Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

Hot Off the Presses: October Vine Line featuring the Cubs’ young talent

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It’s not always easy to stick to your guns. Especially if the decisions you’re making aren’t all that popular.

When Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod first came aboard with the Cubs, they were hailed as conquering heroes who could do no wrong and would soon (and inevitably) carry the organization to the promised land. The Chicago Sun-Times even ran a tongue-in-cheek image of Epstein walking on water.

The new baseball operations men quickly laid out their plan, set a clear course of action and got to work. Their stated goal was to hire the best people in the business, stockpile young talent and build a player-development machine to get that young talent on the fast track to Wrigley Field.

Once the brain trust started making their first moves, the fan base gave them the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone loved seeing favorites like Andrew Cashner, Ryan Dempster and Sean Marshall go, but people figured everything the front office touched would turn to gold. On the plus side, the Cubs picked up first baseman Anthony Rizzo, signed Cuban free agent Jorge Soler and drafted outfielder Albert Almora, among other, less-heralded moves. Despite finishing 2012 with 101 losses, baseball ops stayed the course.

By the time the 2013 campaign came to a close, the voices of dissent were growing louder. The Cubs traded Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano and fired manager Dale Sveum after a 96-loss season. Yet, the front office remained steadfast. While people grumbled, the team acquired players like Jake Arrieta, Corey Black, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop; drafted Kris Bryant; and locked up Starlin Castro and Rizzo with team-friendly long-term deals.

Though the win-loss record didn’t improve dramatically in 2014, the Cubs’ collection of young talent—augmented by players like Billy McKinney, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber—hit critical mass. Now it’s undeniable the Cubs are coming fast, and people around baseball are taking notice. National columnists, local pundits and sports pages across the country are lauding the organization’s elite system.

For the past several years, if you were unwilling to look beyond the team playing at Wrigley Field, it was hard to see what the Cubs were building. When the major league team was losing, the idea of “top prospects” was too nebulous to provide much comfort. But once those same prospects started arriving in the bigs, it was hard to deny their energy, enthusiasm and raw talent.

Not every call-up posted huge numbers, but they all made strong impressions. Kyle Hendricks was occasionally dazzling, Jorge Soler demonstrated impact potential, and guys like Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Eric Jokisch all showed flashes.

Through everything—all the losses, all the complaints, all the stories about the Cubs’ struggles—the front office never wavered from their plan, even when it would have been easier (and much better PR) to hold onto some of their veteran talent and/or throw money at risky free agents. Now that patience is starting to pay off.

I’m in no way saying the Commissioner’s Trophy should be on its way to Clark and Addison next season. Baseball is far too random to guarantee anything like that. But it’s undeniable the Cubs have built a formidable foundation of talent that is the envy of the baseball world.

In the October issue of Vine Line, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma examines the work the front office has been doing to assemble the top system in the game. We also give readers a sneak peek into a true baseball treasure, as we take a tour through the famous Wrigley Field manual scoreboard with the men who work inside. Finally, we go back to June 23, 1984, when Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg made the entire baseball world and a national TV audience take notice with two memorable home runs in the fabled Sandberg Game.

You can always find news on Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ storied past and the organization’s bright future in Vine Line and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. And stay tuned this offseason—things are about to get fun.

—Gary Cohen

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs believe Rick Renteria is poised for success

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The following article appears in the October issue of Vine Line.

When the Cubs hired Rick Renteria as their 53rd manager in franchise history last November, much was made of his fluency in both Spanish and English.

While bilingual talents are an asset to an organization rich in Latin-American prospects, Renteria’s communication skills transcend language. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer knew that when they tapped the now-52-year-old baseball lifer to replace ousted skipper Dale Sveum.

“The No. 1 challenge we gave him was to provide a good atmosphere for the young players to develop and drive to the big league level,” Epstein said. “That is easier said than done, and he has done a fantastic job at it.”

Under Renteria, shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo have both rebounded from 2013 seasons in which the former hit .245 and the latter .233. Their regression from strong 2012 performances distressed management, especially considering the Cubs had committed $100 million to making them franchise cornerstones.

“My goal was to create a positive atmosphere,” Renteria said of his first season as a big league manager. “And we wanted the message and the way we dealt with these young men to be consistent.”

Reflecting on 2013, management accepted blame for trying to make Castro a more patient hitter. Still, after evaluating Sveum for two seasons, Epstein and Hoyer acknowledged they might have missed the mark with the hire.

The former manager batted a slumping Castro everywhere in the lineup in 2013, excluding cleanup. The relationship hit a wall on Aug. 20 with Castro’s move to the No. 8 slot. He was switched to leadoff the next day, reportedly following conversations among Castro, his agent and the front office.

In 2014, Renteria promised Castro would be a key to the offense. The manager batted the shortstop third in the first two games of the season and second in the next three. Then Renteria dropped him to sixth.

Controversial? Hardly.

“Ricky told me he needed production in the middle of the lineup and that I was his best chance,” said Castro, who collected five RBI—including his first career two-homer game—in his initial two games batting sixth.

On April 25, Renteria made his most significant move with Castro, shifting him from the No. 5 spot to cleanup, behind Rizzo. Both players went on to make the All-Star team.

“I was hopeful coming into this job that in time we would build trust,” Renteria said. “We wanted to motivate and encourage our players while still holding them accountable. Teaching was the next step.”

After Renteria lost two-fifths of his starting rotation (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) in a July 4 trade with Oakland, the Cubs dropped 11 of their next 13 games. But they played above .500 in August behind a rebuilt lineup. Jake Arrieta and rookie Kyle Hendricks lifted the rotation, while position prospects Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler freshened the roster.

“Ricky has done a very good job with a roster that has been young and constantly in flux,” Hoyer said. “He and his staff have created an environment that allows young players to develop while still competing every night. This is not easy. Our team has continued to play hard and well through the most mentally challenging parts of the season.”

Though Renteria has a reputation as being easygoing and even-keeled, he’s definitely not a softy. Epstein noted Renteria has been supportive without being enabling.

“When guys make mistakes, he holds them accountable, but he still stays positive by asking them to go out and do it right the next time,” Epstein said.

Renteria, a big league utility player from 1986-94 and a San Diego Padres coach for six seasons before the Cubs came calling, accepts praise cautiously.

“Time will tell what we’ve accomplished as a team,” he said. “We just hoped, with our help, the core of players would create something they wanted to be part of in the culture here.”

Like any rookie manager, Renteria has experienced bumps in the road, including the struggles of Junior Lake and Mike Olt. The skipper sought proper matchups for the two right-handed hitters, but ultimately both were returned to the minors prior to late-season call-ups.
Renteria also experienced the challenge of developing, yet protecting, young arms—all while trying to win games. His rugged bullpen use, especially early on, had the Cubs carrying eight relievers for most of the second half—limiting in-game maneuvers involving position players.

“He’s been everything we hoped for, especially with the priorities we gave him,” Epstein said. “X’s and O’s and in-game stuff, he’s growing into that. It’s kind of nice he can grow with this team.”

Amidst the praise, the first-year big league manager is still hard on himself.

“I’m not one who strays from my own accountability if things don’t work out,” Renteria said. “I’m comfortable in my own skin and hope that translates to our players.”

A longtime scout in another organization agrees the Cubs have found the right manager.

“[He’s] a tremendous baseball man,” the scout said. “He’s always positive and low-key. Yet, one on one, he’ll get his point across and won’t back down when it comes to players hustling or making repeated mistakes. He’s fair, smart and tough.”

And those qualities project well in any language.

—By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jack Brickhouse’s voice defined the Cubs for generations

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Jack Brickhouse, the longtime face and voice of the Chicago Cubs on WGN broadcasts, was eternally and unapologetically an optimist. From 1941-81, including 33 years in the television booth, Brickhouse “Hey-hey’d!” the Cubs’ highs and rallied fans through the many lows. In the doldrums of team history, during a decades-long span when it was exceedingly easy to bail on the downtrodden North Side nine, Brickhouse remained steadfast.

Of course, that might have been by necessity.

“He saw a lot of bad baseball,” said Bob Vorwald, director of production for WGN-TV. “He called over 5,000 games through rose-colored glasses.”

While 5,000 baseball broadcasts may seem like a lot, that only scratched the surface of what Brickhouse accomplished during his career. He also called games for the crosstown White Sox, the NFL’s Chicago Bears and the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. On top of that, he covered political conventions, interviewed politicians (including four presidents) and contributed to the evening news. At one point, he even interviewed Pope Paul VI. But through it all, it was his work with the Cubs that made him a broadcasting legend and earned him a well-deserved spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“His was the voice people aligned with the Cubs,” Vorwald said. “He was also a voice of endless enthusiasm and optimism.”

Brickhouse’s fans credit his unflinching positivity and unconditional love for the Cubs with the creation of a devoted and unshakable fan base. His omnipresence in the WGN-TV broadcast booth also aided in the formation of a nationwide patchwork of Cubs boosters as the television era was dawning and WGN was increasing its reach.

“He was as much a part of the team as Ernie Banks and Billy Williams,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “You remember broadcasters. They’re the first ones you learn the game from.”

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The truly classic tales always seem to include humble beginnings, and Brickhouse’s early years certainly fit the mold.

“He was very proud of [that],” said Jack Rosenberg, Brickhouse’s longtime sports editor and friend. “He was a phenomenal guy who came up the hard way.”

Born in 1916 in Peoria, Illinois, Brickhouse lost his father when he was just a toddler, according to Hartig. His mother remarried, but the family’s financial outlook was bleak. In high school, he played basketball and acted in the senior play while cutting his reporting teeth at the school paper. His college days ended after only one year when the family coffers ran dry, but other promising opportunities emerged.

In 1934, a teenaged Brickhouse got a part-time job at the local WMBD radio station working the switchboard and forming the foundations of his on-air personality. But he never grew up dreaming of making a name for himself on the airwaves. His first foray into radio was actually entering—and losing—an announcing contest. The prize was a $50 watch, which the young man planned to sell for cash to give to his mother, said Jack’s widow, Pat Brickhouse.

While the watch ultimately went to a more seasoned entrant, the station manager heard something in the kid’s voice and hired him anyway. While in Peoria, Brickhouse ran the gamut from news to sports, but he also covered every barn dance and variety show in between. He pushed to expand coverage of Bradley University basketball, and later became the voice of Big Ten football, boxing matches and minor league baseball in the area.

Chicago broadcasting stalwart and longtime White Sox announcer Bob Elson brought the young broadcaster to WGN in 1940 to work Cubs and Sox games, as well as Notre Dame football. Though Brickhouse was already an experienced radio man by this point, the national pastime was still a bit outside his comfort zone.

“If asked, [tell them] you know everything about baseball,” Pat Brickhouse recounted of the wire message alerting her late husband of his new position. “He didn’t know dibbledydook about baseball.”

But, clearly, he managed. Brickhouse jumped around and filled in for the next several years as World War II beckoned Elson away from the booth (childhood tuberculosis kept Brickhouse a civilian). Brickhouse eventually became the lead broadcaster for all Sox and Cubs games. He also covered political conventions, and later briefly worked for baseball’s Giants in New York on WMCA. Brickhouse’s career seemed to be taking off, but Pat Brickhouse said her future husband’s year in New York was the worst of his life. He loved Chicago and was desperate to get home.

In 1947, a new medium beckoned him back to his beloved city. WBKB in Chicago was televising Cubs home games courtesy of local sponsors and needed a personality to anchor its broadcasts. Brickhouse jumped at the opportunity and worked alongside Joe Wilson until the following year when WGN-TV rehired him. The fledgling television arm of the radio giant would be broadcasting all Cubs and White Sox home games, which Brickhouse called in addition to serving as sports service manager.

Along with baseball, Brickhouse worked college and pro football games and some wrestling, which Hartig said irked the broadcaster initially. But he later learned to appreciate the sport’s over-the-top theatrics.

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WGN-TV, Channel 9 in Chicago, broadcast its first Cubs game, a crosstown affair with the White Sox, on April 16, 1948, from Wrigley Field. The South Siders bested the home team 4-1, and Brickhouse’s legendary 33-year tenure as the station’s televised baseball ambassador was off and running.

“Jack was on his own in that regard,” said Len Kasper, WGN-TV’s Cubs play-by-play announcer. “He was so ingrained here for so many decades.”

The station gained exclusive rights to Cubs games in 1952, with Jack Brickhouse and Harry Creighton taking television-owning Chicagoans out to the ballgame every summer—and it shouldn’t be taken for granted just how novel that experience was. While every baseball game is now broadcast, stations were still scrambling to figure out the medium around the time of Brickhouse’s television debut.

No longer did an announcer need to paint the picture—the picture was already being beamed into living rooms—so the call had to be more deft and data-driven. Broadcasters weren’t groomed for telegenics either. They simply made the jump from radio.

“This was all brand new, the idea of [baseball on] television,” Hartig said of the early broadcasts. “How do you cover this [sport]?”

The first major league game was televised in 1939 from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, but by the end of the 1940s, most teams were getting on board. Yet no broadcaster had a presence quite like Brickhouse’s, and none was calling as many games, Kasper said. The sheer volume of work he did, the knowledge he gleaned about the American and National leagues, and the time he spent behind the mic were, and continue to be, without equal.

Though Brickhouse became a Chicago institution, his reach extended beyond the city’s borders. He called five All-Star Games as well as four World Series games—all while publishing his Jack Brickhouse’s Major League Record Book and working to get pro golf televised, Hartig said. Brickhouse began 20-plus years as the radio voice of the Chicago Bears in 1953; he became the first announcer for the Chicago Bulls in 1966, a role he held until 1973; he served on the Cubs’ board of directors for 11 years; he interviewed presidents and dignitaries; and he occasionally popped up on the local Chicago news.

But it was at Wrigley Field where he felt most at home, his widow said. While the 40 years of his Cubs tenure witnessed more blight than bliss, Brickhouse saw, and delighted in, several no-hitters and Ernie Banks’ 500th career home run. In the archived broadcast of the latter event, his voice cracks and bellows with unfiltered joy.

“He was a homer,” Hartig said. “No Cub was ever in a slump. They were always overdue.”

The broadcaster called his unprecedented 5,000th game in 1979 and retired from announcing Cubs baseball in 1981. As Pat Brickhouse put it, he wanted to go out at the top of his game.

“Forty years as a broadcaster is never going to be topped,” she said. “People don’t stick around that long.”

Brickhouse didn’t exactly spend his retired years enjoying the quiet life. He wrote two books, made various speaking engagements and played a great deal of gin rummy. In a fitting cap to his esteemed broadcasting career, he was given the Ford C. Frick Award by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.

In March 1998, Brickhouse died of cardiac arrest at the age of 82, after surgery to remove a brain tumor. His beloved but beleaguered Cubs finished the 1998 season in second place in the NL Central with a 90-73 record, and went to the postseason as the Wild Card winner. It would have been one of the finest seasons on Brickhouse’s watch.

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“I think everybody over the age of 40 can do a Jack Brickhouse impression,” said Vorwald, striking a delighted, high-pitched “Wheeeeee!” to demonstrate.

Brickhouse’s signature “Hey-hey!” call following each Cubs run—a phrase now emblazoned on the foul poles at Wrigley Field in the legendary broadcaster’s honor—was typical of the man who unabashedly root, root, rooted for the Cubbies, even when they weren’t winning.

“They were dreadful,” Vorwald reiterated. “He always found a way to never let it show on the air. “The fans’ optimism—that comes from Jack.”

Brickhouse’s cheery, glass-half-full style earned him his detractors, but largely drew more fans into the Cubs fold.

“That’s just how the man was. He was optimistic about life,” Pat Brickhouse said. “And about his beloved Cubs.”

A 1970 letter to the Chicago Tribune sports editor came to Brickhouse’s defense after a column suggested the city’s broadcasters should consider “shutting up.”

“If [the columnist] doesn’t expect the sportscasters to get excited during a hockey or baseball game, then he must not get very excited himself,” wrote the reader, signed P.A. Mueller. “With Lloyd Pettit yelling ‘A shot and a goal,’ and Jack Brickhouse yelling ‘Hey-hey!’ it all adds to the excitement of the game. I think they do a marvelous job of reporting the action.”

Ed Hartig credits Brickhouse with turning the historian—and native South Sider—into a lifelong Cubs fan.

“Every day, Jack Brickhouse was there,” said the 49-year-old Hartig.

Rosenberg, whose tip-tapping typewriter can be heard churning out production notes in the background of his friend’s old broadcasts, said he hears stories like Hartig’s all the time.

“What they remember was that he was like part of the family,” said Rosenberg, who penned Brickhouse’s Hall of Fame speech. “People grew up with us.”

A statue of Brickhouse, which his wife was instrumental in securing, now stands on Chicago’s famous Michigan Avenue. Notes in hand and microphone poised, he appears mid-call—his eyes cast ahead and mouth turned up in a smile.

“‘I hope I never have to go to work for a living,’” Pat Brickhouse recalled her husband saying. “He just loved what he was doing so much.”

—Kerry Trotter

Now Playing: In the Dugout with Rick Renteria, September 2014

The major league season can be a grind. After 162 games, 26 road series, and the inevitable ups and downs of a professional schedule, you could forgive a manager for being a little drained. But when we sat down with Cubs skipper Rick Renteria early in September, he was energized by his team’s recent run of good play. We talked with him about developing the organization’s young talent, managing the expectations placed on top prospects and learning on the job as a first-year big league manager.

Now Playing: The Cubs honor U.S. champion Jackie Robinson West Little League at Wrigley Field

Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, who claimed the U.S. Little League title and played in the Little League World Series against South Korea, joined the Cubs for Monday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Little League team enjoyed a day at Wrigley Field with teammates, coaches and their families. Before the game, Cubs players celebrated JRW’s accomplishments by wearing the Little League team’s home jerseys and ball caps during pregame routines.

JRW had a meet-and-greet with Cubs players, toured the clubhouse, was recognized in the pregame ceremony—which included the team’s coach, Darold Butler, throwing out the game’s ceremonial first pitch—and led the crowd in “Take me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch.

The Cubs-worn JRW jerseys and ball caps, along with two jerseys signed by the entire JRW team, will be up for auction through Cubs Charities at www.Cubs.com/auction. Bids for jerseys will start at $100, and hats will start at $45. All proceeds will benefit Jackie Robinson West Little League.

Now Playing: Jake Arrieta, Evolution of an Ace

Jake Arrieta has been in this position before. Call it being the ace of the pitching staff. Call it being the Opening Day starter. Call it being the team leader. He was all that a couple of years ago with the Baltimore Orioles. And he’s all that again now with the Chicago Cubs.

A lot has happened in the intervening time, of course, including a trade from Baltimore to Chicago and some time in the minor leagues, as Arrieta attempted to add a little more polish and command to his outstanding pure stuff. It’s all led to a dramatic career renaissance that once again has Arrieta acting as the No. 1 starter on a big league pitching staff.

We sat down with Arrieta to talk about his career path and what’s changed this season. Pick up the September issue of Vine Line for the full cover story on Arrieta’s development.

Now Playing: In the Dugout with Rick Renteria, August 2014

Things should get interesting for the Cubs as the season draws to a close, especially with some heralded prospects from the farm system getting late-season call-ups. When we sat down with manager Rick Renteria the day before the trade deadline, the Cubs were already getting strong performances from rookies Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks. We talked to the skipper about the team’s youth movement, dealing with the deadline doldrums and squaring off against newly minted Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

A Cubs fan is living the dream in the MLB Fan Cave

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(Illustration by Jerry Neumann)

Michael Bolling isn’t sure what he wants to do next year, but for now, he’s already got most baseball fans’ dream job.

The 24-year-old multimedia journalism graduate from Lewis University is the first-ever Cubs representative in the MLB Fan Cave in New York City. That means he’s spending this year meeting MLB superstars, blogging and tweeting on behalf of MLB and the Cubs, and—first and foremost—watching every big league pitch thrown in 2014.

The MLB Fan Cave debuted in 2011, putting its Dwellers “at work” from noon, when the first pitch of the first afternoon game is thrown until about 1:30 a.m., when games wrap up on the West Coast. They also conduct public tours of the space and participate in the filming of MTV2’s weekly Off the Bat show.

“It actually really hectic,” Bolling said. “There’s a ton of stuff going on, but the main focus is when there are games on, we’re in front of those television sets, and we aren’t missing any pitches.”

The Fan Cave first came to Bolling’s attention during the 2013 World Series, when he saw last year’s Dwellers covering the games and getting premium media access. He ultimately hopes to have a career in sports, so when he saw the link to apply online, he was all in.

“I felt like it would be a good opportunity to at least find the door—and maybe even get my foot in the door—and that’s something that probably doesn’t come around very often,” he said. “I figured if I got anywhere near the last few cuts, and they were thinking about bringing me in, I was going to drop everything to do it.”

Bolling, who spent much of his childhood living about six blocks from Wrigley Field, has been a Cubs fan since birth—his mother is from the Dominican Republic and was friendly with Sammy Sosa’s family. He and a friend even drove from Chicago to Anaheim, California, in 2010 to watch Marlon Byrd represent the Cubs in the All-Star Game.

So far this year, Bolling has met countless major league players and even got a chance to play a Playstation MLB: The Show Home Run Derby with Dodgers star Yasiel Puig (for the record: Bolling won). But what he’s really looking forward to is when the Cubs come to New York to take on the Mets August 15-18, because that means some Cubs players will stop by the Cave.

“I don’t care who comes through the doors. I’m going to freak out,” Bolling said. “I really hope we can get Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo through to the Cave just to show them around and interact with them a bit. But honestly whoever is wearing the pinstripes and comes through that door, I’m going to be so happy to see them. I can’t wait.”

Hot Off the Presses: August Vine Line featuring Anthony Rizzo

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Last month, the Cubs kicked off the annual trade deadline frenzy with some big Fourth of July fireworks, sending starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics for infielder Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney, right-handed pitcher Dan Straily and a player to be named later.

In some ways, the trade was difficult for Cubs fans to stomach, as they lost two of the top pitchers from a team that was suddenly looking, dare I say, formidable. But it might also be the move that finally puts the team over the hump and on the path to sustained excellence at the big league level.

In exchange for a right-hander who was only under contract through 2014 (Hammel) and another under contract through 2015 and seemingly eager to test the free agent waters (Samardzija), the Cubs received the A’s top two prospects, including one of the best in the game, and an arm that could see time in the big league rotation this season.

No one likes trading proven talent, especially a longtime Cub like Samardzija. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein made it clear several times in his press conference following the blockbuster deal how hard it was to part ways with the Shark.

“Nothing would make us happier than being in the position Oakland is in, which is to aggressively add to the big league team and enhance the team’s chances of making the postseason and winning the World Series,” Epstein said. “Being sellers is not what we want to do, so if we’re going to do it, we need to make it count. And we need to get a player back who significantly impacts the organization, helps change the landscape, helps make our future a heck of a lot better.”

In the past, Epstein has said there are two great currencies in baseball: deep reserves of young talent and massive amounts of payroll flexibility. The Cubs now have both.

Admittedly, most of this talent is still percolating in the minor leagues, but it’s coming fast. A year ago, it was the Big Three: Albert Almora, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler. This year—thanks to strong trades, draft picks and development—the Cubs have a Magnificent Seven of gifted hitters, with Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, Russell and Kyle Schwarber added to that mix.

Since the end of the steroid era, the big league pendulum has swung back toward pitching dominance, and hitting is becoming a rarer commodity. In other words, the Cubs are stockpiling the most precious resource in baseball—and they’ve got more of it than almost anyone else. With this trade, the organization now owns the No. 2 (Bryant), No. 5 (Russell) and No. 7 (Baez) prospects in the game, as ranked in the Baseball America midseason top 50.

Let me repeat that—the Cubs now have three of the top seven prospects in the game—and Baez is making his big league debut tonight in Colorado. Of course, prospects have a nasty habit of not always panning out as expected. But it’s important to remember all of these minor leaguers are essentially funneling into eight everyday major league spots. Two of those spots are already filled by 2014 All-Stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, while Alcantara and Baez are auditioning for two more.

This month, we look at cornerstone major leaguer Rizzo, who is having a terrific season on both sides of the ball and has taken a huge developmental step forward this year. We also say goodbye to Don Zimmer, a man who left an indelible mark on Cubs—and baseball—history over his 66 years in the dugout. Finally, we move off the diamond to the gridiron to remember what the Chicago Bears accomplished in their 50 years at the Friendly Confines, including Wrigley Field’s most recent championship in 1963.

To keep track of Cubs history—including history in the making—subscribe to Vine Line today and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline. With the way things are coming together for the team, the next championship season may not be far off.

—Gary Cohen

Now Playing: Keeping Score with Lennie Merullo, the oldest living Cub

Despite hailing from the Boston area, Lennie Merullo is a Cub through and through. The spry, 97-year-old former shortstop is the last surviving link to the team’s most recent World Series appearance in 1945 and is the oldest living Cub. After his seven-year playing career ended, Merullo remained with the organization for decades as a scout and said he truly bleeds Cubbie blue. He still watches every game, and his house is filled with memorabilia from his years on the North Side.

Vine Line caught up with Merullo when was honored at the park in early June. To read the complete interview, pick up the August issue.

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