Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

From the Pages of Vine Line: Minor League Prospectus, Part 2 – Up-And-Comers

Underwood

Duane Underwood put together an impressive 2014 campaign. (Photo courtesy Kane County Cougars)

As evidenced by the additions of players like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero, the Cubs front office is transitioning from a period in which it focused primarily on bringing in assets to help improve the future of the franchise to an extended period in which they expect to compete every year at the big league level. However, if you were to suggest to baseball president Theo Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer that this transition means they are now less inclined to build through their farm system, they would be quick to correct you.

Just because Cubs fans may finally start seeing wins accumulate at Wrigley Field doesn’t mean the minor league pipeline is suddenly going to go overlooked. In fact, for the second year in a row, the North Siders will have arguably the best system in all of baseball. Boasting the top prospect in the game, an overabundance of high-profile shortstops and a suddenly large group of interesting arms at the lower levels, the Cubs have built the scouting and player development monster they promised to deliver more than three years ago.

In our annual minor league prospectus, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma helps us break down the names to know at all levels of the system. As the month progresses, we’ll unveil player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 2 of the Cubs minor league prospectus:

Part 1 – The Elite

Up-And-Comers
Soon enough, the elite names will be filling major league lineup cards instead of prospect lists. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the Cubs system—and this is a testament to the job the front office has done over the last few years—is that there are more waves of talent coming. If the organization is going to produce another generation of game-changing prospects, they will likely come from this group.

Eloy Jimenez – OF
Many believed Jimenez was the top prize of the 2013 international free-agent class. However, a combination of injuries limiting his playing time and fellow international signee Gleyber Torres outshining him led some to forget about the mammoth teenager. Jimenez battled shoulder soreness early in the season and a leg issue that shut him down late. But when things are going right, he displays impressive plate discipline for his age, the ability to drive the ball to all fields and tremendous power. The next step for the big outfielder is to learn which pitches he can drive and really backspin.

Carson Sands – LHP
The second pitcher taken by the team in the 2014 draft, and the first in a string of nine straight, Sands could turn out to be the best of the bunch. The southpaw has the body strength, athleticism and ability to throw strikes, coupled with the tools and weapons to be an effective starting pitcher over the long haul. Sands’ fastball plays up with late life, and he has enough feel to work down in the zone.

Along with the fastball, he shows a curveball that has a chance to be a plus pitch and a developing change-up. His command and control should continue to develop, and the Cubs believe if everything clicks, he has the durability and arsenal to turn into a solid No. 2 starter. Though he’s not even a year removed from high school, Sands could be challenged with a full-season assignment in South Bend to start 2015.

Jake Stinnett – RHP
Soon after joining the Cubs organization, Stinnett suffered a groin injury that required surgery, ultimately delaying his pro debut. However, the University of Maryland product battled back and returned to toss 11 innings with mixed results.

When Stinnett is on, he shows an easy-plus fastball, sitting 92-96, that he can work to both sides of the plate with riding life and explosiveness. He complements that with a power slider that often proves unhittable and a change-up with a chance to be a plus pitch. He still needs to show that arsenal consistently and develop command and control to reach the No. 2 role the Cubs envision for him.

The recent convert to pitching has had a full offseason in the Cubs strength program and time to recover from his injury. If all goes as planned, many believe Stinnett is an arm that could really take off for the Cubs this year.

Gleyber Torres – SS
Add this name to an already-long list of impressive shortstop talent in the Cubs organization. A part of their big 2013 international free-agent class, Torres has displayed a very advanced, pure approach at the plate at the ripe age of 17. Given he has all the skills to stick at short—the hands and feet work, he has strong body control and athleticism, and he displays the ability to go side to side—the impressive bat makes him a very intriguing prospect.

Torres stood out in the Arizona League and during his short stint at Boise with his ability to drive the ball to all fields and really control the zone. With only the power tool lacking, he appears to be a fairly complete package. If the hit tool continues to develop, he has a chance to be special. While nothing has been determined yet, there’s a strong possibility he will open the season as the starting shortstop at Low-A South Bend at just 18 years old.

Duane Underwood – RHP
After coming into 2013 out of shape, Underwood realized he couldn’t rely solely on his natural talents in pro ball and showed up last spring ready to compete. When it comes to pure stuff and tools, the righty might possess the highest upside of any pitcher in the system. Minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson worked with Underwood to tweak and simplify his delivery, and the pitcher showed more repeatability with it this past summer. Underwood has a fastball he can run up to 97, along with a plus curve and change.

 

ESPN’s Schoenfield ranks Cubs preseason No. 13

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

With the official beginning of Spring Training just days away, ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield has been unveiling his preseason MLB team rankings. On Wednesday, he named the Cubs No. 13 on his list, predicting the club would finish with an 84-78 record.

I‘m just the messenger: Just pointing out that [Jon] Lester had a 4.82 ERA in 2012 and 3.75 in 2013. Yes, big 2014, new league, no DH and more cutters instead of four-seamers and he could be even better. But you never know. He may not be as good as he was last year. And then there’s Jake Arrieta, former faded prospect turned rotation anchor. He looks like the real deal but … again … you never know. Hey, I’m trying. I like the Cubs! I have them ranked 13th!

The final word: If I had more guts I’d predict them to win the division, but they have two strong clubs ahead of them and even the Brewers or Reds are capable of 90 wins. The Cubs are still sorting a few things out and waiting for some of the young guys to mature. Sometimes, teams do break through right away; if [Kris] Bryant and Jorge Soler are 3-4 win players as rookies and Lester and Arrieta throw 400-plus innings of great baseball, the Cubs could be the big surprise of 2015.

Schoenfield said he expects second baseman Javier Baez and infielder/outfielder Arismendy Alcantara to have better seasons than they had in 2014, and he likes the potential Anthony Rizzo/Kris Bryant combination in the middle of the order. Though Kyle Hendricks was stellar in his 2014 stint, Schoenfield said he expects the young right-hander to regress slightly.

Even with the Reds and Brewers coming in at Nos. 24 and 22, respectively, the Cardinals and Pirates have not yet been named and are therefore in Schoenfield’s top six for 2015, making the NL Central a tough division on paper.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Minor League Prospectus, Part 1 – The Elite

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Albert Almora is one of the Cubs’ brightest future stars. (Photo by Stephen Green)

As evidenced by the additions of players like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero, the Cubs front office is transitioning from a period in which it focused primarily on bringing in assets to help improve the future of the franchise to an extended period in which they expect to compete every year at the big league level. However, if you were to suggest to baseball president Theo Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer that this transition means they are now less inclined to build through their farm system, they would be quick to correct you.

Just because Cubs fans may finally start seeing wins accumulate at Wrigley Field doesn’t mean the minor league pipeline is suddenly going to go overlooked. In fact, for the second year in a row, the North Siders will have arguably the best system in all of baseball. Boasting the top prospect in the game, an overabundance of high-profile shortstops and a suddenly large group of interesting arms at the lower levels, the Cubs have built the scouting and player development monster they promised to deliver more than three years ago.

In our annual minor league prospectus, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma helps us break down the names to know at all levels of the system. As the month progresses, we’ll unveil player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 1 of the Cubs minor league prospectus:

The Elite
The truly elite portion of the Cubs system took a hit last year—the good kind—when Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler graduated to the big league club. However, the front office, always with an eye toward long-term success, added two huge names to the fold in Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, both of whom are generating tremendous buzz. The Cubs will enter this season with arguably the best system in baseball, and while there is plenty of depth, it’s these top-tier names who really make this an impressive bunch.

Albert Almora – CF
While some are down on Almora after a largely disappointing season at the plate, don’t forget he’s still considered an elite-level defender in center field, which brings tremendous value, and that he’s always been very young for his level. This past season was the first time he has ever struggled at any aspect of the game, professional or otherwise, in his life.

The 20-year-old has such tremendous hand-eye coordination that he can put pretty much any pitch into play. When he initially struggled at High-A, the Cubs challenged him to be more selective at the plate and to put more emphasis on driving the ball rather than just making contact. He quickly adjusted, and the Cubs rewarded him with a promotion to Tennessee, where he ended the season with a subpar .605 OPS in 36 games.

But that shouldn’t slow the confident Almora, who competed in a Double-A league with players nearly a half-decade older than him on average. Selected with the sixth-overall pick in the 2012 draft, the outfielder is also known for his strong mental makeup, so few people doubt he’ll be able to overcome his challenges in 2014.

Once again, he’ll need to learn what it means to really control the strike zone and get pitches he can do damage with. But if Almora can make that final leap and become the hitter many believe he has the potential to be, the complete package could be quite special.

Kris Bryant – 3B
From a purely statistical standpoint, Bryant’s 2014 season was one of the most impressive minor league performances in recent memory. And it wasn’t solely numbers driven. Scouts loved what they saw from him with the bat, and it’s understandable why many believe the power-hitting righty is the best prospect in the game. Bryant’s power stroke was on full display last summer, when he delivered 43 home runs and 34 doubles across two minor league levels on his way to winning nearly every minor league award he was eligible for.

There are two key questions about Bryant’s game: strikeouts and defense. While swing and miss will likely always be a part of his game—as it is for most home run hitters—insiders don’t believe he has the kind of serious contact issues that could derail him on his journey to stardom. As Bryant continues to develop and learn about himself as a hitter, it’s easy to see him fixing the minor holes he has at the plate because of his extreme work ethic and his ability to self-scout and analyze game video.

The 23-year-old is a cerebral player who is constantly working to improve, which is why the Cubs believe he can at least begin his major league career at third base. He’s worked hard to avoid a move to the outfield, and he made major strides with the glove last summer. He certainly has the arm to stick at third—or play in right if an outfield move eventually becomes necessary. At 6-foot-5, Bryant is tall and rangy, making it difficult at times for him to get small and stay in front of the ball. Though his actions are longer than those of a more compact player, he has diligently worked with his minor league instructors to stay mobile and agile at the hot corner.

Addison Russell – SS
Russell joined the Cubs organization on July 4 in a huge trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and the recently returned Jason Hammel to Oakland. The highly regarded shortstop got off to a slow start in 2014 due to a hamstring issue, but after joining the Cubs, he immediately displayed why he’s widely considered one of the 10 best prospects in baseball.

Russell definitely understands his game. At times, he can get a little too rotational at the plate, but when he stays through the ball, he can drive it to both gaps, and he backspins it as well as anyone. Thanks to his strong hands, everything really jumps off his bat, and many project he’ll display quite a bit more power as he continues to learn pitch selection and figures out which balls he can leverage. But expect more line drives from Russell, not the kind of towering shots we’ll see from Bryant.

Some wonder if it’s in the cards for the 21-year-old to stick at shortstop long term, but he is a tremendous athlete. He’s explosive and possesses impressive quick-twitch, first-step movements. When he gets to a ball, he makes the play, but he doesn’t have the ideal body. It’s more of a football look—boxier and stronger than the traditional shortstop, who’s normally graceful and a little more fluid. Still, when you watch him over time, he does everything the smoother-looking shortstops can do (and often more), due to his body control and arm strength.

Kyle Schwarber – C/OF
Many felt the Cubs were reaching when they selected Schwarber with the fourth-overall pick in last summer’s amateur draft, but the team was adamant he was second on their board—behind first-overall pick Brady Aiken—and that they were getting a special talent. Schwarber did nothing to dispel the Cubs’ belief in him, tearing through three levels thanks to his impressive bat. The linebacker-like lefty really understands what he’s doing at the plate. He has the ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field and can send a double to the left-center gap as easily as he can pull a long, towering home run. The Indiana University product possesses a special combination of bat speed, plate discipline and pitch recognition, and displays a short, compact stroke with leverage.

The Cubs took Schwarber under the assumption he’d end up in left field, but the improvements he made defensively in such a short timespan were impressive enough for the organization to shift philosophies in his development plan. They’re now allowing him to give catching a real try. Most college players prefer to shift out of catching so they can get on the fast track to the big leagues. Schwarber realizes that being behind the plate will slow his timetable, but it’s what he wants to do. That desire is what many believe is a separator for him.

Schwarber has worked hard with catching instructor Tim Cossins to improve his transfer and set-up, and the results have been eye-opening. College pitching coaches generally call every aspect of the game, so while Schwarber possesses all the smarts and intangibles organizations love behind the plate, he has a ways to go before becoming the de facto field general at the major league level.

—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus

Baseball Prospectus includes seven Cubs prospects in top 101

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Outfielder Billy McKinney makes his Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects debut. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

At this point, the baseball community is well aware of the Cubs’ system depth. Almost universally rated the best farm system in baseball, the Cubs continue to flaunt their strengths on every preseason prospect list. So it should come as no surprise that Baseball Prospectus included seven farmhands in its annual 101 Prospects list.

Given the subjectivity of these lists, every top prospect ranking is going to display some opinions that don’t necessarily run parallel with other publications’ rankings. And Baseball Prospectus is no different, even after we remember Baseball Propsectus named Addison Russell as the organization’s top prospect in November. Regardless, the Cubs still see two farmhands in the top five, three in the top 20 and a pair of players making their Baseball Prospectus Top 101 debuts. At 7 p.m. Monday, members of the Baseball Prospectus staff will be hosting a live chat to talk about the list. Here are the Cubs represented on the rankings:

2. Addison Russell, SS
2014 Ranking: 7

5. Kris Bryant, 3B
2014 Ranking: 17

19. Jorge Soler, OF
2014 Ranking: 45

38. Albert Almora, CF
2014 Ranking: 25

77. Kyle Schwarber, C/OF
2014 Ranking: N/A

81. Billy McKinney, OF
2014 Ranking: N/A

83. Pierce Johnson, RHP
2014 Ranking: 91

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with new hitting coach John Mallee

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Say hello to John Mallee, the Cubs’ new hitting coach. Or, technically speaking, say hello to him again. The Cubs announced the 45-year-old as their new hitting coach on Oct. 9, replacing Bill Mueller, who resigned the post shortly after the season ended. Even though most people don’t know it, this is not Mallee’s first go-round with the club.

“He’s somebody we know well,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “We actually hired him a couple years ago to be our minor league hitting coordinator. We were very disappointed [when] four days later, he joined Bo Porter’s staff to be major league hitting coach for the Astros.

“John’s got a great reputation. He’s done this job before and done it well with a lot of young hitters and got results. He’s a knowledgeable, energetic, passionate, true worker. Hopefully he’ll fit in well with the rest of the staff and create some stability for us with the hitting-coach position. We’re aware of the turnover. Our hitting coach position is like the Spinal Tap drumming situation. We hope that John will solve that for us.”

Mallee is a native of Chicago’s South Side, where he grew up in a family of die-hard Cubs fans. In 2015, he will begin his fifth season as a major league hitting coach. Before working with Astros hitters (including reigning American League batting champion Jose Altuve) from 2013-14, Mallee was the big league swing coach for the Marlins from 2010-11.

Overall, he has 19 seasons of professional coaching experience under his belt. Prior to that, he spent two years as an infielder in the Phillies’ system from 1991-92.

Mallee sat down for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session in early November, at which he exhibited all of the knowledge, energy and passion Epstein talked about and demonstrated why he might have been born to do this job.

Vine Line: This isn’t your first time talking to the Cubs about an open position. How did it come about that you were hired by the Cubs before taking the Houston job?

John Mallee: A couple of years ago, I was a senior adviser to player development for Toronto. I said, ‘You know what? I need to get back on the field.’ I learned a ton from Toronto. They were amazing. The front office was great. But at the time, I said, ‘I’m a hitting coach. I need to get back on the field.’ So I was going to go back to the minor leagues and start over as a hitting coach. I was going to try to be a hitting coordinator in the minor leagues. I interviewed with the Yankees—I ended up getting a hitting coordinator position with the Yankees—but I didn’t accept the job yet. A couple of days later, I flew to Arizona and spent a couple of days with Theo and [Cubs Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development] Jason McLeod and those guys. They were awesome. I ended up taking a Cubs hitting coordinator position.

Two days later, I flew to Houston and interviewed for the major league hitting coach position with the Astros. Two days from there, I flew to Cleveland and interviewed for the Cleveland Indians hitting coach position. I got offered both positions, Cleveland and Houston, and I ended up choosing Houston.

VL: As a lifelong Cubs fan, how thrilling is it for you to finally be working for the team?

JM: It’s a dream come true for me. I grew up on the South Side, but I was always a Cubs fan. My dad is a big Cubs fan. It wasn’t even an option in the house growing up. You had no choice but to be a Cubs fan. Getting to know Wrigley Field and listening to Harry Caray and coming home from school and trying to catch the end of the game when I was a kid and watching my dad be excited so much for the Cubs when they’d win and so sad when they lost, I’ve been in that emotion the whole way.

It was funny. I was with the Marlins [organization] when we won the World Series in 2003, and I was in the stands watching the games. I had Miguel Cabrera in the minor leagues and Dontrelle Willis and those guys. I ended up coaching Miguel. But I felt bad when the Marlins won and the Cubs lost. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I’m like, ‘I’m with the Marlins.’ I was happy that the Marlins won, of course, but I had a sick feeling in my stomach that the Cubs had lost. Ever since then, I’ve always felt that way when they lose. To have an opportunity to come home and be the hitting coach of the Chicago Cubs is a dream come true.

VL: How did hitting a baseball become your calling in life?

JM: I played high school baseball at Mount Carmel in Chicago and then went to the University of Illinois-Chicago. [I] got drafted in the 12th round with the Phillies. I was always a really, really good hitter. I got to the minor leagues, and I didn’t hit. I didn’t know why I couldn’t hit anymore. After I got done playing, because I didn’t perform offensively as a player, I was on this quest to figure out why I didn’t make it, because I always thought I was better than everybody growing up. I could always hit better than everybody. When you get inside the world of professional baseball, everybody was always better than everybody.

When you’re young, you try to separate yourself. When you get into professional baseball, you try to separate yourself from the separated, and I couldn’t do that. I wanted to know why, so I started really studying hitting. I started giving private lessons at a baseball school in 1992. I’ve just been a student of it ever since. It’s been a quest of mine. I started with myself, not knowing why I didn’t perform. I wanted to know, mechanically, what I was doing wrong. It was actually mental more than mechanical.

I started giving private lessons, and I got infatuated with the swing, giving all these lessons and speaking around the country at conventions. I just started studying it more and more.

VL: Do you have an overriding hitting philosophy, or do you tailor instruction to each individual player?

JM: I tailor it to each individual guy. There are certain key components to the swing that have to happen to everybody’s swing—all the best hitters too. But, ‘Put your hands here, or put your bat this way, or do this or do that,’ it’s not like that. I believe in biokinetics. There are some biomechanics that all hitters should do if they want to be successful. But I try to let the hitter have his own style unless it directly affects one of those absolutes you need to have. You’ll see some of my guys with leg kicks, some guys with toe taps, high hands, low hands. As long as you get into the strongest hitting position and your swing works in sequence, you’re good.

VL: There are a lot of young, talented players on this team. How well do you know the Cubs’ hitters?

JM: I have all of their film with me. I also have all of their analytical information so I know their sweet spots, their hot zones, their cold zones. I know who will get them out and how they get them out. It’s learning the blueprint of the player. At the end of the day, if the player trusts me and knows how prepared I am for them and knows that I’m going to have dialogue with them every day, that’s going to be the biggest challenge.

I’ve talked to a few of them on the phone already. Luckily, I’m going to have some help because the minor league hitting coordinator is Anthony Iapoce, and Anthony has been with me forever. I coached Anthony as a player and tried to take him everywhere I went as a coach.

It was interesting because when I left the Marlins, I went to Toronto, and then we brought him over to Toronto as the hitting coordinator. When I turned down the Cubs job to take the major league job with the Astros, they asked me if I knew anybody who runs [my] philosophy. Anthony was the guy. He’s now in the minor league system, and he knows a lot of these players, and he knows I’m going to talk to him constantly about it.

VL: Are there challenges to managing so many young hitters?

JM: This game is about making adjustments. The guys who can adjust are the guys who have success. First of all, we have to figure out where the adjustments need to be made. Where did it go wrong, why did it go wrong, and how are we going to fix it? They have to be fearless enough to take a step back to take the two steps forward.

Everybody gets into a comfort zone, and they want to go back to what they normally did because they had success with it. But what I’ve learned now is that it’s a different game up here. The guys who got away with a lot of stuff in the minor leagues, they’re facing so much different pitching, with the pitchers here who have the command and the control and can exploit weaknesses.

VL: Is it fair to say your job involves nurturing both the mechanical and the psychological aspects of hitting?

JM: Absolutely. Anything where you have such a high failure rate, it’s psychological. There are a lot of mechanical things with older players. When I had [former Marlins infielder] Hanley [Ramirez] and other guys, they had already been successful. I like to know when they’re going good, what makes them go good. So when they get out of whack and the adrenaline’s going and they need a quick ‘Hey, do this, do that,’ I can bring them right back. It’s paying attention to those guys and trying to develop the younger guys.

Experience, No. 1, is going to help—hopefully my experience with helping young players and young hitters have a lot of success. The adjustments that Altuve made this year in becoming a batting champion [happened] because the kid didn’t have the fear to make adjustments. He could have been content with [being] a .280 [hitter] the year before. We met in Spring Training, had a meeting on Day 1, and I said, ‘OK, this is what I got. This is what you need to improve. You want to keep doing what you’re doing, and you’re going to be a really good player.’

He said, ‘I want to be the best player.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ He didn’t have the fear of taking two steps back to make this one step forward. That’s one of the reasons he ended up becoming the batting champion.

VL: Theo and Jed [Hoyer] have talked a lot about the Cubs’ need to get better with on-base percentage and making consistent contact. How important are those things in taking the next step and being a good offensive team?

JM: Ultimately, that’s what’s going to make or break us, our ability to put the ball in play, especially with runners in scoring position, and being able to increase our scoring opportunities, being able to manufacture runs—runs created by a walk, baserunning, dirt-ball reads, being able to go base to base.

Getting guys to be more selective at the plate, a lot of that is innate. A lot of that is instinctive. A lot of them had that when they came in. If they don’t have it, it’s hard to develop. But with a proper approach and a proper plan, it’s easier to eliminate pitches. It’s easier to eliminate zones.

You talk about how do you get guys to walk more and not just make them take pitches? That’s a very tough situation. A guy like Javy Baez you can tell, ‘Hey, you got to get your walks up.’ But you don’t want him to take the ball that he can put in the seats. What you do, though, is identify—and he’ll identify—what his strengths and weaknesses are within the strike zone.

So if he handles the ball down or in or up or away or wherever he likes the ball the best, and that first pitch is there, he needs to swing. But if it’s not there and it’s still in the strike zone, you can’t have the fear that [the umpire] is going to call that a strike and ‘Now I’m down 0-1, and I took a fastball.’ If he doesn’t handle the fastball in, he’s not going to do anything with it anyway. He’s going to make an out or foul it off, so it’s still nonproductive.

Getting them to attack a pitch within their strength early in the count, but being patient enough to wait for it, that’s the trick of the whole thing, of selective aggressive hitting.

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

Cubs announce 2015 spring broadcast schedule

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Cubs released their 2015 Spring Training broadcast schedule late Wednesday and announced that almost every game will be available via television, radio or internet radio broadcast.

The schedule features 10 games televised by Cubs broadcast partners (seven by Comcast SportsNet Chicago, three by WGN-TV), eight on the WBBM Newsradio 780 Cubs Radio Network and 21 via internet radio broadcast on cubs.com. Fans will be able to access the Cubs webcasts on cubs.com and MLB.com for free by registering for a log-in account with the website.

WBBM-AM Newsradio 780, the club’s new radio rights-holder, will air its first game on Saturday, March 7, when the Cubs play at the Rockies with Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer on the call. Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s first game will come from Las Vegas on Friday, March 13, when the Cubs play the Athletics. WGN-TV has its first game on Sunday, March 15, when the Cubs host the Cincinnati Reds at Sloan Park. Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies return to call all Cubs TV games.

Kasper will again join Mick Gillispie, radio broadcaster for Chicago’s Double-A Tennessee affiliate, for most of the cubs.com internet radio broadcasts.

All games start at 1:05 p.m. Arizona time unless otherwise noted. Chicago is one hour ahead of Arizona through Saturday, March 7, before moving to two hours ahead on Sunday, March 8.

Day    Opponent, Location, Broadcast Availability
3/5     Athletics (SS), Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/5     Giants (SS), Scottsdale, —-
3/6     Reds, Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/7     Rockies, Scottsdale (1:10), WBBM 780
3/8     Rangers, Sloan Park, WBBM 780
3/9     Padres, Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/10   Indians, Goodyear, Cubs.com
3/11    Dodgers, Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/12    Angels, Tempe (1:10), Cubs.com
3/13    Indians (SS), Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/13    Athletics (SS), Las Vegas (5:05 PT), CSN-TV
3/14    Brewers (SS), Maryvale, WBBM 780
3/14    Athletics (SS), Las Vegas (12:05 PT), —-
3/15    Reds, Sloan Park, WGN-TV, WBBM 780
3/16    Padres, Peoria, Cubs.com
3/17    Royals, Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/18    Dodgers, Glendale, Cubs.com
3/19    Diamondbacks, Scottsdale (6:40), CSN-TV, Cubs.com
3/20    White Sox, Glendale, Cubs.com
3/21    Mariners, Sloan Park, WBBM 780
3/22    Padres, Sloan Park, CSN-TV, WBBM 780
3/23    OFF
3/24    Athletics, Mesa, Cubs.com
3/25    Mariners, Peoria (7:05), CSN-TV, Cubs.com
3/26    Angels, Sloan Park (4:05), ESPN TV, Cubs.com
3/27    White Sox, Sloan Park, CSN-TV, Cubs.com
3/28    Rockies (SS), Sloan Park, WBBM 780
3/28    Reds (SS), Goodyear, —-
3/29    Royals, Surprise, WGN-TV, WBBM 780
3/30    Giants, Sloan Park, CSN-TV, Cubs.com
3/31    Rangers, Surprise, Cubs.com
4/1      Brewers, Sloan Park, CSN-TV, Cubs.com
4/2     OFF
4/3     Diamondbacks, Chase Field (6:40 p.m.), Cubs.com
4/4     Diamondbacks, Chase Field (1:10 p.m.), WGN-TV, Cubs.com

Hot Off the Press: The February issue featuring the minor league prospectus

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It’s nice to see Chicago back at the center of the baseball universe. Though the Cubs were a national sensation throughout most of the early 2000s, they’ve more or less fallen off a cliff publicity-wise since their last postseason appearance in 2008.

Things have changed in that regard heading into the 2015 season. Baseball insiders started seeing the Cubs as a sleeping giant a while back, and it’s easy to understand why. They have two of the sport’s smartest organizational architects, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, leading the charge, untapped big-market resources at their ready disposal and a player development machine that’s churning out bats at a time when offense is down around the game.

Prospect experts and scouts have been raving about the collection of young players speeding their way through the Cubs system for years, but things hit critical mass in 2014. Suddenly there was All-Star-caliber talent at the major league level to complement what many were already calling the best farm system in the game.

Just before the 2014 season, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (full disclosure: now a Cubs employee) wrote: “Through the amateur draft, trades and the international market, the Cubs have built one of the strongest systems in baseball, with high-impact talent that everybody knows and better depth than people might realize.”

Rany Jazayerli wrote in Grantland last August: “If they do sign a Max Scherzer or a Jon Lester this offseason, the Cubs won’t just be a sexy pick to make the playoffs in 2015—they might be a smart one. This franchise is a whole lot closer to being a contender than most people realize.”

Under the auspicious title “Next Year Really Might Be the Year, Cubs Fans,” Dave Cameron of Fangraphs wrote: “The Cubs have so much young talent that people are actually stressing out over whether the team will actually have room for all of the youngsters on the roster at the same time.”

The Cubs will likely enter the 2015 season as a playoff dark horse. That’s a lot of movement from a year ago when the team finished 73-89. The way the club has accomplished this quick turnaround—because, despite the pain of the last several seasons, changing the outlook of an entire organization in just three years is quick—is not exactly a secret. They have built primarily through the amateur draft, the international free-agent market and by trading proven veterans for young talent.

Of course, the big reason the Cubs have been making news lately will be standing on the mound before a national TV audience during ESPN’s Opening Night festivities on April 5. This month, we look at how the Cubs were able to land free-agent ace Jon Lester, a playoff-tested veteran many are hoping can lead the North Siders to the promised land. Despite Lester’s $155 million price tag, this deal was about much more than money.

“After Jon gave us his decision at the winter meetings, when we went back to the suite, we had a big part of our baseball front office there and a lot of our scouts and our player development people,” Epstein said. “I thanked them and told them that I think from our perspective, Jon’s decision in part was a tribute to the work that they had done over the last three years.”

We also examine the fruits of the organization’s labor in our annual minor league prospectus. Despite graduating players like Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks to the big leagues, the Cubs are still seen as arguably the top farm system in the game. Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma takes us deep into the weeds to break down the guys you’ve been waiting for (e.g., Kris Bryant, Addison Russell) and a few you may not have heard of yet (e.g., Charcer Burks, Mark Zagunis). As the month goes on, we’ll unveil some of the player profiles here on the Vine Line blog.

Finally, we talk to perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the Lester signing: Chris Bosio, who has firmly established himself as one of the better pitching coaches in the game.

If you’re anything like us, you can’t wait for the 2015 season to get underway. We’ll be there when things kick off in Mesa later this month, so make sure you’re also following us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.

Let’s get ready to make some headlines.

—Gary Cohen

Bryant’s power tops in the minors

Bryant

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Whether it was from his home run tally or his slugging percentage, Kris Bryant’s ability to mash was easy to identify in 2014. MLB.com columnist Jim Callis today unveiled his best tools in the minors, and credited Bryant with the best power—which was probably an easy decision after Bryant put up one of the finest seasons in recent minor league history.

Best power: Bryant, 3B, Cubs

Fellow Las Vegas native [Rangers prospect Joey] Gallo has more raw power than any prospect, but usable power is what matters most, and Bryant beats him in that regard. With his size, strength, bat speed and loft, Bryant doesn’t have to swing for the fences. His opposite-field power is off the charts, and he has the patience to wait out pitchers until he gets an offering he can drive. Bryant topped the Minors in virtually every power category in 2014 — homers, extra-base hits (78), total bases (325) and slugging (.661) — and he also ranked eighth with 86 walks.

Last week, Bryant rated as MLB.com’s No. 2 prospect, trailing only Byron Buxton of the Twins organization. The No. 2 pick of the 2013 draft has hit 52 home runs in 174 pro games and owns a career line of .327/.428/.666 (AVG/OBP/SLG). Many expect Bryant to be on the major league club at some point in early 2015.

Fellow Cubs prospect Jorge Soler was also in the running for best power.

Soler named one of MLB.com’s top outfield prospects

SOLER-J-022113-SG-01

(Photo by Stephen Green)

If you needed further proof that the Cubs’ system is loaded with top talent, here it is. In MLB.com’s final installment of their positional top 10 lists unveiled on Thursday, Prospect Watch has Jorge Soler the No. 3 outfield prospect in baseball.

Though [Soler’s] first two full seasons were marred somewhat by a pair of suspensions and repeated leg injuries, he reached the Majors last August. He homered off Mat Latos in his first at-bat, delivered two more long balls in his third game and looked every bit the slugger Chicago hoped for.

A fine athlete with strength, leverage and explosive bat speed, Soler has huge raw power to all fields and the hitting ability to translate it into game production. He recognizes pitches and works counts well, so he should hit for average. He makes more consistent contact than Javy Baez and Kris Bryant, two other prodigious sluggers with whom he rose through the Cubs system.

With solid speed and a well above-average arm, Soler also can be an asset in right field.

Soler played in 24 games at the big league level in 2014 and made quite a debut. Though most of his success came during the early portion of his call-up, the outfielder hit .292/.330/.573 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with five homers and eight doubles, driving in 20. There’s certainly room to grow and he’ll need to remain healthy, but Soler could be a middle-of-the-order force for the Cubs for a long while.

Prospect Watch lists Russell among top shortstops

Russell,-Addison-2-(Roger-C

(Photo by Roger C. Hoover)

MLB.com unveiled another 2015 Prospect Watch list, and another Cubs prospect is near the top. On Wednesday, they posted their top shortstop prospects, and placed Addison Russell third on the list. Here’s what they had to say about his talents:

Few shortstops can match Russell’s offensive upside. He posted .300/.379/.522 numbers over his first three pro seasons, reached Double-A at age 20 and won’t require much more time in the Minors. He has explosive bat speed, a mature approach and a knack for barreling the ball that should allow him to continue producing for power and average when he gets to Chicago.

Though Russell isn’t as spectacular on defense, there’s no reason he can’t stay at shortstop and he’s a better defender there than Starlin Castro or Javier Baez. Russell has solid arm strength that plays up because he has a quick release, though he tends to drop his arm slot at times. He’s an average runner who gets to plenty of grounders and has good hands.

Russell played in only five games before tearing his hamstring at the beginning of the 2014 season. By the time he was traded to the Cubs on July 4, the injury was a thing of the past. In 50 games at Double-A, he hit .294/.332/.536 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 12 homers. Many—including MLB.com—predict Russell could be knocking on Wrigley Field’s door during the 2015 season. He’ll likely start the year in Triple-A.

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