1000 Words: Welcome back, Cubs baseball

SpringTrainingClubhouse

(Photo by Stephen Green)

While many players arrived early in Mesa to get the season started, pitchers and catchers officially reported to Spring Training on Thursday. After a number of notable offseason acquisitions—including pitchers Jon Lester and Jason Hammel and catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross—the Cubs are primed for a dramatic improvement in the standings and are now viewed as dark-horse playoff contenders. Whatever happens this season, the journey begins today.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Remembering Harry Caray’s legacy

HarryCaray

(Photo courtesy Chicago Cubs)

Holy cow! From 1982-98, there was no bigger personality at Wrigley Field than Hall of Fame broadcaster and man about town Harry Caray. His passion for the Cubs was rivaled only by his passion for life. In November, Vine Line ran a feature on Caray, who died 17 years ago today.

As was commonplace with Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, the game call took an unusual turn—this time to seedless grapes. A fruit lacking the ability to self-propagate spawned a conversation so lengthy, so in keeping with the legend, Caray’s longtime work partner still laughs about it decades later.

“It was mostly carefully crafted, the lunacy,” said former Cubs pitcher and broadcaster Steve Stone. “Out of his mind came the most unusual things.”

Stone, who now works for the crosstown White Sox, shared the WGN-TV broadcast booth with Harry Caray for 15 seasons until Caray’s death in 1998, and stories about the beloved broadcaster still pour out of him. Stone credited Caray with teaching him about loyalty, fans, calling a good game and calling a bad game well.

He recalled Caray launching into this yarn, on air, about riding in the back of a limousine and seeing a grocery store sign advertising seedless grapes. Caray marveled at the novelty of this “new” fruit—which, for the record, was neither new nor novel—and baited his partner for a good explanation of how such a thing could exist.

Stone, the college-educated straight man to Caray’s blue-collar wild card, cobbled together a workable theory about selective pollination, hybridization and the like.

“Well, that doesn’t sound right,” Caray grumbled, later adding, “Imagine if they came up with a seedless watermelon!”

“We talked an entire inning about seedless grapes,” Stone recalled with a laugh. “This is a story he was waiting to tell.”

These days, the legend of Harry Caray—and fans’ memories of him—tend to skew toward caricature. Everyone from Will Ferrell to Ryan Dempster can do a spot-on Caray impression. He was so beloved, so funny, so seemingly hapless, it’s easy to forget what a good baseball mind he had.

The grape conversation and others were hardly the ramblings of an eccentric older man. They were the deliberate selling of an experience, a persona and a ballpark that made Caray the beating heart of a club that still pulses with his legacy today. During his lengthy career, the Hall of Famer bellowed through 50 years of big league broadcasts, including two Cubs division titles, and took generations of fans out to the ballgame—his way.

* * * *
Atlanta Braves broadcaster Chip Caray said a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have penned a better story: A scrappy, St. Louis-bred orphan spends the bulk of his working life peddling the Chicago Cubs’ biggest rivals before climbing into the booth behind home plate at Wrigley Field.

“And he’s the most beloved announcer in the history of the franchise,” said the younger Caray, Harry’s grandson. “He ended up doing pretty damn well for himself.”

By the time Caray was born as Harry Christopher Carabina on March 1, 1914, he had already been abandoned by his father. His mother remarried but died in 1928, leaving her teenage boy to be raised by an aunt.

Caray was a decent high school baseball player and earned a scholarship to the University of Alabama. But he declined the offer because he couldn’t afford room and board, according to Cubs historian Ed Hartig.

“When people are brought up without much, they desire to get ahead,” said Caray’s widow, Dutchie.

And so he did. After listening to countless Cardinals broadcasts, the kid felt he could convey the sport’s excitement better than the team’s radio broadcasters, and he was cocky enough to let the station’s general manager hear about it. The GM gave Caray an audition and liked what he saw, but he preferred Caray start in small-market Joliet, Illinois, where he could gain some experience.

The newly minted broadcaster kicked off the 1940s with a new beat (high school and junior college basketball, bowling and softball), a new name (out with Carabina, in with Caray) and, after a promotion to sports director of a station in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a new catchphrase—a rousing “Holy cow!” belted out after home runs.

In an era when prominent announcers were scrambling to find on-air calling cards, Caray’s served a dual purpose: It was memorable, and it kept him from swearing, Hartig said.

In 1944, Caray returned to his beloved hometown Cardinals, where he spent 25 years in the booth despite some personal entanglements. His growing fame and hectic schedule led to a divorce from his first wife, Dorothy, in 1949 (he would marry and divorce a second time before marrying Dutchie in 1975).

Later, rumors of an affair with an owner’s wife arose, and Caray did little to dispel them.

Following the 1969 campaign, he was fired by the Cardinals and spent one season calling games for the Oakland Athletics.

In 1971, he headed back to the Midwest to replace Bob Elson as the voice of the White Sox. The club capitalized on the broadcaster’s ability to self-promote by offering him an incentive-laden contract based on attendance numbers at Comiskey Park.

Caray quickly became immensely popular. When he wasn’t hobnobbing with South Siders, buying fans beers or broadcasting from the bleachers, he was carousing downtown and hitting bars and restaurants after games, earning himself the nickname “the Mayor of Rush Street.”

Personnel changes at the Sox and rumblings about a pay-per-view system for the 1982 season prompted Caray to contact the Cubs about replacing legend Jack Brickhouse, who was retiring after the 1981 season, Hartig said. Caray was ultimately hired, and the nationally viewed WGN Superstation, which had launched just prior to Caray’s arrival, sent his popularity into orbit.

“He was fun to listen to,” Dutchie Caray said. “He was just nuts.”

The Cubs capitalized on Caray’s oddball personality by promoting him almost as heavily as they did the team—and Caray followed suit by pursuing his own endorsements as the de facto face of the Cubs. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, especially during bleak years on the field when the stretch-singing, microphone-waving Caray was the one putting butts in seats.

“Harry sold the city of Chicago, Wrigley Field, the Cubs, and he sold Harry Caray,” Stone said. “And beer. That goes without saying.”

While Caray rarely met a party he didn’t like, stories of him being drunk in the booth during games are patently false. When fans heard the pop of a can followed by a long, gulping pull during broadcasts, Caray was generally drinking soda, not beer, Chip Caray said. While the elder Caray would hoist a glass during the seventh-inning stretch, its contents generally remained untouched. Stone said during their 14 years together in the WGN booth, he watched Caray drink a total of maybe 45 beers—roughly three per season.

“It was show business,” said the younger Caray, adding that his grandfather might enjoy a cold brew only on the hottest of days in the steamiest of cities, where the booth was like a “Japanese pillbox on Iwo Jima”—his grandfather’s words.

And perhaps it was Caray’s words—and his famous delivery of them—that compelled listeners to believe he was soused. He’d jumble players’ names, make silly puns, and dip into a vast well of ridiculous, incongruous stories during slow moments. Most fans can, and frequently do, quote them from memory.
“Alou’s name spelled backwards is Uola.”

“How could that guy lose the ball in the sun? He’s from Mexico.”

“The good Lord wants the Cubs to win.”

Said Stone: “He was never boring.”

* * * *
Caray first crossed paths with his longtime wingman at Comiskey Park, where Stone pitched for the White Sox in 1973 and from 1977-78. Stone was also part owner of The Pump Room, a swanky Chicago restaurant located in what was then the Ambassador East Hotel. He recalled sitting at the bar with teammate Ken Brett one night when Harry, who was living at the hotel at the time, walked in.

“He looks at Brett and says to him, ‘Boy, last year you were good! What the hell happened to you?’” Stone said. “And Kenny says, ‘Nice talking to you, Harry.’”

Caray’s no-nonsense style irked some and downright alienated others, such as former Cubs broadcaster Milo Hamilton and Sox owner John Allyn, who both “probably had the Harry Caray dartboard,” Hartig said.

“Harry would be a guy who’d be very difficult to hire today,” his grandson said.

And the same hard lines he drew professionally leaked into his home life as well.

“He didn’t know how to be a dad, to be a granddad,” Chip Caray said. “There are a lot of holes in my life and in my dad’s life.”

Chip Caray credited his step-grandmother, Dutchie, with working to mend any familial rifts.

“I tried to get Harry to realize he needed to treat all his kids alike,” she said, adding that he tended to favor the boys within his own brood of five. At home, the usually voluble Caray was quiet and typically buried in newspapers. He read about seven papers a day, prompting Dutchie to lay out towels to protect their home’s white carpeting.

“He would come into the house, and his hands would be black from newsprint,” Dutchie Caray said. “I’d say, ‘Don’t touch anything!’”

Stone recalled that same devotion to print. Caray would often amble into the booth and drop a gigantic tome he was working his way through onto the table, and his gameday prep was poring over everything he could get his ink-stained mitts on.

* * * *
The roar of the Wrigley Field crowd between innings of an uneventful game often left WGN-TV’s director of production Bob Vorwald puzzled—that is, until he realized Caray was making his way from the TV booth to the radio booth.

“He was a force of nature,” Vorwald said.

Caray had a knack for appealing to “regular guys” and relished talking to fans and signing autographs. When Stone began working with Caray, the legend told him: “Never talk down to your audience.”

Prior to going on-air, Caray would often ask his partner to pick any side on any issue, and the veteran broadcaster would counter it. From seedless grapes to Stone’s cigar smoking, Caray had a retort for everything, and it usually was consistent with the opinions of the guy bellying up to the bar.

“He’d say, ‘Don’t take it personally. That’s good television,’” Stone remembered.

But baseball always came first.

“I think people remember the personality,” Vorwald said. “But they don’t always remember what an outstanding broadcaster he was and how well he knew the game.”

Caray missed the start of the 1987 season after suffering a stroke. His return was heralded by an on-air phone call from no less than President Ronald Reagan—a call ridiculously cut short.

“He hung up on Ronald Reagan because Bobby Dernier got a bunt single,” said Stone, laughing.

While Caray’s bits weren’t an act, they weren’t an accident either. For many of the seasons he covered the Cubs, the team struggled, so the broadcast had to be more interesting to keep viewers from changing the channel.

“He saw a lot of bad baseball,” Vorwald said. “You have to work harder when teams and games are not so good.”

In the strike-shortened 1981 season, the Cubs suffered a dismal 38-65 record and drew an unusually low half-million in attendance. The following year, Caray’s first, the team still came in under .500, yet attendance doubled. And it continued to grow for years after that.

Late in his career and in declining health, Caray cut back on his travel—and his drinking. He collapsed at a Palm Springs Valentine’s Day dinner with Dutchie in 1998 and died of cardiac arrest and brain damage four days later—just shy of his 84th birthday. His funeral was held at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago and was followed by a motorcade around Wrigley Field.

Chip Caray remembered sitting in a limousine with his dad when the procession to the North Side halted. They slowed through downtown roadwork on that frigid Chicago winter’s day and looked out the window. Construction workers stood in silent salute as the caravan passed, hard hats held steady over their hearts for someone they recognized as uniquely their own.

And that’s just how Caray would have wanted it.

Cubs fill FanGraphs’ top 200 prospects list

Edwards,-CJ

C.J. Edwards is one of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects. (Photo by Roger C. Hooever)

The fact that Cubs farmhands continue to pop up all over prospect rankings is an ongoing testament to the job Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been doing since they took over the baseball operations department in late 2011. On Tuesday, baseball website FanGraphs released its top 200 prospects, which included 11 members of the Cubs’ organization.

Seeing Kris Bryant and Addison Russell as high as they are is no longer much of a surprise, but 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber’s inclusion in the top 25 puts him in elite territory. It’s also worth mentioning that three of the Cubs’ first four picks in the 2012 draft are included.

Each capsule below includes a brief segment from the individual’s FanGraphs scouting report. Check out the link above for a more comprehensive report on each player.

1. Kris Bryant, 3B
Scouting Report: Bryant is the top prospect in the game for me and for a majority of sources I talked to, but it isn’t by a landslide. Bryant still has some questions, and the guy right behind him could be terrifyingly good. Bryant has either 75 or 80 raw power for scouts, but the two questions about him are 1) how much contact he’ll make/how much of his power will he get to in games, and 2) if he will play third base or right field.

3. Addison Russell, SS
Scouting Report: [Russell] went 11th overall to Oakland and surprised from day one with how advanced he was offensively, while continuing to improve defensively. He was dealt to the Cubs last year in the Jeff Samardzija deal and joins a glut of talented young hitters for the Cubs. The biggest remaining question for Russell is if he can still stick at shortstop due to a hitch in his release that limits how quickly he can unload the ball deep in the hole.

13. Jorge Soler, RF
Scouting Report: He’s an explosive quick-twitch power hitter with easy plus bat speed and raw power, along with just enough huge cuts and erratic stuff to his game that you never know what you might see. The erratic aspects of his game slowly melted away this year as he matured mentally and had his first full year of reps in the system with a clean bill of health.

21. Kyle Schwarber, LF
Scouting Report: The Cubs took him #4 overall out of Indiana. … They’ll develop him as a catcher this year, but most assume his bat will be ready before his glove, meaning he’ll be a part-time catcher at best. There’s legit 30 homer power and surprising feel to hit with a realistic chance for a big league look in late 2016.

64. C.J. Edwards, RHP
Scouting Report: Edwards was a near unknown pitcher as an amateur; you don’t see many pitchers this high on prospect lists that signed for $50,000 out of high school in the 48th round. The Cubs smartly grabbed him from Texas in the Matt Garza trade late in his breakout season in 2013. He’s still a rail-thin righty that some think will never add the necessary bulk to throw 200 innings in the big leagues, but the stuff and command projects for the middle of the rotation.

92. Albert Almora, CF
Scouting Report: He’ll need to make some adjustments to his approach since Double-A was the first level where he couldn’t hit with that approach. If he makes some progress there, he has 15+ homer power and near Gold Glove defense, so there’s some real ceiling despite just solid raw tools.

124. Duane Underwood, RHP
Scouting Report: Underwood was an inconsistent prep arm from Atlanta in the 2012 draft that, early in his pro career, look to be more bust than boom. He turned things around and had a breakout 2014 campaign in Low-A, flashing three plus pitches at times.

125. Pierce Johnson, RHP
Scouting Report: Johnson popped up in his draft year at Missouri State flashing above average stuff, slipping on draft day due to some concerns about his delivery, command and future health prospects. Johnson has avoided major injuries and performed well, with his above average to plus fastball-curveball combo giving him #3 starter upside, but the command and consistency have been bugaboos and he may ultimate fit best in the bullpen.

First baseman Dan Vogelbach, outfielder Billy McKinney and shortstop Gleyber Torres were also listed among the unranked players to round out FanGraphs’ top 200 prospects.

Baseball Prospectus puts Cubs atop organizational rankings

Zagunis2-(Photo-by-Ethan-Chivari)

Mark Zagunis demonstrates the Cubs’ organizational depth. (Photo by Ethan Chivari)

With one organization possessing two of baseball’s top five prospects, that fact alone would probably force everyone else to play catch up. But then you add in the depth the Cubs’ organization provides even behind those players, and the gap between the North Siders and everyone else widens. On Monday, prospect publication Baseball Prospectus unveiled its 2015 organizational rankings, where the Cubs found themselves with top billing.

Last week, BP released its top 101 individual prospects, which included Addison Russell (2), Kris Bryant (5), Jorge Soler (19), Albert Almora (38), Kyle Schwarber (77), Billy McKinney (81) and Pierce Johnson (83). Even with the combination of quality and quantity on the top 101 list, Baseball Prospectus came away impressed with the depth even behind the ranked players.

1. Chicago Cubs

Farm System Ranking in 2014: 2
2015 Top Ten Prospects: Link
Top Prospect: Addison Russell (2)
Prospects on the BP 101: 7
State of the System: Despite graduating infielders Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez, and mildly uninspiring years from former Top 10 prospects like C.J. Edwards and Christian Villanueva, the Cubs are the proud owner of the game’s top system. With the 2014 arrival of shortstop Addison Russell via trade, the explosive emergence of third baseman Kris Bryant, and the selection of a hit-first prospect like Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs remain absolutely loaded with impact talent. The arrival and emergence of those players doesn’t even begin to touch on the continued presence of outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, as well as quality depth of high ceiling players like Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez, Carson Sands, and Mark Zagunis. The Cubs’ system is loaded to the gills with talent that could help their roster continue to improve internally, or via trade.
Must-See Affiliate: Triple-A Iowa
Prospects to See There: Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Pierce Johnson

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

Underwood

Duane Underwood put together an impressive 2014 campaign. (Photo courtesy Kane County Cougars)

As evidenced by the additions of players like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero, the Cubs front office is transitioning from a period in which it focused primarily on bringing in assets to help improve the future of the franchise to an extended period in which they expect to compete every year at the big league level. However, if you were to suggest to baseball president Theo Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer that this transition means they are now less inclined to build through their farm system, they would be quick to correct you.

Just because Cubs fans may finally start seeing wins accumulate at Wrigley Field doesn’t mean the minor league pipeline is suddenly going to go overlooked. In fact, for the second year in a row, the North Siders will have arguably the best system in all of baseball. Boasting the top prospect in the game, an overabundance of high-profile shortstops and a suddenly large group of interesting arms at the lower levels, the Cubs have built the scouting and player development monster they promised to deliver more than three years ago.

In our annual minor league prospectus, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma helps us break down the names to know at all levels of the system. As the month progresses, we’ll unveil player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 2 of the Cubs minor league prospectus:

Part 1 – The Elite

Up-And-Comers
Soon enough, the elite names will be filling major league lineup cards instead of prospect lists. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the Cubs system—and this is a testament to the job the front office has done over the last few years—is that there are more waves of talent coming. If the organization is going to produce another generation of game-changing prospects, they will likely come from this group.

Eloy Jimenez – OF
Many believed Jimenez was the top prize of the 2013 international free-agent class. However, a combination of injuries limiting his playing time and fellow international signee Gleyber Torres outshining him led some to forget about the mammoth teenager. Jimenez battled shoulder soreness early in the season and a leg issue that shut him down late. But when things are going right, he displays impressive plate discipline for his age, the ability to drive the ball to all fields and tremendous power. The next step for the big outfielder is to learn which pitches he can drive and really backspin.

Carson Sands – LHP
The second pitcher taken by the team in the 2014 draft, and the first in a string of nine straight, Sands could turn out to be the best of the bunch. The southpaw has the body strength, athleticism and ability to throw strikes, coupled with the tools and weapons to be an effective starting pitcher over the long haul. Sands’ fastball plays up with late life, and he has enough feel to work down in the zone.

Along with the fastball, he shows a curveball that has a chance to be a plus pitch and a developing change-up. His command and control should continue to develop, and the Cubs believe if everything clicks, he has the durability and arsenal to turn into a solid No. 2 starter. Though he’s not even a year removed from high school, Sands could be challenged with a full-season assignment in South Bend to start 2015.

Jake Stinnett – RHP
Soon after joining the Cubs organization, Stinnett suffered a groin injury that required surgery, ultimately delaying his pro debut. However, the University of Maryland product battled back and returned to toss 11 innings with mixed results.

When Stinnett is on, he shows an easy-plus fastball, sitting 92-96, that he can work to both sides of the plate with riding life and explosiveness. He complements that with a power slider that often proves unhittable and a change-up with a chance to be a plus pitch. He still needs to show that arsenal consistently and develop command and control to reach the No. 2 role the Cubs envision for him.

The recent convert to pitching has had a full offseason in the Cubs strength program and time to recover from his injury. If all goes as planned, many believe Stinnett is an arm that could really take off for the Cubs this year.

Gleyber Torres – SS
Add this name to an already-long list of impressive shortstop talent in the Cubs organization. A part of their big 2013 international free-agent class, Torres has displayed a very advanced, pure approach at the plate at the ripe age of 17. Given he has all the skills to stick at short—the hands and feet work, he has strong body control and athleticism, and he displays the ability to go side to side—the impressive bat makes him a very intriguing prospect.

Torres stood out in the Arizona League and during his short stint at Boise with his ability to drive the ball to all fields and really control the zone. With only the power tool lacking, he appears to be a fairly complete package. If the hit tool continues to develop, he has a chance to be special. While nothing has been determined yet, there’s a strong possibility he will open the season as the starting shortstop at Low-A South Bend at just 18 years old.

Duane Underwood – RHP
After coming into 2013 out of shape, Underwood realized he couldn’t rely solely on his natural talents in pro ball and showed up last spring ready to compete. When it comes to pure stuff and tools, the righty might possess the highest upside of any pitcher in the system. Minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson worked with Underwood to tweak and simplify his delivery, and the pitcher showed more repeatability with it this past summer. Underwood has a fastball he can run up to 97, along with a plus curve and change.

 

ESPN’s Schoenfield ranks Cubs preseason No. 13

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

With the official beginning of Spring Training just days away, ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield has been unveiling his preseason MLB team rankings. On Wednesday, he named the Cubs No. 13 on his list, predicting the club would finish with an 84-78 record.

I‘m just the messenger: Just pointing out that [Jon] Lester had a 4.82 ERA in 2012 and 3.75 in 2013. Yes, big 2014, new league, no DH and more cutters instead of four-seamers and he could be even better. But you never know. He may not be as good as he was last year. And then there’s Jake Arrieta, former faded prospect turned rotation anchor. He looks like the real deal but … again … you never know. Hey, I’m trying. I like the Cubs! I have them ranked 13th!

The final word: If I had more guts I’d predict them to win the division, but they have two strong clubs ahead of them and even the Brewers or Reds are capable of 90 wins. The Cubs are still sorting a few things out and waiting for some of the young guys to mature. Sometimes, teams do break through right away; if [Kris] Bryant and Jorge Soler are 3-4 win players as rookies and Lester and Arrieta throw 400-plus innings of great baseball, the Cubs could be the big surprise of 2015.

Schoenfield said he expects second baseman Javier Baez and infielder/outfielder Arismendy Alcantara to have better seasons than they had in 2014, and he likes the potential Anthony Rizzo/Kris Bryant combination in the middle of the order. Though Kyle Hendricks was stellar in his 2014 stint, Schoenfield said he expects the young right-hander to regress slightly.

Even with the Reds and Brewers coming in at Nos. 24 and 22, respectively, the Cardinals and Pirates have not yet been named and are therefore in Schoenfield’s top six for 2015, making the NL Central a tough division on paper.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Minor League Prospectus, Part 1 – The Elite

Almora_ST

Albert Almora is one of the Cubs’ brightest future stars. (Photo by Stephen Green)

As evidenced by the additions of players like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero, the Cubs front office is transitioning from a period in which it focused primarily on bringing in assets to help improve the future of the franchise to an extended period in which they expect to compete every year at the big league level. However, if you were to suggest to baseball president Theo Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer that this transition means they are now less inclined to build through their farm system, they would be quick to correct you.

Just because Cubs fans may finally start seeing wins accumulate at Wrigley Field doesn’t mean the minor league pipeline is suddenly going to go overlooked. In fact, for the second year in a row, the North Siders will have arguably the best system in all of baseball. Boasting the top prospect in the game, an overabundance of high-profile shortstops and a suddenly large group of interesting arms at the lower levels, the Cubs have built the scouting and player development monster they promised to deliver more than three years ago.

In our annual minor league prospectus, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma helps us break down the names to know at all levels of the system. As the month progresses, we’ll unveil player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 1 of the Cubs minor league prospectus:

The Elite
The truly elite portion of the Cubs system took a hit last year—the good kind—when Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler graduated to the big league club. However, the front office, always with an eye toward long-term success, added two huge names to the fold in Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, both of whom are generating tremendous buzz. The Cubs will enter this season with arguably the best system in baseball, and while there is plenty of depth, it’s these top-tier names who really make this an impressive bunch.

Albert Almora – CF
While some are down on Almora after a largely disappointing season at the plate, don’t forget he’s still considered an elite-level defender in center field, which brings tremendous value, and that he’s always been very young for his level. This past season was the first time he has ever struggled at any aspect of the game, professional or otherwise, in his life.

The 20-year-old has such tremendous hand-eye coordination that he can put pretty much any pitch into play. When he initially struggled at High-A, the Cubs challenged him to be more selective at the plate and to put more emphasis on driving the ball rather than just making contact. He quickly adjusted, and the Cubs rewarded him with a promotion to Tennessee, where he ended the season with a subpar .605 OPS in 36 games.

But that shouldn’t slow the confident Almora, who competed in a Double-A league with players nearly a half-decade older than him on average. Selected with the sixth-overall pick in the 2012 draft, the outfielder is also known for his strong mental makeup, so few people doubt he’ll be able to overcome his challenges in 2014.

Once again, he’ll need to learn what it means to really control the strike zone and get pitches he can do damage with. But if Almora can make that final leap and become the hitter many believe he has the potential to be, the complete package could be quite special.

Kris Bryant – 3B
From a purely statistical standpoint, Bryant’s 2014 season was one of the most impressive minor league performances in recent memory. And it wasn’t solely numbers driven. Scouts loved what they saw from him with the bat, and it’s understandable why many believe the power-hitting righty is the best prospect in the game. Bryant’s power stroke was on full display last summer, when he delivered 43 home runs and 34 doubles across two minor league levels on his way to winning nearly every minor league award he was eligible for.

There are two key questions about Bryant’s game: strikeouts and defense. While swing and miss will likely always be a part of his game—as it is for most home run hitters—insiders don’t believe he has the kind of serious contact issues that could derail him on his journey to stardom. As Bryant continues to develop and learn about himself as a hitter, it’s easy to see him fixing the minor holes he has at the plate because of his extreme work ethic and his ability to self-scout and analyze game video.

The 23-year-old is a cerebral player who is constantly working to improve, which is why the Cubs believe he can at least begin his major league career at third base. He’s worked hard to avoid a move to the outfield, and he made major strides with the glove last summer. He certainly has the arm to stick at third—or play in right if an outfield move eventually becomes necessary. At 6-foot-5, Bryant is tall and rangy, making it difficult at times for him to get small and stay in front of the ball. Though his actions are longer than those of a more compact player, he has diligently worked with his minor league instructors to stay mobile and agile at the hot corner.

Addison Russell – SS
Russell joined the Cubs organization on July 4 in a huge trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and the recently returned Jason Hammel to Oakland. The highly regarded shortstop got off to a slow start in 2014 due to a hamstring issue, but after joining the Cubs, he immediately displayed why he’s widely considered one of the 10 best prospects in baseball.

Russell definitely understands his game. At times, he can get a little too rotational at the plate, but when he stays through the ball, he can drive it to both gaps, and he backspins it as well as anyone. Thanks to his strong hands, everything really jumps off his bat, and many project he’ll display quite a bit more power as he continues to learn pitch selection and figures out which balls he can leverage. But expect more line drives from Russell, not the kind of towering shots we’ll see from Bryant.

Some wonder if it’s in the cards for the 21-year-old to stick at shortstop long term, but he is a tremendous athlete. He’s explosive and possesses impressive quick-twitch, first-step movements. When he gets to a ball, he makes the play, but he doesn’t have the ideal body. It’s more of a football look—boxier and stronger than the traditional shortstop, who’s normally graceful and a little more fluid. Still, when you watch him over time, he does everything the smoother-looking shortstops can do (and often more), due to his body control and arm strength.

Kyle Schwarber – C/OF
Many felt the Cubs were reaching when they selected Schwarber with the fourth-overall pick in last summer’s amateur draft, but the team was adamant he was second on their board—behind first-overall pick Brady Aiken—and that they were getting a special talent. Schwarber did nothing to dispel the Cubs’ belief in him, tearing through three levels thanks to his impressive bat. The linebacker-like lefty really understands what he’s doing at the plate. He has the ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field and can send a double to the left-center gap as easily as he can pull a long, towering home run. The Indiana University product possesses a special combination of bat speed, plate discipline and pitch recognition, and displays a short, compact stroke with leverage.

The Cubs took Schwarber under the assumption he’d end up in left field, but the improvements he made defensively in such a short timespan were impressive enough for the organization to shift philosophies in his development plan. They’re now allowing him to give catching a real try. Most college players prefer to shift out of catching so they can get on the fast track to the big leagues. Schwarber realizes that being behind the plate will slow his timetable, but it’s what he wants to do. That desire is what many believe is a separator for him.

Schwarber has worked hard with catching instructor Tim Cossins to improve his transfer and set-up, and the results have been eye-opening. College pitching coaches generally call every aspect of the game, so while Schwarber possesses all the smarts and intangibles organizations love behind the plate, he has a ways to go before becoming the de facto field general at the major league level.

—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus

Baseball Prospectus includes seven Cubs prospects in top 101

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Outfielder Billy McKinney makes his Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects debut. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

At this point, the baseball community is well aware of the Cubs’ system depth. Almost universally rated the best farm system in baseball, the Cubs continue to flaunt their strengths on every preseason prospect list. So it should come as no surprise that Baseball Prospectus included seven farmhands in its annual 101 Prospects list.

Given the subjectivity of these lists, every top prospect ranking is going to display some opinions that don’t necessarily run parallel with other publications’ rankings. And Baseball Prospectus is no different, even after we remember Baseball Propsectus named Addison Russell as the organization’s top prospect in November. Regardless, the Cubs still see two farmhands in the top five, three in the top 20 and a pair of players making their Baseball Prospectus Top 101 debuts. At 7 p.m. Monday, members of the Baseball Prospectus staff will be hosting a live chat to talk about the list. Here are the Cubs represented on the rankings:

2. Addison Russell, SS
2014 Ranking: 7

5. Kris Bryant, 3B
2014 Ranking: 17

19. Jorge Soler, OF
2014 Ranking: 45

38. Albert Almora, CF
2014 Ranking: 25

77. Kyle Schwarber, C/OF
2014 Ranking: N/A

81. Billy McKinney, OF
2014 Ranking: N/A

83. Pierce Johnson, RHP
2014 Ranking: 91

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with new hitting coach John Mallee

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Say hello to John Mallee, the Cubs’ new hitting coach. Or, technically speaking, say hello to him again. The Cubs announced the 45-year-old as their new hitting coach on Oct. 9, replacing Bill Mueller, who resigned the post shortly after the season ended. Even though most people don’t know it, this is not Mallee’s first go-round with the club.

“He’s somebody we know well,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “We actually hired him a couple years ago to be our minor league hitting coordinator. We were very disappointed [when] four days later, he joined Bo Porter’s staff to be major league hitting coach for the Astros.

“John’s got a great reputation. He’s done this job before and done it well with a lot of young hitters and got results. He’s a knowledgeable, energetic, passionate, true worker. Hopefully he’ll fit in well with the rest of the staff and create some stability for us with the hitting-coach position. We’re aware of the turnover. Our hitting coach position is like the Spinal Tap drumming situation. We hope that John will solve that for us.”

Mallee is a native of Chicago’s South Side, where he grew up in a family of die-hard Cubs fans. In 2015, he will begin his fifth season as a major league hitting coach. Before working with Astros hitters (including reigning American League batting champion Jose Altuve) from 2013-14, Mallee was the big league swing coach for the Marlins from 2010-11.

Overall, he has 19 seasons of professional coaching experience under his belt. Prior to that, he spent two years as an infielder in the Phillies’ system from 1991-92.

Mallee sat down for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session in early November, at which he exhibited all of the knowledge, energy and passion Epstein talked about and demonstrated why he might have been born to do this job.

Vine Line: This isn’t your first time talking to the Cubs about an open position. How did it come about that you were hired by the Cubs before taking the Houston job?

John Mallee: A couple of years ago, I was a senior adviser to player development for Toronto. I said, ‘You know what? I need to get back on the field.’ I learned a ton from Toronto. They were amazing. The front office was great. But at the time, I said, ‘I’m a hitting coach. I need to get back on the field.’ So I was going to go back to the minor leagues and start over as a hitting coach. I was going to try to be a hitting coordinator in the minor leagues. I interviewed with the Yankees—I ended up getting a hitting coordinator position with the Yankees—but I didn’t accept the job yet. A couple of days later, I flew to Arizona and spent a couple of days with Theo and [Cubs Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development] Jason McLeod and those guys. They were awesome. I ended up taking a Cubs hitting coordinator position.

Two days later, I flew to Houston and interviewed for the major league hitting coach position with the Astros. Two days from there, I flew to Cleveland and interviewed for the Cleveland Indians hitting coach position. I got offered both positions, Cleveland and Houston, and I ended up choosing Houston.

VL: As a lifelong Cubs fan, how thrilling is it for you to finally be working for the team?

JM: It’s a dream come true for me. I grew up on the South Side, but I was always a Cubs fan. My dad is a big Cubs fan. It wasn’t even an option in the house growing up. You had no choice but to be a Cubs fan. Getting to know Wrigley Field and listening to Harry Caray and coming home from school and trying to catch the end of the game when I was a kid and watching my dad be excited so much for the Cubs when they’d win and so sad when they lost, I’ve been in that emotion the whole way.

It was funny. I was with the Marlins [organization] when we won the World Series in 2003, and I was in the stands watching the games. I had Miguel Cabrera in the minor leagues and Dontrelle Willis and those guys. I ended up coaching Miguel. But I felt bad when the Marlins won and the Cubs lost. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I’m like, ‘I’m with the Marlins.’ I was happy that the Marlins won, of course, but I had a sick feeling in my stomach that the Cubs had lost. Ever since then, I’ve always felt that way when they lose. To have an opportunity to come home and be the hitting coach of the Chicago Cubs is a dream come true.

VL: How did hitting a baseball become your calling in life?

JM: I played high school baseball at Mount Carmel in Chicago and then went to the University of Illinois-Chicago. [I] got drafted in the 12th round with the Phillies. I was always a really, really good hitter. I got to the minor leagues, and I didn’t hit. I didn’t know why I couldn’t hit anymore. After I got done playing, because I didn’t perform offensively as a player, I was on this quest to figure out why I didn’t make it, because I always thought I was better than everybody growing up. I could always hit better than everybody. When you get inside the world of professional baseball, everybody was always better than everybody.

When you’re young, you try to separate yourself. When you get into professional baseball, you try to separate yourself from the separated, and I couldn’t do that. I wanted to know why, so I started really studying hitting. I started giving private lessons at a baseball school in 1992. I’ve just been a student of it ever since. It’s been a quest of mine. I started with myself, not knowing why I didn’t perform. I wanted to know, mechanically, what I was doing wrong. It was actually mental more than mechanical.

I started giving private lessons, and I got infatuated with the swing, giving all these lessons and speaking around the country at conventions. I just started studying it more and more.

VL: Do you have an overriding hitting philosophy, or do you tailor instruction to each individual player?

JM: I tailor it to each individual guy. There are certain key components to the swing that have to happen to everybody’s swing—all the best hitters too. But, ‘Put your hands here, or put your bat this way, or do this or do that,’ it’s not like that. I believe in biokinetics. There are some biomechanics that all hitters should do if they want to be successful. But I try to let the hitter have his own style unless it directly affects one of those absolutes you need to have. You’ll see some of my guys with leg kicks, some guys with toe taps, high hands, low hands. As long as you get into the strongest hitting position and your swing works in sequence, you’re good.

VL: There are a lot of young, talented players on this team. How well do you know the Cubs’ hitters?

JM: I have all of their film with me. I also have all of their analytical information so I know their sweet spots, their hot zones, their cold zones. I know who will get them out and how they get them out. It’s learning the blueprint of the player. At the end of the day, if the player trusts me and knows how prepared I am for them and knows that I’m going to have dialogue with them every day, that’s going to be the biggest challenge.

I’ve talked to a few of them on the phone already. Luckily, I’m going to have some help because the minor league hitting coordinator is Anthony Iapoce, and Anthony has been with me forever. I coached Anthony as a player and tried to take him everywhere I went as a coach.

It was interesting because when I left the Marlins, I went to Toronto, and then we brought him over to Toronto as the hitting coordinator. When I turned down the Cubs job to take the major league job with the Astros, they asked me if I knew anybody who runs [my] philosophy. Anthony was the guy. He’s now in the minor league system, and he knows a lot of these players, and he knows I’m going to talk to him constantly about it.

VL: Are there challenges to managing so many young hitters?

JM: This game is about making adjustments. The guys who can adjust are the guys who have success. First of all, we have to figure out where the adjustments need to be made. Where did it go wrong, why did it go wrong, and how are we going to fix it? They have to be fearless enough to take a step back to take the two steps forward.

Everybody gets into a comfort zone, and they want to go back to what they normally did because they had success with it. But what I’ve learned now is that it’s a different game up here. The guys who got away with a lot of stuff in the minor leagues, they’re facing so much different pitching, with the pitchers here who have the command and the control and can exploit weaknesses.

VL: Is it fair to say your job involves nurturing both the mechanical and the psychological aspects of hitting?

JM: Absolutely. Anything where you have such a high failure rate, it’s psychological. There are a lot of mechanical things with older players. When I had [former Marlins infielder] Hanley [Ramirez] and other guys, they had already been successful. I like to know when they’re going good, what makes them go good. So when they get out of whack and the adrenaline’s going and they need a quick ‘Hey, do this, do that,’ I can bring them right back. It’s paying attention to those guys and trying to develop the younger guys.

Experience, No. 1, is going to help—hopefully my experience with helping young players and young hitters have a lot of success. The adjustments that Altuve made this year in becoming a batting champion [happened] because the kid didn’t have the fear to make adjustments. He could have been content with [being] a .280 [hitter] the year before. We met in Spring Training, had a meeting on Day 1, and I said, ‘OK, this is what I got. This is what you need to improve. You want to keep doing what you’re doing, and you’re going to be a really good player.’

He said, ‘I want to be the best player.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ He didn’t have the fear of taking two steps back to make this one step forward. That’s one of the reasons he ended up becoming the batting champion.

VL: Theo and Jed [Hoyer] have talked a lot about the Cubs’ need to get better with on-base percentage and making consistent contact. How important are those things in taking the next step and being a good offensive team?

JM: Ultimately, that’s what’s going to make or break us, our ability to put the ball in play, especially with runners in scoring position, and being able to increase our scoring opportunities, being able to manufacture runs—runs created by a walk, baserunning, dirt-ball reads, being able to go base to base.

Getting guys to be more selective at the plate, a lot of that is innate. A lot of that is instinctive. A lot of them had that when they came in. If they don’t have it, it’s hard to develop. But with a proper approach and a proper plan, it’s easier to eliminate pitches. It’s easier to eliminate zones.

You talk about how do you get guys to walk more and not just make them take pitches? That’s a very tough situation. A guy like Javy Baez you can tell, ‘Hey, you got to get your walks up.’ But you don’t want him to take the ball that he can put in the seats. What you do, though, is identify—and he’ll identify—what his strengths and weaknesses are within the strike zone.

So if he handles the ball down or in or up or away or wherever he likes the ball the best, and that first pitch is there, he needs to swing. But if it’s not there and it’s still in the strike zone, you can’t have the fear that [the umpire] is going to call that a strike and ‘Now I’m down 0-1, and I took a fastball.’ If he doesn’t handle the fastball in, he’s not going to do anything with it anyway. He’s going to make an out or foul it off, so it’s still nonproductive.

Getting them to attack a pitch within their strength early in the count, but being patient enough to wait for it, that’s the trick of the whole thing, of selective aggressive hitting.

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

Cubs announce 2015 spring broadcast schedule

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Cubs released their 2015 Spring Training broadcast schedule late Wednesday and announced that almost every game will be available via television, radio or internet radio broadcast.

The schedule features 10 games televised by Cubs broadcast partners (seven by Comcast SportsNet Chicago, three by WGN-TV), eight on the WBBM Newsradio 780 Cubs Radio Network and 21 via internet radio broadcast on cubs.com. Fans will be able to access the Cubs webcasts on cubs.com and MLB.com for free by registering for a log-in account with the website.

WBBM-AM Newsradio 780, the club’s new radio rights-holder, will air its first game on Saturday, March 7, when the Cubs play at the Rockies with Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer on the call. Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s first game will come from Las Vegas on Friday, March 13, when the Cubs play the Athletics. WGN-TV has its first game on Sunday, March 15, when the Cubs host the Cincinnati Reds at Sloan Park. Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies return to call all Cubs TV games.

Kasper will again join Mick Gillispie, radio broadcaster for Chicago’s Double-A Tennessee affiliate, for most of the cubs.com internet radio broadcasts.

All games start at 1:05 p.m. Arizona time unless otherwise noted. Chicago is one hour ahead of Arizona through Saturday, March 7, before moving to two hours ahead on Sunday, March 8.

Day    Opponent, Location, Broadcast Availability
3/5     Athletics (SS), Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/5     Giants (SS), Scottsdale, —-
3/6     Reds, Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/7     Rockies, Scottsdale (1:10), WBBM 780
3/8     Rangers, Sloan Park, WBBM 780
3/9     Padres, Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/10   Indians, Goodyear, Cubs.com
3/11    Dodgers, Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/12    Angels, Tempe (1:10), Cubs.com
3/13    Indians (SS), Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/13    Athletics (SS), Las Vegas (5:05 PT), CSN-TV
3/14    Brewers (SS), Maryvale, WBBM 780
3/14    Athletics (SS), Las Vegas (12:05 PT), —-
3/15    Reds, Sloan Park, WGN-TV, WBBM 780
3/16    Padres, Peoria, Cubs.com
3/17    Royals, Sloan Park, Cubs.com
3/18    Dodgers, Glendale, Cubs.com
3/19    Diamondbacks, Scottsdale (6:40), CSN-TV, Cubs.com
3/20    White Sox, Glendale, Cubs.com
3/21    Mariners, Sloan Park, WBBM 780
3/22    Padres, Sloan Park, CSN-TV, WBBM 780
3/23    OFF
3/24    Athletics, Mesa, Cubs.com
3/25    Mariners, Peoria (7:05), CSN-TV, Cubs.com
3/26    Angels, Sloan Park (4:05), ESPN TV, Cubs.com
3/27    White Sox, Sloan Park, CSN-TV, Cubs.com
3/28    Rockies (SS), Sloan Park, WBBM 780
3/28    Reds (SS), Goodyear, —-
3/29    Royals, Surprise, WGN-TV, WBBM 780
3/30    Giants, Sloan Park, CSN-TV, Cubs.com
3/31    Rangers, Surprise, Cubs.com
4/1      Brewers, Sloan Park, CSN-TV, Cubs.com
4/2     OFF
4/3     Diamondbacks, Chase Field (6:40 p.m.), Cubs.com
4/4     Diamondbacks, Chase Field (1:10 p.m.), WGN-TV, Cubs.com

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