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Ricketts, Epstein kick off new era at Cubs Park

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The Cubs officially opened their new, state of the art Spring Training facility in Mesa, Ariz., on Wednesday morning—just in time for pitchers and catchers to report on Thursday.

The facility includes Cubs Park—which seats 15,000 people—a two-story player development facility and a rebuilt Riverview Park. It all sits on a 146-acre site, making it the largest facility in the Cactus League.

Cubs board members Tom and Laura Ricketts, executives Crane Kenney and Theo Epstein, as well as Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins joined Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, City Manager Chris Brady, City Councilmen Dave Richins and Dennis Kavanaugh, and other members of Mesa City Council for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“This new ballpark and player development facility will allow our players to better train and compete,” Tom Ricketts said. “To achieve our goal of winning a World Championship, we must be able to provide our players with the world-class facilities they deserve.”

When Cubs fans enter the ballpark for the first time, they will notice a few features reminiscent of Wrigley Field, including the brick wall behind home plate, green scoreboard with the Wrigley Field-style clock, arched steel work on the light standards and cantilevered roofs. A replica of the Wrigley Field marquee is also located in the main concourse, and fans can pose for a photo with their own name digitally displayed on the sign.

In left field, the Cubs created the Eighteen | 76 viewing area, which features bleachers and high-top tables. Party decks are also available on the first- and third-base sides.

To further enhance the fan experience, the Cubs have partnered with Ovations Food Service to create a variety of food offerings. There will be six different concession areas, each with a separate theme that ties back to either Chicago or the Southwest.

Behind the lawn seating, a citrus grove with picnic tables and a small field serve as a family and children’s play area.  The Cubs also will have food trucks here to complement ballpark fare with unique or specialty offerings on game days only.

The players will enjoy a brand new player development center with a two-story weight room, cardiovascular facility, hydrotherapy room, 120-seat theater and cafeteria. The major league clubhouse features a football-shaped locker room with 68 lockers and a lounge area, while the minor league clubhouse has 206 lockers to accommodate players training year-round. In addition to the player development center, the training facility includes 12 covered batting tunnels, two groups of 12-mound bullpens, six full-size practice fields and a half-size field for infield work.

The facility was built in 15 months by Hunt Construction Group and Populous.

The first game at Cubs Park is Thursday, Feb. 27, at 1:05 p.m. when the Cubs open their inaugural season at Cubs Park against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Experiencing Spring Training in Arizona is simply unparalleled, thanks to our pristine weather, countless tourist attractions and some of the best baseball fans in the nation,” said Governor Brewer. “The Cactus League and the Chicago Cubs have been a tremendous part of our longstanding and cherished tradition, drawing visitors from across the nation each year to enjoy America’s favorite pastime in Arizona. I’m proud to welcome the Cubs and their fans to their second home every spring.”

Lawn tickets on the outfield berm are still available for the home opener. Tickets may be purchased over the phone at 1-800-THE-CUBS (800-843-2827) or online at http://www.cubs.com.

Former Cub Ralph Kiner dies at age 91

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(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner (center) died Thursday at the age of 91. Kiner, who was best known for his time with the Pirates, spent a year and a half with the Cubs toward the end of his career.

Known for his longball abilities, the outfielder led the National League in home runs in each of his first seven seasons (1946-52), topping out at 54 bombs in 1949.

In July 1953, he was traded to the Cubs in a nine-player deal and hit .283/.394/.529 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 28 homers in 117 games. Kiner had another successful season on the North Side in 1954, hitting 22 home runs and finishing with a .285/.371/.487 line. On Nov. 16 of that year, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for right-hander Sam Jones.

A back injury ended his career following the 1955 season. After his retirement, he moved into the broadcast booth with the White Sox (1961) and Mets (1962-2006).

Over Kiner’s 10-year career, he hit .279/.398/.548 and amassed 369 home runs and 1,015 RBI. The six-time All-Star was induced into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975.

Hot Off the Presses: The 2014 Minor League Prospectus

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We always have mixed feelings about the February issue. The annual minor league prospectus probably takes more work, and more combined man-hours, than any other issue. To compile our comprehensive breakdown of the Cubs farm system, we pore through each of the organization’s minor league affiliates, from Iowa to Kane County to the Caribbean.

That’s a lot of players in a lot of different locations. To get our information, we read prospect reports, watch fall and winter league games, and talk to people in the know. By the time this issue goes to the printer, the whole Vine Line staff needs a nap.

But it’s also one of the most rewarding magazines we publish, because it gives us a clearer picture of what to expect in the Cubs’ future. And since President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, General Manager Jed Hoyer and Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod took over more than two years ago, the Cubs have been all about what’s on the horizon.

The team has enjoyed top 10 picks in each of the last three drafts, has been among the most aggressive in baseball on the international free agent market, and has made shrewd trades to add young, high-ceiling talent. The process may be taking more time than many fans and even upper management hoped it would, but the efforts are paying off—and the evidence could soon become evident at Wrigley Field.

Baseball America’s 2013 organizational rankings, released shortly after the season ended, had the Cubs system tied for fifth-best in baseball. And prospect experts such as MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo and Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks rave about Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Jorge Soler and others.

This month, frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma sat down with McLeod to review the organization’s top players and talk about the system as a whole. Though it’s the big names that rightfully grab the headlines, the Cubs farm now has enviable depth, especially in position players. A few years ago, for example, the team struggled to find a serviceable third baseman. In addition to Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy, they now have Kris Bryant, Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva, Arismendy Alcantara, Josh Vitters, Jeimer Candelario and others who could all effectively man the position.

We break down the Cubs talent into five categories: The Elite, Close to the Big Leagues, International Impact, Pitching Depth and Ready to Break Out. This is your primer on everyone, from seasoned talent that could make the jump to the major leagues this year to 17-year-old international prospects whose professional careers are just getting started.

For those who can’t wait to see the organization’s top young players, this may be the perfect year to head out to Mesa, Ariz., for Spring Training, because the team is opening Cubs Park, a state-of-the-art training facility that rivals the best in the game. In this issue, we take a look at the new facility and what it means for the organization’s player development team.

Spring Training will also offer fans their first opportunity to hear the team’s new radio voice, analyst Ron Coomer, a former Cubs infielder who has spent the last nine years broadcasting for the Twins. The 47-year-old Chicago native grew up rooting for the North Siders, so he understands the team’s unique history and what it means to be a part of its rich broadcasting tradition.

“Probably the only place I would go to leave Minnesota would be the Chicago Cubs,” Coomer said. “My situation with family and everything [in Minnesota] is phenomenal. But it’s the Cubs job. It’s been a dream of mine since before I knew I could hit a baseball.”

Finally, in our monthly Wrigley 100 feature, we chronicle the ballpark’s beginnings. This dates back to when the stadium seated only 14,000 people in a single deck; back to when it was called Weeghman Park; back to when it was known as the home of the Federal League’s Chi-Feds, not the Cubs. It’s an interesting tale not many people know, and it set the foundation for the last century of events at the Friendly Confines.

Cubs past, present and future. That’s our mission, and we cover all the bases this month. Subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.

1000 Words: Happy 29th to No. 29

SAMARDZIJA-J-29(Photo by Stephen Green)

Happy birthday to Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, whose age now matches his uniform number.

Just a few more weeks until pitchers and catchers report in sunny Mesa, Ariz.

1000 Words: From the Cubs Convention and Caravan

The Sheraton Hotel & Towers hosted thousands of Cubs fans this weekend for the 29th annual Cubs Convention. Players were introduced, autographs were signed, panels were held and fun was had by all in attendance. Along with the Cubs Convention, players, coaches and other members of the organization participated in the Cubs Caravan earlier in the week, where they visited hospitals, schools and the USO of Illinois. Below is a gallery of some of the best images from the exciting week and weekend.

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1000 Words: Happy Holidays

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(Photo by David Durochik)

On behalf of Vine Line and the Chicago Cubs, have a happy holiday season.

1000 Words: Holiday Plans

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(Illustration by Tim Souers)

1000 Words: A Cubs Thanksgiving Wish

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Hot Off the Presses: November Vine Line featuring GM Jed Hoyer

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How do you evaluate a 96-loss season? It depends on how you look at it.

Are you evaluating just the major league team or the organization as a whole? Your answers would likely be very different.

On the surface, things don’t look too good. For the second straight year, the Cubs languished in the basement of a stacked NL Central that sent three teams to the 2013 postseason. The offense consistently struggled to put runs on the board, the bullpen faltered early in the season, several key players failed to develop as expected, and manager Dale Sveum was released after two seasons at the helm. To hear General Manager Jed Hoyer tell it, that’s simply not going to cut it.

“One of the things about this job is that your report card is in the paper every morning,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, that report card tells us we’re not good enough. We’re not talented enough at the major league level, and we have to improve that.”

Despite the struggles in Chicago—and both President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Hoyer are quick to admit they’re disappointed by the win-loss total—the front office has never wavered from its initial blueprint for building a consistent winner.

When Epstein and Hoyer took over in October 2011, there was a severe talent deficit in the minor league system, and the major league team was saddled with expensive, aging players. The goal was to stockpile as much young talent as possible as quickly as possible and create payroll flexibility to ensure that the next time the team is competitive, it has a chance to remain competitive for years to come.

On that front, things don’t look bad at all. In 2009, Baseball America ranked the Cubs 27th in its annual organizational talent rankings. By the start of 2013, they had moved up to 12th. Thanks to shrewd trades, some aggressive international signings and a strong 2013 draft, headlined by overall No. 2 pick Kris Bryant, most experts agree the Cubs system is firmly in the top five heading into 2014. And 11 of the organization’s top 20 prospects, according to MLB.com, were acquired since the new front office took over in 2011. That’s a lot of progress in a few short years.

This month, we sat down with the Cubs’ GM for a frank conversation about the state of the organization. There is great reason for optimism, but the wave of young standouts developing in the farm system has yet to crest at Wrigley Field. Until that top-notch talent arrives, it’s imperative the Cubs find a way to improve their bullpen and generate more quality at-bats.

“The amount of talent and the athleticism we have [in the system] is a long, long way from where it was when we first got here, and we’re excited about that,” Hoyer said. “But all those things don’t hide the fact that the goal is to get better at the major league level, and we need to improve on what we’ve done in 2012 and 2013.”

We also talked to one of the key pieces Hoyer acquired last offseason that fits this new organizational philosophy—outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The 29-year-old veteran finally got a chance to play regularly in 2013, and he had a breakout season, with career highs in plate appearances, home runs and RBI. Everybody, from the front office to his teammates, says the same thing about Schierholtz: He’s a professional ballplayer who fights for every at-bat and brings his best effort every day.

Finally, despite the win-loss total, there were plenty of positive developments at the major league level. The Cubs strengthened their pitching depth behind the emergence of lefty Travis Wood, ace Jeff Samardzija continued to miss bats with the best of them, Junior Lake made a surprisingly successful major league debut, and the left side of the infield was as strong defensively as any in baseball. We examine several impressive stats from the 2013 campaign that should bode well for the organization’s near future.

If you want to get to know the future of the organization now, follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline. All winter long, we’ll be following the Cubs’ top prospects in the fall and winter leagues. And pick up the November issue of Vine Line today.

1000 Words: Farewell Dale

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(Photo by Steve Green)

Dale Sveum was released by the Cubs on Monday morning. In two seasons as the club’s manager, Sveum compiled a 127-197 record.

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