Cubs

Cubs prospect Willson Contreras could be next core player to hit Wrigley

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Cubs prospect Willson Contreras could be next core player to hit Wrigley

Willson Contreras isn’t riding the tidal wave of hype that followed Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber.

But the Cubs still see Contreras as their potential catcher of the future, possibly the next core player to crash onto the stage at Wrigley Field as they ramp up their rebuild.

Miguel Montero is guaranteed $28 million across the next two seasons, David Ross is ready to begin his retirement tour and the Cubs haven’t definitively answered the question about Schwarber’s long-term future at catcher.

Contreras is ticketed for Triple-A Iowa this year, not quite ready for the demands of catching at the big-league level and handling a veteran pitching staff and the intricate game-planning system that helped the Cubs become contenders. But his time is coming after winning the Southern League batting title last year and turning into what one team official called an untouchable prospect.

“He’s an incredibly talented, athletic catcher who can really throw, can really block and his receiving is much improved,” team president Theo Epstein said. “He projects to be a frontline catcher in the big leagues for a long time. We’re excited about his development.”

[MORE CUBS: Do Cubs still see catching as part of Kyle Schwarber’s future?]

The Cubs didn’t add Contreras to the 40-man roster last winter, leaving him exposed in the Rule 5 draft. Originally signed as an infielder out of Venezuela in 2009, he hadn’t played above the A-ball level at that point.

Contreras went out and hit .333 with eight homers, 75 RBIs and an .891 OPS in 126 games at Double-A Tennessee, finishing the year as the organization’s No. 2 prospect on Baseball America’s top-10 list.

“He could have got taken by anybody (else),” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. “A big transformation for him was playing in Venezuela (last winter and seeing): ‘This is how I need to be.’

“He’s always been a wonderful kid — passionate, big smile, hard worker. But there was more of a maturity level to him. He’s always going to play with passion — that’s just the way he is — but there was a different confidence that came with the maturity from Day 1 in spring training. And he carried that throughout the whole year.”

Contreras, who will turn 24 in May, comes out of the Latin American pipeline the Cubs built during the Jim Hendry administration. Pound for pound, Contreras (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) is said to be one of the strongest players in the entire organization and a more advanced catching prospect than Welington Castillo.

Castillo showed flashes of potential but never quite put it together on the North Side. The Cubs didn’t have much leverage after adding Montero and Ross last winter and sold low on Castillo in a midseason trade with the Seattle Mariners, acquiring a reliever who’s already out of the organization (Yoervis Medina). Castillo got flipped again two weeks later and put up 17 homers and 50 RBIs in 80 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

After guaranteeing more than $275 million to free agents this offseason — and with some uncertainty surrounding their next TV deal and how that impacts the overall financial picture — the Cubs need more breakthrough players like Contreras.

On some level, organizational rankings reflect how much time a front office spends on lobbying those media outlets, but Epstein genuinely believes the Cubs still have a top-tier farm system, even without big names like Bryant, Russell, Soler and Schwarber.

“We’re probably going to end up in that fifth-through-seventh range,” Epstein said. “When you consider the prospects that we’ve graduated, most of our farm system is playing third base for the Cubs, shortstop for the Cubs, right field for the Cubs, left field for the Cubs.

“That’s where those guys went. They didn’t like fall down the rankings because they’re not very good. They’re up in the big leagues. I think we still have a really good farm system.”

The Cubs are holding scouting meetings this week in Chicago, preparing for a draft where they won’t have a first-round selection after that spending spree in free agency and not expecting another top-five pick anytime soon.

“Now that we’re transitioning into this winning mode at the big-league level,” Epstein said, “we will not abandon the pursuit of elite young talent. It’s fundamental to what we do. We’re going to have to have a constant stream of young talent coming up through our system into Wrigley.

“We’re already looking five years ahead, six years ahead (at) what our lineup’s going to look like, different areas of need in the organization.

“We will not abandon young players. That’s what we’re all about.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Nightmare weekend at Wrigley

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Nightmare weekend at Wrigley

Fresh off the heels of the Cubs’ worst series at home in nearly two years, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki tackle the most important topics surrounding this team right now.

 

0:30 – CubsTalk Podcast from an alternate universe where Nicholas Castellanos’ 10th-inning fly ball was actually a walk-off.

 

2:00 – A tale of two offenses.

 

5:00 – What’s the cure for what ails the Cubs lineup?

 

7:00 – Cole Hamels looks to be rounding into form.

 

9:00 – The Mets are shaping up to be another formidable matchup for the Cubs this week in New York.

 

11:00 – An update on Anthony Rizzo and his back injury.

 

13:30 – The Cubs badly need Javy Baez to get hot.

 

15:00 – Wrapping up with some positives, including Craig Kimbrel and the Cubs defense.

 

Listen here or in the embedded player below: 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Situational hitting, Javy Baez's slump and where the Cubs offense goes from here

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USA TODAY

Situational hitting, Javy Baez's slump and where the Cubs offense goes from here

It's going to be awfully difficult for the Cubs to win the division with their lineup still flashing their Jekyll and Hyde ways.

After Wednesday's "season-defining" 12-11 win over the Giants, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run in Thursday's win, couldn't score until the ninth inning of Friday's loss, were unable to mount a comeback against the worst bullpen in the NL in Saturday's defeat and had to rely too much on the home run in Sunday's loss. 

The end result was a three-game sweep at the hands of the red-hot Washington Nationals — the first time the Cubs were swept in a three-game series at Wrigley Field in nearly two years (September 2017). 

All weekend, the Nationals lineup served as a perfect example of what the Cubs want to be offensively.

Both teams hit three homers over the three games, but the Nationals scored 23 runs while the Cubs managed just 10. Washington struck out just 21 times and drew 16 walks while the Cubs whiffed 33 times and worked only 11 free passes.

"The big difference is they weren't chasing out of the zone and we were," Joe Maddon said. "That's the difference in the series, primarily."

The Cubs deserve credit for never giving in Sunday, fighting back from a deficit three different times throughout the course of the game. But they were too reliant upon the home run and never led throughout the entire series.

Saturday's game was particularly troublesome as the offense had its chances, but failed to cash in during prime chances. They had runners at second and third with nobody out in the fourth inning of a 5-1 game, but both Kyle Schwarber and Victor Cartaini struck out and after a walk, Ian Happ did the same on a controversial pitch.

The next inning, after Jonathan Lucroy had doubled home a run to draw the Cubs closer at 5-2 and posit runners on second and third with only one out, the lineup failed to capitalize once again (Javy Baez struck out and then Schwarber popped out). 

"Even if there's nobody out and a runner on third, I like that first guy to get it done," Maddon said. "Sometimes in the back of your mind, it's like, 'oh, there's zero outs, if he doesn't do it, the next guy will.' It's been my experience when the first guy doesn't get it done, it probably does [trickle down] in some way to certain people, impact them differently. But I always want the first guy that gets the chance with zero outs to get this run in and take it from there. 

"But it's nothing new. We've had this problem in the past. [Saturday] was not a unique moment for us. It's something we have to continue to work at, to move the ball, score runs with outs. There was second and third, nobody out — a ground ball to second base, you score a run and get the other guy to third base. Scoring runs with outs is an art form that we have to accomplish, too."

Sure, those are huge momentum swings — particularly the Happ at-bat — but the game was far from over at that point against a group of Nationals relievers that came into the day sporting a 6.00 ERA (only the Baltimore Orioles had a worse mark). 

Instead, here's the result of each Cubs plate appearance to end the game:

Strikeout
Strikeout
Walk
Walk
*inning ended when Kyle Ryan was thrown out trying to advance to third on a wild pitch*
Strikeout
Strikeout
Strikeout
Strikeout
Groundout
Groundout
Flyout
Strikeout
Double
Strikeout

The Cubs failed to even put a ball in play for more than two innings and eight of the 14 plate appearances resulted in strikeouts.

Maddon has continually said the Cubs' best chance at going on a strong run down the stretch will hinge on the offense's ability to put it all together on consistent basis for an extended stretch.

The manager, ever the optimist, thinks there is still time to do that. 

"Oh yeah. I absolutely believe that to be true," Maddon said Sunday morning. "And then you have some guys coming back, which is gonna make that better. Javy's just been in a little bit of a slump. Javy's not gonna be that way the rest of the season. I really believe that, 100 percent. 

"I think Happer looks better right now. I think Lucroy, like he came off the bench [Saturday]. The ingredients are there. We just obviously gotta go do it. But yeah, I've been involved in teams that all the sudden click at the right time of the year and everything takes off. I do anticipate that happening, but it's only gonna happen if you keep pushing and believing. If you don't, it's not gonna happen."

Maddon's right — the Cubs do have all the necessary ingredients to settle into an offensive groove and getting guys like Willson Contreras and Ben Zobrist back from the injured list and restricted list will help.

But with only five weeks left in the season and the gap with the Cardinals widening, now would be the perfect time for this lineup to find that groove, especially over the next week — facing Marcus Stroman, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard in New York before the Brewers come to town for a three-game series.

There are many reasons to point to for why this offense — even with the red-hot Nicholas Castellanos in town — is so inconsistent, but one of the biggest issues lately has been Baez's slump.

Baez finished second in NL MVP voting last season and earned the nod as the starting shortstop for the All-Star team this summer. However, he's struggled since the break.

Entering Sunday, here were his season splits:

First half: .289/.324/.556 (.880 OPS)
Second half: .261/.288/.471 (.759 OPS)

He's been particularly cold over the last couple weeks, without a homer since Aug. 5 and slashing .213/.246/.295 (.541 OPS) in that time with 6 RBI in 17 games.

But he isn't slumping in the way you'd think. Baez is a free-swinger who often chase pitches out of the strike zone, which can lead to a huge spike in strikeouts, especially during cold streaks.

However, he's striking out just 24.3 percent of the time since the All-Star Break and that number is only 21.5 percent since Aug. 5. 

His season strikeout rate is 27.3 percent, so he's making contact more lately than he has all year, but to worse offensive results.

"It's just missing his pitch and really, he's gonna be out of the zone anyways, but a lot of times when he's out of the zone, the ball still gets on the fat part of the bat," Joe Maddon said. "That just hasn't been as frequent. ... He's just been off a little bit. It's just not getting to the barrel as often, but it will. 

"When I see a situation like this with a guy like that, I believe we're gonna benefit when it really matters moving forward. But otherwise, I think he's playing really well."

Maddon also believes the downturn could be related to Baez simply being worn down, playing essentially every inning of the Cubs season. He always plays hard, but this year, he's had to contend with a heel injury suffered in late-May while also playing shortstop full-time for the first time in his big-league career and ranging all over the outfield grass as the central figure in the Cubs' shifting techniques.

They were able to get him out of the second half of the game in Saturday's blowout for a half-day off and then he will get a rest Monday for the team's off-day.

"More than anything, the guy can definitely use a rest and I gotta make sure we stay on top of that," Maddon said. "It's just him playing hard. Man, he hit some weak ground balls, but he ran hard to first base and I really appreciate that. His defense has been outstanding in spite of all that."

Baez's defense has been elite (FanGraphs credits him with 16 Defensive Runs Saved so far this season), but rest will be hard to come by down the stretch (the Cubs only have one off-day after Sept. 4) and this lineup needs him in top form if they're going to put it all together and achieve the consistent production they're striving for.