Cubs

The buzz around Eloy Jimenez will keep building in Cubs camp

The buzz around Eloy Jimenez will keep building in Cubs camp

The obsession with what’s next means Eloy Jimenez will be one of the most talked-about players in Cubs camp this spring.

Even though Jimenez can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet and still hasn’t played above the A-ball level. Even as the Cubs begin preparations to defend their first World Series title since 1908.

Even in a clubhouse filled with the National League’s reigning MVP (Kris Bryant), a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) and a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta). Even that doesn’t include the pitchers who’ve already earned multiple championship rings (Jon Lester and John Lackey) or notched the final out in a World Series (Koji Uehara, Wade Davis and Mike Montgomery).

Not to mention the face of the franchise (Anthony Rizzo), the Gold Glove outfielder with the biggest contract in franchise history (Jason Heyward) and the exciting 24-and-under players who’ve given this team so much energy and swagger (Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras).

But in Arizona, the buzz will keep building around Jimenez, a consensus elite prospect on the ESPN (No. 12) and MLB.com (No. 14) lists of the industry’s best and brightest. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus identified Jimenez as the organization’s top prospect, projecting his Wrigley Field ETA at 2019. Cub officials see Jimenez as part of that next wave (assuming he isn’t used as a trade chip in a blockbuster deal for pitching this summer or next winter).

“The whole package,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development. “When you walk into the ballpark, you notice him right away. Just the sheer size – he’s massive. But he’s got this million-watt smile.”

The Cubs made Jimenez ($2.8 million) and Gleyber Torres ($1.7 million) the centerpieces to their international class in the summer of 2013, mining for talent in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and building for the future as the big-league club staggered toward a 96-loss, last-place finish.

Torres – who would have been blocked by All-Star shortstop Addison Russell – is the middle infielder with maybe more polish and a higher floor and an Arizona Fall League MVP award now on his resume. Jimenez – a corner outfielder with perhaps a higher ceiling – became an AFL Fall Star after hitting .329 with 14 homers, 81 RBI and a .901 OPS during his age-19 season with the South Bend Cubs.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

After the New York Yankees chose Torres to be their headliner in the Aroldis Chapman trade last summer, McLeod said watching Jimenez and that 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and smooth right-handed swing at Class-A South Bend reminded him a little bit of seeing Bryant during his freshman season at the University of San Diego.

“He’s an advanced hitter, especially for a young Latin hitter,” McLeod said. “He is someone who doesn’t swing and miss much for (his age). Just tremendous strength to drive balls to the middle of the field, probably makes a little too much contact early in counts. I think that’s where we are with him and his development path right now, just understanding what pitchers are trying to do to him. (It’s) understanding that he can hit balls 420 feet to right field as well as hitting them 480 to left field.”

Jimenez already went viral during the All-Star Futures Game last summer in San Diego, where he made a leaping catch in the right-field corner (nearly falling over the railing) and blasted a three-run homer off the Western Metal Supply Co. building.

“I’ve seen a lot of games in Petco Park over the years,” said McLeod, who started his career as an intern with the Padres and spent two seasons as their assistant general manager before moving to Chicago. “You don’t see many major-leaguers hit ‘em up on the warehouse like he did as a 19-year-old last year.

“Sky’s the limit. I think he's someone who can sit in the middle of a lineup and wreak a lot of havoc on some pitching across the major leagues. It’s just a matter of him maturing as a hitter and understanding what pitchers are going to try to do to him.”

Cubs roster projection 1.0: Bullpen, second base competitions are wide open

Cubs roster projection 1.0: Bullpen, second base competitions are wide open

With the Cubs conducting their first full-squad workout of spring training on Monday, we’re one step closer to Opening Day.

Despite a winter of rumors pointing to the contrary, the North Siders are set to return largely the same roster from last season. They’re hoping new manager David Ross is the key to unlocking the club’s full potential following a disappointing end to 2019.

“I think we have the best team in our division,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said Monday. “I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs."

Ross will spend the next five weeks evaluating a few key areas of the roster: second base, center field, the fifth rotation spot and the bullpen. While things can change, here’s an initial attempt at predicting which 26 players will make the cut for the Cubs’ season opener in Milwaukee on March 26.

Catcher

Willson Contreras
Victor Caratini

Contreras was featured in trade rumors early this offseason but those dissipated by the new year. He started his second straight All-Star game last season and slashed .272/.355/.533 with 24 homers and a 127 wRC+ in 105 games. The 27-year-old is one of the best in the game at his position.

Caratini proved capable of handling a larger workload last season and emerged as Yu Darvish’s personal catcher. Offensively, he slashed .266/.348/.447 and sported a 78.8 percent contact rate (No. 3 on Cubs, min. 250 plate appearances). His contact-oriented approach is a welcomed asset to a slugging Cubs lineup.

First base

Anthony Rizzo

Rizzo has been the Cubs starting first baseman since they promoted him to The Show in 2012 and that won’t change this season. He suffered a nasty right ankle sprain last September, miraculously returning four days later. The 30-year-old is healthy now, and he could be the leadoff man come Opening Day.

Second base

David Bote
Daniel Descalso
Jason Kipnis

To all the angry Nico Hoerner stans reading this — hear me out. The 22-year-old turned heads with his on-field performance and temperament with the Cubs last September and has a chance to make the roster out of camp. However, it’s easy to forget he has just 375 career minor league plate appearances and skipped Triple-A altogether last season.

Sending Hoerner to Iowa to open 2020 ensures he plays every day — which isn’t guaranteed with the Cubs. He’ll get more defensive reps at second base and center field, where he’s less experienced professionally than his natural shortstop. My guess is the Cubs start the season with a second base platoon of Kipnis/Descalso (vs. righties) and Bote (vs. lefties).

Kipnis is on a minor-league deal, meaning the Cubs will have to clear a spot on their currently full 40-man roster. Descalso is hoping to bounce back from a tough 2019 season in which he dealt with a lingering ankle issue.

“It was just something that I had to deal with, and it ended up being more than I thought it was gonna be,” Descalso said of the injury last month. “But at the end of the day I tried to play through it. That was a choice I made, and I was out there, and I should’ve played better. Didn’t go the way I wanted to but I’m looking forward to a fresh start in 2020.”

If Hoerner impresses in camp, the Cubs will have a hard time sending him down. Even if they do, he's part of the team's 2020 plans and will get called up sooner than later. His situation will be fascinating to watch over the next month.

Shortstop

Javier Báez

No surprises here — Báez is one of the best shortstops in the game and is entering his second full season as the Cubs’ unequivocal starter. A hairline fracture in his left thumb cut down his 2019 campaign in early September, save some pinch running/hitting opportunities. He told reporters Sunday in Mesa his hand feels great. He’ll slot back into the middle of the Cubs’ lineup in 2020.

If Hoerner starts the year in the minors, Bote will backup Báez.

Third base

Kris Bryant
Bote
Descalso

Bryant reported to camp late last week, addressing offseason trade rumors, his grievance case and a possible long-term deal with the Cubs in an extensive media session. He said Saturday he'd like to be kept in the loop regarding his future with the team but knows Theo Epstein isn't obligated to do so.

Bryant and Epstein met Sunday, and based on that conversation, the third baseman believes he'll be with the Cubs on Opening Day and through the July 31 trade deadline. He'll spend a bulk of his time at third but will play some outfield, with Bote then starting at the hot corner in his place. Descalso has played 1,400 career innings at third, though just four last year.

Outfield

Kyle Schwarber
Ian Happ
Jason Heyward
Steven Souza Jr.
Albert Almora Jr.

The outfield group looks set but not without questions. Schwarber and Heyward are your starters in left and right field, respectively. Souza can play all three outfield spots and hits better against lefties than righties.

The Cubs aren’t planning to platoon Heyward and Souza in right, but Heyward, a five-time Gold Glove Award winner, can always sub in defensively if/when Souza starts over him in right.

Happ and Almora will split time in center. The switch-hitting Happ can also start in the corners — and perhaps second base — against lefties. Almora hopes a refined swing gets his offense back on track following a disappointing 2019.

Ross has a lot of options with these three spots, and Schwarber carrying over his torrid 2019 second half into this season would provide a ton of certainty to the everyday lineup.

Starting rotation

Yu Darvish
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood

This first four rotation spots are locked in, barring a trade of Quintana to get under the luxury tax. Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy suggested last week Chatwood is the favorite for the fifth rotation spot. Other candidates include Adbert Alzolay, Alec Mills (out of minor-league options) and Colin Rea.

Darvish emerged as the Cubs’ ace last summer, but I think Lester gets the nod to start on Opening Day.

Bullpen

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Jeremy Jeffress
Brad Wieck
Trevor Megill
Duane Underwood Jr.
Alec Mills

Woof, the hardest group to project of them all. Bullpen mainstays Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler departed in free agency this winter. In turn, the Cubs added numerous low-cost pitchers with upside. They'll have to piece together their bullpen based off what the new arms do in camp, even though spring training results don't always translate to the regular season.

As things currently stand, the first five guys are Opening Day locks. Jeffress is a bounce back candidate after dealing with shoulder and hip injuries in 2019.

I included Megill here because as a Rule 5 pick, he must remain on the Cubs' 26-man roster for the entire season. Otherwise, they have to offer him back to the Padres for $50K (yes, that's a rule). If he looks good in camp, the Cubs will give him a shot to open the regular season. They have been trying to acquire him for some time now, after all.

Like Mills, Underwood Jr. is out of minor-league options, so my initial guess is both make the Opening Day roster as long relievers.

Even if this is the Opening Day bullpen, it won’t be by the end of the season. Relievers are volatile, hence why the Cubs have been stockpiling so many of them. We could see each of Dan Winkler, Alzolay, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam, Brandon Morrow (if healthy), Dillon Maples and James Norwood at some point in 2020. 

This list will be in flux for the next month, so forgive me if the final group looks much different.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Do the Cubs still have a shot at the division?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Do the Cubs still have a shot at the division?

Despite a disappointing offseason the Cubs still have a competitive team for the 2020 season. David Kaplan and an NBCS Chicago Cubs content team roundtable of Jeff Nelson, Tim Stebbins and Danny Rockett discuss how they see this team performing in 2020 and the subtle jabs at former manager Joe Maddon.

(1:30) - Where is the excitement level for the 2020 season

(4:14) - Cubs might perform better than expected this year

(9:09) - Theo Epstein telling managerial candidates Cubs will take a step back in 2020

(14:00) - Cubs still have to reset this year financially

(17:20) - Theo vs. Joe

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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