Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

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.

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

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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 Part Two of a three-part conversation we had with the Cubs GM. The final segment will be posted later this week. 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

VL: You’ve said you and [Theo] Epstein had some pretty frank discussions with former manager Dale Sveum at the All-Star break. It seemed like momentum to replace him really picked up in the last few weeks of the season. How hard of a decision was it to let Sveum go after just two years, and what qualities are you hoping the new manager can bring to the team?

JH: For both Theo and for me, it was a very difficult decision. We’ve both known Dale since 2004. He’s an incredibly hard worker. I think he wore a lot of losses in a really impressive way. He was very stoic about it. That’s a difficult thing. You have to talk to the media twice a day. You have to talk to the team every day. When you’re losing, keeping your chin up like that is really impressive. He did a great job of dealing with adversity. So it was very difficult.

I feel like when you list off some of the things we’re looking for in the next manager, one of the problems is people right away say, “Oh, those are all things Dale didn’t have.” And that’s simply not true. I think Dale can go on to be a really good manager. Theo used the analogy in the press conference. When we hired Terry Francona in Boston, he had, I think it was, four losing seasons with the Phillies and had really struggled there. He went to the Red Sox, and now he’s a potential Hall of Fame manager. I think Dale certainly has a lot of the characteristics of a very good manager, and I certainly hope he gets the chance to do it again because I think he’ll be successful.

VL: You’re just finishing your second year with the team. How would you grade your performance so far?

JH: Like I said at the beginning, any answer that doesn’t involve the wins and losses at the major league level is problematic. We’ve really tried to be as transparent as we possibly can. When we got here, we felt like there was a really big talent deficit, especially when you consider the other teams in our division. We’ve done everything we can under the new rules to try to make sure we can close that gap. In that regard, I think we’ve done a really good job. We’re a lot closer today to playing in and winning a World Series than we were two years ago. And we just have to keep on pushing like that. But there’s no question it’s difficult.

Two years in a row, we’ve traded 40 percent of our rotation at the deadline. August and September of both years were real struggles, especially when in both years we actually played pretty well in July and had things going in a good direction. But we made all those decisions for the same reason, which is that we have to stockpile as much talent as possible to compete with teams in our division that have been doing that for a long time. We’ve tried to be transparent about what our goals are. Our goal is to build a team that can come into Spring Training year in and year out and have a chance to win, and we’ve been really focused on achieving that. In a lot of ways, we’ve been really successful in that, but we’re nowhere close to our goal.

VL: How different has it been for you working in Chicago versus working in Boston or San Diego?

JH: One of the things I really like about being in Chicago and being with the Cubs is we have the same goal as the other 29 teams, but, in some ways, it’s a bigger goal because it hasn’t been done in so long. And I think we know just how much that means to the city.

When Theo and I started talking about this in October of 2011, a big part of why we were so excited to come here and be part of this was that we lived through 2004 [in Boston], and we saw just how much it impacted the city, just how incredible the entire thing was. Really, there’s only one place in all of baseball that we have a chance to relive that. You don’t ever need more motivation in this job because it’s so obvious what your goal is, and winning is such a great thing. But here, if possible, it’s even bigger because of what it means to the city and what it means to the fan base.

VL: How important is the impending stadium restoration to the organization? As beautiful as Wrigley Field is from a fan perspective, does it hinder the baseball side that the players are dealing with inferior facilities compared to most other major league teams?

JH: It’s really important for us to get this done successfully—and hopefully sooner rather than later. We’re not going to have the kind of revenues that a team in a city like Chicago needs to have until the renovations get going. We need to be able to have more signage. We need to be able to have a scoreboard so we can sell advertising. People don’t realize how important that is to the organization. Those are the dollars that flow right back into the team. We should be a financial monster sitting here in the city of Chicago with a team that’s unbelievably popular, but we can’t be that until the stadium gets renovated.

And from a player standpoint, we do have inferior facilities. We don’t have a really functional weight room. We have a batting cage that’s out in left field. The layout of the clubhouse I don’t think is conducive to the kind of oneness you want from a major league clubhouse. That’s a really big factor, and I think when we do have the renovations here and we can give our players first-class facilities, it will be a huge plus in not only improving our current players, but also in improving players going forward.

VL: Pitching was the main priority last offseason. What are the main things you’re focusing on going into 2014?

JH: You’re always going to be looking for pitching. The teams that have pitching depth are able to survive the marathon of the season so much better, so I think you’re always going to be looking for pitching every offseason. But our biggest focus—and it will be for quite some time—is improving our offense. We’ve got to get on base more. We have to have better quality at-bats. There’s no way around it. Our current offense isn’t good enough to be competitive. Obviously, we have a lot of young offensive talent coming in the minor leagues, but we need to add on top of that and really make our approach at the plate and getting on base a huge priority. Until we do that, we’re not going to be as successful as we need to be.

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

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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 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.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with RHP Justin Grimm

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(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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with IF Logan Watkins

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(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.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Kris Bryant, Confidence Game

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(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.”

President Bryant
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.

—Phil Barnes

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with RHP Blake Parker

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(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.

—Gary Cohen

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