Cubs

Yu Darvish won't be a game-changer for Cubs

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Yu Darvish won't be a game-changer for Cubs

Yu Darvish could be the marketing departments dream, a network television star. He could also be the latest in a line of Japanese pitchers who failed to live up to the hype.

No one in the world knows for sure.

The Texas Rangers thought it was worth the risk and gambled 51.7 million upfront the posting fee first reported by Yahoo! Sports that Darvishs game will translate to the majors.

Major League Baseball announced late Monday night that it was the Rangers who put in the bid accepted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. The Rangers now have 30 days to negotiate a deal with the 25-year-old Darvish and his representatives.

The Cubs submitted a bid last week, though its hard to imagine they were anywhere near that aggressive. Theo Epstein has looked into just about everything during his first two months on the job. But so far the president of baseball operations has been patient and cautious.

Its understandable why the Cubs didnt go all-in for Darvish, who registered 276 strikeouts in 232 innings last season and has posted a 1.72 ERA the past five years in Japan.

Winning this bidding war would have meant spending around 52 million just to be able to talk to a mystery player with zero big-league experience.

On Epsteins watch, the Boston Red Sox once invested more than 100 million in Daisuke Matsuzaka. The move paid immediate dividends as the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007 and Matsuzaka won 18 games the next season.

But since then the enigmatic pitcher has mostly been injured or ineffective, and is now recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays were said to have the most visible scouting presence on the days Darvish pitched last season. This development certainly wont motivate the Rangers to deal for Matt Garza.

The cost of pitching doesnt seem to be going down anytime soon. Combined this month Mark Buehrle (Miami Marlins) and C.J. Wilson (Los Angeles Angels) have signed for more than 135 million.

The San Diego Padres got four pieces back when they traded Mat Latos to the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend. The key difference between Latos and Garza is that Latos will be a free agent after the 2015 season, while Garza is under club control for two more years.

Teams that lost out on Darvish and Latos could pivot toward the Cubs. But its not exactly breaking news that teams like Garza and Sean Marshall. Epstein never mentioned them by name he didnt have to but heres what he acknowledged during the winter meetings.

Teams have called us more on the guys youd expect, Epstein said. We have a couple difference-making pitchers that have contracts that expire either in a year or two years, so its probably not a surprise that a lot of teams in baseball covet those guys.

But theyre also an important part of our pitching staff and theres a chance to possibly extend those pitchers and turn what looks like a short-term asset into a long-term asset.

Garza only fits on a team built to win now, or a large-market team that could afford to give him a contract extension. Perhaps the Blue Jays will enter the picture.

The Cubs could make a play for Padres first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a former Red Sox prospect who was included in the Adrian Gonzalez deal but might be blocked now. Still, Garza makes no sense for the Padres, unless they found a way to flip him to another team.

As Christmas approaches, look for the Cubs to go shopping for value. Pitchers like Paul Maholm, Joe Saunders and possibly Tim Wakefield would fit into their offseason profile more than Darvish.

The Cubs still havent made a splash, and might not all winter. They didnt land the pitcher who gets the rock-star treatment in Japan, and will likely go with guys whose names wont be put up in lights.

Darvish has been on big stages before, at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the 2009 World Baseball Classic, but nothing quite like this. The whole world will be watching.

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.