Cubs

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

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USA TODAY

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

Wade Davis knew Bryce Harper desperately wanted to be the hero, to finally change the perception of the Washington Nationals in October and take down the defending World Series champs.

The Cubs closer noticed how hard the young superstar swung through a first-pitch cutter, a 97-win team now down to its final out, Thursday night at Nationals Park already turning into Friday morning.

Harper took the next pitch, fouled off a 94.8-mph fastball and then stared at two more (93.4 mph and 95 mph), working the count to 3-2 while Davis pushed himself toward a seven-out save, something he had never done before.

Davis, who talks to himself on the mound but never really shows his true emotions, unleashed an 89.9-mph cutter that looked like it fell off a table, Harper whiffing as the exclamation point to a 9-8 game and a fantastic National League Division Series and the start of a wild celebration.

“You’re trying to stay relaxed,” Davis said. “He put such an aggressive swing (on it) the first swing. I was kind of hoping he would stay that aggressive and maybe use that to our advantage. We got to the last pitch and he was still pretty aggressive.”

The Cubs will absolutely need that ability to be the calm in the middle of the storm, make adjustments in real time and neutralize the Los Angeles Dodgers who got a “Best. Team. Ever?” Sports Illustrated cover in late August (before losing 16 of 17 games).

Aroldis Chapman came close, but even he didn’t throw 44 pitches in a playoff game during last year’s World Series run.

It’s not a great look when the Cubs drop from the playoff roster their big move to strengthen the bullpen at the July 31 trade deadline (Justin Wilson) and add an ex-closer clearly outside Joe Maddon’s circle of trust (Hector Rondon) for this NL Championship Series rematch.

The Cubs had two chances to eliminate the Nationals and Maddon deployed a $155 million middle reliever (Jon Lester), used Saturday night’s Game 1 starter at Dodger Stadium (Jose Quintana) and pulled his top setup guy in the middle of an at-bat and after walking one hitter on five pitches (Carl Edwards Jr.).

The Cubs faced 190 total batters during that five-game series against the Nationals and 91 percent went to the playoff rotation (Kyle Hendricks, Lester, Quintana, Jake Arrieta) or the late-game bullpen (Davis, Edwards, Pedro Strop).

“Of course, we’ve got to be really mindful of Wade,” Maddon said, explaining why the Cubs would lean against adding another pitcher for the NLCS. “But you need the bench to match up like we were able to match up in some of these games — the pinch-hitting being aggressive, the defensive maneuvering being aggressive.

“It's just the way of the world right now. The days off still are beneficial, two on, one off, three on, one off. It's still beneficial regarding keeping your bullpen in order.”

The 2017 Dodgers are a more dynamic team than the one that put up a major-league worst .622 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season, boosting that total 167 points during a 104-win campaign. These Dodgers also apparently have enough depth to keep All-Star shortstop Corey Seager (back injury) off their initial NLCS roster.

Between Maddon’s reputation (fair or not) and Davis about to become a free agent, the Chapman comparisons will be coming. But maybe think of Davis as this year’s Kenley Jansen, who pitched multiple innings and covered for weaker spots in the bullpen and willingly went outside his comfort zone.

It wasn’t enough to get the Dodgers to the World Series for the first time since 1988 — and the Cubs aren’t in the business of matching almost-recording-setting contracts for closers — but Jansen did return to Los Angeles on a five-year, $80 million deal.

That is a discussion for the winter, and when the Cubs see Davis jogging out of the bullpen, they feel like their playoff run is only just getting started.

“He’s a stud,” said Ben Zobrist, who played with Davis on the 2015 Kansas City Royals team that won a World Series title. “He’s got the postseason experience. And everybody knows he’s got ice in his veins, so there’s no moment that’s going to get the best of him.”

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.