Monday morning was photo day at the brand new Cubs Park Spring Training Facility in Mesa, Ariz. The players and coaches went from station to station posing for the camera and answering questions from various media outlets.
Vine Line got a chance to talk to Cubs manager Rick Renteria, pitching coach Chris Bosio, hitting coach and former Cubs third baseman Bill Mueller, and first-base coach Eric Hinske about the early days of spring camp and their expectations for the 2014 season.
We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park all week long, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.
Much has been made of the fact that new Cubs manager Rick Renteria speaks both English and Spanish. He opened his daily press conference Monday by testing a new language on some Japanese reporters. With players like Kyuji Fujikawa and Tsuyoshi Wada in camp, Renteria has been learning new Japanese phrases daily to better communicate with his team.
Renteria and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff had high praise for the Cubs new training facility, including the Cubs Park stadium, which saw it’s first action Monday afternoon.
“It’s a beautiful facility. Obviously, we came and saw it earlier but to have them go out there and hit will allow them to get a feel for the field,” Renteria said. “It’s brand new, it’s expansive seating, it’s incredible. For a Spring Training facility, it’s almost a big league ballpark.”
Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood both threw off the mound at the stadium, and many of the major leaguers—including Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Ryan Sweeney—took batting practice. Though Rizzo blasted a few shots onto the outfield berm, he said the park plays big.
The Cubs also announced their early Cactus League rotation. Jeff Samardzija will inaugurate Cubs Park at the home opener on Thursday against the Diamondbacks’ Bronson Arroyo. Chris Rusin will take the mound Friday in Tempe against the Angels. The Cubs play a doubleheader on Saturday, with Travis Wood pitching the day game in Mesa against the Giants, and Edwin Jackson starting the nightcap versus the D-backs in Scottsdale. New Cubs starter Jason Hammel will start Sunday at home against the Royals.
The Cubs will play a six-inning intrasquad exhibition game at 1 p.m. local time on Wednesday at Cubs Park. Cubs 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Kyle Hendricks will start against Northwestern alum Eric Jokisch.
(Photo by Jon Antonoff)
Starting next week, Vine Line will take the field along with the rest of the Cubs at Spring Training in Mesa, Ariz. We’ll be at the new facilities talking to the team and front office, watching the home opener at Cubs Park and blogging throughout the week.
Be sure to stay tuned for photos, stories and more from Mesa. And, if you don’t already, follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline to get all the news first.
(Photo by Charles Sollars)
Baseball analytics website Baseball Prospectus continued its Top Tools series Thursday, naming Cubs prospect Albert Almora as an honorable mention for his makeup. The 19-year-old, who was the organization’s top pick in the 2012 draft, has always been seen as a player with a good baseball mind. On many occasions, the club’s front office has applauded Almora for his ability to get quick reads on fly balls and his vast understanding of the game. While in high school, he played on a record six national teams for USA Baseball.
Here’s what BP had to say about Almora:
Among the best prospects in the game, Almora, [Dylan] Bundy, and [Reese] McGuire offer makeup that is universally lauded by scouts, coaches, and teammates alike. Each player demonstrates the work ethic, confidence, leadership, and on-field demeanor that defines positive makeup in the scouting industry.
The site listed Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as the current major league gold standard for makeup, while Jackie Robinson assumes the role as best all time.
Arismendy Alcantara has established himself as a top 100 prospect. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
At this point, fans shouldn’t be surprised to see Cubs farmhands taking up some prime real estate on baseball’s top prospect lists. Throughout the offseason, various publications and websites have released their top 100, and the Cubs routinely land seven players among the best in the game.
Baseball America unveiled its Top 100 list Thursday, and the Cubs’ elite seven were again present—and that included two in the top eight. BA also provided fans with an estimation of when to expect these minor leaguers to arrive at Wrigley Field. According to the publication, six of the seven could be at the Friendly Confines sometime in the next two years.
Here’s what BA had to say about the Cubs seven:
5. Javier Baez
Major League ETA: 2014
Slow down—not his bat, the minors’ fastest, but the rest of the game, especially at shortstop. Otherwise, Baez’s task will be learning to play another position.
8. Kris Bryant
Major League ETA: 2014
Bryant could have a successful season even if he doesn’t match his 31-homer season in college; a move to the outfield could be in the offing.
28. C.J. Edwards
Major League ETA: 2015
Edwards can’t post better results than he did last year, when he moved from the Rangers to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. He’ll aim to reach 150 innings while maintaining his high-quality stuff and control.
36. Albert Almora
Major League ETA: 2016
Almora is another prospect who just needs to show he can stay healthy. Evaluators love his bat and defense in center—when he’s on the field.
41. Jorge Soler
Major League ETA: 2015
It’s easy to be satisfied when you’ve already signed a $30 million contract. If Soler plays with an edge, he’ll be a big league right fielder sooner than later.
87. Pierce Johnson
Major League ETA: 2015
Durability is at the top of the list for the slender Johnson, who could beat the similarly built C.J. Edwards to Chicago if he can repeat his 2013 production at higher levels.
100. Arismendy Alcantara
Major League ETA: 2015
With a crowd ahead of him at shortstop, Alcantara’s best path to the majors is as an everyday second baseman. Honing his skills on the right side of the infield is job one.
(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
Baseball Prospectus continues to lavish praise on Cubs top prospect Javier Baez. A few weeks after naming the 21-year-old the No. 4 prospect in the game, the baseball analysis website ranked the shortstop as having the best power tool of anybody in the minors. For some perspective, BP gives Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton the nod as having the top major league power tool, while the all-time standard is set by Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. Here’s what they had to say about Baez:
Top Power in the Minor Leagues: Javier Baez (Chicago Cubs)
Among the prospects in the game with elite raw power, Baez takes the cake because of his ability to translate that power to game situations. Despite being an ultra-aggressive hitter, Baez’s ability to consistently make contact allows him to tap into his raw power and could lead to him dropping 35-40 bombs a year in the majors. Elite raw power is rare, but the ability to bring that type of raw from batting practice into games is even rarer. Of the players considered for this list, Baez is clearly the best bet to actualize his top-of-the-scale raw power, and he could begin doing that as soon as this summer.
In 130 games at two levels last year, Baez recorded a .578 slugging percentage, along with 37 homers, 34 doubles and 111 RBI. He was named the organization’s Player of the Year in 2013. Baez is currently with the big league club at Spring Training, and he will start the year in Triple-A Iowa.
Fellow prospect Kris Bryant (No. 17 overall prospect) was one of five players listed in the “others considered” group.
Bryant’s raw power rests a half grade behind the others, but he should bring a significant portion of his raw pop into games, allowing him to hit 30-plus home runs a season.
The 2013 first-round draft pick (second overall) led the country in home runs with 31 during his final college season at the University of San Diego. In 36 games at three different levels (rookie ball, Short-Season A, High-A), the 22-year old hit nine homers in 36 games, along with 14 doubles, 32 RBI and a .688 slugging percentage. Bryant also excelled during his time in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League last offseason, picking up league MVP honors.
(Photo by Charlie Vascellaro)
The paint is still drying on the new Cubs Park Spring Training and player development facility in Mesa, Ariz. No one has grilled a hot dog or spilled a beer. The bathroom fixtures are clean enough to eat off of—not that you’d want to. The sights, scents and sounds that will craft cherished memories have yet to occur. The place is a blank canvas waiting to be colored in the blue and green hues of spring baseball.
It takes a while for a ballpark to develop a personality of its own. Something has to happen—a mammoth home run hit by a rookie prospect, an anonymous young pitcher emerging from a corn field to strike out the side, or a brushback pitch revisiting a previous season’s rivalry and inciting a bench-clearing brawl. There must be something fans can look back on later and say, “I was there.”
But the crack of the bat and the thwapping of balls into gloves can finally be heard at the facility, as pitchers and catchers officially reported to camp Thursday.
The Cubs had a spectacular run at two different Hohokam Parks from 1979-2012—setting Cactus League and MLB Spring Training attendance records and enjoying a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with the ballpark, the city and the fans—but the team’s new multipurpose Spring Training and player development facility is a vast improvement for both the organization and its loyal fans. Coming on the heels of the new training academy in the Dominican Republic and in conjunction with the restoration of Wrigley Field, the Cubs have made great strides under owner Tom Ricketts in terms of facilities and comprehensive player development accommodations—an essential step for a team looking to build from the lower levels up.
The new complex also simplifies things from a logistical standpoint. Previously, the organization’s minor leaguers conducted workouts at Fitch Park, about three-quarters of a mile down the road from Hohokam, where the big leaguers practiced and played games. The new facility puts all of the Cubs’ operations under one roof. This is an improvement for both the front office—which can keep better tabs on the team’s young players—and fans—who no longer have to make a trip down the road to watch top prospects like Albert Almora, C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson make their way to the big leagues.
BIGGER AND BETTER
Designed by Populous, formerly the renowned HOK ballpark architectural firm of Kansas City, Mo., and built in conjunction with the Hunt Construction Group of Scottsdale, Ariz., the $99 million facility was approved by city of Mesa voters in a 2012 ballot measure. Keeping the Cubs in town was a front-burner issue for the city and its mayor.
“The Chicago Cubs have been coming to Mesa each spring for more than half a century,” said Mayor Scott Smith. “The team is a part of who we are as a community, and I am excited to see that legacy continue for my children and grandchildren.”
The massive 125-acre complex contains six practice fields, one infield practice diamond, 12 indoor batting cages and a huge, 70,000-square-foot player development facility. Aside from the vast physical resources, the team is also taking advantage of new technological advances. The Cubs’ new home comes equipped with a 120-seat theater for meetings and video review, and each practice field offers a camera feed to the video rooms to enhance evaluations.
For a team that has dealt with substandard strength-training areas at both Wrigley Field and Hohokam Park, the new player development complex is quite a luxury. It includes a two-story weight room and gym filled with stationary bikes, four whirlpools and a hydrotherapy pool, and floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the scenic McDowell Mountain range. The big league clubhouse, which dwarfs the space at Wrigley Field, has 63 lockers, and there’s another clubhouse for minor league players with 200 spaces.
In addition to being the Cubs’ Spring Training home, the new site will also be the team’s year-round player development and rehabilitation headquarters, and home to the club’s Rookie League and Arizona Fall League teams.
“This is our space to develop players to move onto the big league club,” said Cubs Park Facilities Manager Justin Piper. “So there’s also been a lot of focus and attention from the Cubs on our player development facilities and practice facilities on the site.”
JUST LIKE HOME
As Major League Baseball’s scope continues to evolve and grow, Spring Training has become a big business, with host cities aggressively competing for entertainment and tourism dollars. It seems like almost every year another big league club is moving into an updated, state-of-the-art facility.
The Cubs’ brand new Spring Training site, the fourth new ballpark to arrive on the Cactus League’s desert horizon in the last six years, is located in Mesa’s booming Riverview Park entertainment district. It’s adjacent to the sprawling new Riverview Park and Mesa Riverview shopping center on Rio Salado Parkway by the busy crossroads of the 101 and 202 loop freeways near the Mesa/Tempe border.
North Side fans have always had a way of making themselves feel at home in Mesa, and while Cubs Park is not intended to be a scale model of Wrigley Field, reminders of the Friendly Confines abound in features like the light towers, scoreboard clock and replica Wrigley Field marquee.
“People will be able to walk up right next to it,” Piper said. “We can put their name on the marquee, and they can take their photo next to it.”
Already being heralded as the crown jewel of Spring Training facilities, the ballpark boasts a seating capacity of nearly 15,000, the largest in the Cactus League. The stadium has 9,200 fixed seats, and the expansive outfield berm, a signature component of Arizona’s Spring Training ballparks, has room for 4,200 more sun-worshipping fans.
Because Arizona’s atmospheric conditions cause the ball to carry farther than it does in Chicago, the dimensions of the outfield wall are about 15-20 feet deeper than those at Wrigley Field, but the two outfields share the same shape. Just like at Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ home dugout is situated on the third-base side (it was located on the first-base side at Hohokam Park), and the wall behind home plate is made of red brick. This will make Spring Training games broadcast on television appear strikingly similar to Cubs regular season home games when the center-field camera is in use.
Of course, the ballpark’s southwestern setting is also evident in many design touches, including the massive louvered awnings that provide shade over most of the seating bowl and the red-clay exterior that reflects the facility’s desert surroundings. There’s also a beautiful mountain vista beyond the outfield walls, including such iconic local imagery as the Superstition Mountains to the right, Four Peaks and Red Mountain to dead center, and the vast McDowell Mountain range to the left. Phoenix’s signature Camelback Mountain is farther to the left, but still visible, off in foul territory.
While Cubs Park will be a huge upgrade for players, it will also provide a better overall experience for fans. Throughout the past several decades, Spring Training baseball has evolved from a destination for die-hards to a prime vacation spot for spring revelers. For many, the game on the field is secondary to other amenities and a chance to spend time with friends in the Arizona sun. The new Cubs Park has adequately addressed this phenomenon as well.
One of the most unique features of the facility will be the left-field party deck, which is designed to be reminiscent of the rooftops outside of Wrigley Field. The second-story deck comes equipped with bleachers and patios with loose patio furniture, and can be accessed with a general admission ticket.
“You’ll have 1,000 people mixing and mingling, sitting in the bleachers and having a great time,” Piper said. “It’s going to be pretty unique.”
But the best aspect of Spring Training has always been the opportunity to rub shoulders with professional ballplayers in a relaxed environment. The walkway from the ballpark to the clubhouse is designed with this in mind. It’s a long, narrow dirt path where players will pass in close proximity to fans, who will undoubtedly line the sides seeking autographs and pictures. There are no walls or barriers of any kind on either side of the trail, but a string of dwarf oleander bushes have been planted and will eventually create a natural barrier.
Cubs fans have been making the religious pilgrimage to Arizona for more than six decades since the team first set up a spring camp at Mesa’s Rendezvous Park in the spring of 1952. Prior to that, the club spent time on Catalina Island in California, where they conducted Spring Training for 30 years on former owner William Wrigley Jr.’s island paradise, 25 miles off the Los Angeles coast.
After the team’s first spring season at Rendezvous Park, which was originally constructed in 1920, owner Phillip K. Wrigley (William’s son) paid $20,000 to build a grandstand in exchange for the city of Mesa footing the bill for a new clubhouse on the third-base side. The grandstand’s exterior Rendezvous Park sign and the water towers looming beyond the outfield walls would become the signature images associated with the facility.
The Cubs remained at Rendezvous Park until 1966, when they moved to Long Beach, Calif., for the spring. But they returned to Arizona in 1967, taking up residence at Scottsdale Stadium, where they remained until 1979. The Cubs then moved to the original Hohokam Park in Mesa, swapping sites with the Oakland Athletics, who had occupied the stadium for two years following its opening in 1977. The Cubs remained at the original Hohokam Park until a new one was built at the opposite corner of Brown and Center streets in 1997. With the team now moving into Cubs Park, the A’s will again take over Hohokam Park in the spring of 2015.
The idea of moving into a new ballpark after just 17 years at the renovated Hohokam is more a testament to the advances being made in ballpark design than a reflection of the old ballpark’s obsolescence. And with the recent addition of three spectacular new training facilities in the Cactus League cities of Glendale, Goodyear and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, it’s also a matter of keeping up with the Joneses.
“We’re real excited about the new Cubs facility,” said Cactus League President Mark Coronado. “It’s these opportunities that continue to be the magnet for us to draw fans from across the country, and the Cubs facility is going to be a Wrigleyville mecca—the Disneyland of Baseball. It will be the jewel of Spring Training facilities, there’s no question about it. It will be a standard that [others] will be hard-pressed to duplicate because they’ve spared no expense. I think once again you’ll start to see the Cubs become the No. 1 attraction in the Valley.”
The Cubs added RHP Jason Hammel to the rotation today. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty)
At their first press conference at new Cubs Park in Mesa, Ariz., Cubs president Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer announced they have signed right-handed pitchers Jason Hammel and James McDonald to 2014 contracts.
Hammel, 31, is 49-59 with four saves and a 4.80 ERA in 215 major league appearances (158 starts) with Tampa Bay (2006-08), Colorado (2009-11) and Baltimore (2012-13). He has pitched primarily as a starter in the last five years and is 42-43 with a 4.60 ERA in 130 starts during that span. Hammel also has a pair of 10-win seasons to his credit (2009-10) and has made 20 or more starts in each of the last five seasons, including two years with 30 or more starts.
In his first season with Baltimore in 2012, 6-foot-6, 225-pound pitcher went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts to help the Orioles to their first postseason appearance in 15 years, earning starts in Game 1 and Game 5 of the American League Division Series vs. the New York Yankees (0-1, 3.18 ERA). Hammel was also a finalist in the MLB Fan Vote for the last spot on the American League All-Star team. He followed up by going 7-8 with one save and a 4.97 ERA in 26 appearances, all but three as a starter, with Baltimore in 2013.
McDonald, 29, is 32-30 with a 4.20 ERA in 131 major league appearances (82 starts) with the Los Angeles Dodgers (2008-10) and Pittsburgh Pirates (2010-13). In his most recent full major league season in 2012, McDonald went 12-8 with a 4.21 ERA in 30 appearances (29 starts), setting a career high in wins a year after making a career-high 31 starts in 2011. He was limited to only six starts last year (2-2, 5.76 ERA) due to right shoulder discomfort.
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound McDonald broke into the big leagues with the Dodgers in 2008 at the age of 23 and split the next three seasons between the majors and minors before enjoying his first full big league campaign in 2011. He was the Dodgers Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2007 and 2008.
This pair of moves gives the team added rotation depth, which will come in handy early in the season. The team also announced that starter Jake Arrieta has experienced minor shoulder discomfort and is unlikely to start the year on the roster.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Spring Training is officially underway as pitchers and catchers reported to the new Cubs Spring Training facilities in Mesa, Ariz., on Thursday. Position players will get underway on Tuesday. The pitching staff hopes to improve across the board as it finished with a 4.00 ERA in 2013, tied for 12th in the NL.