Cubs

Cubs thrilled with big free-agent splash: 'We really haven't seen the best Yu Darvish yet'

Cubs thrilled with big free-agent splash: 'We really haven't seen the best Yu Darvish yet'

MESA, Ariz. — It's safe to say that Cubs players are as jazzed about the Yu Darvish signing as Cubs fans are.

"It just goes to show what this front office is all about. They’ll do anything to get us to that next level," outfielder Albert Almora said. "Before Yu, I thought we had a great team, a great starting staff, and they just threw that icing on the cake. Let’s go get it."

Perhaps more than anything, signing Darvish to a six-year deal worth $126 million showed the team's new normal: World Series or bust. In baseball's never-ending arms race, the Cubs answered the Houston Astros' trade for Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees' trade for Giancarlo Stanton with an upgrade of their own.

While filling a Jake Arrieta-sized hole in the starting rotation and answering questions about the depth of that unit were important achievements, the bottom line is that the Cubs just added one of the game's top pitchers. And that tends to get people excited.

"It’s great when you add a talent like that to a team that’s already expected to be at the top of the division. It’s great," said Brandon Morrow, the Cubs' new closer and a teammate of Darvish's last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "I got to know him a little bit last year over in LA. He’s a great guy and obviously a great pitcher. Really, really awesome to have him here."

Morrow saw what Darvish did with the Dodgers up close, witnessing the 3.44 ERA and 61 strikeouts in nine regular-season starts, the back-to-back playoff shutdowns against the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cubs and the two nightmare outings against the Astros in the World Series.

The Cubs weren't convinced that two outings in the Fall Classic defined Darvish. Morrow feels the same way.

"We’re getting the guy you’ve seen for the last six years," Morrow said. "Two starts isn’t going to change anything. I think that’ll only be motivation for him.

"I love the way he works. His stuff is incredible. It’s really fun to watch. S**t moves all over, his slider’s nasty, throws like mid to upper 90s, everything that you would want to see. He’s got a good mentality out there. Even when things were going a little wrong for him he wasn’t falling apart or anything. And then watching him in between, he prepares as well as anybody. Really happy to have him."

But Morrow isn't the only new Cub with ties to Darvish. Earlier this offseason the team brought in veteran catcher Chris Gimenez, who played with Darvish when the two were with the Texas Rangers and established a "personal catcher" type relationship. When Gimenez signed, there was plenty of online speculation that it was to give the Cubs a leg up in the Darvish sweepstakes.

Well, the Cubs landed Darvish. Though the effect Gimenez had is a little less obvious.

"He probably didn’t like me texting him too much, but I tried to let him know," Gimenez said Wednesday. "Obviously I’ve been with Joe and Jim Hickey before and just kind of portray what I thought this organization was about. Obviously having that relationship with Joe in the past, knowing what he brings to the table and just kind of knowing Darvish and what he might like, I thought it would be a really good fit, to be honest with you. I can’t take credit for it. He’s got 126 million reasons to want to come here, I don’t happen to be one of them.

"I would be crazy to not try to contact him, but it’s basically on him. He earned the right to make that decision, and I tried to give him as much information as I had. Honestly, just having that relationship in the past is a big part of it. I don’t think I had anything to do with it, really. ... It was completely on him, and I just tried to kind of portray what I felt the organization was like. And honestly having that relationship with the people in the past, I thought it could be a really, really good spot."

The Cubs certainly thought so. Their investment in Darvish is another investment in the only mission that exists anymore for this team: bringing another World Series title — multiple ones, actually — to Wrigleyville.

And if Darvish is as good as everyone's said, then maybe that's an attainable goal.

"I think we really haven’t seen the best Yu Darvish yet," Gimenez said. "He’s still evolving as a pitcher, as well. Coming back from second full season off Tommy John, physically he’s starting to really get in tune with his own body now and kind of knowing his limitations, what he can and can’t do. I think really, the sky is the limit for a guy like that. He’s still relatively young, and to have average velocity go up like it did last year, it just shows there’s more in the tank and he’s continuing to evolve as a pitcher and learning how to pitch, how to attack guys.

"I think he’s really evolving in the fact that he has so many weapons and he’s using them with so many guys now differently than he has in the past and there’s more room to grow with that, too."

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.