Cubs

Closing the book on 2017: 5 things we learned from this Cubs postseason

Closing the book on 2017: 5 things we learned from this Cubs postseason

Hey, there's always last year.

The Cubs' 2017 season is now over, by virtue of an 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers Thursday night at a shell-shocked Wrigley Field.

The Cubs are not going to enter their name into the history books (for any good reason, anyways. Their postseason batting average on the other hand...)

Wednesday's nail-biting win over the Dodgers was something of a last tribute to the ever-loyal fanbase and not actually the beginning of a comeback from down 0-3 in the NLCS.

There will be plenty of time — all winter, actually — to digest this Cubs season, but here are five quick takeaways entering the offseason:

The bullpen is the No. 1 area of need.

That's obvious to anybody who's watched any Cubs game this postseason.

The only reliever Maddon truly trusted all October was Wade Davis, and he even he finished with a 4.26 ERA and 1.72 WHIP.

Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing flew under the radar with an overall solid body of work this postseason. Strop will be back next year, but Duensing is a free agent and was one of the best bargains in baseball at a $2 million salary for 2017.

Davis is also a free agent and Carl Edwards Jr. certainly doesn't look to be ascending into that closer's role anytime soon. The Cubs thought they were getting a guy who could close in 2018 when they acquired Justin Wilson at the trade deadline, but the lefty wasn't even active for the NLCS.

Shoring up the bullpen will be the primary concern for Theo Epstein's front office this winter, especially with how important relievers have become in October the last few falls.

Hangovers are real.

The Cubs have shown signs of having a World Series hangover the entirety of 2017 — mentally, physically, emotionally.

The first half of the season proved that, but the Cubs have not been the same team with a relentless lineup this entire postseason. They topped three runs in only one of 10 postseason games, and in that one (Game 5), they took advantage more of Washington's mistakes rather than hitting the crap out of the ball.

The Cubs just looked out of gas in the NLCS, which is understandable. They've played more baseball than any other team (by a sizable margin) the last three seasons, playing into November last year. Throw in all the national TV appearances and street dedications and all that jazz and the winter was amazingly short for Joe Maddon and Co.

But even looking just at this fall, the Cubs never quite recovered from the hangover of that epic Game 5 in the NLDS. They left so much on that field in Washington D.C. and never found their rhythm again after.

The Cubs have an amazing library of resiliency to draw confidence from.

As if Game 7 and the 2016 postseason run wasn't enough, this Cubs core found so many more reasons for confidence this October.

So they were being no-hit by a Cy Young finalist in the latter innings of a game. They could still pull off a victory, which they did twice in the NLDS.

So they had their backs against the wall in both the NLDS and NLCS. They responded with wins in their first two elimination games of the postseason.

That NLDS finale alone will be something they can draw on for the rest of their careers, much like Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

The Cubs' lineup needs more.

Epstein's front office has invested so much in young hitting over the last few years, but this was not a banner month for those guys.

Bryzzo Souvenir Co. had a particularly rough showing, with Kris Bryant's only postseason homer coming when his team was already down 9-0 in an elimination game against the Dodgers.

Anthony Rizzo yelled "RESPECT ME!" after a bloop basehit against the Nationals in Game 3 of the NLDS and went hitless in his next 16 at-bats right after that.

And when Bryzzo doesn't hit, this lineup looks a whole lot different. That same thing can be said about any team in baseball if you take the two best hitters out of the equation, but given the youth of the Cubs offense, they needed their MVP candidates.

But this October also proved how necessary a leadoff hitter is for the team, shining even more light on the absence of Dexter Fowler.

Ben Zobrist had a forgettable 2017 season from start to finish and wound up hitless in the NLCS and with just a .160 batting average this postseason. This is a guy who spent all of last October protecting Bryzzo in the lineup and winning World Series MVP honors.

The Cubs struck out 105 times in 10 postseason games while hitting just nine homers (most of which were of the solo variety). 

The offense's undoing also put more pressure on the pitching staff — and bullpen in general — all postseason.

The Cubs lineup may look a bit different in 2018 with guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ possibly playing more.

But Zobrist is still under contract and will be 37. Jason Heyward (and his .108 postseason batting average in a Cubs uniform) hasn't provided the offensive production in October the Cubs hoped for when they inked him to a $184 million deal (though he gives one hell of a speech and is a great presence in the clubhouse and in the outfield).

It'll be interesting to see what the Cubs do to address the leadoff position this winter, but other than that, almost the entire crew will be back.

And keep in mind: This is a small sample size that just so happened to come at the wrong time for the Cubs. There's also the fact they went up against elite pitcher after elite pitcher this October, but such is life in the postseason.

Last fall was filled with clutch, timely hits from guys like Addison Russell, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras and all three of those guys didn't have the same impact this year.

This truly is the golden era of Cubs baseball.

Len Kasper summed up this season perfectly as the calendar flipped to October:

It really is a great time to be a Cubs fan, even if they aren't getting a shot to take home a second straight championship.

All the postseason statistical leaders in franchise history play on this team right now.

Consider: 

—The top five spots on the most RBI in Cubs postseason history are Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber.

—Jake Arrieta has the most wins (5) in Cubs postseason history.

—Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are 1-2-3 in Cubs postseason strikeout history.

—Bryant and Rizzo lead the franchise in postseason hits while Baez is tied for fourth.

After so many years of losing, this team not only ended the 108-year title drought but also made it to the NLCS for three straight seasons. That's a remarkable stretch of success that doesn't figure to end anytime soon with how much of the core is back for 2018 and beyond.

If you told Cubs fans five years ago they would be one of the last four teams left alive in Major League Baseball for three straight seasons and have a World Series championship in that span, every single fan would sell their soul for that chance.

Regardless of how it ended, the 2017 Cubs season was an overwhelming, smashing success.

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.