Cubs

After making qualifying offers, now comes the hard part for Cubs, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis

After making qualifying offers, now comes the hard part for Cubs, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis

Making qualifying offers to Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis before Monday’s 4 p.m. deadline might have been two of the easiest decisions the Cubs will face all winter.

It guaranteed draft-pick compensation if the Cy Young Award winner and the All-Star closer decline the one-year, $17.4 million contract offers within the next 10 days – and that looks like obvious moves given their reputations and strong platform seasons – and sign elsewhere as free agents.   

Now comes the hard part for two 30-something pitchers and a front office that needs to do a lot of heavy lifting for a team that has won 292 games, back-to-back division titles, six playoff rounds and a World Series across the last three seasons.

We’ll find out how close super-agent Scott Boras can get to his bulletin-board quote from Opening Night 2016, when Arrieta set the tone for a championship season with seven scoreless innings in a 9-0 win at Angel Stadium of Anaheim: “Every Cy Young Award winner I know got a seven-year contract.”

We’ll see if last winter’s record-setting deals for closers become the norm – or an anomaly – after another October where relievers took center stage and managers constantly got second-guessed for those bullpen decisions.

Don’t expect anyone to hand Arrieta a megadeal that runs through his age-38 season, but this a top-of-the-rotation starter who won almost 70 percent of the time with the Cubs (68-31, 2.73 ERA), put up a 3.08 ERA in nine career playoff games and took control of his career by developing his own training program and visualization process.       

As someone who notched the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Kansas City Royals, went 32-for-33 in save chances as a Cub and threw 92 pitches (!!!) combined in his last two playoff appearances, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Davis to shoot for Mark Melancon’s four-year, $62 million contract (a deal the San Francisco Giants must already regret).  

[MORE: For the second straight year, Munenori Kawasaki is a world champion]

You know the Cubs will stay in touch with the Arrieta and Davis camps – just in case a certain market doesn’t develop or a player is left out in the cold – because that’s how this front office operates and how much this team needs pitching.

“We’d love to have Wade Davis back, and same with Jake,” team president Theo Epstein said the day after the Los Angeles Dodgers bounced the Cubs from the National League Championship Series. “They’re two quality pitchers, guys who are elite at what they do and have tremendous track records.

“When it comes to free agency – and starting to talk about prospective free agents – I always stop and recognize just how hard it is to get to free agency and how much work these guys put in to get to this point.

“It’s a right that they’ve earned and that they deserve. You may only get one crack at it in your whole career. It’s an important time for them. They have to do what they should do to put themselves in a great position going forward with their families.

“From our end, it’s easy to sit here and say we’d love to have them both back, because we would, for what they do on the field, and for what we think of them off the field, and what they contribute off the field. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

Just look at next season’s projected arbitration salaries on MLB Trade Rumors and the rising costs for 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant ($8.9 million), World Series Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks ($4.9 million) and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell ($2.3 million).

Keep in mind next winter’s banner class of free agents, which includes Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and potentially Clayton Kershaw and David Price.         

This is also where the Cubs are going to feel the squeeze from the final six years of Jason Heyward’s $184 million contract. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist will make $28 million combined during his age-37 and -38 seasons, possibly as a part-time player. Jon Lester is only halfway through his totally-worth-it $155 million contract and the Cubs already know how nine-figure deals for pitchers usually end.  

So it won’t be a surprise if the Cubs try to trade for and coach up the next Arrieta, and get a little more creative with the ninth inning than simply making Davis an offer he can’t refuse.    

“You have tough choices to make,” Epstein said. “We have a lot of players getting to a different point in their careers with respect to salary structure and players getting raises. And looking even beyond next year, and considering future free-agent classes and different things we need to do to try to keep this consistent winner (going).

“We’re going to go in open-minded with an obvious desire to keep both guys, but knowing it will be complicated and seeing what we can do.”

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

adbert.jpg
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.