Cubs

Why Cubs can see Andrew Miller as great fit and long shot at the same time

Why Cubs can see Andrew Miller as great fit and long shot at the same time

Andrew Miller tries to ignore the trade rumors surrounding the New York Yankees, the identity crisis for a win-at-all-costs franchise trying to get younger and more athletic and prepare for the future without a total teardown.

But if the Yankees look in the mirror and ultimately decide to sell just before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the Cubs will be in those conversations, because a team with seven All Stars could use another for October.

“We’re here to win,” Miller said this week at U.S. Cellular Field during the Yankees-White Sox series. “We’re here to compete every year. And that’s from the top down, whether you hear it from (general manager Brian) Cashman or (manager Joe) Girardi or the players.

“That was a big selling point about me coming here — and the goal is to win here. That’s what I want to be a part of.”

The Cubs checked in with Miller’s camp during his free-agent process after the 2014 season but didn’t feel like getting into a bidding war to add a setup guy to an 89-loss team made that much sense.

If Miller on a four-year, $36 million contract looked like a luxury item then, he would be a perfect fit now, giving another late-inning weapon to Joe Maddon, arguably the game’s best bullpen manager. Watching Trevor Cahill serve up the go-ahead, three-run homer to Tucker Barnhart in the seventh inning of Wednesday afternoon’s 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds only reinforced that view at Wrigley Field.

Theo Epstein’s front office could justify the cost by looking at it as an investment in 2016 and beyond, acquiring an All-Star reliever who can close now and potentially impact three pennant races on the North Side.

“I love Andrew,” said pitcher Jon Lester, who played with Miller on the 2013 Boston Red Sox team that won the World Series. “I definitely would vouch for Andrew. Obviously, his stuff and stats speak for itself.

“And it would be nice to get him out of the Yankees organization and somewhere he could grow his beard and long hair back and we could call him ‘Jesus’ (Spanish pronunciation) again.”

Lester lobbied for Epstein to acquire Jonathan Papelbon last summer, saying a strong clubhouse culture could handle the enigmatic closer who got traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Washington Nationals and wound up choking Bryce Harper in the dugout.

Epstein’s Cubs keep going back to their Red Sox connections, but in signing a minor-league deal and reviving his career at Fenway Park, Miller formed more of a bond with Ben Cherington, the Boston personnel executive who eventually got hired and essentially fired as general manager.

For a Cubs team with a glaring bullpen need, Miller, 31, checks the boxes as a left-hander who can get all types of hitters out with velocity (94.1-mph average fastball) and swing-and-miss stuff (66 strikeouts through 36-plus innings this season).

Miller has size (6-foot-7), first-round pedigree (sixth overall out of the University of North Carolina in 2006), playoff experience, a strong clubhouse reputation and what’s turned out to be a reasonable contract.

“Great teammate,” said catcher David Ross, who played with Miller in Boston. “He’s had struggles. He’s had success. He’s won a World Series. So he knows about winning, he knows about losing. When you have guys who have gone through the spectrum like that in their careers, you just gain perspective. So you can relate to a lot of different guys at different times during the season.

“He’s a winner. He’s got nasty stuff. He throws mid-to-upper 90s with a filthy, filthy slider. Righties and lefties — it doesn’t matter. (Whatever) the matchup, he can get through the inning.

“He doesn’t have an ego. I’ve read his quotes in New York where it’s: ‘I don’t care if I’m closing.’ And that fits right into this team. We’re here as a 25-man group that is after one goal. And he understands that.”

As someone who got traded out of his Boston comfort zone to the Oakland A’s at the 2014 deadline, Lester recognizes the many dimensions to those deals, as well as the unique chemistry in Wrigleyville.

“At the same time, you’re talking about now we got to move some pieces around in that bullpen,” Lester said. “You get a guy like Andrew Miller, now you’re subtracting somehow, and that’s always tough when you’ve been grinding with guys (the whole year).

“(But) I know Andrew, and I think his personality would fit in just fine here. He wouldn’t have an issue with the transition — (and) that is a tough transition.

“I always go back to Joe. Joe does such a good job with situations. Whatever the situation may be, he does such a good job with making guys feel comfortable. So if we did get a guy like that, I think you would definitely get the best out of him.”

Lester — who believed in The Plan enough to join a last-place team after the 2014 season and signed a six-year, $155 million megadeal with the understanding that he would be in the loop — doesn’t know if Epstein’s group will think big again at the trade deadline.

“A lot can happen,” Lester said. “Hopefully, nobody goes down and we don’t have a dire need. Any time you’re talking about an addition, you’re going to have a subtraction. That’s always a tough thing. (But) I’d like to say: ‘Yeah, it would be awesome to get some big-name stud in here.’”

The Yankees woke up on Wednesday as a 41-42 team, stuck in fourth place in the American League East, but only four games out of a wild-card spot. Whether or not the Cubs are willing to pay the price for a brand-name reliever — or hoping to get lucky again with under-the-radar additions — it still starts with the Yankees either giving up on 2016 or going for it.

“That’s what the Yankees do,” Miller said. “Their track record shows that’s what we do. They haven’t had a losing record since ’92.

“The expectation is that we’re going to be in the thick of it. And I think the 25 guys in here think that we’re capable of winning enough games to be in it.”

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.