Cubs

When Kyle Hendricks pitches at Cy Young level, Joe Maddon doesn’t care what rest of NL does at trade deadline

When Kyle Hendricks pitches at Cy Young level, Joe Maddon doesn’t care what rest of NL does at trade deadline

Joe Maddon’s bottom-line reaction to all the trade-deadline madness can be summed up like this: Who cares?

For all the hype surrounding this season, the Cubs still spend most of their time inside a bubble, with Maddon’s players not feeling the weight of franchise history while Theo Epstein’s front office ruthlessly executes The Plan.

The Cubs didn’t make any impulse buys during their final hours of shopping before Monday afternoon’s non-waiver deadline, simply adding a right-handed relief specialist (Joe Smith) to the team with baseball’s best record.

“I’m more concerned about us as opposed to what everybody else is doing,” Maddon said. “I truly believe if we continue to do what we are doing and play our standard of baseball, it really doesn’t matter what anybody else does.” 

Not when Kyle Hendricks dissects the Miami Marlins during a 5-0 complete-game victory at Wrigley Field, throws 123 pitches the night after the bullpen absorbed nine innings and gets a question about Cy Young Award consideration during his postgame news conference. 

“That was the first one,” said Hendricks (10-7, 2.22 ERA). “At the end of the day, that’s just an accolade. We got a long way to go – two months left – and our sights are on a lot more than individual honors on this team. I got my sights set higher for this team.” 

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Still, Maddon didn’t dismiss the idea with his No. 5 starter in name only, watching Hendricks go 6-1 since June 19 and post the best ERA (1.04) in the majors during that time: “Right now, he’s one of the best pitchers in the National League. Period. No question.” 

Of course, the Cubs (64-41) would have taken another starting pitcher to pair with Hendricks near the top of the 2018 rotation, or a left-handed hitter to help replace Kyle Schwarber’s middle-of-the-order presence in October.    

But the St. Louis Cardinals still haven’t really counterpunched after John Lackey and Jason Heyward switched sides in the 124-year rivalry with the Cubs. The Pittsburgh Pirates are facing their 2016 underachievement and small-market reality by selling off Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon (to the Washington Nationals in response to the Cubs getting superstar closer Aroldis Chapman). 

The arms race in the NL West continued with the San Francisco Giants (Matt Moore, Will Smith, Eduardo Nunez) and Los Angeles Dodgers (Rich Hill, Josh Reddick) stockpiling players. The New York Mets hope Jay Bruce can rescue their lineup and become this year’s Yoenis Cespedes. 

But the Cubs will be tough to beat when they play like this, getting another clutch hit from Addison Russell with a two-out, two-run single in the first inning, forcing Marlins lefty Adam Conley to throw 97 pitches in four innings and leaning on MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo (3-for-3 with a walk, hit by pitch and two runs scored).

The defense also backed up Hendricks, with Heyward and Javier Baez making two great throws to nail Derek Dietrich trying to stretch a double into a triple on a ball hit into the right-center field gap. And rookie catcher Willson Contreras throwing out Dee Gordon trying to steal second base. And Kris Bryant starting a double play on pinch-hitter Ichiro Suzuki’s line drive to third base, leaving the Japanese legend stuck on 2,998 hits.

“I’m very confident that we’ll pitch and play defense at the level that we’re at,” Maddon said. “If we’re able to continue to do that and really grow the hitters, I’m not going to say I’m not worried about anybody else. My point is I’m not worried about what anybody else does. We have to be more concerned about what we do.”

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.