Cubs

The new Yankees? High-priced Yu Darvish joins Cubs and makes World Series expectations even bigger

The new Yankees? High-priced Yu Darvish joins Cubs and makes World Series expectations even bigger

MESA, Ariz. — Face it, folks. The Cubs are the new Yankees.

That, of course, is no bad thing if you’re a Cubs fan. After all, the Yankees built a dynasty in the 1990s that brought four championships to the Bronx in a five-year span. Seeing something like that on the North Side would be quite the polar opposite of a century of lovable losing.

But that’s exactly what the Cubs are built to do.

After winning that curse-smashing World Series title in 2016, the Cubs’ young core now has a brand-new, high-priced addition in Yu Darvish, who officially joined the Cubs on the first day of spring training Tuesday. One of the top two starting pitchers on this winter’s glacially paced free-agent market, Darvish signed up for a lot of reasons — 126 million of them, if you're counting at home — but one big one jumps out: He wants to win the World Series.

“Obviously,” Darvish said when asked what his main goal for 2018 was, “to win the World Series as a Cub.

“My priority in selecting a team was a team that had a great chance of winning the World Series, and the Cubs obviously have more than a great chance of winning. So I’m really honored to be here.”

And that is why these Cubs are so much like those old Yankees teams. The annual monster contracts are one reason: Darvish signed up two years after Jason Heyward’s franchise-record contract and three years after Jon Lester’s megadeal. The homegrown core is another. But the annual expectation of a world championship is really what’s transformed the Cubs into what they are today.

Last season, the Cubs advanced to their third straight National League Championship Series. And it was a disappointment, no matter how much Joe Maddon argued Tuesday. The 2018 edition of Cubs camp got underway with an understood expectation: World Series or bust. That's a pretty crazy thought for fans who suffered through that championship drought.

But winning changes everything. Darvish is the latest big-money piece of the Cubs' championship puzzle, and somehow the expectations are now even higher in Wrigleyville.

“Yu was our primary target,” team president Theo Epstein said Tuesday. “We think this is a great day for the Cubs organization to welcome a pitcher of this caliber. He’s probably the preeminent strikeout pitcher of our generation, incredible physical abilities. And I think we’re getting him at a wonderful point in his career, where he’s really matured and is ready to go out and do some special things, winning a World Series being his top priority. That’s also our top priority as an organization.”

It’s a tough game to play, obviously, as it’s really, really hard to win the World Series once, let alone multiple times. But the Cubs’ window is undoubtedly wide open.

Darvish brings stability to a pitching staff that had some question marks after the departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey and Lester’s less-than-ideal 2017 campaign. That stability — helped along by the team-friendly contract of Jose Quintana — should propel Cubs starting pitching for years to come.

And of course the young core of position players, almost all of whom are under team control for another four years, will remain intact and continue to grow together. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ. It was believed one or multiple of the team's young position players would need to be moved for the sake of the starting staff. But now Darvish is here, and those guys don't seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

“It makes us stronger, obviously,” Maddon said. “Outside looking in, it looks better, but we still have to play the games. We have to play the games, we have to perform. It’s not just about one guy, but obviously he makes us better, there’s no question about it.

“I am not one to count the chickens and all that stuff in advance. You still have to play the games. It’s all theory right now. Right now, overall, the attitude of the group could not be better. … When you sign Yu Darvish, obviously it lends to that moment. We’ve still got to play the game on the field, and I’m really excited to see our product.”

All that makes the Cubs look capable of the kind of success that those Yankees teams had dominating the postseason for so many years. Darvish isn’t the guy who’s vaulted them into that stratosphere. The Cubs were among the World Series favorites before he signed. But his addition is a gigantic statement in baseball’s ongoing arms race. The Cubs’ gain is the Dodgers’ loss. And it helps the North Siders keep pace with the defending-champion Astros, who have built their own super-rotation in Houston.

After 2016, the mission is no longer pie-in-the-sky dreaming. These Cubs have the potential to run roughshod over the game not only this season but for the next four. And they know it. They expect it. The Cubs have reached the stage those Yankees teams of the past stood on for so many years. It’s a matter of fact: World Series or bust.

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.