(Photo by Stephen Green)
As the calendar turned to late September, the crisp fall winds whisked through the Wrigley Field grandstand, signaling the nearing end of another long and winding year for the Chicago Cubs.
After 162 games, countless hotel stays and a punishing travel schedule, major league players are understandably drained after the last out of the season is recorded. It would be more than understandable if most were eager to walk out of the clubhouse doors and forget about baseball for the next few months. But talking to Cubs players about the offseason was revealing—in that not many were genuinely ready for it.
“I’ve seen players get traded every year, and I’ve moved around to different organizations,” said catcher John Baker, who’s played for three teams over his seven big league seasons. “In this game, you become an expert at saying goodbye.”
But, Baker added, saying goodbye to his teammates this offseason was still a difficult transition. That’s because players on professional sports teams are uniquely bonded, and no sport puts its athletes through the wringer like baseball. In addition to the forge of 162 high-stress games, the men share countless hours of practice time, clubhouse chatter, practical jokes, plane rides, hotel stays, meals, movies and much more—and it’s all rigidly scheduled, regular and repetitive.
Athletes often talk about their teammates as brothers, and that’s not really much of a stretch. During the baseball season, which spans from February at Spring Training to late September, players likely spend more time with their teammates than with anyone else. So what do they do once the routine and the camaraderie go away?
The men in the Cubs clubhouse said the shift to the offseason always feels sudden, as if a practical joke were being played on everyone, and they’ll wake up the next day either in a hotel room or in Chicago with another game on the near horizon.
“It’s pretty hard because it feels like you’re upsetting your whole rhythm of your life,” said infielder Javier Baez. “You’re playing baseball every day and then—then you just stop.”
It felt even stranger this year because the Cubs closed out the regular season on the road. Many players didn’t even bother flying back to Chicago after the final game in Milwaukee. They just caught the next flight home—wherever that was. Clubhouse attendants had already boxed up their personal effects and shipped them off.
“My least favorite part is packing and unpacking,” said starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who makes his home in Austin, Texas. “I feel like we live out of a suitcase all year, never really keeping track of where things are. Getting home and having to rearrange everything is kind of a pain.”
There is also a strange feeling of finality when players unpack their things and get settled in for the winter. It hits home that the season really is over, and there is no game to look forward to the next day.
For righty Kyle Hendricks, that feeling of suddenly having a void in his life is the worst part. After a week at home in San Juan Capistrano, California, which lies about halfway up the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, he begins to get antsy.
“I’m just sitting around doing nothing really,” he said. “That’s what makes the transition tough. After having your days kind of mapped out for you, you have to find a way to keep yourself busy.”
Most players try to take a month or so off before they even start thinking about baseball again. Between working out and taking a vacation or two, it helps to have some hobbies. Left-hander Travis Wood is an outdoorsman. Right-hander Jacob Turner, whom the Cubs acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins in August, said golf keeps him from going stir-crazy.
“I like to play golf a lot, so I try to get out and play as much as I can in the offseason,” he said. “I’m from St. Louis, so we can play until the end of November and occasionally into December if it gets into the 50s.”
Though Arrieta feels restless at the beginning of the offseason, he said his boredom usually passes after the first week or so.
“As you settle in, it’s nice to finally be able to wind down, sleep in if the kids will let you, get out in the garage, and play with the kids outside,” he said. “Then it’s not a tough transition at all. It’s a much-needed break.”
Though it feels like a vacation just being home, Arrieta still gathers up his family and tries to get away somewhere with no cell phones and little contact with the outside world.
“Just kind of hit the refresh button and kick off the offseason in a good way, in the mountains or on a beach somewhere,” he said.
Left-handed reliever Wesley Wright, on the other hand, said he embraces the offseason relaxation from the start.
“The first two weeks of the offseason is the best time of your life because you can kick back and relax,” he said. “You’re active, but nothing is set in stone. If something comes up, you do it. But most guys like to take vacations and do whatever they want to do. You reflect on what the past season was like and decide what you’re going to do to be better next year.”
Wright, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, said he doesn’t care where he goes or what he does, so long as he’s in front of a TV on Saturdays.
“Weekends are dedicated to football for me, especially Saturdays,” he said. “I’m a big college football fan. But, generally, for the first month, I like to do nothing at all—just mentally take a break from all the stress of games and different things that go on during the season.”
This period is also a time to reconnect with friends and family. Wright and his wife, Sherell, have a 3-year-old and a newborn at home.
“When you go from being a professional player to a full-time dad, it’s a different experience,” Wright said. “It definitely takes a lot more patience. But you get energy from seeing the look on their faces every time they see you. They’re so happy I’m there. It makes a world of difference.”
And those idle days spent with family are precious to ballplayers because once the season starts, there is little time for anything but the game.
“It’s important for me to just hang out with family, just enjoying my time with them for as long as I can,” Hendricks said. “You have to try to not think about baseball. As much as you want to start getting ready for the next season, you have to try to put it off because during the year, it’s such a grind. You know you’re going to have to focus 24/7.”
Baker said he treasures the downtime too, albeit for different reasons. Sometimes the closeness teammates achieve during a season can get a little too close.
“A lot of people don’t realize that showering and going into the bathroom and all that other gross stuff is always with someone else,” he said. “I know when I go home, I cherish the moments of being in the bathroom by myself. Sometimes my wife gets mad at me because I’m in the shower for 45 minutes at a time, but I tell her this is the only time I get to shower by myself. As soon as I go back to Spring Training, it’s prison showers again.”
One thing most Cubs players have in common is the habit of creating structured schedules—even though they’re not necessary in the offseason. Daily routines are so ingrained for athletes, most players can’t help planning out their time.
“You have to learn how to focus that routine-oriented nervous energy into a different kind of routine,” agreed Baker, who fills his time back home in Danville, California, by walking his dog and playing with his two kids, Brooklyn and Fiona.
Sometimes, it’s not the players setting the routine. Arrieta said that at least early in the offseason, his kids dictate his days.
“My routine starts with getting up when my 3-year-old son starts beating me up,” Arrieta said. “The day starts when my kids want it to. Then I’m either cooking breakfast or running down the street to get coffee. From there, it’s playtime for the next three to four hours or so until the kids take a nap.”
Without any children of his own, first baseman Anthony Rizzo said he keeps his routine pretty simple at the beginning of the winter. And he sleeps in. A lot.
“It’s nice because for eight months, it’s a grind, and your body eventually breaks down,” he said. “After a week or two, I’m in complete shutdown mode. I relax and hang out for about a month, month and a half before I start to work out again.”
That’s also when the players tend to get a little antsy and start texting and calling their teammates more often. Baker said the reason is pretty simple. Everyone misses hanging out together.
“You spend so much time traveling around with these guys, you consider all of them family,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from or what language they speak. You are with them every day, 12 hours a day, for seven and a half months straight. You care about them a lot.”
They also miss sharing all the inside jokes and general locker room banter they have to keep a lid on all winter.
“There are certain things you do in the clubhouse that you just can’t do at home, you know?” said Rizzo, who insisted on leaving it at that.
This is all part of being with a close-knit group of guys for so long. Though players value time with their families more than anything, they do develop a bond and a comfort level with their teammates that’s almost as intense.
“I don’t think there’s really any other job or situation that brings a team of guys as close together as professional baseball does,” Turner said. “Obviously, these are not just teammates but your friends, so you enjoy being around them. I definitely miss that.”
Once November hits, most of the Cubs hook up with trainers and with other professional ballplayers who live in the same area and throw themselves into a training regimen. Then their days have a more familiar structure to them. Many run in the wee hours of morning, train with weights before and after lunch, and, once the calendar flips to the next year, start doing some light baseball activity in the run-up to Spring Training.
“You’re basically working on the specific areas where you want to gain strength, and you’re trying to improve on your weaknesses from the last season,” Wright said. “I think the most important months for baseball players are December and January. That’s when guys get their bodies ready for the grind of a full season.”
By then, the vacation is essentially over. Unlike the beginning of the offseason, the end is a gradual process. Players may still be home in January, but their minds are already on the year ahead.
By the time the Cubs start filtering into the team’s Mesa, Arizona, training facility as early as the end of January, the offseason feels like a distant memory.
Make no mistake, all players need and cherish the break. But after that, they’re more than ready to return to what they love most—being back with their teammates and playing ball.
Bijan Rademacher hit .350 in the Arizona Fall League this season. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong)
The 2014 Arizona Fall League officially wrapped up on Friday with Salt River claiming the league title over Peoria. Though the list of Cubs playing for the Solar Sox this offseason lacked the firepower and name recognition of the 2013 participants, a few lesser-known commodities earned some positive press with solid performances.
Not much is typically expected out of an AFL taxi squad player, as they generally get into games only twice a week. But Bijan Rademacher delivered the highlight stat line for any Cubs prospect in Arizona.
The outfielder hit .350/.404/.525 (AVG/OBP/SLG) and totaled a .929 OPS. Though he didn’t record enough plate appearances to win the batting title, his average was second best among players with at least 40 at-bats. He added a home run, two doubles and a triple while stealing four bases and playing solid defense.
Rademacher, the No. 20 prospect in the Cubs organization according to MLB.com, was a 13th-round pick in 2012 out of Orange Coast College in California. The outfielder spent the entire 2014 season at High-A Daytona, where he hit .281/.363/.448 with 10 homers and 22 doubles. He could be expected to start at Double-A next season.
Jacob Hannemann, who played his first full professional season in 2014, also fared well in Arizona. The athletic center fielder got into 17 games and hit .279/.328/.410. Though he didn’t add a ton of pop, the 2013 third-round pick got better acclimated to the level of talent he’ll eventually be competing against on a regular basis.
Slugger Dan Vogelbach failed to go yard in any of his 21 AFL games, but he managed to show some patience at the plate. His 17 bases on balls tied for second in the league. The 2011 second-round pick received a free pass in more than 19 percent of his plate appearances, significantly better than his 2014 regular season total of 11.8 percent.
Getting C.J. Edwards a few more trips to the mound against elite competition was important for the Cubs after the right-hander missed the first half of the regular season with shoulder issues. In six starts, the club’s top pitching prospect looked like his old self, posting a 1.80 ERA and allowing three runs in 15 innings. He also struck out 13 batters. If there’s one concern over Edwards’ body of work, it’s likely his eight walks in that span. But his 1.07 WHIP also shows that even with the free passes, opposing hitters have a tough time reaching base against him.
The other impressive pitching effort came from Ivan Pineyro. The 23-year-old missed the early portion of the regular season with forearm issues and struggled upon his return to Double-A. But those struggles went away in the AFL, as Pineyro concluded the showcase with a 1.98 ERA in 13.2 innings. In seven appearances, the right-hander surrendered only three runs, all in one game on Oct. 22. Even more impressive were his 16 strikeouts versus only four walks. The pitcher, acquired for Scott Hairston in 2013, could open the 2015 season at Double- or Triple-A.
It’s a good sign for the Cubs organization when some of their lesser-known farmhands excel against such tough competition. This group might have lacked the name recognition of last year’s class, but plenty of prospects ended the AFL slate on a high note.
The Arizona Fall League’s regular season came to a close Thursday with Mesa and Glendale wrapping up action in a 4-4, 11-inning tie. Plenty of Cubs farmhands got into the game with mixed results. Here are some notes from yesterday’s AFL action:
- 3B Danny Lockhart singled in the third inning and scored four batters later on a Jon Berti (Blue Jays) homer. He also led off the 11th with a single to finish the afternoon 2-for-5.
- RHP Ivan Pineyro earned his third hold of the fall, going two innings of hitless relief. He struck out three and walked none.
- 1B Dan Vogelbach recorded an RBI double in the fifth inning. He finished 1-for-5 with a walk.
- PH-DH Bijan Rademacher finished 0-for-1 with a walk in the 10th inning.
- RF Jacob Hannemann went 0-f0r-5.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Scouting publication Baseball Prospectus unveiled its list of the top 10 Cubs prospects on Friday. For Cubs fans and prospect junkies, it’s like Christmas day.
Over the last few seasons, the organization has stockpiled a deep farm system many view as the best in baseball. Unlike some other major league clubs, the list of high-upside Cubs farmhands extends well beyond a top 10—even with Javier Baez and Kyle Hendricks graduating to the big leagues. Here is how Baseball Prospectus viewed the top players in the organization:
1. SS Addison Russell
2. 3B Kris Bryant
3. OF Jorge Soler
4. OF Albert Almora
5. C Kyle Schwarber
6. OF Billy McKinney
7. RHP Pierce Johnson
8. SS Gleyber Torres
9. 1B Dan Vogelbach
10. LHP Carson Sands
Strengths: Impact potential with the stick; strong hands and barrel control; good bat speed; improved approach; should grow into high-contact MLB bat that will hit for average and power; solid actions at short; good hands with left-side arm; solid run paired with baserunning acumen; clocks plus times out of the box and should settle in as average run at maturity.
Weaknesses: Still working to slow down game in the field; set-up and footwork can get loose, particularly at the margins, leading to drift in throws; can slip into overly aggressive approach at plate.
The Year Ahead: Russell is close to major-league ready and possesses the skill set, makeup, and natural ability to make an immediate impact as soon as he is called upon. The profile is an elite blend of offensive upside, defensive stability at a high-worth position, athleticism, and strength; the aggregate of which could produce a perennial all-star capable of impacting the game in all facets. Not only might this be the best collection of tools, upside, and probability from a talented crop of minor-league shortstops, but there’s a case for top prospect in the game. He should debut in Chicago in 2015 and it won’t be long before Russell surpasses the ‘L’ stop as the best known Addison in Wrigleyville.
Strengths: Elite raw power; big leverage and big-boy present strength; ability to produce regular hard contact; good plate coverage allowing for wide kill zone on mistake pitches; borderline double-plus arm; solid athleticism and coordination for a big man; strong grades for makeup.
Weaknesses: Long levers produce holes in swing that could be attacked by major-league arms; limited swing plane/pitch plane overlap narrows contact margin; some issues with velocity on inner half; capable at third base but may lack lower-half agility to excel; run could settle a tick below average at maturity.
The Year Ahead: Through his minor-league career, which totals just a shade over a full major-league season’s worth of plate appearances, Bryant has posted pornographic numbers at the plate, including a slash line of .327/.428/.666 while averaging nearly a home run every three games. He’s ready to bring his act to The Show, where he should eventually settle in as a fixture in the middle of the Cubs lineup. This season could be choppy at times due to the potential for major-league arms to exploit shortcomings in a swing. But the approach, work ethic, and IQ should aid Bryant in making his adjustments, and the raw power will be a legit threat from day one. Depending on the organization’s needs, Bryant could remain at third or transition out to right field where his arm and athleticism could make him a solid defender. Either way, he will join Russell as the foundation of a talented, young Cubs lineup for years to come, with 2015 likely to serve as the coming out party.
Strengths: Advanced bat; plus-to-better raw power that plays in game thanks to plate coverage and strike-zone awareness; solid bat speed and good bat-to-ball skills should help hit tool play average or better; strong leader and big makeup; lauded for work ethic; positive reviews from instructs on progress behind the plate.
Strengths: Loud stuff led by lively, low-90s fastball and sharp, low-80s hammer; can dial up to mid-90s with regularity; capable of cutting fastball for different look, counterbalance to two-seamer; some deception; traditional starter’s build; good present strength; will flash above-average change piece with fade mirroring fastball action; showed improvement in consistency of pitch execution and command over final two months.
Strengths: Balanced repertoire featuring three above-average offerings and above-average command; reports of improved consistency in mechanics and arm action through instructs; comfortable pitching to all four quadrants; some room to bump velo band to firm plus in comfort zone; already showing feel for sequencing; sturdy build; solid presence and even demeanor.
A notable absence from the list was right-hander C.J. Edwards, ranked No. 5 a year ago. Despite missing three months to a shoulder strain, Edwards enjoyed a solid second half that included a nice run in the Arizona Fall League. The publication seems to be skeptical of his long-term health, but still had positive things to say about the hard thrower.
Upon returning to action in late July, Edwards showcased impressive swing-and-miss stuff over six starts, with his fastball and curve each grading out as plus offerings and his change showing promise to boot. Were there more certainty that Edwards could maintain the quality of his stuff over the course of a full season at the upper levels, he would fit comfortably as one of the top-ten prospects in the system.
Soler reached the majors in 2014, and the publication believes Russell and Bryant could both join him at Wrigley Field in the upcoming season. They expect Almora, Schwarber, Johnson and Vogelbach to see action in the majors sometime in 2016.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs and ESPN announced Friday that the 2015 season opener at Wrigley Field has been moved to Sunday, April 5, to accommodate MLB’s Opening Night. The North Siders will host St. Louis, with first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
This will mark the first Opening Night in Wrigley Field history. With the 2015 Cubs now debuting on Sunday night, the series against the Cardinals will be adjusted as follows:
Sunday, April 5: 7:05 p.m. vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Monday, April 6: OFF DAY
Tuesday, April 7: 7:05 p.m. vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Wednesday, April 8: 1:20 p.m. vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Thursday, April 9: OFF DAY
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The National League Cy Young Award was handed out Wednesday, with Clayton Kershaw capturing all 30 first-place votes en route to his third Cy in four seasons. In total, 12 pitchers—11 starters—received votes, including Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta, who tied for ninth with three fifth-place nods.
Though the 28-year-old was well off the pace for winning the award—as was everybody else—the few votes he did receive put him in elite company. But after looking further into Arrieta’s 2014 numbers, his ninth-place finish might have been a bit of a snub.
Of the candidates receiving votes, the Cubs’ ace finished in the top six in ERA, WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and FIP (fielding independent pitching). Arrieta also finished fifth in wins above replacement, a number that indicates a player’s value over a replacement-level player. He also allowed just five home runs, fewest of any starter with at least 100 innings pitched in the National League.
Maybe the most interesting number is his FIP total. FIP attempts to gauge a pitcher’s performance by looking only at the factors he can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs. It removes extraneous factors such as defense and luck. FIP runs linear to ERA, meaning if a player’s FIP and ERA are similar, that ERA total is an accurate indicator of the pitcher’s performance.
In the case of Arrieta, he was one of just two pitchers receiving votes (Stephen Strasburg being the other) to have an FIP lower than his ERA. This likely means he was either a bit unlucky or that his defense let him down at times. With a difference of 27 points, it’s not a drastic falloff, but it also means a slightly better performance behind him could have resulted in better numbers.
All said, his innings pitched totals were likely his downfall. Though he struck out better than a batter per inning (167 K in 156.2 IP), he barely cracked the NL’s top 45 in innings. If Arrieta can up that total while maintaining his greater than 3:1 K/BB ratio, it’s not hard to imagine more praise coming the fireballer’s way in 2015.
Statistics according to Baseball-Reference
A trio of Cubs pitching prospects saw action, and a position player continued his stellar fall Wednesday in Mesa’s 6-5, 11-inning loss to Peoria. Here are some notes from yesterday’s Arizona Fall League game:
- RHP C.J. Edwards got the start and went three scoreless innings, giving up one hit and one walk while striking out two batters. He finished the AFL season with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings.
- RF Bijan Rademacher connected on a two-run homer in the fifth. He also recorded an RBI groundout in the first, a third-inning walk and a game-tying RBI single in the ninth. He went 2-for-4 in the game and improved his line to .359/.400/.538 (AVG/OBP/SLG).
- RHP Zach Cates recorded his third hold of the fall league, giving up no runs on two hits over an inning.
- LHP Gerardo Concepcion surrendered two earned runs on three hits and two walks after taking over for Edwards in the fourth inning.
Mesa will play its final game of the season Thursday, when the Solar Sox host Glendale. First pitch is scheduled for 12:35 local time.
It was once again limited action for Cubs prospects as Mesa was downed by Glendale 5-2 Monday afternoon, with only one local farmhand in the lineup. Here are some notes from yesterday’s Arizona Fall League action:
- DH Jacob Hannemann reached base in his first three at-bats, singling in the fourth, doubling in the sixth and singling again to lead off the eighth. The sixth inning hit was his fourth double of the fall. He finished 3-for-4 on the day.
Mesa hosts Surprise Tuesday afternoon, with first pitch set for 2:35 local time. Lineups have not been made available but fans can check at mlb.com as the game nears.
Mesa was on the losing end of an 11-4 decision to Surprise Saturday, with only a few Cubs prospects getting into the action. Here are some notes from Saturday’s Arizona Fall League game:
- RF Bijan Rademacher singled in the sixth inning and scored two batters later for Mesa’s first run of the game. He finished 1-for-3 with a first-inning walk and a stolen base. Defensively, he recorded two outfield assists.
- PR-SS Danny Lockhart entered the game as a pinch-runner in the sixth and scored a run later that inning. He finished 0-for-1 with a stolen base.
Mesa heads to Glendale Monday, with first pitch scheduled for 12:35 local time.
Mesa captured an extra-innings win Thursday over Salt River. Jacob Hannemann was the only Cub to get into the game. Here are some notes from Thursday’s Arizona Fall League action:
- RF Jacob Hannemann recorded a single in the ninth inning, finishing the day 1-for-3 with a walk.
Mesa is also in action Friday, with Hannemann, Dan Vogelbach and Danny Lockhart in the lineup. Ivan Pineyro got the start and went three scoreless, giving up two hits and fanning three. Gerardo Concepcion took over in relief and has also pitched three scoreless, surrendering just one hit. To follow the game live, click the mlb.com link.