Cubs

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

If you worked for a billionaire family, would you recommend signing Jon Lester or Max Scherzer for the future? If your season depended on it, would you rather have Lester or Scherzer on the mound?

The Cubs and Washington Nationals already answered those questions after the 2014 season, committing $365 million combined to two different aces at two different points in their construction projects, making the free-agent decisions that helped shape this National League Division Series.

Both franchises are pleased with the returns on the investments – and aware of the checkered history for pitchers with nine-figure contracts. But only Lester has looked out from a Grant Park stage at the endless sea of people and announced into the microphone: “How about this s---?”

The Nationals are still waiting for their first ever playoff series win – much less a championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in a city where the Senators last won the World Series in 1924.  

All those dynamics make Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” – in the right leg where he pushes off and generates so much power – such an X-factor on Monday in a Game 3 that will leave one team nine innings away from elimination.    

“I feel like I’m good to go,” Scherzer said. “Hey, we’re in the playoffs. Every game is a must-win. This is going to be a crazy atmosphere here at Wrigley. I can’t wait to toe the rubber.”

Coming off a fifth straight fifth-place finish, Lester vs. Scherzer wasn’t much of an internal debate in the team’s old Clark Street headquarters.

Lester had formed solid relationships with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the Cubs executives knew which buttons to push during the recruiting pitch after their years together with the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs already had an in-depth understanding of Lester’s medical history and clubhouse reputation and an appreciation for a smooth left-handed delivery they believed would help him age gracefully.

[MORE: With time running out at Wrigley, Jake Arrieta chases another World Series ring

The Red Sox insulting Lester with a lowball offer in spring training and shipping him to the Oakland A’s at the trade deadline opened his eyes to the world beyond Fenway Park and exempted the Cubs from having to pay a draft pick as compensation on top of the six-year, $155 million contract.

“For us, such a big part of that process was our comfort with Jon as a person, as a competitor, as a teammate,” Hoyer said. “That was sort of our first big commitment in free agency. Without knowing Jon so well, it may have been a different calculus.

“But given that relationship, it just made the most sense to go after the guy we respected and knew as well as you’re going to know any free agent.”

Scherzer is a baseball unicorn, the outlier stretching beyond the preconceived notions about his violent delivery and when he might break down, making at least 30 starts in nine straight seasons and working toward a third Cy Young Award.

The Nationals knew all about Scherzer’s bulldog mentality, because general manager Mike Rizzo had overseen scouting when the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Super-agent Scott Boras – who represents Scherzer and several other high-profile Nationals – also has an unusually close relationship with principal owner Ted Lerner.     

Scherzer believes he can will himself through 100 pitches and overpower a Cubs lineup that outside of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo is 5-for-44 with one RBI and 15 strikeouts through two playoff games against Washington.

“The thing I admire the most about Scherzer is he’s constantly evolving, improving pitches, developing pitches,” Hoyer said. “The best guys in any sport continue to get better and better each season.

“Jordan evolved his game and ended up with the fadeaway. In every sport, you think of different examples of a guy who’s really willing to make changes. And I think Scherzer is that guy.

“Every time he starts, you watch him compete and you feel like this is a guy who lays it all out there every single time.”

Scherzer is also 33 years old and guaranteed four more seasons on a $210 million megadeal that contains a significant amount of deferred money. It may not be now or never for the Nationals, but the window won’t stay open forever, and you never know if you will ever have a better opportunity.  

“In this day and age, there’s not much that guys don’t hear about,” Lester said, “with social media and MLB Network and ESPN and all this other stuff. Yeah, I’m sure it was in our heads. We all knew about it. It’s hard to run away from it.

“The guys that signed here – that was the reason why we signed here – to break that curse and win a World Series for the city of Chicago.

“On their side, I don’t know if it’s in their head. I know for us, every day, you heard about a goat or you heard about Bartman or you heard about a black cat or 1908 or whatever.”

The questions won’t stop until the Nationals deliver in October – and it’s hard to see that happening if a “tweak” compromises everything that turns Scherzer into Mad Max.  

“You’ve got to eliminate that stuff and go out and play the game,” Lester said. “The game does not change. In the postseason, yeah, it probably speeds up. (But) once you step on that rubber, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches. You still have to execute a pitch. You still have to have good at-bats and catch the ball.

“That’s kind of how I’ve always looked at it. And you try to eliminate the goats and all that other stuff.”

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.