Edgar Martinez? Miguel Cabrera? Eloy Jimenez made a huge impression on Joe Maddon in Cubs camp

Edgar Martinez? Miguel Cabrera? Eloy Jimenez made a huge impression on Joe Maddon in Cubs camp

MESA, Ariz. – Could there be a Triple Crown/MVP/Cooperstown-level talent roaming around the back fields of the Sloan Park complex? Hey, who doesn't love a good story on St. Patrick's Day? But at the very least, Eloy Jimenez made a huge impression on manager Joe Maddon before the Cubs assigned their top prospect to minor-league camp. 

"What he showed to me is a tremendous understanding of his swing as a 20-year-old," Maddon said. "Watch him take batting practice. His left-field foul line is pretty much left-center. He doesn't really hook the baseball. He stays inside the ball as well as the most seasoned (hitter). 

"(It's the way) Edgar Martinez did (it). It's kind of like that approach or Miguel Cabrera. I'm not saying he's those guys yet. I'm just saying that's his approach. It's really sophisticated for a 20-year-old." 

Let's not write the Hall of Fame induction speech yet. Jimenez spent last season at Class-A South Bend. Spring training is the time and place for dreaming about young players. The Cubs obviously have a vested interest in talking up their kids down on the farm. And forget it when Maddon — who once compared Jorge Soler to Vladimir Guerrero "with plate discipline" — starts rolling. 

But at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds and with that smooth right-handed swing, Jimenez certainly looks the part. Baseball America, ESPN, and FanGraphs all have him ranked as a top-15 prospect in the industry. The Cubs are already seeing a return on the $2.8 million investment they made in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2013.

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"He's going to hit," Maddon said. "The velocity, ball off the bat, is incredible. He'll look awful on one pitch and then come back and hit a screaming line drive. He'll make quick adjustments. Again, really sophisticated or beyond his years at 20.
"I don't know when he's going to show up, but you know he's going to show up at some point. He's not many, many years out. But of course he needs another solid year or so — year-and-a-half at least, maybe two in the minor leagues — before you really want to strongly consider that. 

"The outfield defense, running routes, base-running, things of that nature, I definitely want to see him improve on also, and that was part of the conversation."          

It's not just about Jimenez. For Maddon, the larger story is the next generation of Cubs (or the growing stack of trade chips for Theo Epstein's front office). 

In cutting the roster to 43 on Friday, the Cubs also optioned catcher Victor Caratini, outfielder Jacob Hannemann and pitchers Pierce Johnson and Felix Pena to Triple-A Iowa. Joining Jimenez in minor-league camp will be infielder Chesny Young, a .300 hitter at five different levels already, and outfielder Mark Zagunis, a player Maddon compared to Kevin Millar in terms of hitting style and body type (not off-the-wall personality).

"We just sent out seven guys, one guy's already played in the big leagues, and the other six are going to," Maddon said. "That doesn't happen all the time when you have these meetings. You say: ‘Eh, you know, with this or with that…' No, Pena played already (in the majors). The other six guys will. I feel very confident about that. I don't know exactly when, but they will." 

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto