Cubs

Will Cubs staff shakeup put the heat on Joe Maddon?

Will Cubs staff shakeup put the heat on Joe Maddon?

Joe Maddon likes to quote Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State and retired four-star general, even on a conference call where he essentially admits that he lied to the Chicago media, and by extension Cubs coaches and their families.

Maddon also basically doubled down on Thursday and said he would do the same thing all over again, the focus shifting away from the decorated new hitting coach (Chili Davis) and the third base coach with a great resume (Brian Butterfield). But the Cubs manager might want to remember Powell’s Pottery Barn Rule: You break it, you own it.

That’s one way to read the coaching changes announced eight days after Maddon said “of course” he wanted his entire staff back next season. There are only so many places left to shift blame when the pitching (Chris Bosio) and hitting (John Mallee) coaches get fired after being part of the teams that won last year’s World Series and made three straight trips to the National League Championship Series.

Maddon gave the vote of confidence during a session with beat writers before an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field, where he sat in his office and completely dismissed the idea of a reunion with Jim Hickey,his longtime pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who will now be Bosio's replacement.

“Well, I was asked a really awkward question at a tough time when we’re in the playoffs,” Maddon said. “I thought that was the only way I could respond to it, because I did not want to negatively impact the room. That’s it. There’s no other way to describe it.

“If you put yourself in my position having to answer that question during the playoffs — if I had answered it any differently — I thought that would have really caused a lot of concern in the coaches’ room when we have a lot of stuff going on.

“So it’s just a tough situation to be in, question-wise. Would I have answered it differently? I don’t necessarily think so, based on the explanation I just gave you, because it’s really difficult to have your coaches read something less than that in the situation where you’re in the middle of the playoffs.”

That’s Cub. Maddon has been a big-league manager for 12 straight years, a job that requires him to do hundreds of media briefings each season, an area where he excels selling an organization’s vision.

Maddon easily could have given the non-answers: “We’re trying to win tonight. That’s offseason stuff. We’re still focused on winning a World Series. That’s also up to the boys in the front office, and our guys might have some good opportunities somewhere else.”

Two days later, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein did his year-end press conference in a Wrigley Field stadium club, where the wrong answer would have made it look like he kneecapped Maddon once the changes happened. So Epstein said: “Rest assured, Joe will have every coach back that he wants back.”

“This is about all of us,” Maddon said. “We get together, we make decisions as a group. It’s not unilateral. Theo just doesn’t dictate to me, and of course I’m never going to do that to him or (general manager) Jed (Hoyer) or Mr. (Tom) Ricketts.

“When you sit down, you have discussions, and there’s going to be differences of opinion. But at the end, I’ve talked about this before and I’ve quoted Colin Powell: ‘You give your best advice and then you give your strongest loyalty.’

“You discuss. You argue. You disagree. But at the end of the day, you come to a conclusion. And once you’ve done that, you move it forward, and you move it forward as a group. Never, never individually. It’s about all of us, man. It’s about making us better.

“Don’t ever be deceived that it’s ever one guy. It’s never the manager’s seat that does all of this stuff. That’s back to the days of the 60s and the 70s, primarily, and sometimes into the 80s. We work together. We work as a group.”

This could actually refocus and reenergize Maddon, who didn’t have any answers when the uber-talented-on-paper Cubs hit the All-Star break with a 43-45 record and a 5.5-game deficit in the division and Epstein kept talking about how the team didn’t play with enough edge.

A widely respected hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox the last three seasons, Davis carved out a 19-year playing career that featured three World Series rings and three All-Star selections and overlapped with Maddon while he coached for the California Angels.

Beginning with the 2013 World Series year, Butterfield spent the last five seasons with the Red Sox, overseeing infield instruction and base running and developing a strong reputation for high energy and attention to detail.

“They are definitely force multipliers,” Maddon said, quoting Powell again. “These are definitely impact coaches.”

Given this much change, do you feel like the onus is now on you to set a new direction and win another World Series?

“Of course not,” Maddon said. “It’s about the team. We’re all a spoke in the wheel, whatever you want to call it. I think we’ve done pretty well over the last three years, actually. First World Series in 108 years, I’ll take it. Three times to the Championship Series in the last three years, I’ll take it. And if we start looking past that as not being successful, then we have to reevaluate how we look at the world in general.

“So, no, this is not just about me. It’s never just about me. It’s about all of us. This is about the Cubs moving forward, and we think that these new coaches can absolutely help take us to another level and get us back to the World Series again. But by no means am I denigrating the coaches that are leaving.”

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

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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.