Cubs

Looking ahead with Jon Lester as Cubs try to reload for another World Series run

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USA TODAY

Looking ahead with Jon Lester as Cubs try to reload for another World Series run

Jon Lester could never pick up a baseball again and the Cubs would still be satisfied with their $155 million investment. The parade down Michigan Avenue will always be worth it.

But 362 days later, Lester isn’t ready to spend all his time hunting in Georgia and playing celebrity golf events. The Cubs still absolutely need Lester’s presence and credibility. Not to prove that this franchise is serious about winning — the way his decision to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season accelerated the rebuild — but to again anchor a rotation that might be at its most vulnerable point since those summers of flip deals.

Super-agent Scott Boras wants to keep all big-market teams in play for leverage — and Jake Arrieta is too savvy to completely rule out a return — but signs point to the Cy Young Award winner getting his nine-figure megadeal somewhere else. The expectation is John Lackey will retire and become the anti-David Ross, only popping up in Twitter photos when his family goes trick-or-treating with the Arrietas and Tommy La Stella. The farm system isn’t producing internal solutions anytime soon.

That leaves Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and two giant question marks for this winter, the Cubs likely pursuing one free-agent starter (Alex Cobb?) and trading from their surplus of hitters (Ian Happ?) to get a young pitcher and continue the momentum from three straight trips to the National League Championship Series.

“Everybody involved has done nothing but deliver on their promises to me when I signed here,” Lester said, crediting by name chairman Tom Ricketts, team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Joe Maddon after the Los Angeles Dodgers dismantled the Cubs in the NLCS.

“I know you guys are probably sick of me by now, but I’ve got a guaranteed three more to go, so suck on that one,” Lester said, cracking up the reporters surrounding his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. “Hopefully, in those next three years, we’re able to maybe win another one or two. That’s up to these younger guys to carry my load on that one.”

Lester has credited Hendricks for the unmatched preparation that made him the Game 1 starter against the Washington Nationals in the first round of the playoffs, and raved about Quintana’s work ethic and personality since getting traded from the White Sox during the All-Star break.

But even with the blockbuster Quintana deal, the Cubs are still bracing for the possibility of replacing 40 percent of their rotation, at a time when Lester is about to turn 34 and coming off a season where he put up his lowest number of innings (180.2) since 2007 (when he was still recovering from a cancer diagnosis and lymphoma treatments). Lester’s 4.33 ERA was almost exactly the league average and his trip to the disabled list in the middle of August/early September was his first since 2011.

“Halfway through, I think we’re really happy with the first half of that deal,” Epstein said. “It’s been a really nice success for him and for us. That’s really the half of the deal that’s the key when you make those kinds of deals. If you don’t get return on the first half, you’re probably in trouble.

“You better get production in the first half of those deals — or it’s going to end up being a big mistake.”

The Cubs hope Lester can model Andy Pettitte, the left-handed pitcher he’s been compared to since coming up with the Boston Red Sox. Pettitte got some, uh, help, admitting to using human growth hormone while recovering from an elbow injury in 2002, his reputation stained in the Mitchell Report. But the overall picture of Pettitte is someone who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees, accounted for 276-plus innings in the playoffs and started 30 times during his age-41 season.

No matter what happens from here, Lester has been worth every penny. No one else in the big leagues has made at least 30 starts in each of the last 10 seasons. He essentially averaged a strikeout per inning this season and is only a year removed from finishing second in the NL Cy Young vote.

“In Jon’s case, look, he still has all the characteristics that we think make him an effective pitcher and a reliable bet going forward,” Epstein said, “because his mechanics are still sound. His arm — he had a little bit of shoulder fatigue — but bounced back from that. Knock on wood, he’s avoided any kind of significant injury.

“He’s shown the ability to pitch — and pitch effectively —  without his best stuff on certain days when he doesn’t have it. He had a few uncharacteristic really rough outings this year and was prone to the long ball more than normal.

“But besides that, he had some really nice stretches where he was sort of everything we hoped he could be. We’re counting on him to be a really big part of our pitching staff moving forward.”

The bottom line is that Lester has guts and the Cubs have faith that he will somehow figure out a way to compete. He shut down Washington for six innings in Game 2, leaving with a 2-1 lead before a bullpen meltdown at Nationals Park. He retired the first 10 Washington hitters he faced as a Game 4 reliever at Wrigley Field, a sign of how much the Cubs wanted to win that day. Three days later, he exited a 1-1 NLCS game at Dodger Stadium in the fifth inning, which will be remembered for Justin Turner’s three-run walk-off homer against Lackey.

This will be an opportunity for Lester to show even more of his personality, take on a more vocal leadership role, work with a new pitching coach (Jim Hickey) and maybe even cement his spot in the Hall of Fame with another World Series run.

“I don’t really care what people say about me on the field,” Lester said. “I may be an a------. I may show my emotions too much. I might show up the umpire too many times. I may yell at hitters. I don’t really care. But in this clubhouse — with my guys and my team — that’s what drives me.

“When I walk away from this game — just like if John Lackey walks away — (I want) everybody in this clubhouse (to) say the exact same thing: ‘That sumb---- had our back.’

“At the end of the day, man, the stats and all that other BS, that’s great. But that’s what I want. That’s what I want my guys to say about me.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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USA TODAY

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.