Cubs

What win over Phillies and Vince Velasquez says about Cubs as contenders built to last

What win over Phillies and Vince Velasquez says about Cubs as contenders built to last

PHILADELPHIA – Pitching goes poof. That fundamental belief drove the Cubs during their rebuilding years, factoring into so many franchise-altering decisions made by Theo Epstein’s front office.
 
The Philadelphia Phillies watched Vince Velasquez throw two pitches clocked at 86 and 87 mph on Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park – and then walk off the mound with one out in the first inning.
 
The Phillies called it right biceps soreness for Velasquez, the talented pitcher acquired from the Houston Astros in the Ken Giles trade that came together during the winter meetings. This gave Andy MacPhail’s organization another reminder about the unpredictability of pitching – within the final 30 hours before making the No. 1 overall pick in a draft without any obvious franchise players. 
 
The Cubs simply wore down the Phillies during an 8-1 victory, showing why they are off to the majors’ best start (41-17) since Lou Piniella’s 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 games – and have a built-to-last foundation that should be able to withstand the inevitable MRIs.
 
After throwing seven scoreless innings against the Phillies, John Lackey listened to a reporter who relayed the initial Velasquez diagnosis and said: “A lot of times that’s code for elbow.” 
 
“A guy with that kind of upside,” Lackey said, “you definitely don’t wish that on anybody.”
 
At the age of 37, Lackey is a Tommy John survivor who hasn’t lost his edge and definitely knows how to set up and attack hitters, limiting the Phillies to three singles and finishing with eight strikeouts against zero walks.  
 
At a time when the price of pitching is skyrocketing and nine-figure contracts look like awful investments, the Cubs locked up Lackey with a two-year, $32 million deal that looks like a bargain in this market. Lackey is now 10-for-12 in quality starts, allowing two earned runs or less eight times and putting up All-Star-caliber numbers (7-2, 2.63 ERA) behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.       
 
“When you’re looking around as a free agent, that’s one of the reasons you come here – the talent base is really good,” Lackey said. “They’re really young and it’s something that can be together for a long time. I only got a few years left, but for a guy like ‘J-Hey,’ that’s a selling point, for sure. This is a team that can be good for a long time.”
 
The Cubs gave Jason Heyward the biggest contract in franchise history, guaranteeing $184 million to a 26-year-old Gold Glove outfielder, adding him and Lackey to a 97-win team and taking them away from the St. Louis Cardinals.  
 
The emphasis on defense helped Lackey in the first inning when Albert Almora Jr. – the sixth overall pick in 2012 and the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration – caught a flyball on the move in left-center field and made a one-hop throw to beat Odubel Herrera to home plate and execute the momentum-shifting double play.
 
Without Velasquez, the Phillies (29-31) would have trouble containing this offense. Kris Bryant crushed a two-run homer off Andrew Bailey in the sixth inning that generated an exit velocity of almost 107 mph and traveled 432 feet into the left-field seats. Two batters later, Ben Zobrist drove his eighth home run over the center-field wall.
 
Where Bryant (14 homers, 43 RBI) has anchored this lineup, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft developing into an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year, the switch-hitting Zobrist (.436 on-base percentage) has given it a different dimension and a veteran presence in the first season of a four-year, $56 million contract.  
 
The Cubs have stockpiled so many position players that Javier Baez can go 4-for-4 with three RBI – and develop a reputation as one of the league’s best defensive infielders – and still not have an everyday job.   
 
“You’re starting to see the teams with better records built like that,” Heyward said. “That’s the way it goes. When somebody goes down, somebody else is ready behind (them) to come in and contribute. (When) guys need days off, those guys contribute. In pinch-hit spots, they contribute. It just makes everybody’s job easier for the long run.
 
“You just understand it’s going to take a 40-man roster if you want to go out and accomplish what you’re trying to get done and win a World Series.”

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.