Cubs

Why Giants pose bigger wild-card threat for Cubs

Why Giants pose bigger wild-card threat for Cubs

Jake Arrieta’s reflexive answer to the wild-card question – ‘Who gives a s---?’ – will either be remembered as the symbolic moment where a Cy Young Award winner got locked back into the zone. Or those four words will go on the headstone of the 2016 Cubs if they don’t win the World Series.

Because if Madison Bumgarner puts the San Francisco Giants on his shoulders and beats New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard on Wednesday night at Citi Field, then remember how Cubs manager Joe Maddon framed any National League first-round opponent: “Be careful what you wish for.”          

Especially in a best-of-five series where the Giants can line up Johnny Cueto to start Games 1 and 5 at Wrigley Field, with one-time All-Star lefty Matt Moore, World Series MVP Bumgarner and motivated ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija in between, making this a simple question: Which team is more dangerous? 

“It’s the Giants,” an NL Central scout said, “because if their starting pitching gets hot, then they can do some damage. But the only problem is, they need their bullpen to shore things up a little better at the end of the game.

“They have pedigree. They have experience. They have starting pitching. It’s just a matter of the back end (of the bullpen) when they’re winning: Can they hold it together?”   

The Giants certainly have their flaws, leading the majors with 30 blown saves, sinking to 30-42 in the second half after having the best record in the game at the All-Star break (57-33). But San Francisco could once again be clicking at the right time, sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend at AT&T Park to avoid a road Game 163 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Elite rotation pieces and a defense that tied for the major-league lead in fielding percentage (.988) can help mask some of those bullpen issues. Offensively, the Giants can make up for a power outage – Brandon Belt led the team with 17 home runs – with a lineup that doesn’t give away at-bats and features battle-tested hitters like Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford. 

“You’ve got an experienced, mature bunch that will figure out a way to beat you,” an NL East scout said. “It’s an even-number year. That’s what (would scare) me. Look at what they did two years ago. They were in the cellar then, and look what they did.”

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The 2010 Giants didn’t clinch an NL West title until Game 162 and won the World Series. The 2012 Giants won elimination games against the Cincinnati Reds and Cardinals before sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The 2014 Giants watched Bumgarner throw a complete-game shutout in a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates and come out of the bullpen for a five-inning save to beat the Kansas City Royals in a World Series Game 7.    

“This is 2016, so they’re going to be tough to beat, no doubt,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Same with the Mets and the experience they gained last year. That will be a fun game to watch, especially with Syndergaard and Bumgarner. I’m sure they’re both going to throw 200 pitches each if they have to. 

“It’s fun for baseball – those wild-card games – and we’re happy we’re not partaking in that this year with that anxiety and the stress level.”

Where the Mets have lost three frontline pitchers who shut down the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series – Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are all recovering from season-ending surgeries – the Giants invested $220 million in Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA) and Samardzija (12-11, 3.81 ERA) and gave up the kind of young position player (Matt Duffy) the Cubs refused to surrender to the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade-deadline deal for Moore (13-12, 4.08 ERA).

After burning Syndergaard in the wild-card game, the Mets could be leaning on a 43-year-old control artist (Bartolo Colon) and two rookies (Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman) who didn’t arrive in New York with any hype. 

“The Mets – I don’t know – they got some mojo,” an NL West scout said. “When you got a guy like (Yoenis) Cespedes, he can turn (everything) around (in that lineup). Bartolo’s pretty good, but I’m shocked that they’ve put this run together.” 

The Giants and Mets are 87-win teams that didn’t flip off the switch. The Cubs held a double-digit lead in the NL Central since the first week of August, clinched a division title in mid-September and spent the final week of the regular season playing non-contenders. One reward for 103 wins will be a four-day layoff.

“Listen, we’re going to play a good team in the first round,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “By definition, you’re going to play a team that gets on a plane feeling awesome about themselves after Wednesday’s win. 

“We were that team last year. You get on that plane, you feel like world-beaters after winning that (wild-card) game on the road. We’re going to play a good team that feels good about themselves. That’s why I think the focus has to be on us and why we need to play good baseball.”

Arrieta gave his teammates that invincible feeling, suffocating the Pirates and setting off the champagne-soaked celebration inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse, the Cubs flying to St. Louis and then knocking out a 100-win Cardinals team. 

“We can go toe-to-toe in the playoffs with any lineup or any rotation,” Arrieta said. “We’re more than equipped and more than capable of taking care of business and moving forward. But you got to start with the first game October 7.”

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.