Cubs

Why Cubs swung and missed on a starting pitcher at trade deadline

Why Cubs swung and missed on a starting pitcher at trade deadline

To get the kind of young starter the Cubs covet, the San Francisco Giants gave up the third baseman who finished second to Kris Bryant in last season’s National League Rookie of the Year race (Matt Duffy), a $6 million international prospect (Lucius Fox) and a pitching project (Class-A right-hander Michael Santos). 

The Tampa Bay Rays had so much leverage leading up to Monday afternoon’s non-waiver trade deadline and sold high on Matt Moore, a 27-year-old lefty who has never come close to throwing 200 innings in a single season, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 and put up a 5.43 ERA in 12 starts last year.

Still, Moore would have looked pretty good in a Cubs uniform on Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta could be enjoying his free-agent payday, John Lackey might have retired to Austin, Texas, and Jon Lester will be 34 years old and have more than 2,000 innings on his pitching odometer.

“That was a really significant area that we tried to focus on over the whole deadline period,” general manager Jed Hoyer said before Kyle Hendricks painted a complete-game masterpiece during a 5-0 win over the Miami Marlins at Wrigley Field. “We know that controllable starting pitching is something that is really important to us now – and important to us going forward.

“There’s no question, the prices were exceptionally high on those guys.”

Here’s why the Cubs swung and missed and will have to keep thinking big:

• Ex-Cubs Rich Hill and Andrew Cashner might be the best options for teams looking to throw money at their rotation after this season. The late-blooming Hill – who got packaged with outfielder Josh Reddick on Monday and shipped from the Oakland A’s to the Los Angeles Dodgers – will be 37 years old next season. Cashner has never quite lived up to all that potential and will try to rebrand himself with the Marlins after being a headliner in last week’s trade with the San Diego Padres.

“That was a huge impact on this trade deadline,” Hoyer said. “You didn’t see a lot of starting pitching get moved at this deadline, (in part because) people that had starting pitching to sell know they can also sell that starting pitching this winter, (when) it’s a really weak free-agent market.” 

• Forget about Chris Sale or Jose Quintana and the White Sox stomaching the idea of one of their pitchers wearing a Cubs uniform and performing in front of 40,000 fans in Wrigleyville. Hoyer talked about the degree of difficulty when the Cubs “had two active sellers in our division (and) one active seller in our city.”

“There’s probably a tax you have to pay,” Hoyer said, summing up The Chicago Way. “There’s going to be a lot more focus or scrutiny on a deal that’s made between those two teams. 

“At some level, I think both teams are aware of that. I know that when we were sellers, we had some awareness. And I’m sure that on the other side of town, there’s some awareness of that as well. 

“I wouldn’t say: ‘Never.’ There might be a deal that just makes sense someday. But it’s certainly not a team we look at as a likely trade partner.”

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• The Cubs have such a strong belief in pitching coach Chris Bosio and the staff’s scouting edges and game-planning infrastructure that they won’t overreact to the shortage of legitimate pitching prospects in their organization or easily rationalize the sticker shock.

“It’s an ongoing search,” Hoyer said. “Finding those controllable, young starting pitchers is an easier thing to do when you’re a seller. That’s how we acquired a guy like Jake Arrieta. That’s how we acquired Kyle Hendricks. When you’re a seller, it’s easier to acquire those kind of young arms. But it’s a focus of ours – and something that we’re going to really try to do over the next 18-24 months.”

• The Cubs didn’t want to deal someone like Duffy off their major-league roster, or overpay for a left-handed hitting outfielder, holding onto their trade chips for the winter meetings. Maybe Jorge Soler will be healthy by then and coming off another good playoff performance and the Cubs can try to bundle some combination of Jeimer Candelario (22-year-old, Triple-A switch-hitter blocked by All-Star corner infielders), Ian Happ (last year’s first-round pick) and Victor Caratini (an advanced defensive Double-A catcher). 

“How you deploy your assets is always something that you’re thinking about,” Hoyer said. “You have a finite amount of money. You have a finite amount of prospects. (So) you have to think about how much you can afford to sort of trade

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

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.