Cubs

While waiting for buy-or-sell signals from Yankees, Cubs will get look at Gerardo Concepcion

While waiting for buy-or-sell signals from Yankees, Cubs will get look at Gerardo Concepcion

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told the New York media on Tuesday that the buy-or-sell decision will be pushed toward the end of July, when owner Hal Steinbrenner will listen to the recommendation and ultimately have the final say.

That’s a backdrop for the pitching-staff shakeup that happened around the same time at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs stashed Clayton Richard (7.30 ERA) on the disabled list with a blister on his left middle finger, optioned Adam Warren to Triple-A Iowa to stretch him out as a starter before the All-Star break and promoted relievers Gerardo Concepcion and Spencer Patton from Des Moines.

While waiting for the market to define itself, this roughly gives the Cubs a 35-game sample size to see what they have before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, when the entire industry will be curious to see how the best team in baseball gears up for October. 

The Cubs will get a fresh look at Concepcion and hope his video-game numbers this year against left-handed hitters – .116 average, .331 OPS, 19 strikeouts in 43 at-bats – will translate from Iowa and Double-A Tennessee. 

But imagine the endgame possibilities for manager Joe Maddon if Theo Epstein’s front office delivered Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman this summer. Assuming the Yankees remain a fourth-place team in the American League East, fail to gain traction above .500 and drop out of the wild-card race. 

“I’m always a brutally honest person,” Cashman told reporters at Yankee Stadium, according to the New York Daily News. “If I see things, I’ll always communicate honestly with ownership to the best of our abilities. Again, we’re in June, so right now that’s not the conversation we’re having.

“Everybody wants to (know): ‘Are you buyers, are you sellers?’ If anything right now, we’d be buyers, not sellers, and who’s to say we can’t be both buyers and sellers?

“But obviously the big focus everybody wants to know is: Are we going to be in a position to sell? You’ve heard from ownership – that’s not part of the vocabulary right now. There’s enough schedule left to allow us time to see if this team is closer to what we thought it was capable of.”

Concepcion made his big-league debut during Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Cardinals, coming into a one-run game with a runner on first base and two outs to face Brandon Moss (16 homers). Concepcion threw six pitches – four fastballs clocked between 91-92 mph and two curveballs at 75-76 mph – and struck out the left-handed Moss swinging.

Concepcion then handled Kolten Wong, Adam Wainwright and Matt Carpenter during a 1-2-3 seventh inning in front of 41,616, a scenario that would have sounded crazy even last year. 

Concepcion looked like a bust after signing a guaranteed five-year, $6 million major-league contract during spring training in 2012. He had been the Cuban National Series Rookie of the Year in 2011 while pitching for Industriales in Havana, but had trouble staying healthy and developing into the left-handed starter the Cubs envisioned.   

No one else took a chance when the Cubs outrighted Concepcion off their 40-man roster after the 2012 season, or left him exposed in the Rule 5 draft, and his name stopped getting mentioned when team officials tried to talk up the organization’s pitching prospects.

As Epstein’s group took over baseball operations, Concepcion’s rough first year with Class-A Peoria (2-6, 7.39 ERA in 12 starts) contributed to the firing of vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita, who helped build the Latin American pipeline and network of connections that produced Carlos Marmol, Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo, Jorge Soler and Willson Contreras.

Concepcion came into this season with a 5.57 ERA in 160 career innings in the minor leagues. Between 2012 and 2014, he spent time on the disabled list with a strained right calf, a viral infection, a strained back (twice) and a broken toe on his left foot. 

But Concepcion, 24, finally got healthy, started to trust his softer stuff and pitched with more confidence. He began this season by throwing 17.2 scoreless innings with Tennessee before earning the promotion to Iowa, where he went 1-0 with a 2.60 ERA in 12 appearances.   

“I was frustrated when everything was going wrong,” Concepcion said through interpreter/coach Henry Blanco. “But I stepped back and learned how to do things. And here I am.” 

This certainly isn’t adding Miller or Chapman – it once looked like the Cubs would get zero return on the Concepcion investment – but Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer can’t just wait around for the Yankees to go against their franchise’s DNA and give up on this season.  

“You always have to anticipate something’s going to go awry,” Maddon said. “That is such a hard spot to get people you really like just by snapping your finger. Unless you’re growing somebody like that, unless you know you have it in the system (or) you’re holding him back. 

“That’s kind of a nice thing to have in your back pocket. I’ve been there with the Rays a little bit. We had that kind of luxury. But if you don’t have that extra starter or two – or that real significant guy that’s got a good arm that can pitch out of your bullpen – it’s not easy (to find).”

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.