Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

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

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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.

 

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

Hot Off the Press: The January issue featuring new ace Jon Lester

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Now things are starting to get fun. Last month when I sat down to write this letter, I was reflecting on the improvements of the past year and the splash the Cubs made by signing free-agent manager Joe Maddon to a five-year contract. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein had recently spoken about how the organization was turning a corner and how he expected the Cubs to contend for the NL Central crown in 2015.

“We’re going to be very involved [in the free-agent market],” Epstein said. “It’s starting to be the right time to add impact talent.”

I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t exaggerating. Christmas came early for Cubs fans when the team landed coveted left-hander Jon Lester, righty Jason Hammel, All-Star catcher Miguel Montero and backup catcher David Ross around December’s Winter Meetings.

Lester, whom the Cubs signed to a six-year deal with an option for a seventh, was the jewel of the offseason pitching market, and several top teams—including the Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers—waged a fierce battle over him. Though those teams have been postseason fixtures in recent years, Lester ultimately chose to come to Chicago and reunite with Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, the executives who drafted him back in 2002 with Boston.

For years, people have questioned the front office’s plan for the organization, and many wondered aloud if and when they could get a major free agent to buy into their vision. But the Cubs’ plan all along has been to rebuild the minor league system as quickly as possible and add impact players from outside the organization when the time was right.

These recent moves weren’t a deviation. They were a confirmation.

The Cubs’ pitch to Lester, who turns 31 years old on Jan. 7, centered around the lure of bringing a World Series title to the North Side, the unrivaled young talent filling the system and the restoration of Wrigley Field, which will soon provide players with some of the best facilities in the game.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think [the Cubs] were going to win in 2015,” Lester said. “So that’s how I think. I’m never going to say, ‘Well, we’ll be all right this year, and we’ll get ‘em next year.’ I’m going in with the intention of winning in 2015. And that means the division, that means the World Series, that means everything. Like I said, I don’t like to lose. You can call it arrogant, you can call it cocky, whatever you want. But I like to win, and that’s what I’m here to do.”

The baseball world has long been drooling over the Cubs’ preponderance of young bats, from Javier Baez to Kris Bryant to Addison Russell to Jorge Soler. Add that to an already solid bullpen and proven major league players like Jake Arrieta, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Hammel, Lester and Montero, and you’ve really got something.

This month, we only touch on the recent signings, which hit the Chicago area like a tsunami moments before we went to press. Next month, we’ll take a deep dive into all the moves (along with providing our annual minor league prospectus).

It’s funny how fast things change. Last I checked, the Cubs were at 12-1 odds to win the World Series at online sports book Bovada. Like I said, things are starting to get fun.

Speaking of fun, in this month’s issue, we get the backstory on three decades of the Cubs Convention, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary from Jan. 16-18 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. We also shed some light on the charitable work the team performed in the last year as part of its 100 Gifts of Service, the club’s most ambitious philanthropic initiative ever. Finally, we get our first chance to talk to new hitting coach John Mallee about his philosophy and what he hopes to achieve on the North Side. With a talented crop of young players now under his tutelage, it’s safe to say the Chicago native is eager to get started.

Here’s the good news: We’re just one month away from pitchers (Lester, Hammel) and catchers (Montero, Ross) reporting to Spring Training. As always, look for us at the convention, where we’ll be renewing subscriptions, meeting fans, and possibly hosting a player or two. See you there.

—Gary Cohen

Hot Off the Press: The November issue goes inside Wrigley Field’s 1060 Project

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On April 23, 1914, a new and thoroughly modern ballpark opened up on Chicago’s North Side. When the gates were flung wide on the Federal League’s crown jewel, Weeghman Park, fans were treated to their first look at a beautiful steel and brick structure that was designed to stand the test of time. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t need a little help.

Over the last 100 years, the iconic ballpark at the corner of Clark and Addison has gone through countless enhancements, modernizations and expansions. The game moves fast, and major league teams need to keep pace. In 1914, Weeghman Park had only one level, the press box was on the roof, and the facility seated just north of 14,000 people. Not much of that would fly today.

Since then, Wrigley Field has been updated with everything from a second deck, to a hand-operated scoreboard, to new bleachers, to stadium lights, to an improved field drainage system, to a right-field video board. At every step along the way, the Friendly Confines has retained its charm and feel—and has been better off for the additions. A ballpark doesn’t get to be 100 years old without evolving to meet the demands of its sport.

There are pros and cons about playing in a landmark, century-old facility. On the plus side, there is no more beautiful place to watch a Major League Baseball game than the Friendly Confines, from the bricks and ivy of the outfield wall to being ensconced in a thriving urban neighborhood. But there are things the park is missing too, from both a fan and player perspective.

Most fans wouldn’t argue with more and better food options or a few extra restrooms here and there. The players could use a larger clubhouse facility, a better strength and conditioning center, and underground batting tunnels to use during games. And the front office would love additional revenue from things like new video boards and advertising to help keep the Cubs competitive for the foreseeable future.

Every other team in the fiercely competitive NL Central has opened a new facility since 2001, and, make no mistake, they all have these things.

This offseason begins the next, and most ambitious, step in the evolution of Wrigley Field. Over the next four years, the Cubs plan to preserve the beauty and historic features fans have cherished about the ballpark for decades while updating and improving the gameday experience for everyone.

In Vine Line‘s November issue, we get a first look at The 1060 Project and how the plan will come together between now and 2018. We talked to the people who are making the restoration happen, from Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein to the project team, so fans know what to expect as the ballpark is enhanced.

“Wrigley has a very special vibe,” Ricketts said. “It’s a special place. We respect that. We think we understand what makes it so special, and all the things that people associate with this beautiful ballpark will be preserved. It will just have better amenities and better services and more information.”

We also jump into the 2014-15 offseason along with the Cubs players. After more than seven months of continuous routine and rigorous training, it’s an unusual experience for them to suddenly have so much free time on their hands. We stopped by the clubhouse in the season’s final days to find out how the Cubs handle the transition to the offseason.

Finally, for our monthly Wrigley 100 feature, we look back at one of the most beloved Cubs figures of all time, Harry Caray. The legendary broadcaster and Hall of Famer died in 1998, but he more than left his mark on the franchise in his 16 years in (and out) of the booth.

We’ll spend this offseason keeping you up-to-date on all the details of The 1060 Project in the pages of Vine Line, on the Web and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. Here’s to the next 100 years at Wrigley Field.

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.

* * * *
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.

* * * *
“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

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

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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.

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