Cubs

The wait is over: Kris Bryant arrives at Wrigley Field

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The wait is over: Kris Bryant arrives at Wrigley Field

The wait is over.

Kris Bryant is a Chicago Cub.

The day was coming, that was common knowledge. But now that it’s here, it’s all sinking in for everyone who was waiting — for Bryant, for the Cubs, for Cubs fans — and the excitement is at an all-time high.

That’s not just for the billboard erectors across from Wrigley Field or the legion of fans hailing Bryant as the franchise’s savior, perhaps already planning for the day a No. 17 flag waves from one of the foul poles. The excitement is at an all-time high for Bryant, too.

He’s in the major leagues. Call it a dream come true.

“The time of my life, really. I can’t really put into words how good of a feeling this is to work for this your whole life and finally get that chance,” Bryant said in front of a horde of media members Friday. “But I think the journey’s just starting. This isn’t where I want to end. I want to win a lot of games and win for the Cubs, and I think this is a good starting point.”

[MORE CUBS: Worth the wait: Cubs promote Kris Bryant for Wrigley Field debut]

Bryant’s running on pure adrenaline right now. He only got three hours of sleep following Triple-A Iowa's game Thursday night — in which, of course, Bryant homered — the news he was going to the bigs and the afternoon start against the San Diego Padres on the North Side.

After Iowa manager Marty Pevey slipped the big news into a conversation about the height of foul poles in the minors, Bryant called his parents.

“That was a day I was looking forward to,” Bryant said. “Called my mom first, actually, because my dad was doing hitting lessons. She was more shocked. We really didn’t know when it would happen. I’m sure when they got the time to reflect on it, there was probably tears of joy. I know my dad was crying, I’ve never seen my dad cry before. It’s something that we’ve been working for my whole life, 17 years, and the day is here and I’m really just trying to enjoy the moment. Whether it’s a good game, bad game, whatever happens out there, I’m here to enjoy this day and enjoy it with my family.

“If you can imagine your dreams coming true all in one moment, and you get to tell the people that are closest to you, that’s a pretty special feeling, and I wish everyone could experience that.”

[MORE CUBS: Did you know there is a Kris Bryant song?]

With Bryant’s arrival in Chicago, the hype gets cranked up to 11. For a guy who, as Cubs president Theo Epstein described it, dominated at every level he’s played at, the expectations are enormous among Cubs fans.

But Bryant’s not really paying attention to that. His status as savior isn’t something he’s worried about. The fact he’s able to do that is quite impressive, and he talked about blocking out the distractions — and there will be many.

“For me, it’s kind of realizing why I play this game. It’s not because of the money or any of the fame. It’s because it’s fun and it’s because it’s a dream of mine. It’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” Bryant said. “I think when you have the right perspective in this game and in life, then things usually turn out the way you want it to. That’s the way I’ve been playing my whole career, and I think that’s the way I’ll continue to play.”

Epstein and Cubs manager Joe Maddon share Bryant’s take-it-easy approach, not getting caught up in the expectations everyone’s placing on this 23-year-old kid from Las Vegas.

[SHOP: Get your Kris Bryant jersey right here]

But can he really block it all out? We’ll find out soon enough. But from what he said Friday, it sounds like he's already an expert in handling major-league hype, even if he hasn’t seen a major-league pitch.

“There’s no pressure in this game. You let pressure creep in, you’re not having fun. And I play this game because it’s fun,” Bryant said. “Who knows what the future holds for me? I just know I’m going to go out there and play as hard as I can and work to get better every day. I’ve been doing that my whole life and things have turned out the way I want it to in this game. But when you start putting expectations that are kind of way out there, you kind of lose sight of what’s really important in this game. I think I’m grounded enough to realize what I need to do, and that’s go play hard. That’s what Joe told me today. He said, ‘Forget about expectations. All I want you to do is go out there, show up on time, play hard and that’s all I can ask from you.’”

So as Wrigleyville becomes enveloped in Bryant buzz, realize this: the Cubs are 5-3, a first-place team after just a fraction of the schedule, but a first-place team nonetheless. And now here comes the No. 1 prospect in baseball. The bleachers might still feature more hardhats than ball caps. The bathroom situation might still be less than ideal.

But Kris Bryant is in the house. And that means, for the moment, everything’s coming up Cubs.

“As a baseball player, that’s what you want: to play for an organization that wants to win,” Bryant said. “Everything seems to be pointing in the right direction, and I couldn’t be more excited to step into a team that’s — I think we’re in first place now. That’s pretty cool. That’s what you want to do. You play this game to win, beat the opponent and hopefully win a World Series. I’m here to do everything I can to help the Cubs do that.”

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.