Cubs prospect Zych on the fast track to the big leagues

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Cubs prospect Zych on the fast track to the big leagues

During the From Draft Day to the Big Leagues panel at the 2013 Cubs Convention, a fan asked the foursome of prospects seated at the dais when it was that they realized they were different; that their abilities were such that they could play baseball professionally.

For most, it was a gradual process, but 2011 fourth-round pick Tony Zych had a specific moment where he was struck by the realization that he had a bit more in his right arm than most kids. Or it would be better to say that his father was struck, by a fastball from his still not even ten year-old son that ripped through his glove.

"We were out there playing catch like we were most of the time, and he got down and I started actually pitching to him, said Zych, He had his old softball mitt, a men's league softball mitt -- and I thought it was a fine glove, pretty normal -- I don't know what happened, but it literally went right through his glove and smoked him right in the face. He was all bloody, and he took his glove off and we had to go in.

As Zych recalls, his father was less than thrilled at the time.

These days, Zychs fastball which regularly clocked in around 95 mph during last months Arizona Fall League --gets a much warmer reception. Baseball Prospectus Jason Parks called it plus-plus, and its the one huge tool in his arsenal that allowed him to blow away minor league hitters (64 strikeouts in 61.1 innings across High-A and AA in 2012) and could push Zych to Wrigley Field as soon as 2013.

That might sound like a rush, but Zych feels like hed be ready even sooner if need be.

Tomorrow, said Zych swiftly when asked when hed be ready, I'm not shy to say that because that's what I believe. Arm-wise, I think there's definitely a chance, at any time, but that's not my decision."

While the confidence is already in strong supply, there are refinements to Zychs secondary pitches that are still needed, and lapses in his control (12 walks in 24.2 innings after his mid-season promotion to AA Tennessee) that need to be eliminated before he becomes a fixture in a major league bullpen.

To make those adjustments, he leans on his minor league pitching coach, former Cub Jeff Fassero.

Fassero has helped me a lot on knowing what I was seeing in the video room, said Zych, Or when I'm throwing a pitch and think it's somewhere when it really wasn't.

Under the watchful eye of Fassero, Zychs approach to locating his pitches has gotten more precise.

"One thing I'm doing right now is focusing smaller," he said. "Not just playing catch with my partner but focusing on a button, or something else small, because if you can hit a button, you can hit a glove.

"Sometimes I land on my toe a little bit, said Zych, as he began to mime positioning his foot on the pitching rubber in the middle of the Sheraton Hotel, So I try to make sure my foot is flat."

Zych certainly had a lot more to say about his work and preparation than the pressure he feels being with his hometown team after growing up in nearby Monee, Illinois. If anything, he sees the possibility of playing in the major leagues in the same city where he attended St. Rita high school as a chance to show his appreciation to everyone who helped him along the way.

Theres not pressure, said Zych, Obviously there are a lot of people that I would want to be at his major league debut because they helped to get me here. I just hope I get the opportunity.

He already made sure to take care of the little matter of his fathers mangled glove.

"He actually tied it together with a shoestring, he didn't even get a new glove. Now I always make sure he's got another one because I still love playing catch with him."

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester couldn't resist when a reporter mentioned the two home runs Willson Contreras launched off Danny Salazar, an All-Star talent who might have changed last year's World Series if he had been at full strength.

"It's about time we got an offensive catcher," Lester said.

Zing! Lester had already seen David Ross on "Dancing with the Stars" by the time he finished up against the Cleveland Indians and met with reporters on Monday night at Goodyear Ballpark. While Lester knew Grandpa Rossy would appreciate that one-liner, there is also some truth behind it.

Yes, Ross became the security blanket for a $155 million pitcher, helped push and encourage young players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and got carried off the field after delivering his own Game 7 homer. But whatever Contreras may lack now in game-calling experience and pitcher psychology, he can make up for it with his rocket arm, smooth swing and willingness to learn.

A camp that began with questions about how Lester would work with Contreras ended with a sincere endorsement.

"Willie's obviously very special, to be serious about it," Lester said. "He's definitely going to add a presence to that lineup as far as protecting ‘Rizz' and ‘KB' to where they're not going to be able to just pitch around those guys. We're going to have some other guys to do some damage in the middle to the bottom of that order.

"He's a special kid, just like anybody else on this team. He's (24), so he'll only get better as time goes on and (he gets) the at-bats and the innings and all that stuff. So I'm excited to see him for a full season and how well he can do back there."

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That's another reason why the defending World Series champs might actually look better on paper than the unforgettable 2016 Cubs. Ross did a "Dancing with the Stars" routine based off Young MC's "Bust a Move," a song released in 1989, or years before Bryant, Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. were born.

Before the Cubs packed up and left Arizona, Ross made a promotional appearance in Mesa this week and caught up with some old friends like John Lackey.

"We got rid of Rossy," Lackey told reporters as the Cubs finished their Cactus League schedule with Wednesday's 15-11 win over the Oakland A's at Sloan Park. "He stinks. And we should be better. Actually, I was just inside talking to Rossy and he said that, so that's from him."

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."