Cubs

Why Cubs think their rock-star young players won’t believe all the hype

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Why Cubs think their rock-star young players won’t believe all the hype

In the middle of the champagne-soaked celebration at Wrigley Field, Theo Epstein name-dropped Eddie Vedder, comparing this team to the band that bursts onto the scene and blows up with an amazing first album.

The Cubs had just eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the playoffs, and the president of baseball operations understood this joyride through October wouldn’t last forever. It would only get more complicated, the way it once did for Pearl Jam, having to deal with new expectations, extra pressure and the backlash.

There would be more money involved and even bigger egos. Tanking had given this front office a kind of artistic freedom during the rebuilding years. And after getting swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series last season, there will be more creative differences.

This is the end of the innocence, the Cubs reporting to spring training this week as a World Series favorite. Anything less than the franchise’s first title since 1908 will be considered a major disappointment.

“Our priorities are clear,” Epstein said. “I don’t have any worry whatsoever that having accomplished so much (last) year that our players – and our young players – will show up complacent (or) take things for granted, thinking they’re going to sort of walk their way through the regular season and then sprint towards the postseason.

“Baseball doesn’t work that way. I think the opposite’s true from looking at their eyes (as) they watched the Mets celebrate and seeing their feelings in the clubhouse after we were done playing. They’re going to come back extremely hungry and extremely focused and in great shape and ready to take this to the next level.”

This is an organization, a media market and a social-media environment that treats prospects like rock stars. And a city that caters to Cubs players and makes it easy to feel like you’ve already made it.

“I just think in general our young players are really mature, really grounded and are in it for the right reasons,” Epstein said. “(They) have experienced a lot already in their young careers, and that will help them avoid the quote-unquote ‘sophomore slump’ and help them adjust to playing with some greater expectations on their shoulders.

“We’re aware of sort of the new expectations this year and how a team might respond. But we’re not concerned about it, because we really trust the makeup of these players.”

[MORE: Cubs' message to Jason Heyward: Just be yourself]

At this time last year, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber hadn’t even made their big-league debuts yet. A reasonable prediction would have been the Cubs winning 84 games and calling it a great learning experience with Russell and Schwarber getting September call-ups.

“You can’t really coast on your past,” said Schwarber, who within about four months last year went from playing at Double-A Tennessee to becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in postseason home runs (five). “You get a big head. And that’s not me.

“I’m just a down-to-earth guy. I want to work hard. I want to bust my butt. And I want to help this team win.”

Bryant is now an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year. But nonstop attention is pretty much the default setting for a player hyped as a franchise savior from the moment the Cubs drafted him No. 2 overall in 2013. This is the pitchman who had his own adidas billboard across from Wrigley Field and shot a Red Bull commercial with a goat – all before his first at-bat in the big leagues.

Russell got only 14 career games on the Triple-A level before the Cubs forced him to learn how to play a new position in the big leagues – and then watched him seamlessly transition from second base to back shortstop in the middle of a pennant race. He turned 22 in January but has a chill personality that makes him come across as much older.

“This guy looks like he’s a vet – nothing bothers him,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “I’ve seen over the years how successful players go about their routines and figure out ways to get ready for a game. And all these guys had it from Day 1.

“That’s something that took me probably two or three years in the big leagues to harness and understand what works, what makes me tick. These guys had it from Day 1.”

But that first impression glosses over how Bryant had to wait until his 21st game before hitting his first home run in The Show – and bounce back from a July (.639 OPS) where he looked physically tired and mentally drained, working through 199 strikeouts to finish with 26 homers and 99 RBI.

Russell paid attention, made some mechanical fixes and boosted his OPS by almost 100 points after the All-Star break. Before Schwarber’s playoff laser show, his last home run came on Sept. 12 against the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that lost 99 games and has this year’s No. 1 overall pick.

“With experience, Kris is going to make better adjustments,” hitting coach John Mallee said. “You saw ‘Schwarbs’ struggle for a little bit there (last year) and then he made the adjustment back.

“The more times they face (good pitching), they know how this guy gets them out. They know what to expect now from that long season, how to train their bodies.”

[MORE: John Lackey will push Cubs to be '100 percent' focused on a championship]

Can Javier Baez become the next Ben Zobrist and play all over the field as a super-utility guy? Can Jorge Soler finally stay healthy and live up to his enormous potential?

Those talented young hitters will deflect some of the attention and become storylines in spring training. The Cubs also have a manager in Joe Maddon who loves to be the frontman and perform in front of the cameras.

“Joe makes the environment so conducive for them not to have stress,” Mallee said. “That really has helped these young kids, because if you had a dictatorship-type manager in there, they could have folded.

“And the core of the veteran (clubhouse is there) to help these guys through, (Anthony) Rizzo and David Ross saying: ‘Hey, we’ve been through this, bro. It’s going to happen. Just hang with it and you’re going to fight through it.’”

Winter is almost over for the hottest team in baseball. Cubs pitchers and catchers officially report to camp on Friday in Arizona. Believe the hype or not, it’s time to get the band back together again.

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.