 pitches per plate appearance (and striking out 1,518 times, or 126 more than the next team). The Cubs finished second in the majors in walks (567) and relentlessly attacked, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings. 

The Cubs have an American League-style lineup now, but through four draft classes the Epstein administration has used 80 picks on pitchers and none of those arms are close to contributing on Opening Day 2016 (and even Opening Day 2017 might be a stretch).

With about $5 million in financial flexibility at the July 31 trade deadline – and a stockpile of young hitters to deal from – the Cubs made smaller moves that sort of stabilized the back end of the rotation (Dan Haren) and didn’t really boost the bullpen (Tommy Hunter).

After watching New York’s young power pitchers knock the Cubs off-balance with off-speed stuff and blow away a young lineup, Epstein knows it’s time to spend big in free agency and/or trade away some of those hitters to address the team’s biggest weakness.

“We need more pitching,” Epstein said. “That’s obvious. But it’s important to put in perspective because sometimes the last data point is always sort of the freshest in people’s minds. And sometimes coming out of the playoffs you lose the big picture of the whole season.

“There are 30 major-league clubs. We were third in ERA as a starting staff (3.36), third in ERA (3.36) as a pitching staff.

[MORE: Clayton Richard optimistic about the future]

“If you want to get all nerdy, get all geeky on it, we were first in FIP (3.26) and first in WAR (19.3) among starting pitchers, first in FIP (3.30), first in WAR (24.3) as a pitching staff.

“So I don’t want to take away from the accomplishments of our pitching staff and our pitching infrastructure this year.”

Without question, Epstein’s fingerprints are all over the Cubs now. And now the hard part begins.

“Nothing is promised in this game,” Epstein said. “Nothing is promised in life. There are teams that think they have these surefire five-year windows (and) have often seen them slam shut in front of them through bad luck or bad performance or bad decision-making.

“We don’t take anything for granted. We have to work our tails off to get back to a position where we have another shot at October.”       

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.