Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with hitting coach Bill Mueller

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The following can be found in the Profile section of March’s edition of Vine Line.

Former American League batting champ Bill Mueller is back in Cubbie blue as the new big league hitting coach.

Born: 3/17/71 in Maryland Heights, Mo.
Resides: Mesa, Ariz.
Joined Cubs: 11/22/13
Position: Hitting Coach

COMING HOME  It’s a wonderful experience to be back in this city. Being a part of the team again is exciting. And being a part of an organization like this, with Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] and everyone, I think it’s an exciting time to be in this organization. I’m looking forward to having a great year and enjoying this wonderful opportunity.

TOP DOG  [Rick Renteria] is as genuine as they come. And knowledgeable, very experienced. Basically, you know what you’re going to be getting. You know what you’re going to have in that [dugout] every single day. Same with the coaching staff. All of these guys are excellent, solid individuals with an enormous amount of experience.

FEELING GOOD  We all know the pressures of performance in what we do out there. With our [coaching staff’s] experience, it’s just a matter of working with each individual and working with where they are. It’s our job to figure that out and enhance all that and get them consistent. We’re all about enhancing their confidence and minimizing their insecurities.

IN THE SWING  You just want to be a good listener and listen to where they’re at, where they place value in their swing, how cognitive they are, what’s their approach, where do they see their role on the team. You’ve got to get these questions going, and then you can dissect it better if you want to take it in a certain direction—whether it’s a swing path or a lower half thing or an approach thing—and start interjecting things at the right time so they make an impact.

ME, MYSELF AND I  When we were in the minor leagues, a lot of us didn’t even have hitting coaches. You had to watch the good hitters in that league and figure things out. I wasn’t ultratalented, so you had to ask questions of other guys on your team, and you had to tinker around with things. You had to learn who you were, your strengths, your weaknesses, what made you tick, swing path, timing, rhythm and all that stuff. You started becoming your own coach.

ON THE FARM  It’s an enormous amount of talent [in the Cubs system]. On top of that, there’s an enormous amount of character. That’s what’s really special, because there’s a lot more growing mentally as well as physically for all these guys. No matter how talented you are, there’s always that big step of transitioning to get to the big leagues and stay in the big leagues. With that foundation of character and their work ethic and their talent, they’re fortified to really come up here and start having some success.

TOP MOMENT  The one that comes to mind first is my first at-bat in the big leagues. When you’re not really a prospect coming up and you’re not 6-foot-4, 225 pounds—not highly skilled where I’m pumping jacks just because—that moment was an unbelievable experience and an enormous accomplishment, to make it to that point and reach my dream that I had been dreaming about since I was 7 years old.

HOME TURF  I was born and raised in St. Louis. [Before playing in the 2004 World Series with the Red Sox], the last World Series game I was ever at was in 1982 with my dad in the nosebleeds—[the Brewers’] Cecil Cooper hit a home run up there. The next moment, I’m part of a World Series, and I’m winning it at Busch Stadium with my mom and dad in the stands and friends and family. So it was an exciting time, breaking a curse of 86 years and winning a World Series on my home soil.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with LHP Zac Rosscup

Rosscup

(Photo by Stephen Green)

After five minor league seasons, left-handed pitcher Zac Rosscup made his major league debut out of the Cubs bullpen in September 2013. The Oregon native was drafted in the 28th round of the 2009 amateur draft by the Tamps bay Rays and came to the Cubs in the 2011 trade for Matt Garza. We sat down with the 25-year-old as last season was coming to a close. The following can be found in the Profile section of February’s Vine Line.

MAJOR DEBUT  That was intense. Knees shaking a little bit. I was nervous. After you warm up and you take a deep breath, you realize it’s the same game you’ve been playing your whole life—just a little bit better talent on the field. It’s great. There’s not a whole lot you can say about it. It’s one of those feelings that you just have to do it to know the feel.

THE CALL-UP  When you picture it in your mind and growing up and stuff, [you think] when you get here, “I’m going to be perfect.” But that’s not realistic. It’s been really nice. It’s definitely given me a taste of what it’s like, and I’m going to work hard in the offseason to get back here next year for sure.

GETTING TRADED  Obviously, you don’t expect it, just being in Low-A rookie ball with the Rays. When it happens, it just kind of hits you. You’re like, “Oh, I guess I’m on a new team now.” You don’t really know what to expect coming into that next spring, because it was in the offseason. Both organizations are really good—good to their players and great for developing players—and it’s been a fun experience and a fun ride so far. I look forward to spending many years here.

THE NEW GUYS  Justin Grimm [came] over and those guys from the Rangers, Kyle Hendricks. [There are] a few guys I’ve met that came over from a few different organizations. It’s really not that different. You come into a locker room, and there are a bunch of guys getting ready to play a game. It’s not like you’re going to go haze them or not talk to them. They’re a part of the team now, they’re part of the organization, and they’re here to help the team win. So you’ve got to treat it as, “We’re all working together to be a part of something that will grow into wins.”

REALIZING POTENTIAL  You work hard at any level, and you just hope to be seen. [My opportunity] happened by chance. I started pitching and gaining some velocity by working out at [Chemeketa Community College in Oregon], and that really helped me along the way. I wasn’t ever really serious about it until that first scout card from the Astros’ regional scout out there. I called my mom and told her, “This thing could turn out to be a real goal for me.” After that, it was just putting my head toward the right things and working hard to make it to pro ball.

SAFETY FIRST  I played football until eighth grade. At the time, I hadn’t quite hit the growth spurt. I hadn’t hit puberty. I was just kind of in an awkward stage in my life, and I didn’t know how I was going to be in high school. So I called it quits and stuck to baseball, where size doesn’t matter too much and I wasn’t going to get thrown around.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, Ready to Break Out

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Duane Underwood has one of the highest ceilings of all the Cubs arms. (Photo by Scott McDaniel)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. This is our final online installment. For more information, pick up the February issue of Vine Line.

Also from the Series:
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – The Elite
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – Close to Big Leagues
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – International Impact
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – Pitching Depth

READY TO BREAK OUT

Not every name in the Cubs system sits atop prospect lists like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. But the best organizations not only have top talent and balance, they also have players not everyone has heard of who have a chance to blossom into very good major leaguers.

Whether they’re lacking the flashy tool that garners headlines or are just a little raw and haven’t yet put everything together, there are definitely names worth watching in the Cubs system. And many of these prospects could become much more familiar to fans over the next nine months.

STEPHEN BRUNO
DOB: 11/17/1990
POSITION: 2B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .362/.436/.478 (19 GAMES)

There’s no two ways about it, this kid can flat-out hit. With a front-to-back stroke, Bruno uses the whole field, attacks the fastball and has the ability to stay on the breaking ball. Unfortunately, his season ended early with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. If not for that, it wouldn’t have been a surprise for Bruno to hit his way up to Double-A.

He likely won’t be ready by Spring Training, but the hope is he’ll be able to get on the field early in the minor league season. When he does, expect him to once again hit line drives all over the field.

ROCK SHOULDERS
DOB: 9/26/1991
POSITION: 1B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .258/.352/.445 (117 GAMES)

The man with the best name in the system mashed at a tough park for hitters in Kane County early on, earning organizational Player of the Month honors in April. A full-figured kid, Shoulders is more athletic than many realize. He played third base as an amateur, and there are those in the Cubs organization who believe he could have some value in the outfield.

With a winning combination of patience and power, the bat will always be enticing. Now it’s a matter of developing versatility on defense or finding one place to play and really focusing on it.

DUANE UNDERWOOD
DOB: 7/20/1994
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: 54.1, 4.97 ERA, 36 K, 27 BB (11 STARTS, 14 APPEARANCES)

Outside of C.J. Edwards and perhaps Pierce Johnson, Underwood may have the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the organization. Unfortunately, he came into Spring Training in less-than-ideal shape, which led to inconsistent performance throughout the season. The hope is that he learned his lesson and will prepare appropriately this offseason so he can come into the spring ready to take off.

As far as the stuff is concerned, when he’s on, the fastball is 92-96 mph, and he has a knee-buckling curve. But consistency is an issue, and he didn’t get as many whiffs as you’d expect from a guy with his stuff.

“He’ll come into next season as a 19-year-old, and we’re just waiting for the light to come on,” McLeod said. “His upside is as high as anybody we’ve got.”

CHRISTIAN VILLANUEVA
DOB: 6/19/1991
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: TENNESSEE
2013 STATS: .261/.317/469 (133 GAMES)

Already a big league-caliber defender at third, Villanueva showed some pop for the first time in his career in 2013, hitting 41 doubles and 19 home runs. There are some swing mechanics the Cubs will continue to work on with him, and they’d like to see him improve his plate discipline as far as controlling the strike zone. But Villanueva has the profile teams look for at third base, especially if the power output remains at the level he showed this season. Defensively, his hands and feet are as good as anyone’s.

DAN VOGELBACH
DOB: 12/17/1992
POSITION: 1B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .284/.375/.449 (131 GAMES)

Vogelbach grew up playing baseball in the Florida sun, so the cold late spring in Kane County was a shock to his system this past season. Many balls that normally would have cleared the fence or fallen for doubles became easy outs. However, his struggles in a cold and rainy April helped him grow immensely as a player. By the end of the year, his numbers were solid, and he’d done enough to earn a promotion to Daytona.

The bat has always been a plus for Vogelbach, as he shows light-tower power and can drive the ball to all parts of the field. Of course, the biggest question will always be his body and whether it will keep him from sticking at first base. While he’ll never be mistaken for slender, there have been some positive signs of late.
“He was probably the best I’ve ever seen him look [in November for instructs] in Arizona,” McLeod said.

McLeod pointed to next season as being a huge year for Vogelbach. He’ll have to continue to stay in shape and prove his bat can carry him to the bigs.

GIOSKAR AMAYA (2B) – Amaya had an up-and-down 2013, but he has bat speed, power for a second baseman, solid plate discipline and the speed to steal a base here and there. He’s a very hard worker, but he can be too tough on himself from time to time. Still, he’s an intelligent ballplayer with tools and plus-makeup.

SHAWON DUNSTON JR. (OF) – Dunston grew up a lot in 2013 after struggling early in his professional career. He had a strong first half in Boise but fell off toward the end. He has all the tools, drew a lot of walks and can steal bases. The Cubs are working on his bat path, as Dunston tends to get a little pull-happy.

KEVIN ENCARNACION (OF) – Encarnacion hit for average and power, drew walks and stole bases in a strong year at Boise. He’s a switch-hitter with a corner-outfield profile. Though he was a little old for the Northwest League, his confidence improved this season after a strong performance. He shows a fluid swing with a very good idea of the strike zone.

DUSTIN GEIGER (1B) – This streaky, big-bodied power hitter mashes lefties and holds his own against righties. Geiger should move into a hitters’ park in Tennessee next year, so he needs to keep putting up offensive numbers and improving defensively.

JACOB HANNEMANN (OF) – Hannemann was a surprise third-round pick in last summer’s draft. He flew under the radar because he hadn’t played for a few years due to a Mormon mission and commitment to the BYU football team. He has a strong left-handed bat and a good feel for the strike zone. From a tools standpoint, he’s a dynamic guy with tremendous speed, a Jacoby Ellsbury-type body and athleticism. He’s raw because of limited playing time, but the Cubs are betting on his upside.

CARLOS PIMENTEL (RHP) – Recently named the Dominican Winter League Pitcher of the Year, this strong-armed reliever has proven to be a tough match-up. He’s a short-arm guy, and hitters often have a tough time picking up the ball. He has been up to 94 mph with the fastball, which he complements with a slider and a solid change-up. His command and control can waver, but he’s a pitcher who gives opponents an uncomfortable at-bat.

IVAN PINEYRO (RHP) – Acquired in a trade with the Nationals for Scott Hairston, Pineyro is a strike thrower with an impressive change-up. He’s not a stuff guy, but the belief is he can end up at the back end of a good major league rotation.

—Sahadev Sharma

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, International Impact

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Shortstop Gleyber Torres was one of baseball’s top international prospects in 2013. (Image by Bill Mitchell)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. We’ll post some of the profiles here on the blog in the coming weeks so you can keep track of all the names to know in the Cubs highly ranked system.

Also from the series:

2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus- The Elite
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus- Close to the Big Leagues

INTERNATIONAL IMPACT

Over the past 15 years, the Cubs have done well on the international free agent market, especially in Latin America. From Carlos Zambrano to Starlin Castro to, most recently, Junior Lake, the organization continually produces international players who impact the major league roster.

However, while teams like the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees were competing for big-money players, the Cubs were content to sign low-cost free agents and hope their bulk purchases would eventually pay off. But with the signing of Soler in 2012, the new Cubs regime announced to the baseball world they were becoming serious players in the international community. Even with spending restrictions in place, the trend continued in 2013, as the Cubs blew past their allotted cap, signing numerous highly regarded prospects. Due to their free-spending ways, they will have even harsher limits on their spending next summer, but clearly Epstein and company believed the talent level available this year made it worth the risk.

Along with the many players inked during the international signing period in July, the Cubs also have some intriguing names who are young and still growing into their bodies. These raw athletes likely won’t make an impact at Wrigley anytime soon, but they help create the depth necessary to ensure the Cubs system can consistently funnel talent to the big league roster.

ELOY JIMENEZ
DOB: 11/27/1996
POSITION: RF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

At just 17 years of age, Jimenez is already a physical specimen. He was the consensus top player in last summer’s international free agent class, and the Cubs paid him accordingly, giving him a $2.8 million bonus, the highest handed out in 2013.

The Dominican native already has great strength, and scouts expect him to display his tremendous raw power in game action as he continues to grow. Jimenez also has the strong arm and athleticism necessary to play a solid right field.

GLEYBER TORRES
DOB: 12/13/1996
POSITION: SS
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

Many considered Torres the second-best prospect in the 2013 class, just behind Jimenez, but that’s where the similarities end. Torres doesn’t project to have much power—he might touch double-digit home runs at his peak—but he already has an advanced hitting ability and approach for his age.

If his development goes as expected, the Venezuelan could hit for a high average, knocking doubles into the gaps while playing plus defense at shortstop.

JEN-HO TSENG
DOB: 10/3/1994
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

Of the big names the Cubs signed this July, the 19-year-old Tseng could be the most developed. He throws a lot of strikes with three strong pitches—a split-finger fastball, curve and slider—and his fastball can touch 95. With an advanced feel for pitching, it wouldn’t shock anyone if Tseng started the year in Kane County.

The Taiwanese pitcher has already performed on a bigger stage than most international free agents, pitching for his home country in both the World Baseball Classic and the 18U World Championship Games. Though the overall quality of his stuff was down in his most recent outings, some believe it was due to heavy usage. Some time off should help as he gets acclimated to a less intense workload stateside.

JEIMER CANDELARIO
DOB: 11/24/1993
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .256/.346/.396 (130 GAMES)

Candelario first caught scouts’ eyes in 2011, when he posted a .443 on-base percentage at the age of 17 in the Dominican Summer League. While those statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, he also performed well the following year in Boise, earning time at full-season Kane County in 2013.

While the numbers at Kane County don’t jump off the page, his performance was still impressive considering his age and the league in which he was playing.

A switch-hitter with a feel for the zone, Candelario, who was born in New York but grew up in the Dominican, is still growing into what McLeod referred to as his “man strength,” which should help increase his power numbers in the future.

YASIEL BALAGUERT
DOB: 1/2/1993
POSITION: OF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: .261/.334/.439 (67 GAMES)

In 2012, Balaguert was sent to Peoria (the Cubs’ low-A affiliate at the time) and performed poorly, hitting only .208 in 149 at-bats. But he rebounded for a solid season after spending most of 2013 at Boise. He is still trying to figure out who he is as a hitter, but he’s strong, has a lot of power and is learning to control the strike zone better.

Balaguert is the type of athlete with a wide variance of possible end points. In 2014, he could explode into a top prospect or struggle mightily and get lost among the numerous other talented players in the Cubs system. If things do click for the young Cuban, it’ll be a credit to his tremendous work ethic as well as the Cubs’ scouting and player development team for identifying and molding a truly raw kid into a valuable piece of the puzzle.

ERICK LEAL (RHP) – This 18-year old, acquired for Tony Campana, is tall and lanky with average velocity and good feel for a change-up. He’s a strike thrower with minimal walks and a good understanding of pitching. The Cubs hope his velocity will tick up as he gains strength.

CARLOS PENALVER (SS) – The best defensive shortstop in the system, Penalver has smooth hands, easy transfer and plenty of arm strength. He also shows the ingredients of someone who can handle the bat, including a good idea of the zone and strong swing path. He needs to gain weight and strength to put his offensive skill set to use at the major league level.

JEFFERSON MEJIA (RHP) – Mejia has a big frame and projects to have three plus offerings if he fills out and adds velocity to his current 87-90 mph fastball. He works down in the zone and keeps bats off his fastball with an advanced change-up and a quality breaking ball.

ERLING MORENO (RHP) – This 6-foot-7 Colombian throws in the low-90s with a change-up that can miss bats and an average curveball. His athleticism allows him to repeat his delivery with consistency, something that can often be an issue with taller pitchers.

—Sahadev Sharma

From the Pages of Vine Line: Ron Coomer makes his Chicago return

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New radio analyst Ron Coomer spent the 2001 season with the Cubs. (Photo by Stephen Green)

The following can be found in the February issue of Vine Line.

Who says you can never go home again?

After nine years working for the Twins—the team with which he made his major league debut in 1995 and spent the bulk of his professional playing career—Ron Coomer will join play-by-play man Pat Hughes in the Cubs broadcast booth for WGN Radio. He replaces Keith Moreland, who left after three years with the club to be closer to his family in Texas.

The affable 47-year-old, affectionately known as “Coom Dawg,” most recently worked on the Twins’ pre- and postgame shows for Fox Sports North and often filled in for Bert Blyleven during game broadcasts. He also hosted a music show on KTWN, the radio station that began airing Twins games in 2013.

For all intents and purposes, Coomer and his family were extremely happy in the North Star State, and they weren’t looking to make a move. But when your dream job comes open, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity.

And Coomer has been waiting for the chance to broadcast Cubs games since he hung on Jack Brickhouse’s every word as a child growing up on Chicago’s West and South sides. Throughout his career as a player and broadcaster, he has always been eager to get back to his hometown.

The Lockport (Ill.) Township High School graduate spent nine years as a major league player and was named to the 1999 American League All-Star team as a member of the Twins. When he reached free agency for the first time after six years in Minnesota, he signed with the Cubs in a matter of days. He spent only one year on the North Side before moving on to the Dodgers and Yankees, but he returned to establish the On Deck Baseball Academy in Orland Park following his playing career.

Once Moreland announced he was leaving, Coomer received a call from Hughes asking if he’d be interested in the job. That kicked off a series of interviews with WGN and the Cubs front office that culminated in his hiring on Dec. 13. We spoke to Coomer just after he joined the Cubs radio team, and needless to say, he’s very happy to be coming home.

Vine Line: You went to high school on Chicago’s South Side. How did you end up a Cubs fan?

Ron Coomer: I actually grew up right by Midway Airport. I was two blocks from Midway on that southwest side of the city. I grew up a Cubs fan for one simple reason: When you ran home after school, the Cubs game was always on in the daytime, and you could catch the last four innings of the game with Jack Brickhouse or whoever was broadcasting.

I couldn’t get the White Sox games on our TV when I was a little guy. So that started me being a Cubs fan as a real little kid. Once I started doing that, then my dad would take me to Wrigley Field on a regular basis, and I just fell in love with going to Wrigley and watching the ballgames. I never really went to Comiskey Park back in the day. I always went to Wrigley. I wasn’t real popular with my grandparents and some of the people in my family, but it’s worked out pretty good so far.

VL: You’d been with the Twins for a long time. What made you want to chase the Cubs job?

RC: I had a very good situation in Minnesota. I do 100 broadcasts for Fox with Twins baseball. I have a music radio show here in town on the Twins Network that we do on drive time every afternoon from 3-7. I really enjoyed my time here. This has been home for a long time now. But I’ve always wanted to do games. Every player, when you get into the broadcast booth, you want to be a part of the game broadcast.

When the Cubs job came available, I didn’t know if I would be thought of at all, but I got a call from Pat Hughes asking me if I was interested. Probably the only place I would go to leave Minnesota would be the Chicago Cubs. 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.

VL: In baseball, you seldom get to choose the city in which you play or work. What’s it like for you to get a chance to come home to Chicago?

RC: It’s incredible. I can’t even describe it. As a player, I became a free agent, and by 9 a.m. the first morning, [former General Manager] Andy MacPhail had a contract couriered over to my house. So at 9 o’clock in the morning, Day One of free agency, I had a great deal from Andy. Two or three days later, I was a Cub. I started fielding some calls from other teams, and I’m like, “Don’t even bother. We’re already done.” And they’re like, “But free agency just started.” I go, “Nah, not for me it didn’t. It’s over.” So that took all of three days. When this job became available, [it’s a] lifelong dream. To be in Major League Baseball doing this—as crazy as the baseball life is—you couldn’t ask for anything more.

VL: What’s your relationship like with your new partner, Pat Hughes?

RC: Pat’s just one of the nicest people in the world. I’ve always made a point when I come to the ballpark or I’m going to a game at Wrigley to see Pat and whoever was broadcasting, because they’re such good people. So you want to say “hi” and kind of renew your friendship, even if it’s just for that day. It’s been that kind of relationship for a long time with Pat, where you really respect what he does and how he does it and the kind of person he is. So I’ve always made a point to try and see him, and we’ve been friends for a long time. Now we’re going to be partners.

VL: Can you describe your style in the booth?

RC: I’m kind of analytical when it comes to understanding the little nuances of the game, whether it’s your swing as a hitter or what certain things are happening with a pitcher. I basically talk about the pitcher from the hitter’s perspective. So fans will get an idea of what’s going on with the pitcher, what the hitter is looking for from the pitcher, how the pitcher is trying to set the hitter up, things like that. I love the intricacies of baseball and those little battles that happen throughout the day. Those are very fun for me, and they’re fun to try and get across to the fans.

VL: Did you have any broadcasting idols growing up in the city?

RC: I grew up watching Cubs baseball. Jack Brickhouse was our broadcaster when I was a young kid—and I mean a young kid. You’re talking 4, 5, 6, 7 years old when you’re just watching with bright eyes and listening to how excited Jack Brickhouse would get over a Cubs game and a Cubs win. I think he stood out the most to me as a young kid.

VL: You’re obviously not the first Ron in the WGN Radio booth. Is that legacy a little daunting?

RC: Without question it’s daunting when you look back at the names, from Lou Boudreaux to Vince Lloyd to Brickhouse and all those people. And the analysts—Steve Stone was there forever. But Ron Santo and I became friends when I signed with the Cubs. You know, Ronnie was a third baseman. I was a third baseman. We’d go out after games on the road and go have dinner and hang out. You just loved his passion for everything he did. And if it had something to do with the Cubs, there was nobody more passionate than Ron Santo. It was infectious with everybody. It’s one of those things I’ll always remember. Some of his calls on the air were just priceless. You couldn’t make them up. So it is daunting. As a Cubs fan, you look at that and go, “How cool is this that I’m going to be a part of that family that’s been doing these games since I was a little kid?”

VL: You played for the Cubs in 2001. Do you have a favorite Wrigley Field memory from your time here?

RC: There are a few. I think Opening Day that year. It was great just to be part of Opening Day. I had some good games at Wrigley. You hit a couple of home runs or something like that. I remember a few games like that. But it was like a daily routine of you jog out to third base to start a game, and you look around the stands and go, “Yep, I sat over there. I sat over there. I was with my dad there watching a game.” Now you’re in uniform, and my friends and my family are coming out to Wrigley Field, and I’m on the field. The biggest memory of Wrigley is that—is having that emotion almost every day.

VL: How excited are you to call Wrigley Field your office again?

RC: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are the last two of a dying breed. It’s baseball. When you walk into Wrigley Field, and you come up from the concourse, and you look down at that green field and the ivy, that to me is what baseball is all about. It’s not the new stadiums and all the big stuff. That’s all great. All these new ballparks are phenomenal. Target Field is great here in Minneapolis. But when you look at those fields like Wrigley Field, that’s what baseball is to me. It’s a nostalgic old look and knowing guys like Babe Ruth were in the batter’s box, and Ernie Banks and Santo and Billy Williams. All these guys have played in that ballpark. That’s what baseball is—the old with the new.

VL: What’s your take on what the Cubs front office is doing to try to build a winner?

RC: What the Cubs are doing is exactly what’s been going on here in Minnesota for the last few years. It’s the only way you can build a team and have it sustain itself. You can’t go out and not have homegrown players make an impact on your club day after day. It just doesn’t work. It might work for half a season. It might work for a season. But it doesn’t sustain itself for the long haul. So you have to build from the bottom up, and you have to have homegrown players contribute in a big way to the success of the organization. Then you add pieces to that. That’s the only way things work in Major League Baseball for any length of time.

VL: You’ve been in baseball your whole life. What do you do to get away from the game?

RC: I do a couple of different things. I’m a big golfer—love to play golf. I live on a golf course here in Minneapolis. So I’ll play some golf in the summer in Chicago. And I’m a bike rider. I love to bike—pedal bike—so I’ll be biking around the city. God knows I’ll probably bike to Wrigley Field a few times.

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.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, The Elite

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Top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards should start 2014 at Double-A Tennessee. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. We’ll post some of frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player profiles here on the blog in the coming weeks so you can keep track of all the names to know in the Cubs highly-ranked system.

When President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein introduced Jason McLeod as the Cubs’ VP of scouting and player development, Epstein referred to his new hire as a “secret weapon.” More than two years later, it’s easy to see why Epstein was so effusive in his praise.

Under McLeod’s watch, the scouting department hasn’t stopped working to revamp a system that’s jumped from the lower third of baseball to arguably one of the best in the game. Whether it’s through trades, international free agency or the draft, McLeod and his staff are grinding tirelessly to improve the Cubs farm system. This past season, he and former farm director Brandon Hyde oversaw one of the more fruitful years in recent memory in terms of player development, as prospects like Pierce Johnson, Javier Baez and Kyle Hendricks all took big steps forward.

Hyde will switch roles in 2014 to become new manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, and Jaron Madison, formerly the director of amateur scouting, will take his place. Madison will oversee a minor league coaching staff that experienced minimal turnover after undergoing a major overhaul heading into the 2013 season. That continuity gives the Cubs confidence their recent player development success at the minor league level will continue, and there is certainly reason to believe the positive trend in scouting will carry into 2014 as well.

One of the most important steps in the process—and certainly one of the most exciting—could take place this season, as some of the team’s highly touted prospects may finally get a chance to shine at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs system has it all: elite-level talent, near-ready bats and arms, raw youth and some real pitching depth. It doesn’t have a consensus top-of-the-rotation arm, but due to some shrewd trades and bulk drafting, it’s stocked with pitchers to dream about over the next few seasons.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at many of the key names to know. Some could be arriving at Wrigley soon—others still may be years away—but the Cubs hope they will all earn their stripes at some point down the line.

The Elite
Not long ago, the top of the Cubs system consisted of players who were lucky to break into the top 50 of most national prospect rankings. Those days are gone. Entering last season, it was all about the big three—Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. After last June’s draft, Kris Bryant entered the conversation. Then the Cubs traded Matt Garza for a little-known righty, formerly of the South Carolina bush leagues, named C.J. Edwards, who simply lit up the Florida State League and vaulted himself among the game’s top prospects.

Having elite talent, or impact talent, as the front office often calls it, is a difference maker. The Cubs have done well in stockpiling high-ceiling players over the past few seasons and, in doing so, have increased their chances of producing a top-tier major leaguer in the near future.

There have been rumblings that both Baez and Bryant could reach the big leagues in 2014. While they both certainly have immense talent, forecasting All-Star-caliber production from the get-go may be a bit optimistic. But great expectations come with the territory, given the system the Cubs have assembled. All five of these players are aware of the pressure that comes with strong performance, yet they’re prepared to try to live up to it. As Almora once said about hype, “Bring it on.”

ALBERT ALMORA
DOB: 4/16/1994
POSITION: CF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .329/.376/.466 (61 GAMES)

Watching Almora play, no one tool stands out as elite. However, it’s the complete package, including his tremendous makeup and infectious confidence, that really sets him apart.

“For a guy without an 80 tool (the top grade on the scouting scale), he’s a game changer,” McLeod said. “He won’t light up scouts with his power or speed, but he lights you up just by watching him play.”

Like Soler, Almora was felled by injuries in 2013. A wrist injury sidelined him early and a bone bruise in his groin ended his season prematurely in August. However, Almora returned to action in the Arizona Fall League, posting a very impressive .307/.342/.480 line and playing his usual stellar defense despite being the second-youngest player in the league.

JAVIER BAEZ
DOB: 12/1/1992
POSITION: SS
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: TENNESSEE
2013 STATS: .282/.341/.578 (130 GAMES)

Baez’s game can be described in one word: aggressive. But his style of play is both helpful and detrimental. The Puerto Rico native believes he can hit any ball 500 feet and make every play on defense. This can result in wild swings at the plate and poor decisions in the field.

“I’ve never seen anything like him, to be honest,” McLeod said. “He’s a tough one to put into one box. On certain nights, he looks like the best player you’ve ever laid eyes on, and then you might walk in and he’s 0-for-4 with three punch-outs and looks awful doing it because the swing is so violent.”

But Baez passed what many feel is the toughest test for a developing player (outside of the big leagues, of course) by crushing Double-A pitching, hitting 20 of his 37 home runs in 54 games at that advanced level. He’ll always have high strikeout totals, even if he continues to improve, but a player who can hit the ball 430-plus feet to every part of the field is rare. As McLeod said, if he can take that final step and figure out when to be aggressive and when to tone it down at the plate or stick a ball in his pocket on defense, Baez can be as good as anybody.

KRIS BRYANT
DOB: 1/4/1992
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .336/.390/688 (36 GAMES)

The Cubs selected Bryant second overall in last June’s draft, and it didn’t take him long to make an impact. The slugging third baseman followed up a historic college season by hitting at every level, then going on to play in the AFL, where he was named league MVP.

Bryant may end up in right field when all is said and done, but when it comes to hitting, he is a true student of the game. The 22-year-old will likely rack up some strikeouts, but he has a chance to become a consistent star—someone who hits .240 with 25 home runs in a bad year and .280 with 40-plus bombs and an impressive on-base percentage at his peak. Bryant prides himself on his knowledge of the game and is always studying video, working to improve his swing and refining his defense at the hot corner.

With his combination of talent, work ethic and movie-star good looks, Bryant’s face could someday be plastered all over billboards from Wrigleyville to Rockford.

C.J. EDWARDS
DOB: 9/3/1991
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 116.1 IP, 1.86 ERA, 115 K, 41 BB (24 STARTS)

Edwards has all the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation arm—a downhill fastball with nasty cutting action, big curveball and solid change-up. The question with him is whether he has the durability to handle the load of 180-plus innings in the big leagues.

At 6-foot-2 and just over 160 pounds, the “String Bean Slinger” is lean and lanky—hardly the prototypical build of a workhorse ace. The focus this offseason has been his training program, as the Cubs are attempting to add some weight to his frame to prepare him for the rigors of a six-month season.

Edwards certainly has the necessary work ethic to get his body where it needs to be. Even if he can’t add much weight, he projects as an elite reliever who could help solidify the back end of the Cubs bullpen for years to come. Either way, Edwards will lead what looks to be a very impressive rotation in Tennessee next season.

JORGE SOLER
DOB: 2/25/1992
POSITION: RF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .281/.343/.467 (55 GAMES)

After a stress fracture in his left tibia ended Soler’s 2013 season early, he was left with a combined 89 professional games in the Cubs organization over two seasons. His limited playing time has evaluators wondering where his true talent level lies. Looking to shake off the rust, Soler played in the Arizona Fall League. At times, he looked uninterested, often failing to run out ground balls. But according to McLeod, Soler had been given specific instructions not to run too hard on easy outs to protect his recently injured foot.

The goal in the AFL was for the Cuban prospect to continue honing his swing mechanics (something the Cubs have been working on since he was signed), see some pitches and get some reps in the outfield.

The bottom line: Soler has immense power, a tremendous work ethic and all the tools needed to catapult himself back among the elite prospects. The hope is a healthy spring will allow him to start the year at Tennessee and finally put together that strong, full season the Cubs have been hoping for since he signed.

 

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with Pedro Strop

Strop

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Cubs acquired right-handed reliever Pedro Strop in early July as part of the haul for starting pitcher Scott Feldman. The 28-year-old got an opportunity to be a late-innings reliever for the North Siders down the stretch in 2013, and the organization hopes he can contribute to the bullpen again in 2014. The following can be found in the January issue of Vine Line.

COMMAND AND CONTROL  In Baltimore, I was passing through a bump in the road. I know I can pitch. It’s just things weren’t going my way. Since I got [to Chicago], I’m just doing the same thing. I’m commanding the ball better too, and that’s been a huge part of my career so far—commanding my fastball. Since I’ve been [here], I’ve been able to command my fastball more consistently.

HEAD GAMES  When you struggle like that, a bunch of stuff starts to come to your mind—a lot of negative thoughts. But I never lost my confidence. I just thought, “It’s got to change. One day it’s going to change. You’ve done it before. You know you can do it.” But, honestly, you can lose confidence a little bit. That’s the worst part is when you’re struggling to just get your confidence back and pitch.

RESTORATION PROJECT  When I got [to Baltimore] in 2011, they were in the same situation [the Cubs are in now]. They were building. And when I got to the Rangers, they were building too. I’ve been through that. So [the trade] wasn’t a disappointment. I just saw the positive sides to it. I was getting more opportunities to pitch, and I could be part of another team that grows up.

THE CLOSER  When you know somebody has confidence in you, it makes you feel more confidence too. About the closer situation, I’m just one of those kinds of guys. As a reliever, you want to be a closer. But I’m really not thinking about it right now. I just like to be ready for any situation that can help the team win. Just compete. I love to compete. I love the competition. Being up there in the seventh inning, eighth inning, ninth inning, it’s competition. I love that. I don’t care if it’s the ninth or the seventh.

CLASSIC MOMENT  Since the first WBC, I was wishing to be a part of that team to represent [the Dominican Republic]. It was huge for me to be a part of the [2013] team and be the big key for our wins. I was just giving it all I got. It was big. It was beautiful. … You know you’re playing for your country. You’re playing for the Dominican Republic. It was a dream.

FAN FAVORITES  I always watched Jose Reyes. I used to play shortstop. As a pitcher, I always liked Mariano Rivera. He’s a classic. He’s unbelievable. He makes things look way easier than they are. I would love to do what he does.

 

From the Pages of Vine Line: Schierholtz speaks softly …

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following ran in the November issue of Vine Line.

Last season, the man in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup did most of his talking with the bat. Perhaps in the grand tradition of former President Teddy Roosevelt, Cubs right fielder Nate Schierholtz simply decided to speak softly and carry a big stick.

You probably didn’t hear much about the outfielder’s breakout season in the media, and you certainly didn’t hear anything about it from Schierholtz himself. It’s not that the 29-year-old Reno, Nev., native and San Francisco resident is at all unfriendly or reticent with reporters. It’s just that before games, he was more than likely working on his craft in the batting cages. And after games, he was usually working out or getting treatment for one of the nagging little aches and pains he dealt with this year, mostly in silence.

“I just prefer to fly under the radar,” Schierholtz said late in the season. “I guess I like to lead by example more so than being a loud, vocal guy. I just try to go out there and play hard every day and help the team win. I feel like I’ve learned that over the years, and that’s how a lot of the guys were in San Francisco. It worked that way. Winning’s everything. Winning’s what makes this game fun.”

No, the Cubs didn’t win this year, but Schierholtz was one of the bright spots that may have been overshadowed by other developments. In many ways, it was a career year for the veteran, who has two world championship rings from his time with the Giants and also played for the Phillies at the end of 2012.

In 2013, Schierholtz put up a batting line of .251/.301/.470 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 21 home runs and 68 RBI. Both the home run and RBI totals represented career major league highs for the lefty. He also tied his career high in games played (137), which he first set in 2010 with the Giants, and he set new career highs in at-bats (462) and hits (116).

The key, no doubt, was that Schierholtz finally got an opportunity to play on a regular basis.

“My biggest priority last offseason was finding a team, first of all, that I fit in with and thought had a good future, but also a place where I could play more and get more consistent at-bats,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve never really had since maybe 2008 in Triple-A. I’m fortunate for the opportunity here, and I tried to do the best I could with it. I know I’ve got more to offer the team, but I was happy to get the playing time I’ve gotten.”

Schierholtz began the 2012 season with the Giants but was traded to the Phillies on July 31, just before the trade deadline expired. (The Giants won the World Series and presented the outfielder with his second championship ring.) The Phillies didn’t tender Schierholtz a contract following that season, so he signed a one-year deal with the Cubs just before Christmas.

“That was a pretty hectic week, but I had quite a few teams calling,” he said. “In the end, I sorted through everything and decided that the Cubs were probably the best fit for me to come and win a job in right field.

“I feel like I contributed to both World Series. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the two rings I’ve gotten. Being from the Bay Area, it meant a lot. It still does. It was tough to leave at first, but I also realized I’m getting a little bit older.”

Although people may have been surprised by the outfielder’s success—as a left-handed batter, he’s gotten most of his playing time and done most of his damage against right-handed pitching—Schierholtz was not one of them.

“I haven’t been surprised by anything, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think I’ll get better over time. I feel like my body’s still young in the sense that I’ve been like a fourth outfielder the past five seasons. For me, it’s just working hard this offseason and making a couple of little adjustments. I feel I’ve learned a lot this year playing every day in the sense that I have a better idea of what I have to do to prepare for next year, both physically and mentally.”

Regardless of whether the Cubs were surprised by Schierholtz’s good season, they were more than happy to get it. In a lineup that often lacked the necessary pop, the veteran outfielder provided a solid middle-of-the-order bat.

“No question he fulfilled what a lot of us and our scouts [thought],” said former Cubs manager Dale Sveum. “We thought if he could get that many plate appearances, he’d be able to hit 15-25 home runs and do some things with the bat. He runs well. He’s played a really nice right field. He’s done probably more than what we expected, really.

“He’s that guy you dream of as a manager. You don’t have to worry about him. You don’t have to worry about him playing hard, preparing. He tries to make himself a better player every day. He’s played with some nagging stuff. Obviously, he’s picked us up and had a really, really nice year.”

But Schierholtz brought much more than offense to the table this season. He also played a solid right field, and at Wrigley, that’s no easy trick. The wind, the brick wall, the configuration of the park and the occasional 3:05 p.m. start, which leaves the right fielder looking directly into a blinding sun, have humbled their fair share of outfielders.

“There’s a lot of different factors that go into it, from the sun to the wind and the whole playing surface,” he said. “It’s a little tougher than most big league parks. It’s something you have to work on and remind yourself to grind it out to do the best you can.

“It’s definitely [difficult], only because it’s the sun field, and the wind can change from an inning or two. It can change from blowing out to blowing across. The wind, the sun—there are a few factors here that make it more difficult than most places.”

Former first base coach Dave McKay, who worked with Cubs outfielders the past two years under Sveum, lauded Schierholtz’s work in right.

“I think Nate’s done a really good job,” McKay said. “He had a couple of little nagging leg things. He’s a tough guy. He had some issues where most guys probably wouldn’t have played. There might be times where he wished he could have gotten a better jump or continued hard after something, but we’ve been real careful with him.

“He’s a real pro. He knows how the game is played. He goes over the scouting reports on guys. You watch him out there, and he knows where I am [in the dugout positioning outfielders], and he adjusts to the count. As far as his defense in the outfield, I’ve been really, really pleased.”

As a player with five-plus years of major league service, Schierholtz has one year of eligibility for salary arbitration remaining. So if the Cubs want him to remain in Chicago, he’ll be back for at least one more season.

“I look forward to coming back next year,” he said. “Beyond that, I’m not quite sure. I’ve enjoyed my time here. I have only positive things to say. Yeah, I’d like to be part of the future. I’ve said that for a while. I’ve also got things to work on to improve my game to help the team.”

Schierholtz mentioned the word “improvement” on several occasions. He has an interesting baseball résumé and a tremendous background of success. In addition to playing parts of two seasons with world championship teams, Schierholtz was a member of the bronze medal-winning U.S. Olympic baseball team at the 2008 Beijing Games, where he played with future big leaguers such as Dexter Fowler, Stephen Strasburg and Jake Arrieta. These experiences have given him a sense of what he needs to do to get better and compete at the highest levels.

But if he wants to improve and earn even more playing time next season, he needs to work on his splits. He batted .262 against right-handed pitching but just .170 in limited action (53 at-bats) against lefties in 2013. He also did most of his damage in the first half of the season, batting .269 before the All-Star break compared to .230 after it.

“The grind of the season gets to you sometimes,” he said. “I feel like the mental game’s a little tougher than it is physically. That’s just something that I’ll keep in the back of my mind for next year. It’s good to know as a player that you’re going to go through ups and downs. It’s just part of baseball.

“I worked out a lot last offseason. I learned a lot over the years as far as how to play the game. I just try to work with the coaches on the little things, making those little adjustments. I feel I got a lot done this year. There’s always more to do.”

—Bruce Miles

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jed Hoyer Q&A, Part III

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

You don’t have to tell General Manager Jed Hoyer how difficult the Cubs’ 2013 season was. He was there for every pitch, hit and out. And no one in the organization—from the groundskeepers to the players to the men in charge—is happy with 96 losses.

But the GM also knows the organization has made a great deal of progress since he took the helm. The plan was clear from the get-go: Hire the best player development team in the business, stockpile as much high-ceiling talent as possible as quickly as possible, and develop a young, talented team that has the ability to compete year in and year out.

For the November issue, Vine Line caught up with the head man to discuss the 2013 season, improvements in the organization, changes within the club and what to look forward to in 2014. This is the final installment of a three-part conversation we had with the Cubs GM. For the entire conversation or more Cubs information, be sure to check out the November issue of Vine Line.

Jed Hoyer Q&A, Part I
Jed Hoyer Q&A, Part II

VL: You mentioned some of the young guys who are putting up good offensive numbers in the minor leagues. Javier Baez hit 37 home runs this year. Kris Bryant hit 31 home runs in college and continued to hit in the minor leagues. How difficult is it for you to be patient with those guys, especially when you need help at the major league level?

JH: There’s no question it’s fun to look at our minor league box scores now, and it’s great that those guys are performing. But they’re not finished products, and they need to keep developing. I always think the easiest way to remain patient is to look at the careers of other really good players and realize that being rushed, giving up all those developmental minor league at-bats [can be harmful]. You have to learn how to hit in professional baseball. You have to learn how to pitch in professional baseball. Rushing a guy through, at some point, the lack of development is going to catch up with him. We want to teach these guys how to play the right way in the minor leagues, so when they come up here, they’re as ready as possible.

VL: High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee had good postseason runs. You moved both Bryant and Dan Vogelbach up to High-A to get them some playoff action. How important is it for young players to experience high-pressure baseball and to learn to win together at the lower levels?

JH: That’s the biggest focus and what you really want. We were going to send [Albert] Almora there also before he got hurt. You want them to have that experience of bonding together, playing in a playoff environment when every run is really important, every defensive play is really important. Playoff baseball is so much more focused than the games over the course of the whole season. When a player can experience playoff baseball, I think it helps them not only in future playoff games, but also in how they prepare for regular season games in the future. I think it’s really important, and hopefully we’ll have some really good minor league teams in the next couple of years so more players can get that experience.

VL: During the two years you’ve been here, the Cubs have gone from being ranked as one of the weaker minor league systems to one of the top three, according to most experts. How difficult is it to turn a system around quickly given some of the restrictions imposed by the new collective bargaining agreement?

JH: It’s certainly more challenging than it had been. There was no question what our playbook was going to be coming in here. We were going to do exactly what we did in Boston and what I was doing in San Diego, which is really emphasizing spending on scouting and player development. You try to spend as much money on young players as possible. There’s so much more impact to your dollars when you’re spending them at that level, because if you’re successful with those players, they can give you exponential value. There was no doubt we were planning to do that, and obviously the CBA restricts us. So as I said before, within the rules that have been given to us, we’ve been as aggressive as possible, and we’ll continue to be.

VL: After losing clubhouse leaders like Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus, do you worry that there will be a leadership void in the clubhouse, or do you feel like you have guys ready to step up and assume that role?

JH: It’s something that we’re focused on. We need to add some guys who can help teach our young players the right way to do things. No coach can do what a player can do. Player-to-player teaching, player-to-player coaching is so valuable. When you have really good veteran players who can take these guys under their wing and show these guys what they’ve done—as hard as coaches work, it’s difficult for them to have that same sort of relationship. So we know we have to add some leadership to the clubhouse, and certainly that will be a priority.

VL: If you could get one message out to the fans about where this organization is going or what to expect in the coming seasons, what would it be?

JH: From where I sit, I think we’re about to enter an incredibly exciting time for the Cubs. We have a new Spring Training home this year. We’re going to have a renovated Wrigley. The fans who follow us closely can see how much young talent we’ve added and how much we’ll continue to add. I think all of those things are going to come together at roughly the same time, and when they do come together—when that baseball plan and that business plan come together at the same time—I think we have a chance to stay on top and be a really competitive team that has a chance to go to the playoffs every year for quite a while.

That’s something Cubs fans haven’t had in a really long time is a young, talented team that is competitive every year. That’s what we’re trying to build. We feel really good about where we’re going. We’ve asked for a lot of patience. We’ll probably still ask for some more. But I think everything is going to come together really nicely at the same time, and when it does, it’s not going to be a one-year type situation where you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. I think it’s going to be the kind of thing where we can have that sustained success that everyone is looking for.

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