Cubs

Where things stand with Javier Baez and Cubs roster

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Where things stand with Javier Baez and Cubs roster

MESA, Ariz. — Javier Baez — the player who generated so much debate between manager Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein’s front office at this time last year — might be the final piece to the roster puzzle facing the Cubs now.

This time, it’s a question of health with Baez, who jammed his left thumb while diving headfirst into first base and hasn’t played in a Cactus League game since March 20. 

“He came in, shook my hand this morning, wished me Happy Easter,” Maddon said Sunday at Sloan Park. “I know he’s feeling pretty good.”

Maddon is sold on Baez, a natural shortstop who can play multiple positions and an aggressive swinger with some all-or-nothing tendencies. Baez has taken 30 Cactus League at-bats — hitting .200 with eight strikeouts — but spring training performance doesn’t really matter at this point.

“We just have to really nail down the fact that Javy’s well,” Maddon said. “We’ll figure it out. As long as he feels well, we’ll get him out there. I just got to verify with the training staff.”

[MORE: Cubs say Jake Arrieta is all systems go for Opening Day]

The uncertainty leaves infielder Munenori Kawasaki — who’s shown he’s much more than a karaoke singer — on the roster bubble. But assuming Baez is healthy and the Cubs carry an eighth reliever — Neil Ramirez is out of minor-league options and appears to have the inside track — then a 25-man Opening Day projection would look like this:

C: Miguel Montero

1B: Anthony Rizzo

2B: Ben Zobrist

SS: Addison Russell

3B: Kris Bryant

LF: Kyle Schwarber

CF: Dexter Fowler

RF: Jason Heyward

Bench

David Ross

Jorge Soler

Tommy La Stella

Javier Baez

Rotation

Jake Arrieta

Jon Lester

John Lackey

Jason Hammel

Kyle Hendricks

Bullpen

Trevor Cahill

Adam Warren

Clayton Richard

Travis Wood

Neil Ramirez

Justin Grimm

Pedro Strop

Hector Rondon

A team that reported to Arizona in February with World Series expectations really just needed to stay healthy and essentially focus on the 24th and 25th spots on the roster.

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Maddon lobbied hard for Baez to make the team last year, seeing a fundamentally flawed defensive team and believing his range, strong arm and baseball IQ could help win low-scoring cold-weather games in April.

Maddon also wondered if the speed of the major league game — and working directly with his coaching staff — would force Baez into making adjustments at the plate.

“Just watching the kid last year,” Maddon said, “based on everything else that we had at that time, compared to what you have (here), it’s two different worlds right now based on offseason acquisitions, the ascension of different players.

“I’m coming in for the first time — I can see Javy making that team better. But then they’re relating to me different things that they had seen before that — and the fact that a lot of folks thought he needed more seasoning. That’s all you got to tell me. I didn’t see enough of him to really make that call. So it’s not a hard argument to have with me.”

Maddon’s fresh eyes could only see so far, and it became a difficult personal/professional transition for Baez, whose sister died last April. Baez also missed almost two months at Triple-A Iowa after fracturing his left ring finger on a headfirst slide into second base.

In a sense, Maddon and Epstein’s staff both had the right idea last spring. Baez did need more time to develop — and he did contribute as a September call-up for a playoff team.

Baez helped knock the St. Louis Cardinals out of the divisional round with one huge swing, a delirious crowd at Wrigley Field chanting “LAC-KEY! LAC-KEY!” after that go-ahead three-run homer in Game 4.

“I gave the boys my side of things,” Maddon said. “And then I know at the end of the day it’s up to them to make the call. I prefer that, but you always tell people what you think.

“The greatest line ever (came from) Colin Powell talking about the president of the United States when he operated in government: ‘I give him my best advice and I give him my strongest loyalty.’

“In other words, (if) you go to a meeting like that – and then whatever you suggest is not followed – there’s a lot of meetings after meetings and water-cooler stuff where you tear people down.

“The loyalty’s not there. So if you disagree with somebody, you tell him straight up you disagree. But if you’re a part of a group and you come to a conclusion, then you all get on board with that conclusion. And that’s how it works.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”