Christian Villanueva is one of the best defensive infielders in the minors. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
Baseball stats website Baseball Prospectus continued its Top Tools series Tuesday and switched to the defensive end of the game, giving honorable mention to Cubs prospects Christian Villanueva and Javier Baez for best infield defense and best infield arm, respectively.
Many have speculated that the third baseman Villanueva would be ready for the major leagues already from a defensive perspective. Here’s what BP had to say:
Villanueva might not play the toughest defensive position on the infield, but that hasn’t stopped him from drawing ample praise from scouts. He has hands that can rival those of Francisco Lindor and he moves well for the position, making every play necessary at the hot corner.
Lindor, the Indians’ prized shortstop, was viewed as the best defensive infielder. In 124 games last season, Villanueva did commit 24 errors, but he has been viewed as a prospect with great hands and solid footwork.
Baseball Prospectus sees Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons as the ceiling for best defensive infielder in the game right now, with Cardinals legend and Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith as the best all time.
Everybody knows Baez for his bat, as his 37 homers last year made a lot of noise in the minor league circuit, but he also has a cannon for an arm. Coincidentally, it was his arm that got him in little trouble defensively. He committed 44 errors in 123 games at shortstop. But his ability to get the ball to first quickly is one of the reasons he hasn’t been moved off of the position yet.
Young shortstops Baez, [Carlos] Correa and [Dixon] Machado can rifle balls to first base from any spot on the dirt. All three players consistently earn plus-plus grades from scouts, and the occasional elite grade will pop onto the radar.
Orioles phenom Manny Machado set the standard for current players while former Cub Shawon Dunston set the all-time bar, according to Baseball Prospectus.
The Cubs will get a chance to test drive the new Cubs Park stadium for the first time Wednesday in an intrasquad affair at 1 p.m. local time (2 p.m. CST). Gates open at the ballpark at 12:30 local time.
Cubs prospect (and Northwestern alum) Eric Jokisch will start for the “visiting” team against 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year (and recent Dartmouth grad) Kyle Hendricks for the home side.
“[Hendricks] has got a tremendous amount of poise on the hill, and obviously has a mix of pitches,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “But more than anything, from all of these guys, I’m just seeing how they’re locating and how they’re using their secondary pitches. As the spring progresses, we’ll see how they look and if they’re maintaining what they have and how they’re going to go into the season.”
The Cubs first Cactus League game is Thursday at Cubs Park versus the Diamondbacks. Jeff Samardzija will take the hill.
Here are manager Renteria’s lineups for Wednesday’s game:
3B Luis Valbuena
CF Junior Lake
SS Starlin Castro
RF Nate Schierholtz
LF Darnell McDonald
1B Chris Valaika
2B Darwin Barney
C John Baker
P Eric Jokisch
Bench: Logan Watkins, Rafael Lopez, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Jeudy Valdez, Christian Villanueva, Aaron Cunningham, Mike Olt, Matt Szczur, Luis Flores
Relievers: Tsuyoshi Wada, Arodys Vizcaino, Brian Schlitter
2B Emilio Bonifacio
RF Justin Ruggiano
1B Anthony Rizzo
CF Ryan Sweeney
DH Welington Castillo
3B Donnie Murphy
SS Javier Baez
C George Kottaras
LF Chris Coghlan
P Kyle Hendricks
Bench: Mitch Maier, Ryan Kalish, Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Casper Wells, Eli Whiteside, Will Remillard
Relievers: Chang-Yong Lim, Marcus Hatley, Neil Ramirez, Armando Rivero
Kris Bryant is a big reason why the Cubs have one of the best farm systems in baseball. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs haven’t fared that well on the field at the major league level for a few seasons now, but they’ve still earned a well-deserved pat on the back for the transformation that’s taken place at the minor league stages. On Wednesday, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs the second best farm system in the game.
To put that into perspective, the list Baseball Prospectus unveiled during the 2011 Spring Training—the last before baseball president Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer’s arrival—had them ranked No. 23.
In the 2014 list, the Cubs trail only the Twins for the best farm system. Here is what they had to say about the club:
2. Chicago Cubs
Farm System Ranking in 2013: 12
2014 Top Ten Prospects: Link
State of the System: Thanks to a strong draft, clever trades, an aggressive acquisition plan in the international market, and developmental progress from some of the big names in the system, the Cubs became one of the strongest systems in the game.
Top Prospect: Javier Baez (4)
Breakout Candidates for 2014: Jeimer Candelario and Paul Blackburn
Prospects on the BP 101: 7
Must-See Affiliate: Double-A Tennessee
Prospects to See There: Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, CJ Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Dan Vogelbach
Farm System Trajectory for 2015: Up. While its likely that several of the Cubs’ top prospects will get a taste of the majors in 2014, the majority of the talent will remain eligible for next season’s list, and if you add to the mix a high draft pick this June and an extreme amount of young depth ready to make their stateside debuts, the system could take over the coveted rank of number one in baseball.
Cubs prospect Jorge Soler takes a swing at Cubs Park Tuesday.
The day kicked off Tuesday with Cubs legend Fergie Jenkins addressing the 66 players in major league camp and about 50 others from the minor league mini camp. The Hall of Famer talked about his time as a player and what it takes to survive in the major leagues.
In 10 years with the Cubs, Jenkins posted six consecutive 20-win seasons (1967-72) and four consecutive seasons with more than 300 innings (1968-71). During his Cy Young season in 1971, Jenkins went 24-13 with a 2.77 ERA and threw 325.0 innings with 263 strikeouts versus only 37 walks. Jenkins was joined by fellow Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, who is in camp all spring as an instructor.
“I thought Fergie was good,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “I don’t know that he’s ever spoken to the group like that, so it was nice to have him out there to talk to everybody. Here’s a guy who’s a Hall of Famer, who’s worked from a different era and brings in a different perspective … gives them a perspective of the things we should all appreciate about where we’re at.”
After about two weeks of practice, the Cubs will finally crank things up to game speed for the first time Wednesday in a six-inning exhibition game at Cubs Park. The contest will start at 1 p.m. local time, with Kyle Hendricks and Eric Jokisch facing off against one another.
“It’s a whole different atmosphere here,” Jokisch said. “You get to meet all the big league guys and the big league coaches and learn from them. I’m excited to get the games started.”
Other pitchers slated to see action are Marcus Hatley, Chang-Yong Lim, Neil Ramirez, Armando Rivero, Brian Schlitter, Arodys Vizcaino and Tsuyoshi Wada. Renteria has not yet decided on the lineups, but he said he plans to mix it up so both veteran players and prospects can see some live pitching before the Cactus League campaign kicks off Thursday.
“We’re looking forward to playing the game. We’re excited. They’ve been working hard, and they want to put their work to use. We’re looking forward to letting them play and finding out what things we’re going to have to continue to improve on,” Renteria said. “It’s going to be good for me and for the staff to see the guys just put themselves out there between the lines with a little bit more of a competitive aspect to the game. [They can see] where they’re at as far as timing, and pitchers obviously [will see] where they’re at with hitters in game-type situations, which is what we’re building up to do.”
Renteria also mentioned that Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who underwent Tommy John surgery last June, threw a side session off the mound Monday. He threw some long toss and about 20-25 pitches off the mound, and it went very well.
“He gave me the thumbs up that it came out well,” Renteria said. “Like all our guys that are improving their health, we’re just going to take it one day at a time and continue to be patient and hope that they continue to progress.”
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs announced details for purchasing single-game tickets for the 2014 season, the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field. This season, the Friendly Confines will host a year-long celebration to honor the classic stadium. Along with Cubs baseball, guests will enjoy unique promotional items, retro food and beverage options, throwback uniforms and entertainment specific with the time period being celebrated during that homestand.
Single-game tickets go on sale Friday, March 7 at 10 a.m. CST at cubs.com and by phone at 1-800-THE-CUBS. For fans purchasing tickets online, a virtual waiting room will begin accepting customers at 9:30 a.m., and at 10 a.m. customers will be selected from the virtual waiting room to begin purchasing tickets. All internet customers will need valid cubs.com accounts.
Fans can also participate in the MasterCard pre-sale, which begins Tuesday, March 4 at 10 a.m. CST, where fans using a MasterCard can purchase tickets in advance at a 15 percent premium, while fans using other forms of payment may buy tickets at a 20 percent premium.
The team will no longer host a two-hour on-sale event at Wrigley Field prior to online and phone sales, but the Wrigley Field ticket windows will be open Saturday, March 8 at 9 a.m.
To celebrate Wrigley Field’s milestone, the team introduced a section of MasterCard Century Seats, priced at $19.14 for every game this season. The 350-seat section is located in the Upper Deck Box level in left field. These tickets must be purchased with a MasterCard and are available at cubs.com/centuryseats or 1-800-THE-CUBS.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Cubs prospect Jorge Soler turns 22 years old Tuesday. The La Habana, Cuba native signed a nine-year deal with the club in the summer of 2012 and has been viewed as one of baseball’s top prospects since his arrival. MLB.com recently named him the Cubs’ No. 3 prospect and No. 26 in baseball.
Injuries shortened what looked to be a promising 2013 campaign, where he hit .281/.343/.467 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with eight home runs, 13 doubles and 35 RBI in 55 High-A Daytona games. A member of the 40-man roster, Soler has been in Mesa with the major league side, though it’s likely he’ll start the 2014 season in Daytona or Double-A Tennessee.
Much has been made of the fact that new Cubs manager Rick Renteria speaks both English and Spanish. He opened his daily press conference Monday by testing a new language on some Japanese reporters. With players like Kyuji Fujikawa and Tsuyoshi Wada in camp, Renteria has been learning new Japanese phrases daily to better communicate with his team.
Renteria and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff had high praise for the Cubs new training facility, including the Cubs Park stadium, which saw it’s first action Monday afternoon.
“It’s a beautiful facility. Obviously, we came and saw it earlier but to have them go out there and hit will allow them to get a feel for the field,” Renteria said. “It’s brand new, it’s expansive seating, it’s incredible. For a Spring Training facility, it’s almost a big league ballpark.”
Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood both threw off the mound at the stadium, and many of the major leaguers—including Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Ryan Sweeney—took batting practice. Though Rizzo blasted a few shots onto the outfield berm, he said the park plays big.
The Cubs also announced their early Cactus League rotation. Jeff Samardzija will inaugurate Cubs Park at the home opener on Thursday against the Diamondbacks’ Bronson Arroyo. Chris Rusin will take the mound Friday in Tempe against the Angels. The Cubs play a doubleheader on Saturday, with Travis Wood pitching the day game in Mesa against the Giants, and Edwin Jackson starting the nightcap versus the D-backs in Scottsdale. New Cubs starter Jason Hammel will start Sunday at home against the Royals.
The Cubs will play a six-inning intrasquad exhibition game at 1 p.m. local time on Wednesday at Cubs Park. Cubs 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Kyle Hendricks will start against Northwestern alum Eric Jokisch.
The following can be found in the Profile section of March’s edition of Vine Line.
Former American League batting champ Bill Mueller is back in Cubbie blue as the new big league hitting coach.
Born: 3/17/71 in Maryland Heights, Mo.
Resides: Mesa, Ariz.
Joined Cubs: 11/22/13
Position: Hitting Coach
COMING HOME It’s a wonderful experience to be back in this city. Being a part of the team again is exciting. And being a part of an organization like this, with Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] and everyone, I think it’s an exciting time to be in this organization. I’m looking forward to having a great year and enjoying this wonderful opportunity.
TOP DOG [Rick Renteria] is as genuine as they come. And knowledgeable, very experienced. Basically, you know what you’re going to be getting. You know what you’re going to have in that [dugout] every single day. Same with the coaching staff. All of these guys are excellent, solid individuals with an enormous amount of experience.
FEELING GOOD We all know the pressures of performance in what we do out there. With our [coaching staff’s] experience, it’s just a matter of working with each individual and working with where they are. It’s our job to figure that out and enhance all that and get them consistent. We’re all about enhancing their confidence and minimizing their insecurities.
IN THE SWING You just want to be a good listener and listen to where they’re at, where they place value in their swing, how cognitive they are, what’s their approach, where do they see their role on the team. You’ve got to get these questions going, and then you can dissect it better if you want to take it in a certain direction—whether it’s a swing path or a lower half thing or an approach thing—and start interjecting things at the right time so they make an impact.
ME, MYSELF AND I When we were in the minor leagues, a lot of us didn’t even have hitting coaches. You had to watch the good hitters in that league and figure things out. I wasn’t ultratalented, so you had to ask questions of other guys on your team, and you had to tinker around with things. You had to learn who you were, your strengths, your weaknesses, what made you tick, swing path, timing, rhythm and all that stuff. You started becoming your own coach.
ON THE FARM It’s an enormous amount of talent [in the Cubs system]. On top of that, there’s an enormous amount of character. That’s what’s really special, because there’s a lot more growing mentally as well as physically for all these guys. No matter how talented you are, there’s always that big step of transitioning to get to the big leagues and stay in the big leagues. With that foundation of character and their work ethic and their talent, they’re fortified to really come up here and start having some success.
TOP MOMENT The one that comes to mind first is my first at-bat in the big leagues. When you’re not really a prospect coming up and you’re not 6-foot-4, 225 pounds—not highly skilled where I’m pumping jacks just because—that moment was an unbelievable experience and an enormous accomplishment, to make it to that point and reach my dream that I had been dreaming about since I was 7 years old.
HOME TURF I was born and raised in St. Louis. [Before playing in the 2004 World Series with the Red Sox], the last World Series game I was ever at was in 1982 with my dad in the nosebleeds—[the Brewers’] Cecil Cooper hit a home run up there. The next moment, I’m part of a World Series, and I’m winning it at Busch Stadium with my mom and dad in the stands and friends and family. So it was an exciting time, breaking a curse of 86 years and winning a World Series on my home soil.
The following is from the Inside Pitch section of March’s Vine Line.
From 1929-38, as the world suffered through the Great Depression, the Cubs ironically experienced their last sustained run of on-field prosperity. Over that 10-year stretch, they had the best record and most World Series appearances (four) of any NL team.
Since then, whether the organization has attempted a quick fix or a measured reconstruction, efforts to rekindle that flame have produced only flickers.
Two and a half years ago, Ricketts family ownership hired Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as general manager to end the organization’s 75-year drought of inconsistency. Now entering their third season, Epstein and Hoyer realize the progress they see internally isn’t always obvious to fans.
“We take grief from friends, family and critics,” Epstein said. “But we know what’s coming. We have to continue to build with our group, because it’s going to be a lot of fun when we get there.”
The Cubs’ aim all along has been to become baseball’s next model organization, and, unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix for that.
“We feel great about the people we have in place now,” Epstein said. “We’re talking about our scouting department, player development, professional scouts and major league staff. You’re constantly looking for new ways to improve. We look to do this by putting people in the right place, promoting the right guys and making sure everyone gets better at their job every year.”
Epstein’s goal is not to generate a single World Series title, but to create a consistent contender as he did in Boston. In his nine seasons there, the Red Sox made six postseason appearances and won both World Series in which they played. Moreover, almost half of Boston’s 2013 World Series championship roster was traceable to Epstein and his BoSox staff.
“We’re looking to be in position to win 90 games every year, which puts you in postseason [range],” Epstein said. “Winning 95 games gives you a chance to win your division. That’s our plan—not only to win a World Series, but to get into the postseason every year.
“Our group concentrates on a 10-year period, and we hope to be in contention at least eight out of 10 years, rather than going for one super team that might be fleeting—disappearing the next year and getting old the next.”
That’s why the Cubs have concentrated so heavily on amateur draft picks, international free agents and minor league prospects.
“We want to build a core that can be our nucleus for a long time,” Epstein said. “We’re not going to define our organization by scouting major league free agents. By the time they’re free agents, the good players are mostly 30 or older and huge investments. Our goal is to be an organization that doesn’t need to go into free agency that often because it has homegrown players.”
Since 2011, Jim Hendry’s final season as GM, the Cubs have enjoyed the bittersweet gift of drafting high after finishing low. But this process is already starting to bear fruit. Their last three No. 1 picks—Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant—rank among baseball’s top 20 prospects, and the club has seven players in the top 100, according to MLBPipeline.com.
Despite falling short in a valiant winter effort to land Japanese pitching prize Masahiro Tanaka, Epstein’s energetic group remains undeterred.
“You first and foremost cannot put together a successful organization without drafting well,” Epstein said. “Most of our trades in this phase will be about acquiring prospects.”
Just as the little things that win games don’t always show up in the box score, small details that produce a winning organization seldom make hot-stove headlines.
“Our group looks to find something every day to make this organization healthier,” Epstein said. “Hiring a good scout or making the right choice on a 10th-round draft pick, adding a quality coach or player development person—all are good short-term goals to become a great system. Finding a better bunt play to run or picking up a guy on waivers is all part of what we do to put us in a position to have more homegrown talent coming through our system—and to provide preprime and prime-age players to our roster and core.”
Still, Epstein realizes fans judge the front office by what occurs on the field.
“You can’t put in all your systems the first year,” he said. “It takes time. The market is different in each major league city. That’s part of the adjustment tour people must make when coming here. Take player development. You start a development program, bring in people and create a manual. Still, it takes years for the plan to be completely institutionalized and ingrained.
“Our analytics department took us a while. We wanted to make sure we had the right people. … We now have a full-fledged department working to get an advantage on our competition, and that only this year has come into play. We’re just hitting our stride in prioritizing player development and scouting first. We were objectively behind in those areas.”
So how do you gauge progress?
“Two and a half years into this,” Epstein said, “we’re spending a lot less time in our meetings talking about the process we have to go through.”
—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
Arismendy Alcantara has established himself as a top 100 prospect. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
At this point, fans shouldn’t be surprised to see Cubs farmhands taking up some prime real estate on baseball’s top prospect lists. Throughout the offseason, various publications and websites have released their top 100, and the Cubs routinely land seven players among the best in the game.
Baseball America unveiled its Top 100 list Thursday, and the Cubs’ elite seven were again present—and that included two in the top eight. BA also provided fans with an estimation of when to expect these minor leaguers to arrive at Wrigley Field. According to the publication, six of the seven could be at the Friendly Confines sometime in the next two years.
Here’s what BA had to say about the Cubs seven:
5. Javier Baez
Major League ETA: 2014
Slow down—not his bat, the minors’ fastest, but the rest of the game, especially at shortstop. Otherwise, Baez’s task will be learning to play another position.
8. Kris Bryant
Major League ETA: 2014
Bryant could have a successful season even if he doesn’t match his 31-homer season in college; a move to the outfield could be in the offing.
28. C.J. Edwards
Major League ETA: 2015
Edwards can’t post better results than he did last year, when he moved from the Rangers to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. He’ll aim to reach 150 innings while maintaining his high-quality stuff and control.
36. Albert Almora
Major League ETA: 2016
Almora is another prospect who just needs to show he can stay healthy. Evaluators love his bat and defense in center—when he’s on the field.
41. Jorge Soler
Major League ETA: 2015
It’s easy to be satisfied when you’ve already signed a $30 million contract. If Soler plays with an edge, he’ll be a big league right fielder sooner than later.
87. Pierce Johnson
Major League ETA: 2015
Durability is at the top of the list for the slender Johnson, who could beat the similarly built C.J. Edwards to Chicago if he can repeat his 2013 production at higher levels.
100. Arismendy Alcantara
Major League ETA: 2015
With a crowd ahead of him at shortstop, Alcantara’s best path to the majors is as an everyday second baseman. Honing his skills on the right side of the infield is job one.