Cubs

Cubs believe their pipeline will keep producing big-time talent

albert-almora-cubs-2-09-16.png

Cubs believe their pipeline will keep producing big-time talent

This is Theo Epstein’s fifth year running baseball operations at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs still haven’t really given up a significant long-term asset while constructing a playoff contender.

Except for trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and adding versatile swingman Adam Warren to a deep pitching staff. That deal also cleared a path for Ben Zobrist, a professional hitter, super-utility guy and World Series champion, all part of a $276 million spending spree.

So the Cubs can take a step back in spring training and see how Joe Maddon manages all the egos and personalities, assess what they will need as the season unfolds and respond to roster emergencies this summer.

“We haven’t really touched our base of young players, outside of Starlin Castro,” Epstein said. “That does allow us – whether it’s (at) the trade deadline or next offseason – to be a threat to make significant trades that can help the ballclub going forward.”

The smashing success of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber completely distorted our view of what a normal path to the big leagues should look like. Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, became an All-Star third baseman last season and the National League’s Rookie of the Year. Schwarber, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, debuted last year and blasted 16 homers in 69 games, plus five more in the playoffs.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It’s a challenge every year,” farm director Jaron Madison said. "You’re not always going to have the Schwarbers and the Bryants and the (Addison) Russells (all) coming up every year. So you’re constantly looking for guys who can step in behind them and take their place.”

Who’s next? Here’s a look at the organization’s 10 best prospects ranked by Baseball America:

1. Gleyber Torres: Still only 19 years old, the Venezuelan shortstop finished last season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach.

2. Willson Contreras: The potential catcher of the future won a Southern League batting title with Double-A Tennessee last year.

3. Ian Happ: The Cubs hope the ninth overall pick in last year’s draft can become a reliable second baseman. If not, they believe in the switch-hitting profile at the University of Cincinnati. Jason McLeod – the vice president overseeing scouting and player development – used a comparison from his time with the Boston Red Sox: Jed Lowrie with a little more power.

4. Duane Underwood: Probably the most promising pitching prospect in a farm system that doesn’t have many projectable frontline starters, though right elbow inflammation limited him to less than 80 innings last season.

5. Dylan Cease: There are only 24 innings on the right-hander’s professional resume, but the Cubs used money saved from Schwarber’s below-slot deal to take a chance on a Tommy John case with 100-mph velocity.

“The upside is tremendous,” McLeod said. “But where he is right now is very, very far away. He’s one of the guys we’re really excited to see coming into 2016.”

[MORE: Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite]

6. Albert Almora: The first player drafted here by the Epstein administration (sixth overall in 2012) is projected to begin this season as Triple-A Iowa’s centerfielder.

7. Billy McKinney: The Oakland A’s packaged their 2013 first-round pick with Russell in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade and the outfielder has put up a .798 OPS during his minor-league career.

8. Oscar De La Cruz: With mid-90s velocity and a 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame, the Cubs hope this right-hander can develop into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. But he is still years away, approaching his 21st birthday and with no experience above the A-ball level.

9. Eloy Jimenez: Coming out of the same international class as Torres, the Cubs gave the outfielder a $2.8 million signing bonus in the summer of 2013.

10. Jeimer Candelario: The Arizona Fall League Fall Star appears to be blocked as long as Bryant is playing third base on the North Side.

The Cubs landed six players on MLB.com’s rankings of the 100 best prospects in the game: Torres (No. 28); Contreras (No. 50); Happ (No. 76); Underwood (No. 77); Almora (No. 86); and McKinney (No. 88).

Baseball Prospectus included six Cubs prospects on its Top 101 for 2016: Torres (No. 41); Contreras (No. 57); Happ (No. 67); McKinney (No. 74); Almora (No. 83); and Eddy Julio Martinez (No. 97).

The Cubs finalized a $3 million deal with Martinez during the middle of their October playoff run. In a dispute involving the Cuban outfielder’s family and handlers and agency (Beverly Hills Sports Council), Major League Baseball sided with the Cubs after the San Francisco Giants believed they had agreed to a $2.5 million signing bonus for Martinez.

[RELATED: Cubs, Jake Arrieta agree to $10.7 million deal, avoid arbitration]

“We always love to bring in impact-type talent,” McLeod said. “He’s a kid with a really strong body (who almost) looks like an NFL defensive back. (He’s got) plus speed, plus power pull side. He can really throw and it’s very accurate. Right now, we’re not sure if it’s going to be center field.

“We haven’t spent a lot of time with him and haven’t seen him too much. We’re actually really excited to see him (up close). He’s one of those multi-tool players and we’ll get a much better feel for how he handles an actual at-bat.

“We know he competes in his at-bats, but we just simply don’t have enough visual of him yet. We’re not really certain about how much contact there will be or how much the power will play.”

Remember, prospect rankings can on some level reflect how much time and energy a front office puts into courting the media, and which players an organization wants to spotlight, perhaps talking them up for a potential trade sometime in the future. The Cubs should be in position to put together a blockbuster deal when they need it.

“You never make it a goal to not move any prospects,” Epstein said. “That’s one of the reasons you build up a farm system – the ability to use some of those prospects to make trades. It just so happens (that) we traded one player off our big-league team – a really good player who is just 26 and has a tremendous future – and we spent a lot of money. But I think we’ve done so in a way that complements the core that we have – and it’s preserved our flexibility.”

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

Who are the 2018 Cubs?

It's mid-August, there's only seven weeks of regular season action left before the playoffs and yet the Cubs still don't have an identity they can hang their hats on.

Maybe they are just a team with an underachieving rotation, an inconsistent offense, a bullpen that is fantastic when rested and an elite defense.
 
Yet they maintain there's more in the tank and with a roster this talented and track records this extensive, it's easy to believe them. 

But when will that show up on a regular basis?

Mind you, the Cubs aren't complaining where they're at.

They woke up Monday morning with the best record in the National League by three games and the peace that no matter what happens in a two-game series with the Brewers this week at Wrigley Field, they'll head to Pittsburgh Thursday at least a game up in the division.

Of course, where would the Cubs be right now without David Bote's ninth-inning heroics Sunday night or against the Diamondbacks two weeks ago? Fortunately for the Cubs, that's an alternate universe they don't have to think about.

They'll take this current position, of course. Especially with the two biggest free agent additions of the offseason — Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish — combining to throw just 70.2 innings to date plus a balky shoulder that has put Kris Bryant on the shelf for nearly two months (assuming he returns late August or early September) and has sapped the power of the 2016 NL MVP even when he has been healthy enough to suit up. And don't forget Carl Edwards Jr. — the team's second-most important reliever — also missed time (nearly five weeks) and has appeared in just 39 games.

"I don't take anything for granted," Joe Maddon said. "The Cardinals are playing a whole lot better, the Pirates have done a nice job, Milwaukee's not going away. I get all that. But at the end of the day — and this has been my mantra forever — worry about the Cubs. Worry about you guys.

"We just gotta play our game and if we do that, that stuff becomes secondary at every stop, whether it's Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Cubs do what they're supposed to do, that other stuff becomes moot. 

"That's about getting the rotation back where we think they can be. That's about getting our offense percolating on all cylinders again while we continue to play this defense. If we could somehow get KB, Darvish and Morrow back for that stretch run, my god, you can't get better acquisitions at the end of the year.

"That's all a possibility, but I don't count on it. I'm not waiting for that day to happen. In the meantime, you work with what you got and try to make that as best you can."

What Maddon has is a team that is 13-11 with a -21 run differential since the All-Star Break — obviously not the stuff of a championship team across nearly a month's worth of a sample size.

Digging deeper, however, and you see that the Cubs have been on the wrong end of several blowouts including the 18-5 loss to the Cardinals July 20 and the 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Royals last week. Of the Cubs' 13 second-half wins, 9 have come by three runs or less, including 6 one-run victories.

But the concerns are there, particularly with making sure the rotation helps pick up the slack down the stretch and reduce the stress on an already-taxed bullpen.

Cubs pitchers have combined to throw just 44 pitches and get 7 outs after the seventh inning all season — all of which can be credited to Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery and now Cole Hamels have yet to throw a pitch in the eighth inning this year (though, obviously, Hamels has been fantastic in a small sample size and Montgomery saved the rotation when Darvish went down months ago).

Once the Cubs signed Darvish in February, there were many pundits across the game that believed this could be the top starting staff in baseball behind only the Houston Astros.

"Remember I thought in spring training, this had a chance to be THE best rotation we've had here," Maddon said. "We've had some pretty good ones. And it just hasn't gotten to that point yet, but I still believe that it can, in spite of the fact that we haven't gotten the normal innings out of them."

The rotation is underperforming, but this has been by far the deepest stable of relief pitchers Maddon has had to work with in Chicago.

"You gotta give these bullpen guys a ton of credit and the depth that is organization has built," Maddon said. "The guys that have come up for cameos have contributed greatly to this moment.

"I've often talked about the bullpen — you gotta have that to win a championship and these guys are demonstrating that right now. And part of that is to not beat 'em up."

The Cubs still rank atop the National League in many offensive categories — including runs scored, OPS and on-base percentage — but anybody who's watched this team all year knows they are prone to rather extreme highs and lows.

Since the All-Star Break, it's mostly been at a low, contributing to that suboptimal run differential.

"Offensively, I don't see some of our guys at their normal levels," Maddon said. "I know we got this wonderful run differential [on the season] and we lead the league in runs scored, but how do you maintain that? That's my biggest concern."

Beyond Javy Baez's MVP campaign and the resurgence of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the only thing that has been working offensively of late is Anthony Rizzo in the leadoff spot.

Maddon tossed the face of the franchise atop the order a month ago and hasn't moved him out — for good reason. In 27 starts at leadoff, Rizzo is slashing .347/.446/.604, good for a 1.050 OPS. 

The rest of the lineup behind him has gone through its ups and downs lately, but that's also the nature of the game, especially in this day and age with strikeouts up and basehits down.

For perspective, a Phillies team that has been challenging for the NL East all season has experienced similar head-scratching offensive games on a regular basis:

A lot can change in Major League Baseball in the span of a few weeks.

Just a few weeks ago, who considered Bote to be big part of this team in 2018 or beyond? When the Cubs traded for Hamels, they were hoping he could give them solid innings. Did anybody predict this level of success from the 34-year-old southpaw so soon?

With seven weeks left until postseason baseball, rest assured — there are still plenty of ups and downs coming for the Cubs.

Outsiders — fans and media — often seesaw with those ebbs and flows for many reasons, but the best one is this: It's simply no fun if you don't allow yourself to get completely caught up with moments like Bote's ultimate grand slam or Hamels' Rejuvenation Tour that has only lasted three starts.

But even if those outsiders are willing to ride that roller coaster even a little bit, the Cubs certainly won't inside the clubhouse.

"Never a good time to ride the roller coaster," Rizzo said. "I get motion sickness anyways."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bote-mania has not only taken over Chicago but he’s helped save the Cubs’ season

bote-pod.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bote-mania has not only taken over Chicago but he’s helped save the Cubs’ season

Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Matt Buckman and Jon Graff break down a wild weekend set against the Nationals.

They discuss David Bote becoming a household name, Cole Hamels continuing the stellar start to his Cubs career, and Kris Bryant finally feeling pain free. Plus, once the 2016 MVP returns to the lineup, what does that mean for Bote’s playing time?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.