Cubs

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

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AP

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

WASHINGTON – Joe Maddon plays mind games and sends messages through the media and sometimes just runs with whatever idea pops into his head.

Maddon turned on a big-picture question from a New York Times reporter in late August, essentially skipping over the comparisons between the 2016 Cubs and the 2017 Dodgers and jumping to how much he would love to face the group on the Sports Illustrated cover labeled as: “Best. Team. Ever?”

Bring it on, Maddon signaled, looking forward to when the defending World Series champs would be at full strength and saying how much he would love that matchup against the Dodgers in October.

Well, here it is, a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series, Game 1 on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw and the rest of a $200-plus million team knowing this season will be a failure if they don’t win an iconic franchise’s first World Series title since 1988.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon explained this week in the middle of a grueling first-round, five-game series against the Nationals. “You can’t run away from any of this stuff. The question could have been about any team, not just the Dodgers.

“Pick the ’27 Yankees. Pick the ’64 Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, whatever, the We Are Family (Pirates). You just want to believe your guys can match up with anybody. And I want our guys to believe the same thing.”

The Cubs had credibility issues when Maddon made that declaration in Philadelphia during a 3-3 road trip against the last-place Reds and Phillies, part of the same overall pattern that led to a 43-45 first half and Milwaukee’s three-game sweep at Wrigley Field in the middle of September.

From that point, the Cubs buried the Brewers and Cardinals in the division race, going 15-4 to close the regular season and devastating a 97-win Washington team in the playoffs.

“That was brought up to me,” Maddon said, “and all I said was I was just agreeing with the comment. Somebody brought up the Dodgers. They could have brought up the ’27 Yankees. I was not pointing anything out.

“When that was all going on, there was a lot of nonbelievers. We have really, obviously, picked it up in the second half in general, and then I’m using Milwaukee as the benchmark. In 2015, I used the Giants in August as being that seminal moment that all of a sudden it seemed to get right. Since (then), our mental intensity has really been outstanding every game.

“I wasn’t talking about the Dodgers. Somebody else was.”

The Dodgers still have the main elements in place that held the Cubs scoreless for 21 straight innings during the 2016 NLCS — the great Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen imitating Mariano Rivera — but their roster isn’t quite as top-heavy anymore after making a trade-deadline splash with Yu Darvish and developing Cody Bellinger into a 39-homer, 97-RBI force and probably the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

While the Cubs felt like they blacked out during a crazy NLDS —  and the team’s West Coast charter flight got diverted to New Mexico on Friday morning — the Dodgers relaxed and set up their pitching after sweeping the Diamondbacks in three games.

“I can’t wait,” said shortstop Addison Russell, whose 2016 postseason could be divided into through (1-for-24) and after (12-for-40) Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. “We’re willing to take on each challenge. I know that we got another big challenge ahead of us against the Dodgers.”

Remember, the Dodgers had to play a one-run elimination game at Nationals Park on Oct. 13, 2016, using Jansen and Kershaw to nail down the final nine outs, the same urgency/desperation the Cubs showed Thursday night in using Jose Quintana and Wade Davis for the last three innings against Washington.

Will the 2017 Cubs run out of gas like the 2016 Dodgers? Can the 2017 Dodgers withstand the pressure and freak-out moments as well as the 2016 Cubs? Stay tuned.  

“They’ve been the best team in baseball since Day 1,” said Jon Lester, last year’s NLCS co-MVP with Javier Baez. “The roles are reversed. We were that team last year — and we moved on — and they’re that team this year.

“But we know going into L.A. that it’s going to be a hard series, regardless. They got a great staff. They got a great lineup, so we got to respect them. Hopefully, they respect us, and it’s a good series.”    

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.