Baseball America unveils Top 10 Cubs prospects for 2017

Baseball America unveils Top 10 Cubs prospects for 2017

As "next year" has rolled into "last year," the focus on the Cubs prospects has taken a backseat to a big-league core that will live on forever in Cubs history.

The Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years with a homegrown group of players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell who appeared on top prospect lists over the last few years.

So who's next to make an impact on the North Side?

Baseball America released their Top 10 Cubs prospects looking ahead to 2017 Thursday with a trio of hitters leading the way:

1. Eloy Jimenez - OF
2. Ian Happ - 2B/OF
3. Albert Almora - OF
4. Dylan Cease - RHP
5. Oscar de la Cruz - RHP
6. Mark Zagunis - OF
7. Jeimer Candelario - 3B
8. Trevor Clifton - RHP
9. D.J. Wilson - OF
10. Jose Albertos - RHP

Jimenez put the baseball world on notice with his performance in the Futures Game last summer and finished 2016 with a .901 OPS, 40 doubles and 14 homers in 112 games as a 19-year-old.

Happ was the Cubs' first-round draft pick in 2015 (ninth overall) and sported a .279/.365/.445 slash line last year while splitting time between Advanced Class-A and Double-A.

Almora spent a good portion of the 2016 regular season in Chicago, but did not exceed his rookie limits, thus still qualifying as a prospect. He figures to be a key part of the Cubs' outfield in 2017 in his age-23 season.

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Trevor Clifton was the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2016 with a 2.72 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 in 23 games started for Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach.

Dylan Cease is the most intriguing arm in the Cubs system. He was one of the top high school pitchers in the 2014 Draft, but arm injuries have forced the Cubs to move slow with the former sixth round pick. The 21-year-old has just 68.2 professional innings under his belt, but he has posted a 2.36 ERA and 91 strikeouts in that span, topping out at short-season Eugene in 2016.

Cease also appeared on the 2016 BA prospect list  that looked like this:

1. Gleyber Torres - SS
2. Willson Contreras - C
3. Ian Happ - OF/2B
4. Duane Underwood - RHP
5. Dylan Cease - RHP
6. Albert Almora - OF
7. Billy McKinney - OF
8. Oscar de la Cruz - RHP
9. Eloy Jimenez - OF
10. Jeimer Candelario - 3B

Obviously, Contreras was promoted and a huge part of the success in Chicago.

Torres and McKinney were traded to the New York Yankees in late July in the Aroldis Chapman deal.

That leaves Happ, Cease, Almora, de la Cruz, Jimenez and Candelario as the holdovers on the top prospect list year-over-year, with Jimenez making the largest jump.

Underwood — selected in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft (Theo Epstein's first draft) — is still only 22, but pitched only 73 innings in 2016 across 18 starts with arm issues, posting an 0-6 record, 4.32 ERA and 1.507 WHIP.

Cole Hamels on MLB offseason market: 'This is tough to see'


Cole Hamels on MLB offseason market: 'This is tough to see'

MESA, Ariz. — Cole Hamels let out a few chuckles initially when asked about comments from Phillies ownership, but that was the only thing about baseball's frozen market that he found humor in.

A couple weeks into the offseason, Phillies owner John Middleton said his team may spend "stupid" money this winter, though they have yet to ink either of their top targets — Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — to a deal as of Saturday afternoon.

"John's the best there," Hamels said between laughs, reminiscing about his 13 years in the Phillies organization. "I've always enjoyed John; he's great."

But then things turned serious as Hamels explained how players are currently viewing a free agency system that is so clearly in need of updates.

Hamels sat at the table in the Cubs media workroom on Feb. 16 — nearly a full week into spring training — talking about a market that still featured many big-league players beyond Harper and Machado, though it's that duo that's really the focal point.

Things have gotten so bad, Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright said this weekend he is worried players may walk out midseason.

"This is tough for baseball," Hamels said. "If you really look at it, I think it's tough for the fans. We're players and we're blessed to be in this position, but I think before we were in this position, we were baseball fans and we understood being a fan of the city we grew up in. We understand trying to follow and like a player, getting his jersey.

"There's a benefit in building and having those types of players. You have to have those players in the league. It benefits having those guys sign early so you can build off that, you can market off that. That's what I believe the fans want and need. This is tough to see. It really is.

"I know there will probably be some changes in the future to make sure everything is balanced and everything is fair. You have to really look at it from a standpoint that the fans want to see something and we're trying to provide it as much and as best as you possibly can, but you do have to have those players. They really do make this game the best and when you have the best players out there signed early, I think it helps the game 100 times more."

The Cubs obviously picked up Hamels' $20 million option to kick off the offseason, but he admitted there were a few moments where he thought he might join Harper, Machado and the others in the free agent market.

The act of picking up Hamels' option ensured the Cubs had less financial flexibility to utilize for other areas of the roster this winter and is part of the reason Theo Epstein's front office can't add a guy like Harper or Machado. But the Cubs also know how valuable Hamels is and the veteran lefty made a hell of impression on the team and clubhouse in his two-month stint last season.

Still, Hamels is only signed through 2019 and soon enough, he will be back on the open market trying to find a job in a tough situation.

"I look at it like — I hope I did everything I possibly could to make sure that all 29, 30 teams want me," Hamels said. "That I'm desirable. It comes from what your approach is off the field, who you are as a person off the field, what you stand for. But at the end of the day, it does come to results. 

"If I had to stand alone on just my results as a player, that teams would want that and experience that comes with what I've been able to do and accomplish in the postseason and what I can do for the younger generation of minor-league players who are trying to come up and fill that role, too."

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What Joe Maddon thought about Addison Russell's press conference

What Joe Maddon thought about Addison Russell's press conference

MESA, Ariz. — Addison Russell sat on an island, the only person at the table in the Cubs spring training media room.

As it should be.

This was a major test for Russell and a huge step that needed to be taken in the course of his conditional second chance with the team.

As Russell spoke, a group of Cubs brass filtered in behind the media to watch the press conference, including Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon.

The Cubs manager had a day to digest the ordeal and explained his thoughts Saturday afternoon:

"I was really impressed and proud of what he did and how he did it," Maddon said. "Not easy for him to do. I thought he held up really well. I talked to him afterwards, I talked to him again today. Gave him a big ole hug because I know that's probably the most difficult thing he's ever done publicly — or ever done period.

"So I give him a lot of credit for that. I thought his answers really addressed the situation well. I also believe a moment like that could be a tremendous growth moment for a human being in general. Again, we're talking about a second chance, making his life better, making him a better person.

"When you go through something like that, how would we all like to sit down under those circumstances and have to answer those kinds of questions? So hopefully there's a tremendous growth moment for him."

Many watched Russell's press conference and had a different take on it than Maddon. There are undoubtedly people out there who don't care to hear how difficult of a moment it was for Russell.

But what else was Maddon supposed to say? He is a part of the group of Cubs decision-makers that ultimately chose to give Russell a second chance and be there to support him along the way. 

Between the Russell situation and Joe Ricketts' racist emails, much of the conversation with Maddon so far this spring has been about off-field issues. 

He understands that comes with the territory as the front-facing figure in the organization, but he is also longing for the time where he can stick to sports.

"Of course," Maddon said. "We are here to play baseball. I know we're part of the social fabric of this country and people watch us all the time and we're very popular as baseball players. But I would like to prefer to getting back to just talking about baseball.

"That's what we're here for — we're here to entertain. We're a part of the entertainment industry, I think. I know people like to take that respite away from the rest of the world and just get absorbed into those 3-3.5 hours [of a game]. It's our job to make sure we're playing well enough to make that an enjoyable 3-3.5 hours and that's what we're here for. 

"I understand people doing their jobs, I understand that interest and the reason behind asking very difficult questions, but after all, we need to get back to becoming the baseball team that we are."

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