Cubs

Will Cubs double down with another Jon Lester-level megadeal?

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Will Cubs double down with another Jon Lester-level megadeal?

When the Jordan Zimmermann trade rumors surfaced last offseason, there was a thought that he would set the meter at whatever Jon Lester got and leave it running.

The Washington Nationals talked extension and also took out an insurance policy against Zimmermann leaving, investing $210 million in Max Scherzer and preparing for their homegrown starter to sign somewhere else as a free agent.

Since the Cubs are big Zimmermann fans, do they double down on that six-year, $155 million contract and offer something in Lester’s neighborhood?

Does it make sense to go to the top of the market and try to put together a Scherzer-level megadeal for David Price?

And with all the uncertainty surrounding the team’s financial picture — at least in terms of how much of those new/postseason revenue streams will flow into baseball operations — it’s at least worth asking: Should the Cubs diversify their roster and not have such a top-heavy feel?

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell made his presence felt during rookie year with Cubs]

The Cubs know they can’t stay this healthy or be that lucky in 2016. Realistically, there are no ready-for-impact pitchers in the minor-league pipeline, the biggest arms years away from potentially contributing.

This is also the time to be aggressive, because that window to contend will slam shut faster than you think. That win-now mentality could also mean building a trade for pitching around someone like Starlin Castro, Javier Baez or Jorge Soler.

Theo Epstein seemed to leave all options on the table during last week’s end-of-season news conference at Wrigley Field, where the team president looked ahead to a winter that could define his administration.

“The topic sentence is we would like to add more quality pitching,” Epstein said after watching Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel start Games 3 and 4 of a National League Championship Series the New York Mets led from start to finish.

Money talks, but the Cubs won’t have to sell a marquee free agent like Zimmermann or Price on a hope-and-change message, the blueprints for a renovated Wrigley Field and that group of blue-chip prospects.

Wrigleyville is under construction, guys want to play for Joe Maddon (though the manager’s pajama trips aren’t for everyone) and Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are now playoff-tested.

“Nobody expected us to be here,” Lester said after the Cubs got swept out of the NLCS. “Everybody just expected us to compete and be a part of something that was a step in the right direction. Now we’ve kind of put a stamp on that step (and) we’ve made believers out of people.”

The Cubs won 101 games after Opening Night, when the Cubs had bathroom issues, the Wrigley Field bleachers hadn’t opened yet, Lester still felt the aftereffects from a “dead arm” in spring training and ESPN highlighted the lefty’s issues throwing to first base and controlling the running game.

[MORE: Kris Bryant named Sporting News' NL Rookie of the Year]

Whoever joins the Cubs in 2016 won’t have the benefit of a training-wheels season or the goodwill generated during an out-of-nowhere playoff run.

“Now these guys (in the clubhouse) know,” Lester said. “These guys have seen it. They’ve been there. I don’t know if they ever knew they could do it. Now they know they can. I think stuff like this makes you want it more. You get to this point and (the Mets) pushed us aside.

“Maybe that means next year we’ll show up with the belief of winning and not the what-ifs of winning. Guys (should) have a little more swagger and go out and try to do the exact same thing. Hopefully, we’re not short at this point.”

Coming off two straight All-Star seasons where he showed up in the Cy Young Award voting, Zimmermann (13-10, 3.66 ERA) didn’t have the greatest walk year for an underachieving Nationals team that won only 83 games and got manager Matt Williams fired.

But Zimmermann still made 33 starts and topped 200 innings — showing the headstrong attitude the Cubs would appreciate — and he won’t turn 30 until the middle of next season.

Zimmermann is a self-made pitcher who came out of a Division III program — the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point — and still keeps a home in Wisconsin.

The Nationals actually drafted Zimmermann with the 67th overall pick in the 2007 draft — a selection that had been part of the compensation package for the Cubs signing Alfonso Soriano.

Zimmermann is right-handed and had Tommy John surgery near the end of the 2009 season. The Cubs believe lefties typically age better and Lester (two World Series rings) also has more playoff experience than Zimmermann (12-plus postseason innings).

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Lester wants another chance to show he’s a big-game pitcher after losing both of his playoff starts this October. But the Cubs have no regrets after Year 1 — 11-12, 3.34 ERA, 207 strikeouts in 205 innings — and would do the Lester deal all over again. Epstein said the Cubs would be fishing in those waters again this winter.

“You can fool people through the season and win games,” Lester said. “This is where you get exposed. And this is where you figure out how to truly win. We did it (through two rounds). We came up a little short (in the NLCS). But that’s only going to make us better.

“Hopefully, we get another chance at this and guys will come into spring training even more hungry. They know how to win now. They know how to compete, day in and day out. Guys will come in now and expect to be in this position.”

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.