Cubs

What would the Cubs look like if Shohei Ohtani decides to come to Chicago?

What would the Cubs look like if Shohei Ohtani decides to come to Chicago?

What would the Cubs look like with Shohei Ohtani in the mix?

All the attention this week has been on which team will land the Japanese superstar, a stellar pitcher and hitter who has met or will meet with seven teams this week. The Cubs, who reportedly met with Ohtani on Tuesday, are competing with six fellow finalists: the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers.

The North Siders could be facing an uphill battle, with reports Sunday indicating Ohtani would prefer a smaller-market team on the West Coast. But what if the Cubs do land Ohtani? What comes next?

Well, most notably, he'd slide into a starting rotation that could certainly use him after losing two arms to free agency after the end of the 2017 season. With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey presumably gone, the Cubs' starting staff has just three locked-in names at the moment in Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. Adding Ohtani, however, would erase a lot of the uncertainty behind those three returning pitchers. Based on the makeup of their roster, it figures the Cubs would covet Ohtani's arm more than his bat, and he's a guy that can throw a 100-mph fastball. That's always welcome in the big leagues. While, of course, it's still unknown how his game will translate from Japan to Major League Baseball, if the Cubs were to sign Ohtani, it would go a long way toward taking care of their offseason to-do list when it comes to starting pitching.

And really that would be enough, but the 23-year-old Ohtani is unique in his success as both a pitcher and a hitter. He supposedly really wants to bat and play the field on days when he's not pitching. While you might think an American League team would make more sense, allowing him to DH four out of five days and not risk injury while playing the field, four of the seven finalists are National League clubs, including the Cubs.

Ohtani's addition as a four-days-out-of-five outfielder would create a much more difficult puzzle than his addition as a pitcher. Fortunately for the Cubs, that's the kind of puzzle Joe Maddon likes. After watching Maddon tinker with versatile position players for the past three seasons, it makes sense that he'd love to have someone like Ohtani, who he could even move between the pitcher's mound and the outfield throughout the same game. Remember, this is the skipper who put Travis Wood in left field.

For Theo Epstein's front office, though, things might be a little trickier. The Cubs' outfield is crowded enough as it is, with Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist all candidates for those three outfield spots — and obviously Happ and Zobrist can log time on the infield, too. There's been plenty of speculation that the Cubs might try to trade one of those younger guys, such as Schwarber or Happ, for starting pitching help this offseason. But an Ohtani decision to come to the Cubs would undoubtedly impact that, as well. Maddon likes to rotate those guys around, too, and Ohtani's addition would still allow him to do just that, with Ohtani leaving the outfield to pitch every fifth day.

It's unknown how much playing time Epstein, Maddon and the Cubs would want to give Ohtani in the field, who is about to embark on his first season in the majors and who as a pitcher would carry an increased worry about injury. Are they looking at him as an everyday outfielder, an infrequent outfielder or just the team's No. 1 pinch hitter when he's not pitching? That would all remain to be seen. But if Ohtani chooses the Cubs, it's unlikely he would do so without some assurance that he could hit and play the field on a regular basis, even if not every day.

There wouldn't be too much pressure on Ohtani to be the team's top hitter, what with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras hitting in the same lineup. But his addition would be an important one to a lineup that went quiet during this year's postseason series against the Washington Nationals and aforementioned Dodgers. As for where he would bat in that lineup, who knows, with Maddon constantly moving his pieces around. Could Ohtani even fill the Cubs' need at the top of the order?

One thing's certain, though, when it comes to Ohtani's bat: On the days he pitches, the Cubs would have the best top-to-bottom, 1-through-9 hitting lineup in the NL. Cubs pitchers have been fine at the plate in recent seasons, but adding an actual hitter to that group would be something else entirely. Ohtani would be far from the automatic out most pitchers are viewed as.

The dual-threat Ohtani is being billed as the future of baseball. And while the baseball world waits for him to pick a team, it's fun to think about how he could alter the future of the Cubs.

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.