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From the Pages of Vine Line: The Best Defense

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Kris Bryant has spent a lot of time working on his defense at third base. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Defense is often a forgotten element of baseball, yet many clubs find it just as important as a player’s offensive output. As an organization, the Cubs are working hard to ensure prospects become well-rounded players. The following story can be found in the December issue of Vine Line.

In an empty ballpark in Des Moines, Iowa, top prospect Kris Bryant walked over to the third-base bag, crouched down and waited for a coach to send another ground ball his way. Several hundred miles to the south, 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber put on his catching gear and blocked pitches in the dirt hours before his game that night in Daytona.

Both Schwarber and Bryant will likely be big leaguers in the near future—their ability to hit the ball all but guarantees it—but to become well-rounded players, and to help the Cubs win tight games in a pennant race, they know they must become just as proficient on defense.

“Improving your defense is about drills and repetition and having the aptitude and instincts,” said Cubs Director of Player Development Jaron Madison. “But it’s also about buying into doing the extra work needed to get better.”

Though heady offensive numbers still generate headlines and move young players up the ladder, minor league prospects must also focus on their glove work to succeed. This includes everything from making better reads on the ball to moving away from their “natural” positions.

The Cubs have specialized coordinators who lay out plans for the minor league coaching staffs. Anthony Iapoce and Tom Beyers handle the outfielders in the system, Jose Flores covers the infielders, and Tim Cossins oversees the catchers.

The process begins with Madison and his staff evaluating what each player can do naturally on the field. That goes beyond just looking at stats like errors and fielding percentage.

“Footwork for infielders and catchers is huge,” Madison said. “Athleticism and quickness off the ball are things you bear down on. You can help players become more mechanically sound with their footwork, but if a guy is slow off the ball, you know you can’t keep him at short or second base long term.”

Outfielders, meanwhile, need more than just speed and athleticism to chase down fly balls. They also must develop a sixth sense for reading the ball as soon as it’s hit so they can anticipate where they need to be, all while taking the shortest route possible.

“Plus, you need to read the spin on the ball,” Madison said. “It’s different on a ball hit to right field than on a ball hit to left. That’s why you can stick your best infielder out there, and he’ll still have a hard time just catching a ball because of how the spin makes it move.”

Many players ultimately can’t cut it at the positions they came up playing. Madison said he likes to give them as much time as possible to prove they can play their natural spot, but often a change must be made.

Middle infielders with good arms, soft hands and baseball smarts, but not enough range, tend to move behind the plate, where their skills and intangibles are a big asset. Catchers who struggle with game calling often get moved to the outfield or first base. Many scouts in the Cubs organization figured that’s what would happen with Schwarber.

“On draft day, the room was split 60/40, with the majority thinking he wouldn’t be able to stay behind the plate,” Madison said.“But Tim Cossins spent 10 days with him working on drills and talking about the nuances of catching, and he really made huge improvements right away.”

Schwarber, who has said he wants to remain at catcher if possible, has bought into the importance of defense. And if the Royals and Giants proved anything this year, it’s that defense still wins championships.

Cubs Winter League Recap: 12/15/14

With most Caribbean teams taking a day off, there weren’t many Cubs representatives on the field Monday. Here are some notes from action around the Caribbean:

Venezuela

  • LHP Joseph Ortiz pitched 1.1 scoreless innings as the Tiburones de La Guaira outhit the Aguilas del Zulia Monday en route to a win. Ortiz surrendered two hits and fanned one in the effort. The Cubs claimed the southpaw off waivers from Texas shortly after the 2014 season. The 24-year-old pitched only 18.0 innings in the minors after dealing with complications from a broken foot in 2014. He had a 4.50 ERA in 16.0 innings of Double-A ball. Ortiz made his major league debut in 2013, when he pitched out of the bullpen and compiled a 2-2 record with a 4.23 ERA in 44.2 innings. The Rangers originally signed the Venezuelan native as an amateur free agent in 2006.

Puerto Rico

  • 2B Javier Baez drew a walk and struck out in a suspended game between his Cangrejeros de Santurce and the Indios de Mayaguez. The game will be made up Tuesday.

 

Cubs officially sign LHP Jon Lester to a six-year contract

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(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

The biggest move of baseball’s offseason became official Monday when the Cubs and pitcher Jon Lester agreed to terms on a six-year contract that includes a vesting option for the 2021 season.

Lester, 30, is a three-time All-Star and a two-time World Series champion during his nine seasons with the Boston Red Sox (2006-14) and Oakland Athletics (2014). He has a pair of top five Cy Young Award finishes (2010 and 2014, both fourth), four top 10 finishes for the ERA title and six top 10 finishes in wins. The left-hander has made more than 30 starts in each of the last seven seasons, eclipsed 200 innings in six of the past seven and has three seasons with more than 200 strikeouts. His .634 career winning percentage (116-67) ranks fifth among all active pitchers.

The Cubs beat out teams like Boston, the Dodgers and San Francisco, who were all reported to have offered the southpaw significant deals. In the end though, the steps the Cubs had taken to produce sustained success swayed the starter.

“I believe in the plan and the thing that’s in place right now for the future of the Cubs,” Lester said. “Obviously leaving a place that you’ve already won and the comfort of that it’s difficult, but also you can relish in the process of enjoying the chance of winning a World Series for a franchise that never has just adds that little extra for me.”

Overall, Lester is 116-67 with a 3.58 ERA (635 ER/1,596.0 IP) in 253 major league appearances, all but one as a starting pitcher. Among big league left-handed pitchers active at the end of the 2014 campaign, he ranks best with an average of only 0.82 home runs per nine innings, second with 8.22 strikeouts per nine innings, third in ERA, fourth in wins and WHIP (1.28), and fifth with 1,457 strikeouts and 156 quality starts. He threw the 18th no-hitter in Red Sox history on May 19, 2008, a 7-0 victory against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park.

A World Champion with the Red Sox in 2007 and 2013, Lester is 6-4 with a 2.57 ERA in 14 postseason appearances, 12 as a starter. He has won all three of his World Series starts, posting a 0.43 ERA, and was the winning pitcher in the clinching Game 4 in 2007 in Colorado.

Lester turned in one of the best seasons of his career in 2014 when he went 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA in 32 starts with the Red Sox and Athletics. He earned an All-Star nod and recorded his lowest single-season ERA, which ranked fourth in the American League. He struck out 220 batters and walked only 48, good for a 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio that ranked seventh in the league. Lester was 10-7 with a 2.52 ERA in 21 starts for the Red Sox before being traded to Oakland on July 31, where he went 6-4 with an even better 2.35 ERA in 11 starts.

Eptsein and current Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer were members of Boston’s front office for the majority of Lester’s tenure, with Epstein serving as general manager from 2003-11. Along with Lester’s success on the field, Epstein said he respects the pitcher’s drive and character, which were equally important attributes that led to the signing.

“He’s focused, competitive, hard working, intense and now fully mature. I think he’s got good self-awareness and understands the group concept,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “And he’s at his best in the most important moments, I think because he’s so driven and focused and not swayed on outside variables like pressure.”

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Lester was originally selected by the Red Sox in the second round of the 2002 Draft (57th overall) out of high school and was in the big leagues just four years later at the age of 22. He made his debut on June 10, 2006, and made 15 starts before being diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma in late-August. Lester was declared cancer-free in December of that year and returned to the big leagues on July 23, 2007, going a perfect 4-0 with a 4.57 ERA in 12 outings (11 starts) down the stretch to help the Red Sox to the playoffs and a World Series championship.

Lester began his run of seven straight seasons with more than 30 starts in 2008 and has posted 15 or more victories in six of those seasons, including a career-high 19 wins in 2010, his first of two-straight All-Star seasons. He struck out 225 batters in consecutive seasons in 2009 and 2010, his single-season career bests.  In 2013, Lester went 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts to lead the Red Sox to the 2013 World Series championship.

Cubs Winter League Recap: 12/14/14

Javier Baez blasted his first home run of the winter Sunday, while Junior Lake contributed to his Dominican squad. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:

Puerto Rico

  • 2B Javier Baez ripped a two-run, first-inning home run for his first round-tripper of the winter. He also recorded a double to go 2-for-4 in the Cangrejeros de Santurce’s win over the Senadores de San Juan.
  • CF John Andreoli struggled at the plate, going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in the San Juan loss.

Venezuela

  • 2B Luis Valbuena had an RBI single. He finished with a hit in his only at-bat in the Cardenales de Lara’s win over the Tiburones de La Guaira.
  • C Willson Contrereas was 0-for-3 as the Tigres de Aragua were shut out by the Navegantes del Magallanes.
  • RHP Loiger Padron got only one batter out, giving up three earned runs on two hits and a walk. His Leones del Caracas squad fell to the Caribes de Anzoategui.

Dominican Republic

  • LF Junior Lake went 2-for-3 and drew a walk in the Estrellas de Oriente’s 10-3 win over the Gigantes del Cibao. He also scored a run.
  • CF Arismendy Alcantara finished 0-for-4 with a walk as the Tigres del Licey fell to the Aguilas Cibaenas.

Mexico

  • 3B Christian Villanueva went hitless with a sacrifice fly and a walk for the Yaquis de Obregon in their narrow loss to the Aguilas de Mexicali.

Cubs Winter League Recap: 12/11/14

Javier Baez made his winter league debut Thursday, and Jonathan Herrera put up a solid hitting line. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:

Puerto Rico

  • 2B Javier Baez made his winter league debut with an 0-for-3 effort, striking out three times, but he did drive in a run on a sacrifice fly in the Cangrejeros de Santurce’s 2-0 win over the Indios de Mayaguez. Strikeouts have long plagued the infielder projected to be the Cubs’ Opening Day second baseman. Though he whiffed in more than 41 percent of his 229 major league plate appearances last year, he does have a history of struggling when he first moves up a level before eventually settling in. Despite his issues, the slugger has undeniable power. He hit 23 homers in 104 minor league games before a promotion to the majors, where he launched another nine bombs in 52 top-level games. He entered the 2014 season as the No. 5 prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America. It’s also easy to forget Baez will be entering just his age 22 season in 2015.

Venezuela

  • DH Jonathan Herrera finished 2-fo-5 with two RBI and three runs scored as the Navegantes del Magallanes rolled past the Aguilas del Zulia.
  • 2B Luis Valbuena went hitless for the Cardenales de Lara in a loss to the Bravos de Margarita.

Dominican Republic

  • LF Junior Lake recorded a single as the Estrellas de Oriente cruised past the Torors del Este Thursday.
  • RHP Frank Batista pitched two scoreless innings in the Aguilas Cibaenas’ loss to the Gigantes del Cibao. It wasn’t the cleanest effort, as Batista surrendered two hits and walked two, but he did manage to strike out one batter.

Mexico

  • 3B Christian Villanueva was 0-for-4 as the Yaquis de Obregon were shut out by the Venados de Mazatlan.

 

The Cubs officially sign RHP Jason Hammel

Jason_Hammel

Photo by Stephen Green

The Cubs and right-handed pitcher Jason Hammel officially agreed to terms on a two-year contract that includes a club option for the 2017 season on Friday.

The 32-year-old Hammel joins the Cubs organization for the second time this year, as he signed a one-year deal with the club for the 2014 campaign in February. The right-hander went 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA (36 ER/108.2 IP) in 17 starts with the Cubs, striking out 104 and walking only 23 in 108.2 innings pitched, before being traded to Oakland with fellow right-hander Jeff Samardzija on July 5 for infielder Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney and right-hander Dan Straily. With the Cubs, Hammel limited opponents to a .222 batting average and turned in a 1.02 WHIP.

On the year, Hammel combined to go 10-11 with a 3.47 ERA (68 ER/176.1 IP) in 30 outings, all but one as a starter, between the Cubs and the A’s. After dropping his first four starts with Oakland in July, Hammel rebounded to post a 2.86 ERA in four August starts and a 2.20 ERA in five September outings (four starts) to help Oakland to a postseason berth. With this move, he also reunites with manager Joe Maddon, whom he pitched for in Tampa Bay from 2006-08.

Hammel is 59-70 with four saves and a 4.60 ERA in 245 major league appearances (187 starts) with Tampa Bay (2006-08), Colorado (2009-11), Baltimore (2012-13), the Cubs (2013) and Oakland (2014). He has three 10-win seasons to his credit (2009, 2010 and 2013) and has made 20 or more starts in each of the last six seasons, including two years with 30 or more starts (2009, 2010).

The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Hammel was originally selected by Tampa Bay in the 10th round of the 2002 Draft and made his big league debut with the club in 2006 at the age of 23. He is a native of Greenville, South Carolina, and graduated from South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, Washington. He pitched at Treasure Valley Community College in Oregon.

The Cubs and ABC7 strike a TV rights partnership deal

The Chicago Cubs and WLS-TV/ABC 7 Chicago today announced a historic partnership for television rights to Cubs games. For the first time in the 68-year television broadcast history of the Cubs, baseball games will air on ABC 7. Starting in April 2015, the channel will air 25 games per year through the 2019 season in primetime, daytime and on weekends.

“We are excited to have WLS-TV as our new television broadcast partner,” said President of Business Operations Crane Kenney. “WLS-TV has established itself as a trusted voice in Chicago, and we look forward to a new chapter of Cubs baseball airing on the flagship station of the ABC television network.”

WLS-TV echoed the Cubs’ excitement and said they are looking forward to this new beginning with the organization.

“ABC 7 is thrilled to be a part of this new chapter for the Chicago Cubs organization, and we welcome Cubs fans to the No. 1 station in Chicago,” said John Idler, president and general manager of ABC 7. “Like all Cubs fans, we are eager to celebrate the 2015 Chicago Cubs.”

Kenney added the Cubs will soon announce the home for the team’s remaining games not currently under contract to ABC 7 or Comcast SportsNet, ensuring all Cubs games will be on the air in Chicago next season.

“We will complete our broadcast realignment shortly, allowing every Cubs fan in Chicago the opportunity to watch every game of what we believe will be an exciting and competitive season,” he said.

Cubs acquire Ovando, lose three prospects in Rule 5 Draft

The 2014 Winter Meetings were whirlwind few days for the baseball community, as numerous teams made blockbuster moves and signed highly sought after free agents. Another annual aspect of the meetings took place Thursday with the Rule 5 Draft, and the Cubs were active participants.

In the Triple-A phase of Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft, the Cubs selected outfielder Ariel Ovando. In four minor league seasons in the Astros’ farm system, the 21-year-old hit .233/.299/.335 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 14 home runs and 43 doubles. It’s reported by MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat that the club will try to convert the lefty thrower into a pitcher.

Unlike the first portion of the draft, the club is not required to keep Ovando on the major league club this season.

However, the draft also resulted in a loss of three Cubs farmhands, with the Marlins selecting lefty reliever Andrew McKirahan in the first round, while slugger Rock Shoulders and catcher Luis Flores were taken by the Rangers and Astros, respectively, in the minor league portion.

The 24-year-old McKirahan has had a solid four-year minor league career, posting a 2.16 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 128 strikeouts over 120.2 innings. He split 2014 between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, posting a 2.08 ERA over 65.0 innings and fanning 57 batters. He was originally drafted by the Cubs in the 21st round of the 2011 draft out of the University of Texas. The Marlins must keep McKirahan on the 25-man roster this season or send him back to the Cubs’ organization.

Shoulders hit 30 home runs over the last two seasons in Single-A ball and has the ability to draw walks, earning 121 free passes in that span. He has a career slash line of .243/.343/.427, but most of his numbers took a significant dip when he made the jump from Kane County to Daytona in 2014. The Cubs selected Shoulders in the 25th round of the 2011 draft.

Flores will join the Astros’ organization after seven seasons in the Cubs’ system. The 28-year-old split time between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014, amassing a .253/.388/.371 line with five homers in 67 games. He’s a career .213 hitter, a number weighed down by a poor offensive start to his career. Flores was originally drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft.

The Cubs also selected shortstop Taylor Featherston from Colorado in the first-round selection, but traded the 25-year-old to the Angels for cash considerations.

Cubs Winter League Recap: 12/10/14

Christian Villanueva went yard, and Junior Lake got on base three times Wednesday for their respective winter league clubs. Here are some notes from all of yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:

Mexico

  • 3B Christian Villanueva hit his seventh home run of the season as the Yaquis de Obregon edged out the Venados de Mazatlan 7-5 Wednesday. Villanueva reached on an error in the third and later scored a run. He finished 1-for-4.

Dominican Republic

  • LF Junior Lake reached base three times, going 1-for-1 with a single and two walks for the Estrellas de Oriente. He scored the game’s lone run in a win over the Leones del Escogido.
  • 2B Arismendy Alcantara recorded an RBI single in the Tigres del Licey’s 2-0 win over the Gigantes del Cibao. He went 1-f0r-4.

Venezuela

  • 2B Luis Valbuena had an RBI double and drew a walk in the Cardenales de Lara’s 9-4 win over the Bravos de Margarita.
  • DH Jonathan Herrera reached base twice with two singles and scored a run as the Navegantes del Magallanes topped the Tiburones de La Guaira.
  • LHP Joseph Ortiz had a rough outing, allowing two earned runs on three hits over one inning for La Guaira.

Cubs Winter League Recap: 12/9/14

Starling Peralta’s efforts out of the bullpen were the highlight of Cubs representatives in the Caribbean Tuesday. Here are some notes from the rest of yesterday’s Winter League action:

Dominican Republic

  • RHP Starling Peralta pitched three scoreless innings of relief for the Estrellas de Oriente in their loss to the Leones del Escogido. He surrendered just one hit and struck out two.
  • LF Junior Lake went hitless in three at-bats but drew a walk in the Estrellas’ loss.
  • CF Arismendy Alcantara finished 0-for-4 as the Tigres del Licey were blanked by the Gigantes del Cibao Tuesday.

Mexico

  • LF Christian Villanueva had a base hit in the Yaquis de Obregon’s 10-2 loss to the Venados de Mazatlan. He finished 1-for-4.

Puerto Rico

  • CF John Andreoli singled and scored a run despite his Senadores de San Juan side getting edged out by the Indios de Mayaguez in a 4-3 ballgame.

 

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