Cubs

What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets

cubs-nlcs-lessons-insider-slide.png

What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets

The Cubs and New York Mets endured the kind of slow, painful rebuilds that once would have been unthinkable for a big-market team.

But both franchises collected enough blue-chip talent that last year’s National League Championship Series felt more like the beginning than the end. 

[RELATED - How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle]

This is exactly the kind of potential rivalry Major League Baseball and its TV partners dream about – young stars, the world’s biggest media market and Wrigley Field as one of the backdrops.

So with the Cubs and Mets getting an Opening Day tune-up on Friday in Las Vegas, here are four takeaways from that four-game sweep last October:

Don’t take it for granted: In the immediate aftermath of Game 4, Miguel Montero stood at his locker in the old Wrigley Field clubhouse and remembered being a rookie catcher on the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks team that swept the Cubs, advanced to the NLCS and assumed that young core in the desert would be back for more.

“You can’t take it for granted,” Montero said. “You have to perform on the field. Obviously, for a lot of young guys, they thought it was easy to get there. Because they got to the big leagues and immediately they were there. So it’s like: ‘Well, how hard could it be?’ Especially now with this team: ‘How hard could it be?’

“You can’t take it for granted because it’s harder than it looked last year. So with that being said, my biggest advice is go out and play, take one game at a time and don’t take any other team like they’re not as good as you are. You got to play every team at your highest level in order to get to where you want to go.

“It’s easy to play a team with a (bad record) and you (show up) and they whip your ass. Because they’re all big-league players.” 

Get hot at the right time: The Cubs didn’t overreact to a four-game sample size. But the NLCS clearly highlighted some of the softer areas within a strong foundation.

The Cubs spent almost $290 million this offseason trying to upgrade the outfield defense (Jason Heyward), diversify the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and strengthen the rotation (John Lackey). The Mets also exposed those nagging issues with controlling the running game. Theo Epstein’s front office understands the coin-flip nature of the wild-card game.     

“I thought the Mets played almost four perfect games against us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I can’t imagine they could play a better four games – in all phases of the game. Their starting pitching was fantastic. They kept us off-balance. They scored in the first inning of four straight games to sort of put us on the defensive. Their defense played great. Their bullpen threw great.

“We didn’t play our best. But certainly we ran up against a team sort of playing as well as they could. And that happens. To me, it just underscores the value of winning your division.”

[MORE - Target practice: Cubs end spring training as the hunted]

The Mets didn’t stay hot against the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. But the Cubs can’t just bank on the hottest pitcher in the world shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates again, so they built a stronger, deeper team around Jake Arrieta.

“We won the one-game playoff,” Hoyer said. “But I think we’re realistic enough to realize that you go up against a great team like that on the road, you’re not going to win every one of those. The nature of that game makes you want to win the division.

“What you really want to be is the hot team. You make it every year, and you have much better odds of being that hot team that can sustain three straight series and win the title.”

Xs and Os matter: The Cubs have built a strong scouting system that combines video, raw data and human intelligence. But Cubs officials credited the Mets for knowing the 2015 team inside and out, identifying and preying upon weaknesses.

“It still blows my mind,” pitcher Jon Lester said, “the game plan they (followed), attacking our guys soft so much and surprising us with the heater. We’re such a good fastball-hitting team that it’s hard to surprise us with heaters. They did an unbelievable job.

“Sometimes, you have to sit back and you have to just tip your hat. We got beat. They beat us. They had a better game plan – and they executed a little bit better than we did.”

The Cubs hit .164 as a team, struck out 37 times and never led at any point during the NLCS. The Mets didn’t build their lineup around speed, but they still saw opportunities and stole seven bases. New York’s power pitchers – Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom – allowed five runs in 20-plus innings while closer Jeurys Familia finished all four games.  

“They’re an exciting pitching staff,” Lester said. “They’re young, which is a little bit scary. The fact that those guys are going to be around for a long time – that’s exciting, too.

“They’re obviously going to be in it probably every year. And probably the team that we’re going to have to go through to get where we want to go.”

The Undercover Boss is not a fan of The Dark Knight of Gotham: Board member Todd Ricketts – who’s probably best known for his right-wing politics and going on that reality TV show – used a Cubs Convention stage to say “Mets fans are really, really obnoxious” during a Q-and-A session with ownership.

That wound up becoming the main story on the New York Post’s website in the middle of January, showing the crossover appeal of these two teams and how much heat this could generate if really becomes a rivalry again.   

Ricketts explained how his French-Canadian wife, Sylvie, is a huge hockey fan who rooted for the Blackhawks and viewed the Cubs as more of a family business until that playoff ride.    

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“We continued to watch baseball,” Ricketts said, setting the scene for World Series Game 5 and the Mets leading Kansas City in the ninth inning. “My wife and I are sitting in our living room. It’s 10:30 at night. We’re in our pajamas. I don’t know if you guys remember – Matt Harvey refused to come out of the game.

“He did a show on TV. He did his own little drama on TV to show that he was the tough guy and he was going to win this game for the Mets. He went back out on the mound – and I think three batters later the Royals had scored two runs.”

Kansas City tied the game when Eric Hosmer alertly hustled on a groundball, and then scored five runs in the 12th inning to win its first World Series in 30 years.    

“When Hosmer’s left hand went across home plate,” Ricketts said, “my wife jumped up, pointed at the TV and she said: ‘Screw you, Matt Harvey! Screw you, Mets fans!’

“So I’m not certain that she’s adopted baseball as her favorite sport. And I’m not certain that she still would say that the Cubs are her favorite team, because she loves the Blackhawks so much. But I know this for sure: She really, really hates the Mets.” 

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.