Cubs

The Next Wave: Ian Happ and Eloy Jimenez lead the newest class of Cubs prospects creating a buzz

The Next Wave: Ian Happ and Eloy Jimenez lead the newest class of Cubs prospects creating a buzz

MESA, Ariz. — It was only one inning in a spring training game that doesn't count, but it was also a glimpse into the future for Cubs fans.

A future, that is. Probably not the future, not with so many young stars already reveling in the championship spotlight in Chicago.

The eighth inning of the Cubs' 4-3 win over the Colorado Rockies at Sloan Park Saturday was filled with banner moments for the next wave of Cubs prospects.

First, Eloy Jimenez drilled a line-drive homer to right-center. Two batters later, Ian Happ sent one almost to the same spot for a two-run shot to give the Cubs a 4-3 lead.

Chesny Young followed with a hard single to right field, stole second base and advanced to third on a wild throw before the Rockies finally got out of the inning when Jeimer Candelario flew out to the warning track in right field.

Happ helped seal the win with a nice play at second base in the ninth, charging a slow chopper and throwing out Colorado's Anthony Bemboom on a close play at first.

[RELATED - What to make of Jeimer Candelario, the breakout star of Cubs camp]

Happ and Young were at it again Sunday, combining to go 3-for-4 at the plate in the Cubs' 9-8 loss to the Oakland A's and teaming up for a slick double play on a hard hit grounder late in the game.

With three weeks still left until Opening Day, the Cubs youngsters have been getting a chance to play almost every day in the Cactus League and they've certainly been making the most of it.

"They're just ready to play; they're very focused," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "They're not waiting for the season. They want to show us right now. And I've been impressed. We've all been impressed.

"If it weren't for the fact that these players on the major league team are so young, you'd hear more about these guys. Or if you're in an organization with a bunch of veterans maybe on the way out, these guys would be getting a lot more play."

There's definitely a buzz in camp that there's another wave of young position players coming, even after Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. helped the Cubs win the World Series last year after graduating the system in the last couple years. 

That whole group of young hitters has combined for just two complete big-league seasons from start to finish and all are under team control through at least the 2022 season.

So in some ways, all these prospects are auditioning for other teams and may eventually be used as currency to help add impact pitching at the big-league level in the same vein that Gleyber Torres headlined the package for Aroldis Chapman last summer.

"There's no room for spots on this team," Happ said. "I didn't come in trying to win anything. I'm here to learn. I'm trying to be a sponge and soak up as much as I can from those guys."

Happ — MLB.com's No. 28 prospect — has been on fire over the last week and is hitting .407 this spring with a 1.169 OPS in camp that trails only Anthony Rizzo (1.260 OPS) among Cubs players with at least five at-bats this spring.

Maddon sees a different Happ now even from the start of spring training a little less than a month ago.

"Hitting coaches have been really impressed and now he's taking it into the game. He's definitely a major-league player in waiting and his time will come," Maddon said. "... He's more confident at home plate. He went through a stretch there where he was really spinning off pitches. 

"Then he had one at-bat — I think against the Angels — he hit a line drive to right field in the latter part of the game. From then on, he's been locked in. Since that one at-bat, he's been hot."

Happ is a player cut perfectly in the Maddon mold — a switch-hitter who can play second base or outfield — and because of that, the 22-year-old said he's been spending a lot of time this spring picking Ben Zobrist's brain.

Jimenez — the Cubs 2016 minor league player of the year and MLB.com's No. 13 prospect — is hitting .346 with a 1.033 OPS in 14 games (26 at-bats) this spring.

"This kid is all that," Maddon said. "He's a wonderful student. Watch him take BP. It's a very mature version of batting practice."

Jimenez and Happ are widely considered the Cubs' top prospects, but Candelario (MLB.com's No. 5 Cubs prospect), catcher Victor Caratini (No. 13) and Young (No. 14) have turned heads, too. All three have posted very good offensive numbers in the small sample size hitting against other non-roster guys late in Cactus League games:

Candelario: .286/.306/.457 in 35 ABs
Caratini: .313/.389/.500 in 16 ABs plus a homer in a "B" game Thursday
Young: .308/.333/.423 in 26 ABs

So where do all these guys think they fit in the Cubs' big picture?

"You just have to go out there and try to get better every day and play as hard as you can," Happ said. "There's always gonna be opportunity if you keep playing well, so for me, I'm just trying to get better and make the most of it."

ESPN to broadcast two of Cubs first four games in 2020

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AP

ESPN to broadcast two of Cubs first four games in 2020

It won't be long before baseball fans get their first look at the Cubs under new manager David Ross.

ESPN announced Thursday they will broadcast two of the Cubs' first four games in 2020: March 29 against the Brewers in Milwaukee (Sunday Night Baseball) and March 30 against the Pirates (3 p.m. first pitch). The latter game is the Cubs' 2020 home opener.

Ross worked as a color analyst for ESPN from 2017-19 before the Cubs hired him as manager in October. So, not only will his club be in the national spotlight early in the season, but his former co-workers will be the ones analyzing him as his managerial career kicks off.

The Cubs open the season on March 26 against the Brewers.

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Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

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USA TODAY

Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

This is the best thing the White Sox have done for the Cubs in years.

The White Sox made a big splash in free agency Thursday, signing catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract. Grandal joins the South Siders from the Brewers, where he played an integral role in Milwaukee making a second-straight postseason appearance in 2019.

Grandal led qualified catchers in on-base percentage (.380) last season, also posting career highs in home runs (28) and RBIs (77). He’s also an excellent pitch framer, tying for fourth in RszC (runs saved by catcher framing) among all catchers with 9.

Milwaukee’s payroll reached a franchise-high $122.5 million in 2019 and their farm system (No. 29 in MLB, per Baseball America) is lacking. How they replace Grandal’s production is a major question mark, which in turn is a win for the Cubs this offseason.

But besides plucking him from the NL Central, the White Sox signing Grandal early in the offseason helps the Cubs, who have important decisions of their own to make.

Although Cubs president Theo Epstein said to take any trade rumors with a “mouthful of salt,” multiple teams believe catcher Willson Contreras is available for trade. The Cubs need to retool their roster and replenish a farm system that has been depleted in recent seasons from numerous “win now” trades.

The Cubs and White Sox made the notorious José Quintana trade in July 2017, but it’s unlikely the two would have matched up for a Contreras trade. The Cubs need young assets; trading away young assets is the last thing the White Sox want to do as their championship window opens.

So, Grandal landed with a team that was unlikely to be involved in any potential Contreras trade talks. Grandal was the best free agent catcher; Contreras is the best catcher that can be had in a trade.

Other teams interested in Grandal — such as the Reds — can no longer turn to him in free agency. The Rays have made addressing the catcher spot this winter a priority, but they have one of MLB’s lowest payrolls each season. Signing Grandal wasn’t going to happen, but Tampa Bay has the farm system (No. 2 in baseball, per MLB.com) to make a big trade.

Contreras is the best catcher available — for the right price, obviously — so the ball is in the Cubs' court. They don’t get better by dealing their two-time All-Star backstop, but Contreras’ trade value is high. With Grandal off the market, it just got even higher.

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