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."

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Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

PITTSBURGH — We interrupt your regularly scheduled coverage of The Plan and that wacky, fun-loving Cubs team to bring you a snapshot of clubhouse frustration.

Jake Arrieta sounded defensive while talking to reporters after Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, standing in front of his locker and second-guessing manager Joe Maddon. On the other side of the room, veteran catcher Miguel Montero questioned the way the Cubs are preparing for the playoffs with Cactus League scripts.

The postgame questions started with Arrieta’s first-inning issues with umpire Chris Guccione’s strike zone. When reporters mentioned Maddon’s positive spin on a seven-run outing, Arrieta dismissed those happy-talk answers about his stuff — “it just wasn’t crisp” — and then wondered why he went from throwing to Montero to rookie Willson Contreras.

“The feeling of the game, from the first pitch, just wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “Switching catchers just felt like we were trying to do a little too much instead of win a ballgame. But I didn’t throw well, no way around it.”

Montero went with a similar passive-aggressive tone, riffing on how the Cubs will maintain their edge almost two weeks after clinching the National League Central title and nine days before their first playoff game at Wrigley Field.

“Did it feel like spring training?” Montero said. “I do believe that. And that’s not a good feeling for a pitcher, for a player, to go into a game knowing that you’re going to play just four innings or five innings or whatever it is.

“This game is still important for all the players. It’s still important for every single guy. I don’t want to go out there not caring about winning or losing. That’s not my mentality. My mentality is going out there because I want to win, regardless.

“We have to trick our mind. Because if that’s how we’re going to go the rest of the way, I guess we need to trick ourselves.”

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Unprompted, Montero brought up the Pirates scoring three runs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night before the Cubs hung on for a 6-4 victory — without using Aroldis Chapman — as Maddon tries to keep the bullpen fresh for the playoffs.

“We didn’t have our closer warming up,” Montero said. “That’s something I take personally because I’m catching and I want to win.

“It’s hard. I understand (Joe’s) point. And I understand the organization’s point. I respect it. I can only control what I can control. It is what it is.”

OK then, the Cubs are still a 101-win team and the NL’s No. 1 seed. But this became a sharp contrast to all the backslapping after the pregame announcement of Theo Epstein’s monster contract extension. And Arrieta didn’t look like a reigning Cy Young Award winner, giving up 10 hits while John Jaso — who does look like a Pirate — lined a curveball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the fourth inning and hit for the cycle.

“We’re moving on,” Arrieta said. “We’ll prepare for the next one. I don’t like giving up seven runs. I’m pissed about that. But moving forward, everything’s fine.”

With Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks lined up at the front of the playoff rotation, Arrieta’s next start is almost two weeks away.

“It doesn’t matter,” Arrieta said. “I’ll throw sides. I’ll prepare. And whoever I face first round — they’re going to be in trouble.”

After burning through 103 pitches in five innings, Arrieta’s regular-season odometer is now at 197 1/3 innings, but he has zero interest in a gimmick that would get him to 200 this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

“Listen, I want to pitch on a schedule,” Arrieta said. “I don’t want to throw an inning in a game. I’m not trying to do anything different. Let’s just prepare like we normally do and go out and try to win games. I’m not trying to throw a bullpen in a game.”

Look, if this isn’t trouble in paradise, then it’s obvious that the Cubs are a hyper-competitive group that knows what’s at stake in October and has some independent thinkers and strong personalities. And that Arrieta’s unreal 2015 season created impossible standards for this year that couldn’t be met with an 18-8 record and a 3.10 ERA, the type of numbers that still get pitchers $200 million contracts.

“I don’t think you know how hard this game is unless you play it,” Arrieta said. “I feel I can have another season like that. People have done it before. Why can’t I do it? I can do it again. So, yeah, I appreciate it. But at the same time, that’s what you strive for. That’s why you work hard. You go out and you try to perform that way.”