Cubs

Cubs turn starting-pitching questions into starting-pitching certainties with Yu Darvish signing

Cubs turn starting-pitching questions into starting-pitching certainties with Yu Darvish signing

MESA, Ariz. — One player can't solve all of a team's problems. But he can go a long way toward solving the biggest ones.

The Cubs entered the offseason with big-time questions in their starting rotation, expecting the free-agent departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to throw a wrench into the starting staff. While Tyler Chatwood looks like a good addition — and definitely one the Cubs are very happy about — the prospect of replacing Arrieta and Lackey with Chatwood and Mike Montgomery didn't sound too promising to many.

Enter Yu Darvish.

The Cubs introduced their latest big-money addition Tuesday as spring training started out in the desert and with that swept away any questions about their starting rotation heading into a 2018 campaign, one in which they are as promising World Series contenders as anyone. Worried about the Arrieta-sized hole in the starting staff? Darvish plugs it.

"He’s an elite arm within major league pitching," manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday. "When this guy is right, and he normally is right, he’s the strikeout guy that he is, he’s got multiple pitches, he doesn’t walk a whole lot of folks, he’s going to be out there sucking up some innings. He just provides so many positives for us. It’s wonderful to have him on your side. When you’re game-planning against him, you watch that first and second inning and all of a sudden … you think, ‘Oh my god, it’s going to be a long day.’ Now he’s on your side.

"When he gets on a roll, that’s that contagious component where you’ve got him, you’ve got Jonny (Lester) and Kyle (Hendricks) and the entire group working out there. It’s going to be fun too watch. But he’s a different cat. Not many guys that tall, that delivery, that command, not many people combine all those elements. I think when our guys get to watch that in person, it can be contagious in a positive way."

Lester, Hendricks and Jose Quintana already formed as good a 1-2-3 punch as there is in the National League. But there was a strong feeling that the Cubs needed something more to capture the same kind of magic they did in the past three seasons, all of which featured trips to the NL Championship Series and one of which ended in a World Series championship. The extra oomph from Darvish gives the Cubs what is arguably the best rotation in baseball.

Some questions still exist, and they're ones that Darvish can't solve. Will Lester return to form after 2017, his worst season, statistically, in a long time? Will Jose Quintana bounce back after his 2017 campaign, which featured a career-high 4.15 ERA? Will Chatwood be able to do better than his 4.69 ERA and 15 losses, an NL high, from last season?

But Darvish's mere presence solves the biggest riddle of all, even bigger than the apparent need for another top-of-the-rotation guy: What would the Cubs have done had one of their starters been injured?

Montgomery has certainly paid his dues and deserved a shot in the starting rotation, but his value as a swingman out of the bullpen remains incredibly high. Had he been entrenched in the fifth-starter role, who would have stepped in in case of an emergency? Montgomery's played that part in each of the past two seasons, but there were almost no viable options behind him. Now he'll likely to return to the same role and provide the important insurance every contending team needs.

"It’s all going to play out well by the end of the season," Maddon said. "Stuff happens. Guys are needed, people are thrust into different roles. Right now, on Feb. 13, this is what it looks like, but things change, sometimes rather quickly. And baseball has a cruel way of answering questions. So let’s just play it like this, keep the conversation open, and it’s all going to work out well."

General manager Jed Hoyer spoke Tuesday about the team's offseason mission to address the pitching staff, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Between Darvish and Chatwood and the relief corps adds of Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and the re-signing of Brian Duensing, the Cubs can consider that mission accomplished.

And Darvish's six-year deal means some important things for a team eyeing long-term success, too. With many of the Cubs' young position players under team control for the next four seasons, the addition of Darvish keeps that championship window wide open for at least that long.

"That’s who we are, it’s a big part of our identity, is this position-player core," president Theo Epstein said. "We knew all along we’d have to find a way to build great pitching around them. And if you look at the last three years, we’ve had the best pitching in baseball. Hasn’t always been perfect. We haven’t done a great job developing homegrown pitching, it’s something we hope to improve. But we’ve had the best pitching in baseball the last three years. And now you look at our starting five, we couldn’t be happier with this group. As Joe said, we’ve got to go out and do it, but what a pitching staff to be able to put with this position-player group."

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.