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ESPN ranks Cubs as the top MLB club heading into 2016

RizzoHighFive(Photo by David Banks/Getty)

In the last week, Buster Olney and ESPN have broken down their top 10 unit rankings for major league clubs. The Cubs found themselves in the top five in five of the six lists, and were ranked the best infield in baseball. On Tuesday, the publication released its top 10 clubs heading into the season. Given the lofty spots the organization earned on previous lists, it should come as no surprise that ESPN ranked the North Siders as the best team in the game. Here’s what they had to say:

The addition of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist makes the Cubs even better and deeper, both at the plate and in the field, and they also added a reliable rotation plow horse in John Lackey. Their greatest challenge might be doing everything they can to win the National League Central over the course of the long season, because they’ve witnessed first-hand how a great team like the Pittsburgh Pirates can be reduced to a one-night-stand wild-card game and subsequently eliminated.

The Cubs are the early pick here to take another step forward this year and do something they haven’t done since 1908: win the World Series.

In 2016, the Cubs return some of the best players in baseball, including NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and two-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo. The club will also open up the campaign expecting a full season of action out of Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler—a trio of 2015 rookies. Add defending NL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon to the mix, coupled with a 2015 NLCS run, and there are plenty reasons to expect the Cubs to be playing meaningful October baseball in 2016.

2016 Cubs Convention: Down on the Farm

The Cubs’ minor league system continues to be viewed as one of the best in baseball. The organization churned out several stars in 2015, including Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. Who will make an impact in 2016? Hear from Director of Player Development Jaron Madison, Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod, and players Jeimer Candelario, Carl Edwards Jr., Eric Jokisch and Dan Vogelbach as they dive into the Cubs’ current farm system. This panel is hosted by Tennessee Smokies broadcaster Mick Gillispie.

Mick Gillespie kicks off the last panel of the 2016 Cubs Convention by talking about how many superstars have sat in this same Down on the Farm panel over the last few years.

McLeod talks about why he wants to stay with the Cubs even though he is often rumored to be up for GM jobs. He says he looks forward to the challenge here. He remembers what it was like when he was with the Red Sox and they won that first championship. Now he wants to be part of the greatest challenge in sports in Chicago. He talks about how rewarding it was to stand on the field with Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell after a postseason series win. He remembers drafting those guys and is impressed with their quick development since then.

Madison talks about how the makeup of a player is the separator for them in the draft and trades. Players need to have the work ethic and desire to work their way to the big leagues and also have to be up for the grind of the minor leagues. They look for guys who are mature, focused and team-oriented.

Edwards talks about the transition from a starter to a reliever. He says he took the same mentality to the mound as a reliever so the transition wasn’t that hard. He was able to just let it go and try to blow it by people as a reliever. The trick was finding his routine. That’s much easier to do as a guy who pitches every five days.

Jokisch jokes about how he was listed as an infielder during the opening ceremonies. He says he’s really had to work hard to get people’s attention because he doesn’t throw that hard. But he feels like the work the club does in the minors really prepares Cubs prospects for life in the majors—and for success in the majors.

Vogelbach, who is lauded for his plate approach, talks about how he prides himself on not striking out. His goal is to get on base and let the guy behind him drive him in. He just wants to stick to his plan and not let the pitcher take him out of that.

Next up is the question and answer session:

  • McLeod talks about the loss of Tim Wilken, who drafted most of the guys on the stage today. Wilken has moved on to Arizona. When teams have success, other teams want to poach those good employees. McLeod says if there is ever a scouting Hall of Fame, Wilken deserves to be in it.
  • McLeod talks about the advantages of picking high in the draft. It’s not just about the pick; it’s about the pool money teams get that allow them to sign more quality guys. The goal is to acquire as much young talent as possible. The more money you have available, the easier that is.
  • McLeod talks a bit about the team’s draft strategy this year. They don’t have a pick until late this year because of the Lackey and Heyward signings, plus the success they had on the field. But the process is still the same. It’s to look for quality guys with quality makeup. You don’t always need to have a high pick to find high-quality guys. He mentions selecting Dustin Pedroia in Boston.
  • McLeod and Madison talk about three under-the-radar players: Bard Markey, Chesny Young and Eddy Julio Martinez. Markey really opened some eyes this year at Myrtle Beach. He started as a reliever but got moved into the rotation because of an injury to someone else. He was so good, they could never move him back. Young has a great approach at the plate and doesn’t deviate from it. He’s a very mature hitter who really knows his strengths. Martinez is a very toosly Cuban player who they are still learning about. They’re very excited about his talent, but need to see more of him on the field.
  • McLeod talks about where Edwards will be in the long term. He says you have to balance the short term and the long term. As a team that expected to have success last year, the Cubs felt Edwards could really help them more out of the bullpen. How can you help this team now versus what the team will need in the future? They haven’t ruled out putting him back in the rotation, but there is a need in the pen now. Edwards says he’s happy in either role as long as he’s helping the team.
  • Madison talks about the Cubs’ preference for positional versatility. A lot of that came from organizational talks with Joe Maddon. It’s something he likes. They now try to challenge all the minor leaguers to try a different position. The team maps this out for the players. The goal is to make guys more useful at the major league level.
  • McLeod talks about international signings and how tricky they are. That’s mostly about volume because those players are drafted so young, generally at 16 or 17 years old. It’s hard to know what you have when players are that young. They are so far away from the major leagues. Even Gleyber Torres is still a long way away at just 19 years old this year.
  • Jokisch says “rehab is awful.” He’s never really dealt with an injury before the oblique injury he had last June. He thought he had a shot at the big leagues last year, but he spent much of the year rehabbing. He’s healthy now and ready to go, but it was bad timing last season with the injury.
  • McLeod talks about how much information is out there now. The Cubs have a research and development department. They know what they think is important, and they try to incorporate that into how they develop guys. But they shield players from some of that info because it can handicap them. Paralysis by analysis. Jokisch says he likes to have as much information as he can get. He likes to know how his stuff works and how other similar pitchers get outs. He says he looks at guys like Dallas Keuchel who have similar stuff to him. Vogelbach doesn’t dive too far into the numbers but does analyze other players’ at-bats and approach.
  • McLeod talks about the development of Arismendy Alcantara. The player had a bad setback in terms of confidence last year. He got off to a tough start and never could get out of it. He could always hit the fastball, but he lost some confidence and worried too much about offspeed stuff, so he got behind on the heater.
  • McLeod says most of the impact pitchers in the system, No. 1 types, are still in the lower levels. But they have a lot of more polished guys like Jokisch who could help out sooner.
  • Vogelbach talks about how he’s really worked to stay in shape. He came into the organization overweight. He says he could get away with that in high school. The organization told him he didn’t have a choice, so he took that to heart. He wants to do whatever he can to play. He changed his eating habits and started working out a lot more. He says it’s helped him in every aspect of his game.
  • Madison talks about some names to watch. They were lucky to have Schwarber, Bryant and Russell last year. Those are exceptional players. He also talks about Willson Contreras and how good his bat was last year. He likes Jeimer Candelario, Duane Underwood, Billy McKinney, Mark Zagunis and some younger guys—Ian Happ, Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez. Then there are the young pitchers—Dylan Cease, Carson Sands, Justin Steele and Oscar de la Cruz. He thinks a lot of these guys will take a big step forward this year. They also really like 2015 draftee DJ Wilson. He’s young, athletic and has great tools.
  • Edwards jokes about his one at-bat last year against Aroldis Chapman. It was exciting but scary at the time. He didn’t swing at the first two. By the time he swung at the third, he had already heard the ball hit the mitt.
  • Jokisch says his confidence comes from preparation. He prepares like crazy. He wants to know he’s studied more than the guy he’s facing in the box. Vogelbach says he simply doesn’t like to lose. There are plenty of little games inside every big game. Every time he faces a pitcher, it’s a game between him and the pitcher. He hates to lose and is naturally a pretty confident guy. He’s not big into video because it makes him overthink things. He just wants to win each little game. If he doesn’t, he’s confident he’ll win the next one.
  • There’s a lot of talk about the development of catchers and how demanding that position is. The catchers really have to learn and listen and take their lumps. Jokisch talks about how demanding he is with his catchers. Guys like him and Hendricks are so prepared, they want their catchers to be just as prepared and know what it is they want to throw. Jokisch will tell catchers where to set up, how he likes them to set up, sequencing, etc. It’s a give and take, but catcher is the most demanding position to learn and be good at. Catchers need to be really selfless to succeed.
  • McLeod talks about Dylan Cease’s development plan. Cease had Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2014. He got back on the mound in the instructional league last year. He’s very far away, but they sky is the limit. He’s 20, throws hard and has worked really hard on his delivery. He looks like he’s playing catch at 96-97 mph. He also has a solid curve. He’s upside is tremendous, but he has a long way to go.

2016 Cubs Convention: Once a Cub, Always a Cub

Start your Sunday morning with a collection of stories by Cubs alumni. Jose Cardenal, Bobby Dernier, Lee Smith and Rick Sutcliffe all will be on hand to answer questions and tell stories of their playing days. Led by Wayne Messmer.

Although Rick Sutlcliffe was unable to attend the Sunday morning panel, the trio of Jose Cardenal, Bobby Dernier and Lee Smith kept everybody entertained with stories of their playing days, as well as some off-field tales.

Dernier was able to spend the entire 2015 season in Chicago as an ambassador for the club, where he got to enjoy the season. He got to see the new clubhouse and came away wildly impressed. When he joined the team in 1984, the team had recently moved into the now-old clubhouse, which the players felt was huge in comparison to what they were previously using. He described the original clubhouse to be about as big as Smith. Dernier firmly believes that renovations of this nature are part of the key to the Cubs signing players like Jason Heyward this offseason.

Smith had his own story about the first time he walked into Wrigley Field. After landing at the airport, he went looking for a ride, fully expecting a limo to pick him up. After settling for a cab, he was dropped off at the Friendly Confines, where he then had to find the clubhouse. Holding onto all his Cubs gear, he walked into what he thought was the locker room, only to see Cincinnati Reds–the afternoon’s opponent–getting changed into their gear. Realizing he was in the wrong spot, he marched through a crowded concourse with his equipment in tow (he admitted people probably thought he was homeless given his quantity of bags) before finding the home clubhouse. Given the size of the changing room, he still wasn’t entirely certain he was in the right spot. He eventually found his locker, which he had to share with two other teammates.

Cardenal explained that he really started enjoying the game when he got to Chicago in the early 1970s, implying that up until that time it had been more of a job. He loved playing in the outfield in front of the bleacher bums, who took a liking to his abilities. Cardenal noted that he hasn’t played in Chicago in 40 years, yet he is still loved and remembered by Cubs fans.

Dernier explained that a winning mindset can often be the difference to having success. He had won in Little League and in high school. Then he got to the majors and won a World Series with the Phillies. So when he and Gary Matthews Sr. came over in a trade to the Cubs prior to 1984, the two agreed that they weren’t going to settle for losing.

A few other notes include:

Dernier recently reminded former teammate and friend Ryne Sandberg that if it weren’t for inferior players like himself, there wouldn’t be a Hall of Fame. If all the best played each other, it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Cardenal remembers being a member of the Phillies during the 23-22 final score at Wrigley Field. What he remembers most about that game was that he was the only player on both rosters not to get into the action.

Smith played for the Angels, where current Cubs manager Joe Maddon was a bench coach. He said even in the mid-90s, more people were coming to Maddon for advice than the team’s skipper.

Dernier was always intimidated by former Cubs GM Dallas Green, but felt that he was always liked by the big figure. Smith said Green would tell it like it is, but he genuinely cared about his guys, even when they were done playing.

Dernier said the most important move for the franchise was Tom Ricketts’ takeover in 2011. He believes it’s important for the organization to have a figure at the top, and his hiring of baseball president Theo Epstein is as good as it gets. Dernier later explained that when he talks to current players, the most important thing to do is learn how Wrigley Field plays. The former outfielder said the home-field advantage with the ballpark comes in the ability to play solid defense, which can be tricky with the wind and sun.

2016 Cubs Convention: Cy Young Winners

The 2015 season was spectacular for Jake Arrieta, as he captured the NL Cy Young Award after posting a 22-6 record and a sparkling 1.77 ERA. Jim Deshaies hosted this panel with Arrieta and former Cubs right-hander Rick Sutcliffe (NL Cy Young 1984). Each former Cub great relived their award-winning seasons.

Cubs television broadcaster Jim Deshaies (who posted an 84-95 career record with a 4.14 ERA in 12 big league seasons) kicked off the Cy Young panel by informing people that Fergie Jenkins was unable to attend. So it will just be Sutcliffe and Arrieta. Both Sutcliffe and Arrieta get a standing ovation when they’re introduced.

Sutcliffe was in Cleveland before he came to Chicago and said he was pitching well, but no one noticed because the team wasn’t good. Once he came to Chicago, he felt like he had a 5-0 lead before he ever took the mound every game because the Cubs were so good.

Arrieta says there’s no better city to have success in than Chicago. He says it took a lot of failure for him to get to this point a a pitcher, but he worked hard until it all culminated in last season. He says he felt like there was a point last season around midseason where he kind of “blacked out.” He woke up months later a Cy Young winner.

Sutcliffe compared Arrieta’s 2015 season to Bob Gibson’s, after which they lowered the mound to benefit hitters.

Deshaies talks about the inevitability of Arrieta’s no-hitter. He says everyone saw it coming because of how close he’d gotten in the past. Arrieta said he wants the next one to happen at Wrigley Field.

Next up is the question and answer session:

  • Arrieta talks about how much pitching coach Chris Bosio, who also threw a no-hitter has helped him. Arrieta has been picking the brains of guys like Bosio and Sutcliffe to find out how they go about their business. Arrieta says in Baltimore he was trying to make too many changes and getting away from what was comfortable to him. He got back to being himself in Chicago.
  • A fan compliments Arrieta on his beard and asks for some advice on growing a good one. Arrieta says it comes from his dad (as does the back hair). He said his dad is a very hairy man.
  • Sutcliffe says he would have given away his Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards to win a championship here. Arrieta agrees. The goal is to win with 25 other guys and enjoy it with your team. But to be clear, they both loved winning the award.
  • Arrieta’s family knew he won the award before he did. They were bringing champagne out to the patio, and he didn’t know what was going on.
  • Sutcliffe says the only difference after winning the award is it takes longer to sign your name because people want you to put “Cy Young winner” and the year. Deshaies says that’s why he decided not to win one.
  • Sutcliffe says winning the Cy Young changed his life. He’s not sure ESPN ever would have called if that hadn’t happened.
  • Sutcliffe says one of the guys he surprisingly did really well against in his career is George Brett. He has no idea why he was so good against Brett. He jokes he did hit him with a few pitches. Sutcliffe also says Mike Schmidt killed him. Actually, both him and Lee Smith.
  • Sutcliffe says the hardest worker he was ever around was Trevor Hoffman, but Arrieta surpasses that. Sutcliffe has never seen anyone as physically prepared as Arrieta. Sutcliffe says all Arrieta does is work out.
  • Arrieta says he does about three hours of stretching and Pilates before a game starts to get his body as ready as he can get it.
  • Arrieta says the team is really like a family. And winning with that family is the most important thing. He says David Ross is like his granddad. Lester and Lackey are like his older uncles.
  • Arrieta says he thinks he will be a little less stubborn about coming out of games in 2016 so he can save more innings for October. Maddon is good about trying to save innings on his pitchers’ arms.
  • Sutcliffe talks about how the game has changed. There were 39 complete games in the majors last year. Fergie Jenkins had close to 30 in a single year. Sutcliffe wanted to pitch deep into games, but bullpens were not as specialized back then.
  • Arrieta talks about how he gave it to Pirates fans on social media before the Wild Card game, so he had to go deep into that game to back it up.
  • Arrieta says Pittsburgh and St. Louis are his favorite teams to play against because the stakes are higher. They’re always trying to beat those divisional teams. He also says he gets up a little more for St. Louis because Matt Carpenter is one of his closest friends (they played together at TCU). He can’t let Carpenter beat him.
  • Arrrieta says outside expectations are always lower than his personal expectations for himself. He feels like he should dominate every time out. He says he never second guesses himself. He does everything in his power to prepare himself. Inside the lines on game days is the fun part. They real work is the four days in between.
  • Arrieta talks about how good Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke were this year and how he knew it would be tough to beat them in Cy Young voting. Mind you, they already have multiple Cy Young awards between them. Arrieta thought he should get one this year since he didn’t already have one.
  • Both talk about how hard it is to pitch day games after a night game. It’s tough to wind down after night games or get to bed before 3 a.m. With travel, there are times the team doesn’t get home until very late and then has to play again that afternoon.
  • Both talk about the new clubhouse. Sutcliffe says he wonders where the Ricketts family was 30 years ago.
  • Arrieta says he developed his funky throwing motion as a kid. That’s when he started to throw like that and it just stuck. There are no perfect mechanics. People complain about how he throws across his body, but 80 percent of lefties throw that way. Plus, his delivery does help him create some deception and really hide the ball.
  • Arrieta talks about how important diet is to him. He works out a ton (obviously), but a clean diet really is the key. He says he started eating well at an early age. Training and nutrition were always important to him.
  • Arrieta says the mustache onesie after the Dodgers no-hitter was a little tight, but it felt good. He got it in Tennessee when he was there for a short rehab assignment a few years ago. He bought it then thinking he might need it someday. He says that night in LA was the first time he put it on.
  • Sutcliffe says his “I made it to the big leagues” moment was in 1976. He struck out Steve Henderson four times in a game in the minor leagues. The next day Henderson got traded to the Mets in a deal for Tom Seaver. It made reaching the majors seem more realistic.
  • Arrieta says his moment was a slower burn because he had a sense the call was coming. But when he made the drive from Norfolk, Virginia, to Baltimore for his first game, he realized he was facing the Yankees the next day. And the first batter up was Derek Jeter. That was the moment he really felt like he made it.
  • Sutcliffe talks about helping Chicago get to the playoffs for the first time in 39 years in 1984, when the Cubs clinched the NL East. He was pitching in Pittsburgh with a chance to clinch and saw a fan holding a sign that said “39 years of suffering is enough.” Sutcliffe was new to the organization and didn’t know what it meant, so he asked the fan. The fan explained it to him, and Sutcliffe says he didn’t mean it to be cocky, but he said, “After tonight, that’s all going to change. I promise you that.” After the Cubs clinched behind Sutcliffe’s two-hit complete game, they went out on the field and somehow they had piped in what was going on at Wrigley Field on the screen in Pittsburgh. He realized what it meant to Chicago then.

2016 Cubs Convention: Rock Star Rookies

Cubs rookies stood out in a big way in 2015, helping the Cubs reach the postseason. Hear from Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber on what it was like to make such a big impact in their first season in the big leagues. Jim Deshaies will get these key contributors talking.

Kyle Schwarber doesn’t want to put individual number goals on himself. He just wants to contribute, even if that just means moving the guy over to third when he’s supposed to. As a team the playoffs and the division are a goal, and they’ll see what happens from there.

Addison Russell doesn’t feel the pressure. But he believes that with the new additions, they have the capabilities to win it all. Whenever Russell sees his teammates play, he says their natural talents speak for themselves and they don’t let the pressure get to them, which allows him to play more freely as a result. Javier Baez agrees, and feels that getting a ring would be the goal.

Kris Bryant had a big year, including an engagement. He called 2015 the best year of his life. He also said he thought 2013 was the best year of his life, then 2014 happened.

Russell’s play in the hole against the Cardinals during the tail end of the regular season was his, “Welcome to the big leagues moment.” He believes that his excitement was something that he doesn’t generally show, but it was a great personal moment in his baseball career.

Russell said he gave up No. 22 because Heyward has always had a good reason to wear it, honoring an old high school classmate. Russell has always liked the No. 27 and had never been able to wear it. Schwarber wasn’t able to wear No. 12 at Indiana and switched to No. 10. Obviously he wasn’t able to wear that number with the Cubs, as it’s retired for legend Ron Santo. Both Baez and Bryant both liked the No. 23, which was also unavailable due to Ryne Sandberg’s jersey number reitrement. Baez switched to No. 9 because he liked it and Bryant took No. 17 because of his dad, who wore that number in the minors.

Russell joked that he got a lot of spankings as a kid, but he could go on and on talking about how great his parents are. Schwarber said his parents are his role models. The lefty slugger said he would go out to fields to take batting practice with both his parents; his dad would toss pitches and his mom would shag fly balls on her own.

Baez said he went into manager Joe Maddon’s office when he first came up where, “He told me just to go out there and ‘try not to suck.’”

Schwarber was tutored and mentored by both Jon Lester and David Ross. He and Ross would sit together in the dugout for a lot of the season to break down the game, especially fellow catcher Miguel Montero. Russell said Ross and Lester helped him out also, as well as former Cub Edwin Jackson. He felt he could connect with the ex-Cub pitcher. Baez credits Manny Ramirez and former Cub Starlin Castro. He also said Pedro Strop knows a ton about the game and is always somebody he has conversations with. Bryant was helped out by both Anthony Rizzo, former Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler and Ross as well.

Bryant believes the biggest difference between the minors and the majors is just the star factor and that he’s facing guys on a regular basis that he grew up watching on a daily basis.

Schwarber said he didn’t really change as a player when he first became a Cub, but the most important thing to keep in mind is just to remember where he came from.

Russell credits minor league guys like Anthony Giansanti for making the transition easier from Oakland’s system to the Cubs.

Bryant enjoys the idea of playing all over the field. He thinks it brings a new focus. Schwarber was told he almost went in to play third base during the NLCS. He told Maddon he hadn’t played there before but “he’d block it for him.”

2016 Cubs Convention: Meet the New Cubs

The front office has made several key acquisitions this offseason, bolstering the pitching staff and adding to the lineup. Come welcome some of the newest Cubs to Chicago: Rex Brothers, Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Adam Warren and Ben Zobrist. Ron Coomer and Dave Otto will lead the conversation as the guys talk about their lives on and off the field, and what they’re most looking forward to about playing for the Cubs.

Ron Coomer and Dave Otto hosted the afternoon panel, which got underway right away with questions.

John Lackey says the main reason he decided to play in Chicago was to make history and do something special. He loves visiting Chicago as a member of the road team. There’s a little extra energy in the playoffs, things get “amped up.”

Jason Heyward loves coming here as a visitor as well, crediting a lively Wrigley Field and the fan loyalty as part of his reason for signing. He says he’s just trying to get out of the first round of the postseason, something he’s been unable to do in his previous six seasons at baseball’s top level. Baseball is his job and he’s just fortunate to get to do it in front of Cubs fans.

Ben Zobrist, who played with manager Joe Maddon in his time in Tampa,  says he got to know what some of manager’s tendencies are, but he definitely keeps everybody on his toes with his willingness to play guys all over the place. Players even rolled their eyes at some of the moves just because they originally sound so outside of the box in principle, but he loves playing for him.

Zobrist was also asked what advice he would give a 14-year-old team. He suggests continuing to work hard and that youth ballplayers are learning skills that may not even go to the baseball field, but in life. He also reminders the questionnaire to just have fun.

Adam Warren got an opportunity to play with Mark Prior in the minors and had a great experience. He also said if he was given an opportunity to play with Kerry Wood, it would have been fun.

Zobrist joked that Maddon gave him the nickname, “Zorilla,” which is actually, “one of the smelliest animals on the planet.” He hopes Maddon was unaware of that, but he’s not entirely sure if that’s the case.

When asked about the fandom, Heyward said, “We chose you.”

Zobrist called his experience in the World Series an unreal one. But when it comes down to it, it’s still the same game and they need to go out there and win the game. Zobrist claimed a title with the Royals in 2015. Lackey, who won in 2002 with the Angels and 2013 with the Red Sox, agrees with that notion. He believes that there’s a lot of things going on outside of the game including the pregame and postgame requirements, but after first pitch, it’s time to lock in.

Adam Warren referred to entering any season in New York as, “World Series or die,” every year. The former Yankee said it makes him feel like he needs to play great, because you don’t want to be booed by the home crowd.

Rex Brothers, unaware of the quantity of day games on the Cubs schedule, calls playing in the afternoon a different style game. From a reliever standpoint, during a day game, he’s sitting in the sun, it just is a different animal.

“It sounds like I have quite an adjustment to make,” Brothers said. after quickly being informed of the many 1:20 starts at Wrigley Field. “I know me personally, I’ve walked out of Wrigley too many times hearing that, ‘Go Cubs Go.’”

Zobrist relived the last time he was at Wrigley Field as a player (in 2014), and he was in awe of the ballpark. He envisioned himself playing there when he became a free agent.

Brothers says he’s always had a tough time getting out former Cub Chris Denorfia. He claims he’d often have Denorfia in an 0-2 hole, and the right-handed batter would somehow get it back to a full count. Then he’d tip off a few pitches and Brothers decided the next pitch was going to be the last one he’d throw to him and Denorfia, regardless of the outcome. He said Denorfia generally proceeded to crush the ball into the gap.

2016 Cubs Convention: Business Operations Update

The business operations of the Chicago Cubs continues to deliver growth for the long-term success of the organization. At this panel, fans heard directly from Cubs business executives on initiatives underway to grow revenue, enhance the fan experience and support the Wrigleyville community. Fans also received an update on the progress of the 1060 Project.

Crane Kenney leads off with an update on what the organization accomplished in 2015 and says he will look ahead at what’s happening next year and beyond.

He begins by thanking the fans for their support through this process of restoring Wrigley Field. The fans have stuck with the team through good and bad.

The decision to play at Wrigley Field while restoring it was like flying a plane while you’re building it. It was a difficult process. They knew they would be opposed by the alderman, rooftops, etc. They appreciate the way the fans stuck with them.

The Cubs asked for your patience last year and will ask for it again in the coming years. The plaza and office building will be built during the 2016 season. Work on the western gate will go on throughout the season and be completed by end of season.

The greatest thing the Ricketts family has done for the team is to give each department time. Owners are thinking about the organization in the long term. This isn’t a rush job. The philosophy is to make sure things are done right.

Patience needs to be rewarded, and the Cubs feel like they’ve made a bit of a down payment on some of the fans’ patience with the success last season. Kenney celebrates some of the teams’ on-field accomplishments. He also talks a bit about bringing Ryne Sandberg back into the family.

Kenney celebrates the success of the video boards and talks about how the fans have accepted them. He speaks a little about the new partnership with CBS Radio and ABC-TV. This allows them to reach a greater audience in Chicago. Their average rating was the same as TBS got for the NLCS broadcasts.

Paid attendance increased by 300,000 at Wrigley Field. Season ticket holders just renewed at a 98 percent clip. They also broke a spring training attendance record at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. And spring training sales have already doubled so far this year.

Kenney gives a big shout out to Cubs Charities and the work they do in the community.

The 1060 Project has been one of the largest job creators in the state in the past year. Kenney runs through the work they did on the park and shows a video recapping the progress. They’re now budgeting for shorter offseason work schedules to accommodate postseason play. That gets some applause. This will likely make the project more expensive, and it will take a little longer.

This season, the left-field terrace seats are being replaced.

The new clubhouse is progressing and will be ready by opening day. It will be one of the largest in baseball and the most expensive in history. Another video gives a sneak peek on the work. Phase 2 is more about steel structure in the stadium for the fans and the new player facilities. The new player spaces are 30,000 square feet.

Work on both the new plaza and hotel will be ongoing during the 2016 season.

Kenney says they are close to completing their journey from worst to first in terms of player facilities. He then shows pictures of the plan for the new plaza on the west side of the ballpark. This new plaza will be ready for opening day 2017.

The Cubs just announced the acquisition of three new rooftops. They also launched WrigleyRooftops.com for fans looking to book the rooftops.

They are also working on the center field bleachers to finish that part of the project. They’re bringing back the planters boxes from decades ago. There will also be an interactive history display on the bleacher concourse.

The new concert schedule at Wrigley Field includes James Taylor, Billy Joel and Luke Bryan. The concert business is a major contributor to the Cubs bottom line and has helped them grow their payroll. But the priority is still keeping the field ready for play.

The majority of the Friday afternoon games will be 1:20 starts this year. They are forgoing the 3:05 starts in 2015. Joe Maddon wanted more consistency with game time starts.

Kenney then opens the floor to questions. He is joined by Colin Faulkner, Alex Sugarman, Alison Miller and Carl Rice.

Carl Rice talks about how the mild winter weather has helped them with the construction season. Plus the project is not as exposed to the elements this year. A lot of the work is enclosed.

 There will be increased security measures in MLB this year. Kenney says how seriously they take security. There will be metal detectors this season to protect players, fans, etc. The Cubs have asked the city for help protect the stadium by extending their perimeter of control. They wouldn’t own that space, they would just know which cars, etc. are traveling there. The Cubs ask that you plan to give yourself more time to get into the ballpark this year.

 They will be extending the protective netting at the ballpark this year.

 A fan asks why Ernie Banks wasn’t more prominent at this convention. Kenney says they probably should have had a moment of silence.

 Kenney and Faulkner talk a bit about digital ticketing. More fans seem to prefer digital tickets to standard paper tickets.

 Season ticket holders will have a chance to purchase their old seats that have been removed and replaced. The Cubs will reach out to season ticket holders about this.

 A fan asks about the increase in season ticket prices. Ticket prices stayed flat during the lean years. The goal is to put as many resources as possible into the Cubs three primary goals for the organization. They looked at data, talked to fans. It was a tough decision, but the right one.

 The pavers that were removed are all being replaced. They are in place right now (but covered) and will be unveiled on opening day.

 In the long run, the Cubs would like to close off Sheffield as a pedestrian mall like they do at Fenway. It’s not a high priority right now.

2016 Cubs Convention: Joe Maddon and His Coaching Staff

Joe Maddon and his staff engineered the biggest turnaround in the big leagues last season, as the Cubs won 97 games. He made waves off the field too, from themed road trips to bringing zoo animals to Wrigley Field. This panel covers what’s ahead for the 2015 NL Manager of the Year and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff. It was hosted by Len Kasper.

Full disclosure: We missed about the first 20 minutes of this panel while covering another one. Here’s what we were able to catch from the questionn and answer session:

The first question we caught was about Kyle Schwarber and where he will play next year. Mike Borzello, the catching coach, starts by saying he wants Schwarber to be a catcher. Dave Martinez, the outfield coach, wants him in the outfield. Martinez says people don’t realize how athletic Schwarber is. Schwarber wants to steal bases. He’s also been picking Jason Heyward’s brain to try to be a better outfielder.

Maddon called Eric Hinske Schwarber’s dad. Hinske joked that he looks like Schwarber and often gets asked to sign autographs as Schwarber. He takes that as a compliment (Hinske is 38 years old).

The coaches all talk about how special 2015 was. Maddon talks about Javy Baez’s home run in the postseason and how special that was for the young player and for him as a manager. He also talks abotu the fight his team displayed in the postseason. He says he’s good at reading players’ faces to see if they still have some fight in them. His team never gave up.

One fan asks about Baez playing center field in winter ball. Maddon really likes the idea of Baez in center. He’s very athletic and is one of the best on-field defenders Maddon has ever seen. Maddon praises Baez’s baseball acumen. He also likes winter ball for players and likes to see guys playing year-round.

The next question is about the great prospects who came up with Dave Martinez, comparing that class to the current one. Martinez said he just wants to keep all these guys for a long time. He’s surprised at how big these guys are. The talent pool right now is unbelievable. He’s ecstatic to be able to work with these guys on a daily basis. He feels their job is just not to screw these guys up. They players are just that good.

There is a question about the depth in the bullpen and how many swingmen there are. How will this get sorted out? Maddon says you can never have enough relief pitchers. He wants at least four guys who can pitch in high-leverage situations—even-or-ahead-guys, he calls them. He thinks they have seven guys this year who can do that. “When you have interchangeable people like we do, you can keep guys frisky until the end of the season.,” Maddon says. He wants to dole out the work and keep guys fresh. Bosio says they have something that no one else in baseball has. Four bullpen guys who have four to five pitches. Other teams are trying to follow what the Cubs are doing. Maddon talks about how the game can be won or lost in the fifth or sixth inning, so he wants to use the key guys in the key situations.

Maddon talks about wanting starters to go deep in games, which makes for a better bullpen. But he uses Kansas City as an example or the Yankees. Maddon thinks the Cubs bullpen could be comparable to those in terms of shutdown pitchers. He looks at how sharp the starter is and how fresh his bullpen is. But he generally looks at the hitters more than the skillset of the pitchers. He’s playing matchups in leverage moments. It’s about leverage moments and who is the best guy for the job against each hitter.

Bosio talks about how the game as changed and compliments Maddon on how he manages the game and the pitchers. Bosio has an old-school mentality about pitching as a former starter. Now he knows the game is going to tell you the move. That’s what Maddon does so well. Bosio says you’re trying to win every game, but you’re also trying to win every at-bat, every out. That’s something he learned from Maddon.

There’s a question about the hardest decision Maddon had to make. He says it was the time he took Jason Hammel out of a game early against San Francisco. He knew how important that series was and thought he needed to start managing like it was a playoff situation. That decision made sense to him in that big series. He wanted to get that first win in the series. It was difficult, but it was the right thing to do. They ultimately swept the series.

Someone asks a question about Martinez’s managerial aspirations. Martinez says there’s no better man to learn from than Maddon. When he first started coaching in Tampa, he asked Maddon what he wanted him to do because he’s not a yes man. Joe said he wanted Martinez to be himself and tell him what he saw, whether Maddon agreed or not. the manager wants to be challenged. Martinez also says he learns a ton from this coaching staff. Maddon told him early on never to think he knows enough about the game. Just be a good listener. Martinez is happy with where he is. He chose to be here and wants to win here.

The last question is about whether Maddon has any regrets from the season. He says perhaps he should have said more rosaries.

 

 

 

 

2016 Cubs Convention: Baseball Management

After the highly successful 2015 season, the Baseball Operations department has been hard at work gearing up for the 2016 campaign. Len Kasper interviews President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, Executive Vice President/General Manager Jed Hoyer, and Assistant General Managers Randy Bush and Shiraz Rehman about the offseason and what lies ahead in 2016.

Theo Epstein opened up the panel, thanking fans for their loud applause during the Opening Ceremony. He discussed the successful offseason, especially with Jason Heyward, where he felt it didn’t feel like signing a free agent, it felt more like adding to our young core. Adam Warren, the return for Starlin Castro, is a guy that could sneak up on people.

Hoyer was reminded of how hard it wins 97 games. He and Epstein looked at each other that last week as the wins kept racking up, and were in some disbelief.

They were asked at what point they may part with members of the elite bench or prospects for top-level players, and they said that with so much talent on the major league front, they may be more willing to dip into the minor league depth.

The front office is extremely excited about Minor League Player of the Year Willson Contreras, and they see him as an incredibly talented catcher. He projects to be a front-line backstop in the big leagues for a long time.

They were asked about some drastic splits with a few of the young Cubs, and how they can be better balanced. Hoyer think Kyle Schwarber will be able to hit lefties if they allow him enough at-bats, which they plan to do. He believes Kris Bryant’s home/road splits are a little more random. They also just hope Jorge Soler will get used to the cold weather.

Hundley discussed the difference of Wrigley Field versus any other stadium in terms of hitting. He says the weather plays a big role and there is an adjustment period involved, especially with young players.

Rehman was asked about the back-to-back transaction of the Ben Zobrist signing turning into a Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren deal. He said a lot of work is involved.

“Getting access to starting pitching was something we really wanted to do this winter,” Rehman reiterated.

Epstein also brought up that relationships and trust are important when making multi-level moves. He said it took almost two full months of Zobrist’s trust. They also had talked about the Castro-for-Warren deal with the Yankees at the 2015 trade deadline.

Hoyer anticipates the changes of the international market spending policies. There could be an international draft at some point soon.

Epstein said they have so many hitters coming up, that they all would like a designated hitter, but it’s out of their hands.

With regards to adding talent prior to Spring Training, Hoyer talks every day with teams and agents trying to upgrade the team. But they’re not looking for big changes at this point. There is a lot of versatility, both with the position players and the pitchers. He believes the Cardinals are going to be good year after year, but it’s in the Cubs’ best interest to build the best roster for themselves.

Epstein is planning for projected lineups for the next half decade. He made that point to state they won’t abandon the search for young players and hope to keep a deep farm system.

Epstein said there was plenty of talent ready for him in Boston that they were able to win from the beginning. He realized when he got to Chicago, he needed to build from the ground up. He thanked fans for their patience and he hopes the upcoming seasons will be worth it.

Rehman thinks the players enjoy the idea of potentially coming in and playing positions or doing something they maybe haven’t done in previous seasons. It makes it fun for the front office too because manager Joe Maddon is willing to try something new or outside of the box when a transaction is proposed.

Epstein isn’t a fan of the arbitration. He hasn’t had a player go to arbitration in 15 years. They are the biggest Jake Arrieta fans and they want to see him in a Cubs uniform for the foreseeable future.

The Cubs were aggressive this offseason because of how “dry” the upcoming free-agent class is going to be. They don’t want to rely on free agency every year.

When going into a draft, the front office talks about the person drafted just as much as the player. They are going to have to project how a young player gets challenged in a new situation.

2016 Cubs Convention: Ricketts Family panel

In their sixth year as owners of the Chicago Cubs, the Ricketts family goals to win the World Series, restore Wrigley Field for future generations and be a good neighbor, remain the same. Tom, Todd and Laura Ricketts will be on hand as 670 The Score’s Mully and Hanley discuss with them the strides they have made across each of these goals over the last year, plus answer questions from you, the fans.

The Ricketts Family panel opened up the full slate of Saturday panels at the 2016 Cubs Convention. With Tom, Laura and Todd Ricketts on hand, Tom opened up the discussion with the excitement of the offseason. He described his post-season meeting with baseball president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. The front office duo proposed an ideal offseason for the club, with the understanding that it was unlikely it would all come to fruition. However, as Hoyer stated at last night’s Ryan Dempster panel, the organization was able to land just about everyone on their wish list; the team signed Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey in a trio of free-agent signings while flipping Starlin Castro for pitcher Adam Warren.

On the same note with Heyward, Tom was jokingly bitter at the reminder that the first game of the Ricketts’ ownership began with Heyward launching a homer to right field off of then-Cub Carlos Zambrano in the first inning of Opening Day, 2010.

The panelists were asked their favorite moments of the season, and Tom actually pointed to a moment in 2014, when Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo challenged the entire Reds dugout after Aroldis Chapman had thrown a few pitches high and tight on then-Rizzo teammate Nate Schierholtz. It showed his leadership capabilities and showed that as a team, they were not going to back down from anybody. It’s a trait that he feels carried over into 2015.

Laura’s favorite moment came during the one-game playoff in Pittsburgh, where the whole family was able to attend. Though it was on the road, she applauded the atmosphere, describing how loud the setting was.

“There were a great number of Cubs fans there that night,” Todd added. “I had a transformation of mind, like ‘we’re here, we’re in the fox hole, this is incredible.’”

Todd then described his wife as somebody who wasn’t initially committed to baseball, but something that has grown on her. But bitter from her take on Mets fans after the Cubs NLCS, she loved the Royals winning the World Series. After Matt Harvey refused to come out of the World Series game and the Mets wound up blowing a lead, his wife jumped out of her chair and yelled, “Screw you Matt Harvey, screw you!”

Tom said there won’t be many notable visible changes to Wrigley Field for fans this year, believing the updated clubhouse will be the biggest change to the ballpark. He explained the inferior state of the players’ facilities before they took ownership, and didn’t want to sell a first-class organization with third-class amenities.

The emcees then turned the questions over to fans in attendance.

The Ricketts’ were asked about, “the holdup on the extension” with Theo Epstein, who’s in the final year of a five-year deal.

Tom said they’re on the same page, with a deal that will likely work itself out in due time. He was unwilling to give a timeline, but believes a deal will get done that is beneficial to all parties. Ricketts also applauded his front office, noting that Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod have turned down bigger jobs from other organizations in exchange for seeing out their World Series goals.

The family was asked about what it’s like to work together as a family. Todd said that as a kid, he was told by his mom that there could be squabbles inside the house, but they need to remember that they’re a family. Laura said that they have weekly family business meetings, where everybody is kept up to date. She also said Tom makes a lot of decisions, but they are all in the best interest of the family.

Another fan asked if there would be the ability to walk around the entire stadium in the near future. Tom fielded the question, and noted that one of the big issues is that the bleachers are general admission and there are not many other ballparks in baseball with general admission, making it difficult to regulate seating. And they’re highly desirable seats, people want to sit there.

In regards to Alderman Tom Tunney, the three wanted to remind people that the hope with the exterior Wrigley Field renovations are for people who live around Wrigley to treat Cubs Plaza like a town’s square of sorts.

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