Cubs

Albert Almora Jr. ready to show Cubs he can do bigger and better things

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AP

Albert Almora Jr. ready to show Cubs he can do bigger and better things

Super-agent Scott Boras – who made a fortune and built an empire by identifying and nurturing baseball prodigies – watched in amazement as Albert Almora Jr. grabbed the rope and started climbing in his family’s backyard in South Florida.    

“I’m going like: ‘Who does that?’” Boras recalled. “I told his dad: ‘How long has he been doing that?’ He said: ‘He’s always had that forearm strength.’”

Almora was around 15 years old at that point, the baseball gym rat who faced elite competition year-round in Miami and with Team USA, the kid who would grow up to be the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime and later score the winning run in last year’s World Series Game 7.

Almora – who won’t celebrate his 24th birthday until after Opening Day 2018 – has already appeared in 18 postseason games and earned the championship ring coveted by generations of Cubs players.

What’s next for someone so clearly driven to be more than a matchup hitter against left-handed pitching and a late-game defensive replacement?

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Almora said last week at his locker in the Wrigley Field clubhouse after the Los Angeles Dodgers knocked the Cubs out of the National League Championship Series. “I’m here to win. I’m here for whenever they call my name.

“Obviously, the competitor in me wants to be there to help the team out every day, but it’s not in my control.”     

This October, Almora made Dusty Baker pay for pulling Max Scherzer immediately after losing a no-hitter, delivering a pinch-hit RBI single off lefty reliever Sammy Solis as the Washington Nationals again collapsed in the first round and again fired their manager.

Almora also generated all the offense in a Game 1 NLCS loss, hammering a Clayton Kershaw slider that flew like a missile into the left-field seats at Dodger Stadium for a two-run homer.

How would those huge playoff moments translate across a 162-game season? Almora says he just waits for the text to see if he will be in the next day’s lineup. But a Cubs team that sounds open to changes after an inconsistent regular season – and a disappointing playoff flop – will have to find out.

The Detroit Tigers made it known how much they liked Almora as a potential Gold Glove center fielder, though from the start the Houston Astros had the superior package of prospects to offer and the Cubs never got that far down the road in the Justin Verlander trade talks.

While Verlander will start Wednesday night’s Game 2 at Dodger Stadium, the Cubs are trying to figure out how to get back there, who can lead their pitching staff and where all their young hitters will fit together.   

“The real key for Albert,” Epstein said, “and his future development and what will dictate whether he reaches his very high ceiling or not is his ability to have really good, consistent at-bats against right-handed pitching (.711 OPS this year).

“He’s proven that he destroys left-handed pitching (.898 OPS) and is a real weapon that way – and any team would love to have him certainly against left-handed pitching. He made really nice strides against right-handed pitching as the year went on. This kid worked so hard using the slider machine, just seeing slider after slider after slider in the cage.

“Training his eyes to recognize – not so much to hit it, although it helps hitting mistake breaking balls – but just really training his eyes on what lanes to expect the slider to come out of, say, with runners in scoring position or two-strike counts and really learning which one to lay off, to put himself in position to get favorable counts to get fastballs or get mistake pitches that he can drive.”

Using that hand speed and forearm strength he developed through those homemade exercises and backyard workouts, Almora hit .326 with five homers, 31 RBI and an .850 OPS in 135 tailor-made plate appearances after the All-Star break.

“He just got better and better as the year went on,” Epstein said. “I told him in our (exit) meeting: ‘Look, I'm sure you want me to sit here and say you're an everyday player, hands down, next year. You might be. I can’t promise you that yet. We have to see how everything evolves in the offseason. But I can promise you more. You will have more responsibility. You will have more of a role than you had this year. We’ll see how much more that is, and what you can grow into.’

“He’s excited. He’s moving closer to our spring-training facility in Arizona and ready to get to work.”

Almora’s time is coming, whether or not he’s the 2018 Opening Day center fielder, whether or not it ultimately happens at Wrigley Field. Cubs executives saw that same backyard setup before taking Almora with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft and know how he’s wired and what that could mean for the future.

“The Cubs are such a good team is the (only) reason he’s not playing every day,” Boras said. “I remember we had the conversation when he came to the big leagues. He wasn’t playing, and I said: ‘Albert, the goal here is not learning how to play every day in the big leagues. The goal is learning how to win in the big leagues. You get to learn that at a young age. Take advantage of it, because it’s going to be so valuable. You’re going to be able to share this when you are an everyday player.’”

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.