(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 Part One of a three-part conversation we had with the Cubs GM. The other segments will be posted next week. For the entire conversation or more Cubs information, be sure to check out the November issue of Vine Line.
VL: What positives do you take from a season like this?
JH: In a year like this, you have to focus on individual positives. Obviously, we’re very happy with the way Travis Wood developed this year. He’s worked really hard over the last two years with [pitching coach] Chris Bosio, [bullpen coach] Lester Strode and [staff assistant] Mike Borzello. He made huge strides as a pitcher, and that was really exciting to see. He was really consistent throughout the year, and his ability to use both sides of the plate helped him. You have to give him credit for working on it. And Welington Castillo really improved over the course of the year. He had a fantastic second half. He showed an ability to get on base. He’s a good defensive catcher, and I think he’ll continue to improve.
So I think you always look at individual positives in a year like this, and there are some. But obviously if there were a ton of individual positives, you’d have a better record.
VL: There were some positive developments this year. The pitching staff is much deeper than it was a year ago, and the infield defense—especially on the right side—was as good as anybody’s.
JH: Our right side of the infield was excellent. I do think we played better defense this year. Obviously, we struggled in the bullpen early in the year, but I felt like we tightened up some of those holes later in the year. We acquired some power arms over the course of the summer that will really help our bullpen in the future. We’ve really tried to acquire as many power arms as we can because that was a weakness coming in, and we’re starting to show some improvements in the bullpen with those guys.
The pitching staff in general, given the number of quality starts we had—especially before we traded [Scott] Feldman and [Matt] Garza—our starting pitching was good enough to compete. When you look at our offense, our relief pitching and our starting pitching, I would say the starting pitching was good enough to be a solid team. The other two areas are areas we definitely have to improve.
VL: Some of the key guys on the roster—mainly Rizzo and Castro—didn’t develop like you expected in 2013. What can you do to reverse that trend heading into next season?
JH: That’s certainly a major focus for us. I don’t think either guy had the numbers they were expecting coming into Spring Training. There’s no doubt both guys would say that. But both guys are hard workers. They’re certainly committed to coming into 2014 and putting that behind them. Certainly in the case with Anthony, there’s a guy that ended the year [sixth] in the National League in walks. He was [fifth] in extra-base hits. On a lot of defensive metrics, he was the best first baseman. So with Anthony, there are some silver linings. Obviously, his batting average wasn’t where he probably hoped, but there were a number of positives in his year. If he can build on that—and certainly he has the ability to—with that many extra-base hits and that kind of patience, that’s pretty exciting for a 23-year-old.
With Starlin, the beauty of Starlin is he’s done it. He did it at age 20 and 21, and there’s no question he can get back to that. A lot of great players have had a down year at the beginning of their careers and bounced back. For us to get where we need to go, those guys need to keep improving, but there’s no doubt they’re going to work hard this winter to get back to where they need to be.
VL: Do you think the emphasis on Castro trying to be more patient at the plate might have hamstrung his development a little bit this year?
JH: I personally think that line of thought is a little bit overblown. Every young player can improve. He had a great two seasons when he first came up, but I still think for the power that he has to come out, he’s going to have to be able to hit in better counts. To say, “Just keep your hands off him, and don’t try to improve him,” we’re not going to be a championship organization if guys don’t continue to get better and better. Whether he tried to do some things that confused him during the course of the year or not—and he might have—we want all our guys to focus on getting a pitch in the strike zone and looking to drive it. That’s how you become a really good offense. … We’re not going to shy away from trying to develop players that way.
VL: You and Theo Epstein have talked a lot about building the core of this team. Have guys like Castillo and Wood put themselves in the category of players you want to grow with?
JH: Yeah, both of those guys really proved they can make improvements and keep getting better. And I think both of those guys are winning players, and that’s what you’re looking for is guys who will continue to improve, guys who are winning players. The more guys like that in their prime years we can acquire and have on our team, that’s what the best teams have. We’re excited to have both those guys.
VL: You called Castillo and Wood “winning players.” What’s your definition of a winning player?
JH: I think everyone has a different definition of it. Obviously, you have to be talented to be a winning player, but also someone who does all the little things necessary to win, whether that’s making a productive out, being heads up on the bases, being clutch on defense, being into the game all the time or making your teammates better. Those are all characteristics of players who are on championship teams. Whenever I think of winning players, I think of someone that is a part of every play and someone that really makes everyone around them better. Certainly Welington, with the way he played in the second half, was that kind of player.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Cubs reliever Justin Grimm was solid in limited action after coming over from Texas in July’s Matt Garza deal. In nine innings with the North Siders, the 25-year-old right-hander finished with a 2.00 ERA. Vine Line caught up with the newcomer to discuss his transition to Chicago, the differences between starting and relieving, and his newfound opportunity to get in on the action offensively. For all this information and more, check out the November issue of Vine Line.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS When I first came here back in April when [the Rangers] visited, the ivy wasn’t on the wall yet, and I was like, “Wow, this place looks kind of gloomy, you know?” But when I got here [as a Cub], I think my first day was a gameday, and the ivy was on the wall, and we had a good crowd. It was awesome.
FAN SUPPORT I knew the [Cubs] were one of the top franchises. I heard the fans were awesome, win or lose, which is always good. You like to see fans do that, because I don’t know if it was that way in Texas.
TRADE TALK One of the things I found hard is I came [to the Cubs] just trying to impress new people. And when you’re trying to impress other people, you don’t do what you’re capable of doing at first. Then you finally get settled in, but it takes a little bit.
STARTING OVER I think the [transition to the] bullpen is going well, honestly. It’s different—more mentally. Obviously, there’s a physical component you have to get used to, but I feel like that’s the easier part. It’s more the mental transition of going from starter to bullpen, being locked in for six, seven, eight, nine innings every fifth day and knowing when you need to be ready, to coming to the ballfield ready to go every day.
DIFFERENT STROKES I feel like I throw more fastballs out of the bullpen, attacking them with fastballs and trying to get early swings and early outs. When you’re starting, you’re trying to do that too, but you have a little bit of a different game plan. The starter is setting up the plan so when the bullpen comes in, they’ll be ready to go and be successful.
AL VS. NL The only difference I’ve seen is that you may have first and second with one out early in the game, and then the pitcher comes up. They lay down a bunt or they’re swinging or whatever it is, but it’s a free out. Well, I don’t want to say a free out, because I’ve seen a lot of these pitchers hit. But [in the AL], you have a DH. You have a pretty powerful hitter in that spot instead of a pitcher. I’m not saying pitchers can’t hit, but it’s a little different when you’ve got a hitter practicing every day compared to a pitcher.
SWING COACH I think [my swing] is all right. It needs some work for sure. I haven’t really swung since high school. I came into my first Triple-A at-bat and hit a single to right field. I had no clue what I was doing. But I think if I stay short with my swing, I’ve got a chance.
CAREER COUNSELOR My high school coach—he’s the one who came to me and said, “I think one day you’ll have a chance to play professional baseball.” After I got hurt my junior year, we spent one day together, and we just talked. He was like, “You know, you can come out of this even better.” From there on, I just took it and started working really hard and developed a strong work ethic.
How do you evaluate a 96-loss season? It depends on how you look at it.
Are you evaluating just the major league team or the organization as a whole? Your answers would likely be very different.
On the surface, things don’t look too good. For the second straight year, the Cubs languished in the basement of a stacked NL Central that sent three teams to the 2013 postseason. The offense consistently struggled to put runs on the board, the bullpen faltered early in the season, several key players failed to develop as expected, and manager Dale Sveum was released after two seasons at the helm. To hear General Manager Jed Hoyer tell it, that’s simply not going to cut it.
“One of the things about this job is that your report card is in the paper every morning,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, that report card tells us we’re not good enough. We’re not talented enough at the major league level, and we have to improve that.”
Despite the struggles in Chicago—and both President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Hoyer are quick to admit they’re disappointed by the win-loss total—the front office has never wavered from its initial blueprint for building a consistent winner.
When Epstein and Hoyer took over in October 2011, there was a severe talent deficit in the minor league system, and the major league team was saddled with expensive, aging players. The goal was to stockpile as much young talent as possible as quickly as possible and create payroll flexibility to ensure that the next time the team is competitive, it has a chance to remain competitive for years to come.
On that front, things don’t look bad at all. In 2009, Baseball America ranked the Cubs 27th in its annual organizational talent rankings. By the start of 2013, they had moved up to 12th. Thanks to shrewd trades, some aggressive international signings and a strong 2013 draft, headlined by overall No. 2 pick Kris Bryant, most experts agree the Cubs system is firmly in the top five heading into 2014. And 11 of the organization’s top 20 prospects, according to MLB.com, were acquired since the new front office took over in 2011. That’s a lot of progress in a few short years.
This month, we sat down with the Cubs’ GM for a frank conversation about the state of the organization. There is great reason for optimism, but the wave of young standouts developing in the farm system has yet to crest at Wrigley Field. Until that top-notch talent arrives, it’s imperative the Cubs find a way to improve their bullpen and generate more quality at-bats.
“The amount of talent and the athleticism we have [in the system] is a long, long way from where it was when we first got here, and we’re excited about that,” Hoyer said. “But all those things don’t hide the fact that the goal is to get better at the major league level, and we need to improve on what we’ve done in 2012 and 2013.”
We also talked to one of the key pieces Hoyer acquired last offseason that fits this new organizational philosophy—outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The 29-year-old veteran finally got a chance to play regularly in 2013, and he had a breakout season, with career highs in plate appearances, home runs and RBI. Everybody, from the front office to his teammates, says the same thing about Schierholtz: He’s a professional ballplayer who fights for every at-bat and brings his best effort every day.
Finally, despite the win-loss total, there were plenty of positive developments at the major league level. The Cubs strengthened their pitching depth behind the emergence of lefty Travis Wood, ace Jeff Samardzija continued to miss bats with the best of them, Junior Lake made a surprisingly successful major league debut, and the left side of the infield was as strong defensively as any in baseball. We examine several impressive stats from the 2013 campaign that should bode well for the organization’s near future.
If you want to get to know the future of the organization now, follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline. All winter long, we’ll be following the Cubs’ top prospects in the fall and winter leagues. And pick up the November issue of Vine Line today.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Cubs 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Logan Watkins got his first taste of the big leagues this season after a late-August call-up from Triple-A Iowa. Vine Line caught up with the infielder to talk about his 2012 accomplishments, making his major league debut, what it’s like to spell a Gold Glover and much more. For more information on the Cubs, check out the October issue of Vine Line.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR That was awesome. Jed [Hoyer], Theo [Epstein] and all those guys, they inherited a lot of us. Just knowing they recognized me as someone they wanted to have stick around and that they like the way I play meant a lot to me conﬁdence-wise.
DAY BY DAY I had no expectations for this year. I’m just going to keep doing what I was doing. Triple-A is a lot different than Double-A. You get a lot more older, seasoned veteran guys you play with, so I was adjusting to that. Getting called up, that’s obviously what you work for. I started with the Cubs, and I want to make it with the Cubs.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU [The offseason Rookie Development Program] just helped me get used to Chicago, so I knew what I was walking into when I got called up. I knew a lot of the staff, a lot of these clubhouse guys, and I knew a lot of the people. It helped make the transition process a lot easier.
BIG LEAGUE WELCOME In rookie ball, I played with [Junior] Lake and [Starlin] Castro, so I knew [those guys]. Being in big league camp was probably the biggest help, because I knew everybody here. It’s kind of different when you walk onto the team, and you don’t know anybody. But when you feel like you know everybody, it’s a lot more comfortable, and everyone was really welcoming.
GAME ONE It was crazy. It was a Sunday day game too, so it was a pretty good crowd. They just threw me into the ﬁre right away. [They said], “The ﬁrst day here, you’re starting.” Yeah, it was crazy. It’s something I’ll never forget.
HIT PARADE [My ﬁrst hit] was a good at-bat. It was a full count, and it was a tough spot in the game. There were guys on base, and we needed to keep the rally going. I got a—it wasn’t a line drive or anything—but it was a hit, and I’ll take it.
IN A PINCH A lot of the guys who pinch-hit nowadays in the major leagues are veteran guys that have been around and know the kind of pitcher they’re going to step in on, so they’re ready right away. I’ve stepped in on some really good pitching that I’ve never seen before, and it’s hard to be aggressive in those situations. It’s something I’ve been learning to do.
GOLDEN ADVICE I watch Darwin [Barney] a lot, because I’ve known him for a few years now and really like watching him play. But [the veterans] are always just telling me, “Don’t worry about anything. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Have good at-bats and stay level. Don’t live and die with one at-bat when you’re pinch-hitting, because it will drive you crazy if you do.”
MY MENTOR Me and Darwin are obviously good friends. There’s a reason a lot of people are wearing Darwin Barney shirts around here, because he means a lot to this city. I’m just sitting back and watching him mostly and asking him questions when I need to know something. There’s a lot to learn from a guy like him.
(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
The Cubs’ 2013 first-round draft pick, Kris Bryant, picked up right where he left off in college. After mashing 31 home runs at the University of San Diego—10 more than the next-best total—the 21-year-old enjoyed a .336/.390/.688 line (AVG/OBP/SLG) with nine homers and 32 RBI in 146 plate appearances at three minor league levels. He wrapped up the season hitting .333/.387/.719 with five homers and five doubles for the High-A Daytona Cubs, the Florida State League champs. Bryant will now join the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, which starts Oct. 8 and runs until mid-November. The following originally ran in the September issue of Vine Line.
Mike Bryant was relieved when his son’s comments were taken with a grain of salt. The supportive but equally protective father of Cubs first-rounder Kris Bryant got a little uneasy when his boy, the second overall pick of the 2013 MLB Draft, answered a question about his readiness for major league action during an introductory press conference.
“I obviously think I could play in the big leagues right now. I have that type of confidence in myself,” Kris Bryant said. “But that’s not my decision. I’ll leave that up to the guys in charge.”
It’s not as if Mike doesn’t have faith in his son. On the contrary, there may not be another person on the planet—Kris included—who has more confidence in the young slugger’s abilities on a baseball field. Mike just didn’t want his son to be misunderstood or to make a bad first impression with his new team.
“I’m glad it was taken in its context because that can come off as being brash, and that’s not Kris,” he said. “He’s a totally humble person. I think that just stems from his confidence.”
In the Genes
Most people can probably understand where the younger Bryant was coming from. Really, anyone would feel confident if they put up the kind of numbers he did last season.
Before being welcomed into the Cubs fold, the former University of San Diego slugger lit the college baseball world afire. Even with NCAA-enforced bat modifications that seemed to limit everyone else’s power numbers, Bryant hit 31 home runs in his junior year—10 more than anyone else in Division I baseball. To put that into perspective, of the eight teams that qualified for the College World Series, five—including the eventual champion UCLA Bruins—hit fewer than 31 bombs as a team. In addition, Bryant led the nation in runs (80), slugging percentage (.820) and walks (66).
A few days after signing his first major league deal, Bryant capped his collegiate career by capturing the Golden Spikes Award, given every season to the best amateur player in the nation.
But despite his astonishing numbers, Bryant said he isn’t entirely surprised by what he has accomplished so far. After all, the game of baseball runs in his family. His father, Mike, spent two seasons in the Red Sox organization and considers himself a baseball nut—a characteristic he passed on to his son.
Like many top prospects, the 21-year-old Bryant spent the majority of his Little League days playing above his age level against stiffer competition. Between that and working with his dad, a private hitting instructor (who, to nobody’s surprise, has added a few clients since his son’s success), Bryant’s ability to adapt at the plate progressed steadily.
“Growing up, I always played up with the older guys. My dad always preached, ‘Play with the best players,’” Bryant said. “I think when I was maybe 10 years old, I started to see some really good 12-year-old curveballs. I really focused on creating that skill of plate discipline, and it’s obviously carried over from high school and college.”
Bryant’s mature approach at the plate shouldn’t come as a surprise given his laser focus and deep understanding of the game.
“He really takes instruction well,” Mike said. “When he jumps on something, he can adjust within a game, usually from pitch to pitch.”
Wise Beyond His Years
Despite the Las Vegas native’s immense talent and love for the game, education was still a priority in the Bryant household. The slugger was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 18th round out of high school, but the family universally agreed it was in his best interests to attend college.
“They didn’t play until the homework got done,” said Kris’ mother, Susie. “We always hoped the baseball would get him a scholarship. [Education] was very important to him.”
Armed with a 4.78 GPA and an uncanny ability to drive the ball out of any ballpark, Bryant chose to attend the University of San Diego, where he made an immediate impact. After his freshman year, in which he batted .365/.482/.599 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with nine home runs and 17 doubles in 197 plate appearances, he was named WCC Co-Player and Co-Freshman of the Year, a First-Team Freshman All-American and a Third-Team All-American.
Bryant’s ascent to becoming one of college baseball’s most dangerous hitters continued in his sophomore season. He racked up another 14 home runs and produced a hitting line of .366/.483/.671. At this point, Bryant, who pegged himself as “a little pull-happy” entering college, started taking a different approach to his at-bats, which opened up an even bigger window for success.
“I tried to yank the ball a little too much,” the right-hander said. “But there was a game my sophomore year against [the University of] San Francisco [in which] I hit a homer to right-center, and I knew I could start hitting balls to right field.”
Finding the other half of the field made all the difference in his standout junior season—especially considering he saw fewer and fewer pitches to hit as his home run total mounted. As a result, Bryant became more selective, taking more pitches and drawing more walks. San Diego coach Rich Hill even put his star hitter in the leadoff spot partway through the season so he would be harder to pitch around. Bryant, however, made the most of the situation.
“The biggest thing for me was that I just focused on getting that mistake pitch that pitchers were throwing to me, and I felt like I did that almost every time they threw one over the white,” Bryant said. “I was extremely pleased with that, and it’s going to help me in the future.”
Being the second-overall pick does come with its drawbacks—for example, Bryant had to undergo an extensive background check. The Cubs are no different from any other major company. When an organization is about to make a large investment in an employee, it’s essential they know as much about that person as possible. And when a baseball team has the privilege of the second-overall pick in the MLB draft, it’s vital they don’t make a mistake.
“He was vetted more than the president,” Mike Bryant joked. “They were talking to his high school math teacher, English teacher, his coaches—all his coaches—all his coaches at San Diego, his teachers at San Diego, everybody.”
Despite a well-documented dearth of power pitching within the organization, the Cubs bypassed University of Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray to select Bryant, a toolsy third baseman who was unanimously viewed as the best hitting prospect in the draft. Though the selection of a position player might have surprised some, the Cubs’ upper management never wavered.
“Without telling you exactly how our draft board lined up, we were never going to go into the draft going on need,” said Cubs Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod. “Ultimately, we’re going to make the decisions that we feel are best for this organization, both in the short and long term, and Kris Bryant was the player for us when it came to that pick.”
McLeod said he’d seen Bryant play in high school and watched him at showcases like the Area Code Games. In addition, the power hitter quickly became a regular topic of discussion in scouting circles. That kind of hype invites lofty—and often unrealistic—expectations. This is where having a dad who has been through the same sorts of things comes in handy.
“He’s kind of taught me the way to go about my journey, to avoid potholes that he stepped in,” Bryant said. “He’s been a great resource, and [agent Scott Boras and the Cubs front office] have been giving me great advice, and I’m thankful for it.”
Under the updated collective bargaining agreement put in place after the 2011 season, all draft picks for the first 10 rounds are slotted suggestively, meaning MLB gives teams a prorated signing estimate—or what they think each pick is worth. Teams can spend more than the estimated total, but face penalties as significant as the loss of future draft picks if they go too far over. As a result, most players generally sign for their estimated draft value, or “slot.” Bryant’s negotiations took a little longer than some had hoped, but that’s not uncommon when working with an agent like Boras, a power broker who traditionally exercises all options before signing on the dotted line.
So on July 12, just days before the signing deadline, the Cubs locked Bryant into a slot-estimated $6.7 million deal, making him the highest-paid player in the draft (No. 1 pick Mark Appel signed for under his projection). But the Cubs’ top draft pick said the newfound influx of cash won’t sidetrack his aspirations.
“There are a lot of distractions in baseball, and you really just have to focus on going out there and playing your best and having fun,” Bryant said. “I’ve grown up with some great people in my life, and they’ve taught me the right ways. I will continue being the person I am and work hard for the Cubs.”
When, Not If
A lot of young players have a tendency to work on the facets of the game at which they already excel. But Bryant, a player viewed as an elite bat with an average infield glove, spends just as much time working on his defense.
“I take as much pride in my defense as I do in my hitting,” Bryant said. “It kind of goes under the radar because you see the type of hitter I am, but I take a tremendous amount of pride in my defense. I’ve played [third base] my whole life. It’s a challenge for me, and I’m always up for that challenge.”
At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Bryant is a very athletic ballplayer, but scouting reports knock his footwork in the infield. Most experts project he’ll ultimately end up in the outfield. But Cubs manager Dale Sveum, who was on hand when Bryant took batting practice and infield with the team shortly after signing his deal, came away impressed with what he saw.
“Right now, watching him, I don’t see any problems with the way he plays third base,” said Sveum, a former major league infielder. “His feet, his arm, it all plays. His athletic ability, watching him do body control plays, to be able to throw sidearm and all that—for a big guy, he can do a lot of things.”
Most elite ballplayers come up playing predominantly shortstop, but Mike Bryant bucked the trend and made sure his son got experience all over the diamond. Though Bryant is currently playing third base with High-A Daytona—and management said they’d likely keep him there for the foreseeable future—his versatile background might pay dividends in the long run. That ability to play multiple positions could hasten his trek to the big leagues, especially considering the abundance of talented left-side infielders within the Cubs system.
Where the organization places their newly minted No. 4 prospect (according to MLB.com) doesn’t appear to be of concern to Bryant. He has no problem helping out at any spot. He just wants to play.
“I’m going to play where they tell me to play. I know it might be a cliché answer, but it really is the truth: Any ballplayer should listen to their coach,” Bryant said. “I’m going to go out there, if it’s at third base, I’m going to play as hard as I can. The outfield, first base, pitcher, I’ll play as hard as I can.”
There’s no doubt Bryant knows how to hit a baseball. He’s been doing it his whole life. So now the question is when are Cubs fans going to see him for the first time at Wrigley Field? In less then one month, Bryant has already moved from the Arizona Rookie League to Short-Season Boise to High-A Daytona. Despite that quick series of promotions, the organization is adamant they are going to take their time with the slugger, just like they have with every other elite young talent they’ve acquired.
But one thing is certain: If Bryant were running the show, he’d be there already.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Injuries kept Blake Parker out of action for much last season, so the 28-year-old reliever has been making the most of his opportunity in 2013. Vine Line caught up with right-hander to discuss his favorite places to play, advice he’s received from teammates and rebounding from trips to the disabled list. This and much more can be found in the September issue of Vine Line.
WINDING ROAD For each player, the road to the big leagues varies. Everyone has his own way of getting here, and I think each individual story is just as unique as the next. But coming from a catcher’s background and not really pitching in college, I can appreciate the fact that it’s hard to get here. It’s hard to hit. It’s hard to pitch. To be able to play with a bunch of these guys and call yourself a big leaguer is pretty rewarding.
COMEBACK TRAIL [The injury last year] was very frustrating. It was heartbreaking. Going six or seven years of my career and never getting hurt, and ﬁnally getting called up and then getting hurt, it was devastating. But to be able to make it back and recover from that is even better.
PUMP IT UP Coming into my ﬁrst major league appearance, all I ever heard was how nerve-racking it was. I was more anxious than anything. I just wanted to get out there and pitch. I really thrive off the crowd and off the energy. That really ﬁres me up, so it’s always fun to come into 30,000 or 40,000 screaming fans.
CLOSING TIME It’s always a little bit tougher at the end, especially when the game is on the line. I talk to Kevin Gregg a lot about closing and situational-type stuff. He’s been doing it for so long that he knows what he’s talking about. I just try to pick guys’ brains and learn as much as I can as a rookie. I’d like to stay around a while.
CREATURE OF HABIT As far as superstitions go, my daily routine needs to be the same. If I don’t get myself ready the same way every day, or if I do something out of order, I might feel a little bit off. I do like to switch up my music, depending on my mood. Today I’ve got some old-school rap, hip-hop going. Some Bone Thugs, Tupac.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS Stadium-wise, I think PNC Park in Pittsburgh is really neat. Atmosphere-wise, Oakland is my favorite place to play, because I feel like I’m back in high school football again and it’s Friday night. They have the drums and everything going in the outﬁeld. It’s just got that feel to it. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m back home playing football.
FAN FAVORITE I recently got into Twitter. It’s a little bit of a boredom cure. I like to interact with people. It’s always fun. As a kid, you dream of having fans, and you love looking up to and having role models. I think it’s a great way to reach out, but I haven’t gotten too deep into it yet.
It’s always interesting when something completely changes your perspective on the game.
I’ve been watching baseball for about 35 years now, and though the way we analyze games is constantly changing, the things I pay attention to are essentially the same. There’s a pitch, the batter either swings or he doesn’t, if he makes contact, there’s a play in the ﬁeld, etc. I see the action, not the mundane in-between tasks. I certainly listen to the broadcasters and watch the occasional instant replay, but what good is this DVR-enhanced era if I can’t mentally fast-forward the downtime?
As every critic of the National Pastime will tell you, baseball moves at its own deliberate pace.
“Generally, if you go back and watch or listen to any baseball game, there is only a total of maybe ﬁve minutes where there is a lot of action going on,” said Cubs broadcaster Pat Hughes in a Q&A with Vine Line last month.
But Mike Barz changed the way I see the game. He’s the lead authenticator for the Cubs, meaning he is charged with making sure the game-used merchandise you buy at Wrigley Field or online at cubs.com is the real deal. He’s also a sergeant in the Bureau of Internal Affairs for the Chicago Police Department, so it’s probably an understatement to say he takes his job seriously.
Though Barz grew up in suburban Arlington Heights, Ill., and is a lifelong Cubs fan, he has taught himself to watch a different aspect of the game—the equipment. He takes the phrase “keep your eye on the ball” to a whole new level. So while I hung out with him in the third-base photo well for an early August contest against the Dodgers, I tried to see the game the way he sees it. I watched the balls, bats, and any other items that could be of interest to the fans or the organization.
When balls are fouled off or scuffed beyond a pitcher’s liking and they aren’t tossed out to a fan, do you know what the ballboys do with them? What about the broken bats or bases that are periodically removed from the ﬁeld? At the Friendly Conﬁnes, many of those items soon materialize for sale at the Cubs Authentics booth on the ﬁrst-base side of the main concourse.
It takes cooperation from all parties to get a baseball from Jeff Samardzija’s glove to Andrew McCutchen’s bat to a fan’s hands in the span of a few minutes, and it is a fascinating process to watch.
“We have the ability working with MLB authenticators to provide game-used items from that day’s game,” said John Morrison, the Cubs’ manager of brand activation. “If it’s your ﬁrst time visiting Wrigley Field or it’s a birthday or an anniversary, you can really take home a unique collectible. You can take home a baseball that was used in that night’s game. You can take home the ﬁrst-base bag that Anthony Rizzo covered in innings one through three.”
For the September issue, we also recap what was a very fruitful month for the Cubs organization. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer made good use of the nonwaiver trade deadline, shedding burdensome contracts and swapping valuable veterans for talented younger players. Though it was difficult to lose solid team guys like Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, the returns for those players should help secure the organization’s future for years to come.
And the Cubs not only added new players to the fold through trades, they also signed their top pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, Kris Bryant. The powerful third baseman out of the University of San Diego made a mockery of Division I pitching last season, belting 31 home runs in a time when mandatory bat modiﬁcations have sapped power around the college game. For a little context, over the course of the season, Bryant outhomered ﬁve of the eight teams that made it to the College World Series—by himself. He also brings a ton of conﬁdence and the patient approach at the plate that is so prized by the Cubs management team.
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(Photo by Stephen Green)
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a major league bullpen catcher? For the August issue of Vine Line, we caught up with the Cubs’ Andy Lane, who gave us some inside information on the gig. While being an organization’s bullpen catcher might sound like a dream job, there’s a lot more that goes into it than just warming-up relievers.
DREAM JOB I played in the minors, but everyone eventually gets that call or meeting where they tell you, “Hey, we’re letting you go.” But I always wanted to make it [to the major leagues] somehow, whether it was as a coach or whatever else. This opportunity came, and I am blessed enough to get to be here and work at Wrigley Field every day. It’s awesome.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES I used to catch Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall and a bunch of other guys in the offseason to pay for my training. [The Cubs] just gave me a call, and Kerry Wood asked me, “Do you think you would want to do this?” And I was like, “Sure, why not?” So they brought me in, and the next thing you know, I’m wearing pinstripes.
THE AUDITION [The tryout] was in Spring Training, three days before we left, and I had to throw batting practice and catch Randy Wells. Jim Hendry offered me the job, and I was like, “Let me think on it.” Then the next day, I said, “I’ll take it.” I didn’t have too many days to think. I had two days to pack for six months.
WILD CARD I get to the park about five or six hours before the game. I get the balls ready for the pitchers and for batting practice. Then if some guys need to throw—they’ll throw a side or the starter or maybe our relievers need to throw a little bit—I’ll catch. I’ll throw batting practice if they need me to, hit fungoes, catch balls at second base. Whatever Dale [Sveum] needs me to do basically. I’m a wild card.
ANOTHER LOOK I’ve always tried to be the best at what I do. Even though I’m not playing, I still want to be the best and give guys good, creative feedback. Those guys, they need that. They like to hear it because they throw it, but they’re never on the other end.
PINCH ME I’ll never forget the Opening Day I caught Ryan Dempster. I was warming him up down the line. It was freezing cold. We were playing the Pirates. It was 2011, and it was so packed. I had never been to Wrigley. It was my first time at Wrigley, so it was unbelievable.
IN THE DIRT We take pride in [not letting balls get past us onto the field]. Me and Franklin Font, we try to keep the number down. We try to beat the other side and see if they have any get past them. But sometimes you just don’t have a shot. But I take pride in not letting the ball [get past me] because if it gets down to that mound, they stop play and it gets on TV. That’s embarrassing to us.
THE RIGHT STUFF The nastiest curveball would have to go to Kerry Wood. [Jeff] Samardzija has got the nastiest split-fingered pitch. Everybody has got a different pitch that’s tough, but Kerry Wood’s curveball sticks out in my head as one of the hardest pitches to catch. And hit, if you have to. But I learned I had to catch that one early.
Thomas Neal as a member of the Indians in 2012. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
The Cubs claimed outfielder Thomas Neal off waivers from the Yankees Monday afternoon. They made room for Neal by transferring right-handed reliever Rafael Dolis to the 60-day disabled list.
The 25-year-old batted .325/.391/.411 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with two homers, 17 doubles and 29 RBI over 265 at-bats for New York’s Triple-A affiliate this season. Defensively, Neal’s played 41 games in right field and 21 in left.
Neal was originally selected by the Giants in the 36th round of the 2005 draft and was a mid-season and post-season California League All-Star in 2009 and an Eastern League mid-season All-Star in 2010 and 2012, the latter as a member of the Indians organization, where he played after being acquired at the 2011 trade deadline.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound outfielder has a career line of .301/.377/.459 with 70 homers and 170 doubles in 701 minor league games, spanning eight seasons.
Like most Cubs fans of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was on Aug. 8, 1988.
My family had recently moved to the Dallas area. But despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Braves man (or kid, more accurately) and living in Rangers country at the time, I—along with most of the baseball-loving universe—was glued to WGN’s national broadcast of the Cubs-Phillies game at Wrigley Field.
There wasn’t really much to recommend the series—the North Siders were just 53-66, sitting a distant 13.5 games back of the NL East-leading Metropolitans, and the Phillies were even worse at 48-62. But there was at least one good reason to tune in that night.
At 6:06 p.m., 91-year-old Harry Grossman, a Cubs fan since 1905, flipped a switch, and the brand new Wrigley Field lights flickered to life for the first time. It was a momentous evening. The stadium was packed, a then-record 556 media credentials were issued, the broadcast crew wore tuxedos, and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams were on hand to throw out the first pitch. Even Morganna the Kissing Bandit made an appearance.
Mind you, night baseball didn’t start off that well for the Cubs. After being nearly blinded by the simultaneous popping of about 40,000 flashbulbs, Cubs starter Rick Sutcliffe gave up a long home run over the left-field bleachers on his fourth pitch to Phillies leadoff man Phil Bradley. But in the bottom of the inning, after Cubs outfielder Mitch Webster led off with a single, Ryne Sandberg clubbed a two-run home run off Kevin Gross to give the Cubs the lead.
The night seemed to have everything—except, of course, an ending. Midway through the fourth inning, just as the lights were taking hold at about 8:15 p.m., the game was stopped due to a powerful storm. After a two-hour-and-10-minute delay, home plate umpire Eric Gregg officially called it. As far as the record books are concerned, the first official night game at the Friendly Confines was the Cubs’ 6-4 victory over the Mets the following night.
I’ve mentioned in this space before that the first time I ever visited Wrigley was in 1984, and that I was immediately enthralled. I grew up watching and loving baseball, and had been to my share of ballparks by then—most, unfortunately, of the multi-use, 70s-era, cookie-cutter vintage—but visiting Wrigley Field was like stepping back in time. It seemed shocking, almost quaint, that in the ultra-modern, go-go 1980s, a professional sports venue could still lack an artificial lighting system.
Putting the lights on Wrigley Field was a fascinating journey that took decades to accomplish, and the 25th anniversary seems like the perfect time to revisit it—especially given the Cubs are again working to modernize the soon-to-be 100-year-old park. In the August issue of Vine Line, we take you back to that illuminating evening to examine what the lighting of Wrigley Field meant to the park, the team and the future of the franchise.
We also talk to a significant piece of that future, Cubs lefty Travis Wood, who is having a breakout season in 2013. When Wood was acquired along with Dave Sappelt and Ronald Torreyes (since shipped to the Astros) in December 2011 for set-up man extraordinaire Sean Marshall, it looked like a steal for the Reds. Marshall had a great season in 2012, while Wood bounced between Chicago and Triple-A Iowa. But this season, Wood has solidified his position as one of the best young left-handers in the game, and he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.
Finally, we check in with the voice of the franchise, Cubs radio announcer Pat Hughes, now in his 18th season as the play-by-play man for WGN Radio. Hughes has led a charmed professional life, sharing a booth with such broadcasting luminaries as Al McGuire, Bob Uecker and the beloved Ron Santo. He talked to us about his storied career, making the inevitable on-air mistakes and preparing calls for the biggest moments.
If you’re looking for a little illumination, we shine a light on the Cubs organization from the lowest levels of the minor leagues to the Wrigley Field broadcast booth every month. Subscribe to Vine Line, contact us at email@example.com or follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.