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' all-time saves leader Lee Smith elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame

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AP

Cubs' all-time saves leader Lee Smith elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame

Lee Smith is headed to Cooperstown.

Smith, the Cubs' all-time saves leader, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Today's Game Era Committee on Sunday night. 

Smith, 61, pitched in 18 MLB seasons, eight with the Cubs. He posted a 3.03 ERA in 1,022 career games, saving 478 games. At the time of his retirement, Smith was was MLB's all-time saves leader, though he now ranks third behind Mariano Rivera (652 saves) and Trevor Hoffman (601).

After spending the first eight seasons of his career (1980-87) with the Cubs, Smith went on to pitch for the Red Sox (1988-1990), Cardinals (1990-93), Yankees (1993), Orioles (1994), Angels (1995-96), Reds (1996) and Expos (1997). He is a six-time All-Star, making the team with the Cubs twice (1983, 1987). 

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If Bryce Harper wants to live up to his upcoming mega-deal, here's how he can improve

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USA Today

If Bryce Harper wants to live up to his upcoming mega-deal, here's how he can improve

Someone, somewhere, sometime soon is going to give Bryce Harper a *lot* of money. 

Whoever decides to pay Harper $330-350 million over the next 6-8 years will also look for a *lot* of return on investment, which stands to reason. Gone are the days of 10-12 guys getting massive, above-value contracts per offseason. Love it or hate it, fiscal prudency is all the rage in baseball, and teams are going to look long and hard before handing out the type of contracts that they were throwing left and right only half a decade ago. 

Because Harper exsists in the 1% of pro baseball players that are still going to get nine-digit contract offers, whichever fanbase he ends up playing in front of for 82 games a year will dissect his performance in a way that few players before him have experienced. Want to get Cubs' or Yankees' or Phillies' or Mystery Teams' fans off your back? Here's what Harper can improve upon during the first year of his new deal. 

Strike out less 

It's the goal of every pro baseball not named Mookie Betts or Jose Ramirez to cut down on the strikeouts, and while may be obvious to point out that it'd be nice if Harper K'd less, it should be noted that Harper was especially free-swinging last season. His K% was all the way up at 24.3 percent, his highest since 2014. He had 169 strikeouts in 2018, which is far and away his worst season in that regards. Ironically enough, his next-worst season was the 2015 campaign, when he notced 131. He also notched the MVP that season, so. 

Power hitters are going to strike out, especially in the increasingly-infamous Three True Outcome era. Minus a radical change to plate approach -- which NO team that's about to give someone 300 million dollars wants to hear about -- Harper's strikeout percentage is always going to sit in the low-20s.  With that said, there's a big difference between 20-21% and 24%, as you know, and only two hitters with higher wRC+'s than Harper also had higher K% -- Paul Goldschmidt and Brandon Nimmo. Even getting back close to his career average (21.2%) would be a win for him next year. 

Get better on the bases again  

Harper's bat grants him baserunning leniency, but it'd be nice if he got back at least not having a negative impact on the basepaths. According to FanGraph's baserunning metrics, it's been two years since Harper's been worth even one run on the bases. In his first five years with the Nationals, he was worth at least two runs four times - and even got above three twice. How active Harper is on the basepaths has a lot to do with whoever's his manager next summer, but he has the speed to at least be a plus runner. Does he need to haul down the line to beat out a grounder to 2nd in a late-August game in Texas? No. But considering only eight guys got on base more often than Harper did last year, it'd be nice to see him take some more chances with all the opportunities he's given. 

Get luckier 

This one only kind of counts, because obviously Harper has no ability to control the type of luck he gets. A lot of Harper's bizarre 2018 season stems from the fact that he was historically unlucky, especially in the first half of the year. His .226 BABIP during that stretch was 18th-worst in all of baseball, putting him with the likes of Texas' Joey Gallo and Baltimore's Chris Davis. He posted a .378 BABIP in the 2nd half, which is even better than his career average (.318). Not convinced yet? Harper hit .249, slugged .496 and posted a .376 wOBA. Per Baseball Savant, his expected results in those categories were .270, .506, and .398, respectively. He was a much better hitter last season than he gets credit for, and suffered because of a prolonged slump that looked bad in all the wrong categories. Even being a smidge more lucky over the first eight weeks of next year will go a long way.