Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs used to call Catalina Island their spring home

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The following article appears in the March issue of Vine Line. (Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Fly balls, sure. But the flying fish were a new one for Lennie Merullo, a born and bred Bostonian.

“It was unbelievable!” said the 97-year-old, the oldest living Chicago Cub and the last link to the team’s most recent World Series appearance in 1945.

The year was 1942, and the then-25-year-old shortstop watched the airborne sea creatures take flight and glide over the surface of the San Pedro Channel from the deck of a ferry. The boat was shuttling him and his Cubs teammates from Los Angeles to their rugged, idyllic post on Santa Catalina Island, where the team held Spring Training from 1922-42, and for a handful of years after that.

“That 26 miles felt like 2,600 miles,” Merullo said in a phone conversation from his Massachusetts home. “It took quite a while.”

The ferry could pitch and yaw over the chop, sending some landlubbing Cubs to the rails, while others shot pool, bowled or played cards below deck. For many, such as Merullo, it was the final leg of a journey that was thousands of miles long, and the payoff was six weeks of baseball in paradise.

“When you spotted the island from the boat, tears would come to your eyes,” Merullo recalled. “You’d think, ‘I finally made it!’ You wouldn’t believe what a beautiful island it was.”

The Cubs got to Catalina courtesy of their exceedingly wealthy and prescient owner, William Wrigley Jr., who purchased the island in 1919 as an investment and soon after, with cross-promotion in mind, decided to give his beloved team some sea legs out on the West Coast.

“He had lots of property,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “Early on, he understood the importance of real estate as an investment.”

Wrigley, a chewing gum magnate and the principal owner of the Cubs from 1918 until his death in 1932, purchased the wild isle somewhat on a whim. The previous owners fell into debt following a fire in Catalina’s main village of Avalon. Wrigley and his wife, Ada, visited and were immediately smitten with the place. They snagged it for $3 million, according to Hartig. That would be about $41 million today.

“He was like Walt Disney before Disney,” said Jim Vitti, author of two books about the Cubs’ 20-plus years on Catalina. “Wrigley was a genius.”

A genius, and perhaps a clairvoyant.

“When Wrigley bought the island, it was a tourist destination, but on a much smaller scale,” said Gail Fornasiere, director of marketing for the Catalina Island Museum. “There’s a quote of his where he said he wanted it to be a playground for the rich and poor. He wanted it to be for everybody.”

Wrigley poured millions of dollars into making the 75-square-mile island into a world-class tourist attraction and a hub for local jobs. He spearheaded efforts to build new roads, dig wells and erect a power plant. The classy St. Catherine Hotel sprung up in Avalon, and it was soon surrounded by hundreds of new bungalows, an Art Deco casino, a golf course and a dance club that lured the biggest names from nearby Hollywood, including Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Betty Grable and Olivia de Havilland. Wrigley even had an aviary that would grow to include 8,000 exotic birds.

“It’s a magic, amazing place,” Vitti said. “There’s nothing like it on earth.”

The inhabited, coastal parts of the island had a tropical, European quality, while the rugged interior—craggy and mountainous from ancient volcanic eruptions—was untamed. Wild boar and goats roamed the steep sagebrush-lined trails, and they were later flanked by bison, relics of an old movie production.

But Wrigley had more in mind.

In the 1920s, the concept of Spring Training was picking up steam, with teams generally hopping from city to city or barnstorming from a faraway destination toward home. The Cubs followed this model too, making stops in places as diverse as Hot Springs, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Galveston, Texas; Selma, Alabama; New Orleans; Tampa, Florida; and Pasadena, California, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.

In March 1920, while the Cubs were training in Pasadena, Wrigley and manager Fred Mitchell took the team to the island on a glass-bottomed boat, Hartig said. All parties were impressed, and Catalina officially became the Cubs’ spring home starting in 1922 under manager Johnny Evers.

During the frigid last days of winter in the east, Cubs rookies and veterans would say goodbye to their families and their offseason jobs and board a train for Chicago. There, Vitti said, they would usually receive a send-off from fans and the press before climbing onto another train bound for Los Angeles. From LA, they’d set brief, if bumpy, sail for the island, where they would receive a heroes’ welcome.

“The island loved that they came here and embraced them completely,” Fornasiere said.

Prior to the Catalina years, the team would most often retreat to Hot Springs, where the players would soak in steaming tubs to “boil the winter out,” Vitti said. But the Cubs’ decades-long relationship with Catalina set some precedents for other teams and has been unofficially credited with creating Spring Training as we know it today.

“It was a huge tourist draw,” Vitti said. “Wrigley leveraged it so much.”

While most games were played on the mainland, the island proved perfect for spring’s relatively light, four-hour training days. Players worked on the basics—batting practice, long tossing, pepper—as well as goofier drills, such as throwing around medicine balls and playing leapfrog, Hartig said. The team also ran the island hills, usually as punishment.

“We did everything we could to get our arms in shape, to get our legs in shape, for the regular season,” said Merullo, a Cubs infielder from 1941-47. “We always thought we were in good shape—until we got there and started working. You could feel every muscle in your body.”

Marcelino Saucedo, 79, a retired teacher and coach who grew up on Catalina, was a high school ballplayer when the Cubs were wrapping up their island years in the early 1950s. His teams shared the major league-caliber training field with the professional players.

“The [Cubs] were there from 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock, so we got on the field at 2 o’clock,” he said from his home in Surfside, California. “Several ballplayers stayed and helped us. They taught us how to slide and field balls, all the fundamentals.”

Saucedo remembered the jovial air about the place when the team arrived and how players would blend seamlessly into island life, even attending high school games to cheer on their mentees. One such Cub was Chuck Connors, a first baseman who also played in the NBA and eventually starred in TV’s The Rifleman.

“[He] told me he’d give me a quarter for every base hit,” Saucedo said. “I told him, ‘Chuck, you owe me 50 cents!’ He said, ‘I meant line drives, not bloopers.’ He still owes me money!”

Beyond its vacation-like feel, Catalina was a positive setting for the Cubs and hosted some of the franchise’s most successful teams. While training on the island, the club clinched the 1929, ’32, ’35 and ’38 pennants, a stretch of success not since repeated. The organization also won the National League title in 1945, but this coincided with a wartime break from the island.

Cubs personnel lived at the St. Catherine Hotel, or later at the Atwater Hotel in Avalon, while players with families stayed at the bungalows near the field. Merullo, who was joined by family members for a few years, remembered the stunning views from his hotel balcony and the morning commute to practice.

“It was a beautiful walk,” he said. “You’d look forward to it.”

Players fished, hunted, rode horses and hazed rookies.

“And there was a little bit of drinking going on,” Vitti said, chuckling.

Wrigley was known to invite the team to his harborside compound for barbecues. Later, his son and heir, Philip K. Wrigley, hosted rodeos.

Spring Training fell during the tourist offseason, so the team’s presence was appreciated by all. Players had a rapport with the locals, often visiting schools and dining in the homes of some of the island’s 5,000 or so residents.

To promote his little paradise in the Pacific Ocean, Wrigley courted reporters and photographers, whose beats markedly improved for a few weeks while documenting the Cubs’ goings-on for weather-weary Chicagoans. Players and writers rubbed shoulders—usually at the bar or over batting practice—in a way that rarely happens in the modern game.

“He gave a junket to every reporter,” Vitti said. “It exploded tourism on the island.”

World War II interrupted the Cubs’ West Coast training, as travel restrictions grounded the team’s preseason activities to French Lick, Indiana. Catalina became home to military stations and was closed to tourists. The island’s white steamships were painted battleship gray and used to transport troops. Though the Cubs returned after the war, enthusiasm for Catalina had begun to wane.

“Isolation had its plusses and minuses,” Hartig said. “After [they] had been there for a while, you started to hear some complaining.”

The press corps grew weary of the locale, the journey and the lack of decent opponents on the island. Their postwar articles often reflected the ennui.

“The current National League champions are returning to their Catalina Island base for the first time since 1942,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune’s Irving Vaughan in 1946. “But they won’t find it quite as comfortable as in the past.”

There had been rumblings for a decade about packing it up, but William’s heir, Philip K. Wrigley, wanted to stay. By the dawn of the 1950s, the team had decided to move on to dry, dependable, accessible Mesa, Arizona, eventually leading to the formation of the Cactus League.

Rumors swirled in the mid-1960s about a return to Catalina, but it never materialized. In 1975, Philip K. Wrigley deeded more than 42,000 acres—about 90 percent of the island—to his newly established Catalina Island Conservancy, which still operates today. Hartig said the again-robust tourist trade and other private entities now control the remaining portion of the island.

Catalina, which today welcomes up to 1 million visitors per year, still proudly promotes its Cubs connection, with William Wrigley’s stamp on architecture, infrastructure and history proving indelible. While the island’s Wrigley Field has largely been built over, a plaque demarcating the spot remains for baseball
pilgrims who make the trek.

And many still do. Others, however, are just waiting for the right moment.

“I haven’t been back,” Merullo mused. “But I’m looking forward to it.

—Kerry Trotter

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs believe they have the pitching to contend

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

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

Whether because of too much rosé wine or too many pairs of rose-colored glasses, the annual Cubs Convention inevitably yields lofty predictions that rarely come to fruition. In 29 seasons since the advent of the winter fanfest, dreams of postseason play have materialized only five times, with the Cubs participating in the National League Championship Series just twice.

So why, in 2015, would first baseman Anthony Rizzo predict an NL Central title for the Cubs—a franchise that has won only five division championships in 45 years of divisional play and is coming off five consecutive losing seasons? This pitch to the populace was based on pitching, the ultimate measure of a playoff-bound club.

“I got to meet [Cubs Chairman Tom] Ricketts personally when I was hired,” said manager Joe Maddon. “He was totally committed to bidding for Jon Lester. It’s something we worked very hard at, so the credit goes to [President of Baseball Operations] Theo [Epstein] and [Executive Vice President and General Manager] Jed [Hoyer] and the entire front office staff. Getting Jon in the fold was pretty special.”

Last July 4, when the Cubs jettisoned Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland—where they were soon joined by Lester in Athletics GM Billy Beane’s ill-fated playoff push—it was difficult to imagine pitching would be a strong suit just five months later.

But the organization’s outlook changed dramatically when Epstein and company hired Maddon, put up $155 million over six years to land Lester and re-signed Hammel as a free agent. Acquiring All-Star catcher Miguel Montero and center fielder Dexter Fowler, a switch-hitting leadoff man, further fueled the optimism.

Not only did Lester echo the bold statements of Rizzo, the lefty took things to the next level, saying anything less than a World Series championship wouldn’t meet his goals—not this year or any year.

“It’s nice to have that anchor in the rotation,” Maddon said. “Here’s a guy who has pitched at a very high level and in very meaningful games. The rest of the staff, including the young guys, will look in his direction.

“I think Jon will be able to handle all this. That said, my request to Jon was ‘Do what’s comfortable for you.’ You don’t want to put too much in his lap. His primary role is to prepare and be ready to pitch every five days. After that, I told him if he has reserved energy—mental or physical—and wants to pass it along, go ahead. But he must take care of himself first.”

Lester and Hammel, along with emerging star Jake Arrieta, provide the foundation of a dominant rotation. Arrieta was as good as any NL pitcher at home last season, posting a 6-1 record and a 1.46 ERA at Wrigley Field. The 29-year-old right-hander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning or later three times, including in two consecutive starts. Still, he will defer to Lester for the Opening Day assignment in 2015.

“He’s well deserving,” Arrieta said. “He’s a leader and a guy all of us can look to for advice.”

Unlike the 31-year-old Lester, who has averaged 209 innings over eight years as a full-fledged starter, Arrieta has never pitched more than the 156.2 innings he logged last season.

“I don’t look at the innings as anything personally for me,” said Arrieta, who was 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 2014. “I want to be strong, healthy and durable. Those things will be there if I do things the right way in preparation.”

Though Hammel initially struggled after being dealt to Oakland, the righty was 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 17 Cubs starts last season. His excellent strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 4.5-to-1 was a major reason the team brought him back. Exactly where he fits in the rotation may depend on the performance of Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood.

A right-handed finesse pitcher with pinpoint command, Hendricks, 25, was 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts as a rookie. Wood, 27, may have to battle veterans Felix Doubront and Tsuyoshi Wada for the second left-handed starter’s role. After posting a career-low 3.11 ERA and making the NL All-Star team in 2013, Wood saw his ERA jump almost two runs per game last season.

Personal issues, as well as failing to agree on a long-term deal offered in Spring Training, may have played a role.

“Maybe at the beginning of the year, the contract thing got to me,” he said. “At some point, I said, ‘Let it go,’ and just burrowed down and worked myself out of it.”

Other than Lester and Wood, only Edwin Jackson, who is 14-33 in two years with the Cubs, has a 200-inning season under his belt. The 31-year-old is still owed $11 million in both 2015 and 2016, but he may land in the bullpen if he isn’t traded first.

“We have a strange sport where you need all people to pull in the same direction on the same rope,” Lester said. “That’s all we expect to do—mesh as a unit, bond and become brothers. Hopefully that takes us to the prize at the end of the year.”

With Lester and Maddon on board, the Cubs have raised the bar. Now let’s hope fans will finally be able to raise a toast in October.

—By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig

From the Pages of Vine Line: Sloan Park, a place in the sun

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Sloan Park facility has given the Cubs the best Spring Training home in the game, but it’s much more than that. The site is buzzing all year long with everything from player development activities to civic events. The following can be found in the March issue of Vine Line.

It didn’t take long for fans to feel right at home at the Cubs’ new training facility in Mesa, Arizona, on the ballpark’s inaugural Cactus League Opening Day. With the temperature hovering at a perfect 75 degrees on Feb. 27, 2014, under an infinitely sunny Arizona sky, then-Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija let the first pitch fly at 1:10 p.m. When he set the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks down with a pair of strikeouts to end the top of the first inning, all was right with the world.

In a matter of minutes, the record-setting crowd of 14,486 settled into the Cubs’ friendly new spring confines, surrounded by sights, sounds and scents reminiscent of the team’s 100-year-old cathedral back home in Chicago, Wrigley Field. By the time they played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch, you almost expected to see Harry Caray or Ron Santo leaning out of the press box window (it was actually Hall of Fame hurler Fergie Jenkins who did the honors in front of the Cubs dugout).

Even though it was the first real game played at what was previously called Cubs Park—the Cubs signed a naming-rights agreement with new legacy partner Sloan Valve Company in January—the whole place felt comfortably familiar. Like Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

While the Cubs’ Spring Training exploits might garner the most headlines, the Sloan Park facility isn’t in the spotlight for just two months every February and March. The mammoth 145-plus-acre, multipurpose complex at the center of Riverview Park is utilized by the organization and the city of Mesa all year long for Cubs player development, Arizona Fall League games, NCAA baseball tournaments, civic events and more. As the state-of-the-art facility reached its first anniversary, it had already become a thriving hub in the Valley of the Sun and an indispensable part of how the Cubs train and rehabilitate players.

SPRING FLING
Aside from providing a huge facilities upgrade to Cubs players and personnel, one of the primary goals of the new ballpark in Arizona was to create a sort of Wrigleyville west for fans to enjoy.

There are obvious touches that harken back to Wrigley Field, such as the familiar clock atop the scoreboard and the replica marquee on the concourse down the first-base line, where fans can take pictures with their names emblazoned in lights. Concessions include Taste of Chicago booths offering Vienna Beef hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches or individual deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas. There’s also the Eighteen/76 section beyond the left-field wall, where the view is similar to watching a game from one of Wrigleyville’s famous rooftops.

Of course, you can’t actually forget that you’re in Arizona, as the whole place is surrounded by majestic mountain vistas and desert terrain.

Sloan Park has the largest seating capacity of any major league Spring Training ballpark, but the Cubs still managed to sell out 12 of their 15 home games in 2014, shattering previous Cactus League attendance records in the process. They also surpassed the all-time major league Spring Training attendance mark, which includes Florida’s Grapefruit League, drawing 213,815 fans, with a 14,254 per-game average, including an all-time high of 15,276 against the Angels on March 25, 2014.

Given the modern amenities and the crowds, it was no surprise Sloan Park was selected by the Phoenix New Times weekly newspaper as “The Best Place to Watch Spring Training.”

“Spring Training was an overwhelming success from both a player development and a fan experience perspective,” said Justin Piper, Cubs general manager of Spring Training business operations. “We now have the top 12 attended Spring Training games ever. It blew away our expectations. We were very thrilled with how the fans enjoyed the ballpark. We were trying to create a dynamic experience that’s reminiscent of Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs brand with attributes unique to the Cactus League and Spring Training.”

While many of the Cactus League’s 10 Spring Training complexes are shared by two teams, including the other four facilities added since 2003, Sloan Park is completely devoted to the Cubs and their far-flung fan base, with many of the amenities designed to reflect a Chicago feel.

“It was exciting to see how fans responded to our twist on the Wrigley Field marquee, putting it on the concourse and letting fans pose with custom-tailored messages,” Piper said. “That experience was then shared on their Twitter and Facebook pages. As a single-team facility, fans were able to enjoy an authentic Cubs experience. You know it’s a Cubs game when you walk in the gate.”

YEAR ROUND
On just about any given day, you can find members of the Cubs organization, from the low-minor league level to the big leagues, participating in official games, working on strength and conditioning, rehabilitating injuries, or simply practicing and refining their skills at the facility. And most, if not all, of these activities are open to the public.

Cubs Director of Player Development Jaron Madison, who spends a great deal of time at Sloan Park throughout the baseball season and in the offseason, said the new space has given the organization a central headquarters for the team’s player development program.

“It’s first class all the way,” said Madison, who previously worked in the scouting departments of the Padres, Cardinals and Pirates. “It’s the best Spring Training complex in all of baseball, and it really gives us the opportunity to provide our players with the resources and the tools to continue to develop. We do a lot of work with the mental side of the game. There’s a theater in there that we use for media presentations and movies and all types of things.

“Everything is centrally located. Whether we put the major league guys on one side and the minor league guys on the other, there’s a lot of synergy between the two sides of the complex, and it makes it easier when you have to run guys over to the big league games or vice versa. It just makes everything more convenient, and it flows well.”

For the past three and a half decades, the Cubs’ major and minor league Spring Training facilities were divided between Hohokam Park and the Fitch Park training facility in Mesa, which are located about a mile and a half apart. Though the distance wasn’t great, having two separate facilities created challenges for the player development team.

“Trying to do things with the major league and minor league sides, shuttling guys back and forth, and just the disconnect made it difficult a lot of times when we needed guys to run up to the big league games or get at-bats for the big leaguers in the minor league games,” Madison said. “It definitely posed a challenge for us, but fortunately now with everything being right there in one place, it’s amazing.”

Sloan Park provides all the amenities the organization needs in one location, with six practice fields, one infield practice diamond, 12 indoor batting cages, a two-story weight room and gym, four whirlpools and a hydrotherapy pool. Madison said the Sloan Park complex is in motion from January through December.

“In January, we conduct strength-and-conditioning camp for our minor leaguers, so we have about 40 players and staff out there working specifically on nutrition and strength training. But they’ll also do some on-field work. That runs through the end of the month, and big league Spring Training will open up shortly after that in the middle of February. We’ll have some board meetings out there that will run right into the big league reporting dates for pitchers and catchers. Minor league guys will show up first week of March and stay there until they break up for the minor league season, which will be the first week of April. Then we have extended Spring Training that runs all the way through the middle of June when the [rookie] Arizona League starts and runs through September. We give our guys about three weeks off, and then we have a group of about 75 select players that come in for our instructional camp, and those guys spend three weeks going through some intensive training, fundamental work, and a lot of mental work and presentations from our mental skills director.”

Sloan Park is also home to the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League, which kicks off just after the major league regular season ends in early October and runs through mid-November. The six-team league is comprised of top prospects from all 30 major league squads, with five different big league clubs represented on each team. Frequently, players chosen for the AFL find themselves on big league rosters within one year, so it’s a great place to see up-and-coming players before they hit the big time.

Although AFL games are not nearly as well-attended as Cactus League games—even in this high-powered league, the focus is generally on scouting and player development—Piper said the games were still a big hit for those who came.

“It’s a continuation of the player development programs at the facility,” Piper said. “And our guys get to be in their home facility while showcasing the facility to the other teams’ players.”

After the AFL slate ends, the Cubs hold another strength-and-conditioning camp during the first three weeks of November, and players on rehab assignments continue to use the facility through the middle of December.

“[The park] really only shuts down for the Christmas holiday through the New Year,” Madison said. “Right after the New Year, we start back up with that strength-and-conditioning camp again, so it’s an all-year operation. We’re really happy with the ability to be open and to be a resource for our guys.”

CORE STRENGTH
During its first year, the Sloan Park facility was an integral part of getting players to the next level, whether they were rehabbing from injuries, working on their skills or both. Outfielder Jorge Soler, the Cubs’ fourth-ranked prospect according to MLB.com, is a perfect example. Though he signed to great fanfare in 2012, Soler’s stock was slipping by the start of 2014 due to a rash of lower-body injuries that were keeping him off the field. After suffering another leg injury in his first game of the year at Double-A Tennessee, he returned to Mesa for a rehab assignment and spent about a month there.

“Our strength-and-conditioning guys came up with a program for him not only to rehab and get healthy, but also to change the mechanics of the way he runs to help him avoid some of those nagging injuries he’s had over the past couple of years,” Madison said. “Having that facility and all the space we needed from the strength and conditioning to the development standpoint and the biomechanical standpoint really allowed him to excel and hit the ground running as soon as he got back to Tennessee, Iowa and the big leagues.”

And once Soler was back on the field, the path from Double-A to Wrigley Field was a short one. The Cuban expat hit .292 with five home runs, 20 RBI and a .903 OPS after being called up to the Cubs on Aug. 27, kicking it all off with a monstrous, 400-foot home run to dead center field in his first big league at-bat off then-Reds starter Mat Latos.

Many of the team’s top prospects begin and end their baseball seasons at Sloan Park, some of them making frequent return visits. Athletic outfielder Jacob Hannemann, a two-sport star at BYU before signing with the Cubs in the third round of the 2013 draft, was part of a mini-camp at Sloan Park during the last two weeks of February 2014 and remained there all the way through Spring Training. When camp broke, he went to Kane County and was quickly promoted to Daytona. After the Florida State League playoffs, he came right back to Sloan Park for the instructional league and stayed there through the Arizona Fall League.

“He spent quite a bit of time [in Mesa],” Madison said. “A lot of our guys spent quite a bit of time, but it’s a place they don’t mind being because of all the facilities. The weight room is amazing. We have a Gatorade smoothie station that’s like a smaller version of a Jamba Juice in there. It’s a pretty good place to be.”

Though the Cubs organization keeps Sloan Park buzzing almost every day of the year, the facility is used for some non-Cubs activities as well. The park hosted everything from the NCAA’s Western Athletic Conference baseball championship, to a local, Chicago-style 16-inch softball tournament in which corporations played on the practice fields and held their championship game on the stadium field.

Sloan Park will also host the Walk to Cure Diabetes celebrating Ron Santo later this year, and the Great Arizona Beer Festival is scheduled to take place at the complex on April 18.

“We had some private rentals as well for festival-type events,” Piper said. “I think we’ll see more of that in the next year now that we’ve had a year to understand the facility.”

No matter what extracurricular activities the facility hosts, at its heart, Sloan Park bleeds Cubbie Blue. With its first year in the books, it definitely feels like home and has already made itself an integral part of how the Cubs do business, both on and off the field.

—By Charlie Vascellaro

From the Pages of Vine Line: Minor League Prospectus, Part 6 – Impressive Arms

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Jen-Ho Tseng is one of the many impressive arms in the Cubs system. (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. All month long, we’ve unveiled player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 6, the final portion of the Cubs minor league prospectus:

Part 1 – The Elite
Part 2 – The Up-And-Comers
Part 3 – A Phone Call Away
Part 4 – Ready to Rebound
Part 5 – Keep an Eye on

Impressive Arms
The Cubs system is known far and wide for its abundance of young bats—and rightfully so. But that doesn’t mean the organization is devoid of pitching talent. The front office has avoided arms in the first round of the draft lately, but has grabbed them in bulk in the subsequent rounds. They have also been aggressive in targeting pitchers on the international free-agent market and via trades.

Corey Black – RHP
Black’s 5-foot-11 frame has led many to believe he’s best suited as a reliever, but he also has a power arm and three legit pitches. For now, the Cubs are keeping him as a starter because of that three-pitch arsenal and the fact that he continues to work hard on building up his strength, which could allow him to assume the innings demand that comes with being part of a big league rotation. If he can’t stick as a starter, many believe the right-hander could easily transition into a high-leverage, late-inning reliever.

Paul Blackburn – RHP
Blackburn is another player frequently compared to Hendricks due to his advanced pitchability and his excellent command to all zones. The biggest question about Blackburn’s future is whether his fastball can play up as he continues to fill out his body. Currently, his velocity fluctuates. Sometimes it sits between 88-90, and other times it moves up to 93-94. Consistency in his pitch velocity will be improved through conditioning and by adding more weight to his frame so he can stay strong throughout the season. With his solid curveball and change-up, Blackburn currently has the look of a back-end starter, but if he does improve his fastball velocity, a mid-rotation grade is possible.

Juan Paniagua – RHP
Paniagua flashes three plus pitches and displays the type of dominant stuff that has some dreaming he could become an impressive starter. However, his command comes and goes, often due to problems with repeating his delivery. He also struggles with the finer points of attacking hitters over six or seven innings, which likely pushes him into a bullpen profile. With such an impressive repertoire, Paniagua could excel in a relief role where command is less of an issue over shorter bursts.

Jen-Ho Tseng – RHP
Tseng has an advanced feel for command, as evidenced by his 3.8 percent walk rate in his first professional season, and the stuff to be a solid mid-rotation starter in The Show. The Cubs’ 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year made a lot of adjustments over the course of the season, and when he’s going strong, he attacks the zone with a solid three-pitch mix. Though Tseng impressed this year, many feel he doesn’t have much projectability, making the floor high, but the ceiling relatively low. He did state that his offseason goal was to put on more weight, which could add a little zip to his fastball. At the very least, more lean muscle mass should allow the Taiwanese arm to go deeper into games on a consistent basis.

Daury Torrez – RHP
Torrez placed himself on the prospect radar after impressing this past summer at Kane County. He has a big, strong body, gets downhill while pitching, shows three plus offerings and goes deep into games. Unlike Tseng and Blackburn, who are command-first guys, Torrez has the tools. If his command comes around, he should be able to stick in a starting role. If it doesn’t, he’ll likely move into the bullpen where his stuff could play up as he becomes a two-pitch set-up guy.

 

From the Pages of Vine Line: Our February Q&A with pitching coach Chris Bosio

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Now entering his fourth season with the Cubs, Chris Bosio has earned a reputation as one of the emerging pitching coaches in the game. His success stories include everyone from Jason Hammel and Scott Feldman to Jake Arrieta and Hector Rondon. And this season, he should boast one of the best staffs in the NL. The following feature is from the February issue of Vine Line.

Don’t let the Cubs’ record in each of the last three seasons fool you. While the team has struggled, the pitching has remained comparatively strong. Despite massive turnover and an influx of unproven arms, the staff has continued to surprise. Much of the credit for that steadiness amidst turmoil goes to emerging pitching coach Chris Bosio.

The 51-year-old former major leaguer came to the organization prior to the 2012 season, the first under the new baseball operations department headed by president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer.

From 2012-14, the Cubs traded established pitchers like Paul Maholm, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, Jeff Samardzija, James Russell and Jason Hammel. In their place stepped everyone from Jason Berken and Justin Germano to Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks.

Talk about having to adjust on the fly. But Bosio has done it masterfully and managed to keep the staff running in a positive and consistent direction under three different managers. Now that the Cubs appear to be at the end of their “acquire-and-flip” phase when it comes to pitchers, he is ready to lead the organization’s arms into their next stage of development.

At any point in the season, a pitching coach has to keep tabs on between 11-13 pitchers, factoring in the rotation and the bullpen, but many more arms than that filter through the club during the course of six months thanks to injuries, ineffectiveness and trades. The Cubs trotted out 30 pitchers in 2013. Couple that with all the personnel a team uses in Spring Training, and that’s a lot of players for any single person to process, making the roles of associates such as bullpen coach Lester Strode and catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello all the more vital.

Bosio, known simply as “Bos” around Wrigley Field, brings a great deal of clubhouse credibility to the Cubs. The right-hander carved out an impressive career as a major league pitcher, going 94-93 with a 3.96 ERA over 11 seasons, seven with the Brewers and four with the Mariners, for whom he threw a no-hitter in 1993.

“I work great with Bos. He and I are kind of two of the same—very intense competitors,” said Hammel, who rejoined the Cubs on a two-year deal in December after spending the second half of last season with the Athletics. “I think he’s a little grumpy sometimes, but it is what it is. I kind of speak for everybody here. We’re tired of the old Cubs. This is the new Cubs. We want to change the feel.

“Coming back here, Bos called me back too. He made his pitch: ‘Hey, I want you back. I work great with you.’ He was very good with his words to help me make adjustments, very simple stuff. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Always approachable when media members need the latest update on one of his protégés, Bosio took some time out for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with Vine Line just days after the Cubs re-obtained Hammel and signed Jon Lester to a six-year deal to be the ace of the staff.

Lester will lead a competitive rotation that, at midwinter, also included Jake Arrieta, Hammel, Hendricks and potentially Travis Wood in the five spot.

Vine Line: Did you feel like Christmas came early with the signing of Lester?

Chris Bosio: I think we all do. We’re adding not only a quality player, but we’re also adding a quality person. Everything I’ve heard about Jon—his upbringing, the things that he’s gone through (e.g., beating cancer) in his life—he’s a guy who has overcome a lot, and he’s a guy who has achieved a lot.

At the same time, he’s a guy who is hungry to achieve more. I think that’s what made Jon Lester so attractive for us, honestly.

VL: In addition to Lester being a great pitcher and giving you added depth, is there a residual effect on the rotation in that guys can now be slotted into more comfortable roles?

CB: No doubt. Any time you can add a guy, a 200-inning guy, it’s going to help everybody—not just on the pitching staff, but also on the 40-man roster. You have a guy who’s going to be out there longer, that third time through the batting order, in the sixth or seventh inning.

Jon Lester is going to be out there in those situations. We just haven’t had that. We haven’t had that No. 1 big gun in the past. We all knew how well Jeff Samardzija threw the ball, and his All-Star selection, and Jason Hammel. But for me, you can never have enough of these guys.

VL: Travis Wood struggled for much of 2014. What’s the key to getting him back on the track that made him an All-Star just two years ago?

CB: You know what? If you really jumped into the numbers, the No. 1 thing that pops out is the walks (Wood had a career high 76 bases on balls in 2014). Travis will be the first one to say that his command was not there. The big inning killed him. You reflect back on what caused the big innings, and it was the walks. In the year he was an All-Star, he had his fastball command. Being in that position of a starting pitcher, it comes and goes.

And Travis, not having an exceptional secondary pitch to bail him out, relied a lot on his fastball, his cut fastball. When the fastball command is not there, you’re really rolling the dice. That’s the kind of year he had. But I’m expecting him to bounce back. He’s durable. He’s a fighter. He’s everything that we are as the Chicago Cubs. I’m expecting him to come back with a vengeance like he did two years ago.

VL: The team has between 11-13 pitchers at any given time during the season, but more guys than that pass through, either from the minor leagues or via trades. How important is it to have Lester Strode and Mike Borzello to help you keep track of everything and everybody?

CB: We have a system that we work with in the spring. Everybody has a role, including our minor league coaches. We all trust it. We’ve had great success coming out of Spring Training with it. It’s even more so with fresh eyes on it. It’s always good to get fresh eyes and that fresh input.

The biggest thing is staying positive with guys, but at the same time being honest with guys. We’ve got a really good, open line of communication with our pitchers. We’re going to work on the things that we need to work on, and the things that we’re good at, we’re going to get better at. Having Lester Strode and Mike Borzello with me is huge in our pitching structure, as well as the [minor league] pitching coaches and pitching coordinators.

In Spring Training, you’ve seen it in action. All these guys have roles. We talk a lot with the minor league pitching coaches and coordinators during the season, and it’s not just the 12 guys on a pitching staff. We say in Spring Training, “We need 11 or 12 starters, and we’re going to need 11 or 12 relievers.” If we get to those numbers, then we’ve had a couple of hiccups, if you will.

If we don’t get to that number and we’re able to maintain a solid five or maybe even six starters, it means we haven’t had to make a lot of trades like we’ve had to in the last three years, and we’ve remained healthy. Being healthy has allowed some of our young pitchers to have really important innings. It’s a nice mix that we have, and it’s going to get better with the additions on our coaching staff and when you bring in All-Star- and world champion-caliber pitchers like Jon Lester and Jason Motte. We added an All-Star catcher in Miguel Montero, and Hammel could have been an All-Star.

VL: You mentioned Motte. The bullpen ended up being a strength as the season went along, but do you feel like you can never have enough arms out there?

CB: With Hector Rondon having the season he had—he was basically the seventh- and eighth-inning guy before that—and having 29 saves in basically four months is pretty impressive. Jason just gives us another arm down there to go along with the guys that we have, with Rondon, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm and Brian Schlitter.

We’ve got some guys down there. You add Motte to that equation, and our bullpen is becoming even more competitive. That’s what you want as an organization. You want to keep adding competition at every position. That’s how you close the gap on talent with so many other clubs, especially in a really tough National League Central.

VL: Do you consider yourself more of a mechanics guy or a psychology guy? Or do you have to be a bit of both to be a pitching coach in this day and age?

CB: You’ve got to be a little bit of both. Some of my best work is sitting and talking. Some of my other best work is a little of both, like with Jake Arrieta or Scott Feldman or Paul Maholm or Jason Hammel. You’ve got to be able to listen. You’ve got to be able to teach. You’ve got to be there not only for them, but also for the rest of the players on that club.

There are a lot of conversations that go on, not just with your pitchers and your catchers, but with your position players—what we’re going to be doing, how we’re going to be pitching certain guys. The communication is endless.

That’s where we made up a lot of ground in the second half of the season. We had really good communication with everybody on defense—where we’re going to play guys, how we’re going to pitch guys. It really didn’t matter who we threw out there because all the guys were following the game plan, and our preparation was better than it had been. That’s why we were winning more games against really tough clubs coming down the stretch.

We’re definitely going in the right direction. We’ve got a little more pop with our pitching staff. A lot of good things are happening, and the players and the coaching staff are aware of it.

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

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

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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.

 

From the Vine Line Archives: Our 2014 Q&A with Ernie Banks and Derek Jeter

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(Photo courtesy New York Yankees)

On Friday night, baseball fans across the country were saddened by the news that Cubs great Ernie Banks had died at the age of 83. Always in a chipper mood, Banks could put a smile on anybody’s face and was accurately nicknamed “Mr. Cub” for his passion towards the organization. When the Yankees made a rare appearance at the Friendly Confines in late May of last year, Vine Line had a rare opportunity to sit down with the Hall of Famer Banks and the recently retired Derek Jeter for a memorable conversation. The following story is from the July 2014 issue.

Mr. Cub and Mr. November. When it comes to playing shortstop in the major leagues, it’s hard to do better than Cubs legend Ernie Banks and all-time Yankees great Derek Jeter.

Between them, they have 28 All-Star appearances, two MVP Awards (with 10 top-10 finishes) and six Gold Gloves. They have also amassed nearly 6,000 hits and 800 home runs. Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. Assuming Jeter holds firm on his decision to retire after this season, he just needs the calendar to turn to 2019 for his certain enshrinement.

Both enjoyed long and distinguished careers with one organization; both spawned memorable moments and were the faces of their respective franchises; and both became great ambassadors for the game.

When Derek Jeter made a rare interleague appearance in Chicago this past May, Vine Line and Yankees Magazine couldn’t let the opportunity to get the two iconic players together slip away.

Yankees Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alfred Santasiere III spoke to the man affectionately known as Mr. Cub and the Yankees captain about playing a demanding defensive position, spending their entire careers with a single team, playing at the Friendly Confines and more.

For baseball fans, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Vine Line: First of all, it’s an honor to be here with two of the greatest shortstops the game has ever seen. Thank you both. Mr. Jeter, how did Mr. Banks, who is over 6 feet tall, impact the future of the position?

Derek Jeter: I’ve had the opportunity to meet Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese, who were two of the other great shortstops from Mr. Banks’ era. Those guys epitomized who played that position back then—shorter guys without a lot of power. Mr. Banks redefined the position, and he really paved the way for taller players like me to get the opportunity to play shortstop.

Ernie Banks: Who were the shortstops you watched when you were growing up?

DJ: I was a big Cal Ripken Jr. fan. He’s 6 foot 4, and he played the position as well as anyone I had seen. I also liked watching Barry Larkin, who played his college ball in my home state of Michigan. Alan Trammell played for the Detroit Tigers, and they were on TV a lot in my house when I was growing up, so I got to see him play frequently.

EB: Why didn’t they ever move you to third base?

DJ: I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out.

VL: Mr. Banks, what are your thoughts on Mr. Jeter’s ability to play such a demanding position so well for nearly two decades?

EB: Well, he’s a remarkable player, and that’s proven by the fact that he is still playing shortstop. We all slow down a little as we get older. I moved to first base after about 10 seasons at shortstop. But Derek has done what no one else has, and that’s remarkable.

VL: How much does it mean to each of you to have played for one team your entire careers—and to be synonymous with those teams?

DJ: Playing my entire career in New York has always been important to me. I’ve been fortunate because in this day and age, it’s more difficult to stay with one team than when Mr. Banks was playing. With free agency, there is so much player movement, and teams get rid of players when there are younger players available who can play the same position a little better. But I can’t imagine playing anywhere else.

EB: It means the world to me. We played all day games in Chicago back then because they didn’t have lights at Wrigley Field until 1988. That was something I got used to and really enjoyed. The only night games we played were when we were on the road. Like Derek said, I couldn’t have imagined what it would have been like to play for another team. If I had played for another team and I had to play most of the games at night, it would have felt like every game was an away game for me.

VL: How would each of you describe your respective fan bases?

EB: The fans here are loyal. When I was playing, I got to meet a lot of fans, and that was a lot of fun. I signed autographs for as many kids as I could because I thought that one day I might be asking one of those kids for a job. Cubs fans aren’t as loud as Yankees fans though. The first time I met Derek, I asked him what it’s like playing in New York. He looked at me and said, “When you win, it’s loud.”

DJ: That’s a great story. Yankees fans follow the team closely, and there’s a lot of energy in Yankee Stadium every time we take the field. The expectation level is high, but there’s no better place to win than in New York.

VL: The enthusiasm that both of you have for the game is well documented. What makes playing baseball for a living so enjoyable?

DJ: Every day is a new day. It’s kind of like life in that you wake up and you never know what’s going to happen when you get to the ballpark. Regardless of how you played the day before, you come to the ballpark with a clean slate the next day. I like that about baseball. I have enjoyed competing and being around my teammates as well. That’s why I have played the game for as long as I have.

EB: It was fun being out there every day. That’s why I said, “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two.” I especially enjoyed playing the shortstop position. For me, making adjustments to where I was going to play in the field depending on who was on the mound and who was at the plate was part of the game I relished. I got as much fun out of the strategy of the game and making sure I was in the right place to turn double plays as I got out of hitting the ball out of the park.

VL: Mr. Banks, what were the most challenging aspects of going directly from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues to the Cubs at a time when there were very few African-Americans in the majors?

EB: As far as being discriminated against, that’s all I knew since the time I was growing up. But the hardest thing about leaving the Monarchs for the Cubs was saying goodbye to my teammates in Kansas City. I liked being around those guys, and I didn’t want to leave them. They were like my family.

VL: How did you adjust to life in the big leagues?

EB: I played for [legendary Negro Leagues player and manager] Buck O’Neil in Kansas City, and I played alongside Gene Baker and Tony Taylor, who knew a lot about the game. I learned how to play the game from those guys. They taught me about the intricacies of the game and the shortstop position. That along with some God-given ability made it so I was prepared to play in the big leagues when I arrived in Chicago.

VL: Mr. Jeter, how was your career impacted by what Mr. Banks and others did in breaking the color barrier in the early 1950s?

DJ: It’s unimaginable for me. Mr. Banks is one of the players who paved the way for all African-Americans to play the game. I’m grateful to him for what he did on the field, and I also appreciate the way he has treated me since I was a young player.

VL: Mr. Banks, what stands out about Mr. Jeter’s accomplishments and the way he has represented himself and his team over the years?

EB: I really admire him. He’s accomplished so many great things. He’s knowledgeable about every aspect of playing the game. He studies the opposing pitchers, and he learned how to hit the ball to all fields at a young age. He’s an amazing young player. When he got his 3,000th hit on a home run, that was really special for me to watch. What was that like for you, Derek?

DJ: Well, I appreciate you referring to me as a young player. Hitting that home run felt great. More than anything, I was happy that it happened in front of our fans in New York.

EB: How did you do that?

DJ: I closed my eyes and swung the bat.

VL: Mr. Banks, what makes Wrigley Field such a special baseball destination?

EB: It’s special because it has been here for 100 years, and we’ve had some great teams. It’s a beautiful place, and so much history has taken place on this field. Babe Ruth stood a few feet from where we are sitting, pointed to the seats and then hit the ball out of the park. More than 80 years later, Derek Jeter will come up to the plate in the same place. That’s an amazing thing. Also, the fans are very close to the field, and that makes it an intimate setting for baseball. There’s no better place to watch a game.

VL: Mr. Jeter, how exciting is it to visit Wrigley Field in your final season—and during the stadium’s centennial?

DJ: I like being a part of history and tradition, and I’m thrilled to get one last chance to play here—especially since I was on the disabled list when we played here in 2011. I drove here with my class on my last day of high school, and that is a great memory. If I could have written a script for my career back then, I would have included a trip to Wrigley Field during my final season.

EB: You’re not really going to quit, are you?

DJ: After this season.

EB: You can’t do that.

DJ: Yes, I can.

EB: I wish guys like you never had to quit.

DJ: Well, let’s just say I’m moving on.

—Alfred Santasiere III

From the Pages of Vine Line: Checking in on the new minor league affiliates

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South Bend Cubs players will be able to relax here before and after games. (Photo courtesy of the South Bend Cubs)

At the conclusion of the minor league season, the dance begins. Player development contracts between major and minor league teams expire, often resulting in a frantic search for new partners.

This fall, the Cubs were the belle of the ball with three openings, all at the Single-A level. And it’s easy to see why, as the organization has one of the most widespread and devoted fan bases in all of sports.

“With the Cubs on WGN for all those years, every TV in America was able to pick up Cubs games,” said Director of Player Development Jaron Madison. “In almost every area of the country, you’ll find Cubs fans.”

The team chose two of its new affiliates for the usual reason: they offered better facilities. After striking a deal with the Short-Season Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs will now assign newly drafted players and young prospects to a state-of-the-art complex on the University of Oregon campus.

The Emeralds share PK Park with the school, which reinstated its baseball program in 2010. Set in the shadow of the Ducks’ football facility, Autzen Stadium, PK Park has all the latest training and clubhouse facilities big league organizations need.

“One area we don’t mess around with is player development,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “Our success will be impacted in large part by how we develop our young players and get them ready for the big league level.”

One of the tougher decisions the Cubs faced was moving the Low-A affiliate from Kane County, located just 40 miles down the road from Wrigley Field, to South Bend, Indiana. Madison said the organization was satisfied with the Kane County partnership and was ready to re-up, but South Bend impressed Cubs executives with a list of improvements, including upgrades to the turf, video room and clubhouse at Four Winds Field, and the construction of a new strength-and-conditioning facility. The team even rebranded itself, changing its name from the South Bend Silver Hawks to the Cubs.

“The owner there was committed to wowing the Cubs and really making us a part of their community,” Madison said. “They went all out with the presentation [and] with all the upgrades they were willing to make.”

As for the change to High-A Myrtle Beach, the organization wasn’t necessarily swayed by facilities. It was more about the weather. Cubs fans who have climbed atop the third-base bleachers at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida, know they can get a great view of the marina and downtown area. They also get a good look at advancing storm fronts blowing in.

In the last three seasons, the Daytona Cubs have suffered 33 rainouts, second most in the Florida State League to Lakeland’s 34.

“It puts a lot of strain on the players to have to play rescheduled games on their days off and back-to-back doubleheaders,” Madison said. “It’s no fault of anyone in Daytona. When Myrtle Beach became available, we knew we’d get more consistency with the weather and more getting our games in on time.”

The decision to move ended a fruitful 22-year relationship with Daytona that culminated in back-to-back years of record attendance at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. It was easily one of the longest affiliations in professional baseball.

But player development isn’t about looking back. It’s about the future, and Madison likes where his prospects will be headed for at least the next several years.

The Best of 2014: No. 1, Soler homers in his first major league at-bat

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(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Every baseball season is filled with memorable moments, and this year’s Cubs campaign was no exception. Cornerstone players had bounceback seasons, newer additions stepped up, and top prospects made their big league debuts. To wrap up the year, we asked you to pick your top 10 moments of 2014. This was your favorite moment from the season.

No. 10: Rizzo’s late-season walk-off homer
No. 9: Hendricks makes an easy transition to the bigs
No. 8: Castro, Rizzo named All-Stars
No. 7: Maddux gets inducted into the Hall of Fame
No. 6: Wrigley Field celebrates its 100th birthday
No. 5: Baez hits the eventual game-winning homer in ML debut
No. 4: Baker scores the game-winning run after pitching a scoreless 16th inning
No. 3: Arrieta leaves Fenway Park to a standing ovation after pitching gem
No. 2: Arrieta tosses a complete-game one-hitter

As our top vote-getter, it’s clear Cubs super prospect Jorge Soler not only made an impression on his major league club, but on the fan base as well. In 89 big league at-bats, the 22-year-old put up an impressive .292/.330/.573 slash line with five home runs and 20 RBI. But no moment was more memorable than his first.

With the North Siders leading 1-0 in Cincinnati after a Luis Valbuena homer, Soler stepped to the plate for his first major league at-bat in the top of the second inning. The Cuban expat took two pitches down in the dirt from Reds righty Mat Latos and watched a third go by for a strike on the inner half. The fourth pitch sat up in the zone, and Soler was ready for it, taking it over the bullpen in deep center for his first career home run.

“I feel real proud about it,” Soler told MLB.com. “All of my family was watching the game, especially my father here at the game. I feel real happy and proud that I did well today.”

Injuries had caused Soler’s stock to drop prior to the season, but the young slugger put any lingering doubts to rest in his first 24 big league games. It will be interesting to see what he can accomplish in a full season in 2015.

The Best of 2014: No. 2, Arrieta tosses a complete-game one-hitter

Arrieta_One-hitter

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Every baseball season is filled with memorable moments, and this year’s Cubs campaign was no exception. Cornerstone players had bounceback seasons, newer additions stepped up, and top prospects made their big league debuts. To wrap up the year, we asked you to pick your top 10 moments of 2014. From now until the end of the year, we’ll be unveiling one moment per day.

No. 10: Rizzo’s late-season walk-off homer
No. 9: Hendricks makes an easy transition to the bigs
No. 8: Castro, Rizzo named All-Stars
No. 7: Maddux gets inducted into the Hall of Fame
No. 6: Wrigley Field celebrates its 100th birthday
No. 5: Baez hits the eventual game-winning homer in ML debut
No. 4: Baker scores the game-winning run after pitching a scoreless 16th inning
No. 3: Arrieta leaves Fenway Park to a standing ovation after pitching gem

Jake Arrieta tosses a complete-game one-hitter and strikes out 13—Sept. 16 vs. Cincinnati

The 2014 season was a breakout campaign for the dominant right-handed pitcher. An array of strong efforts and several near no-hitters (like No. 3 on our list) elevated Jake Arrieta from an inconsistent pitcher with great stuff to a legitimate staff ace. So it’s fitting that arguably his finest effort came toward the end of the season.

The 28-year-old was on cruise control throughout the contest with the Reds. He struck out the side in the first inning and had no problems until the fourth, when he walked speedster Billy Hamilton. But the rookie was quickly caught stealing, and Arrieta fanned the next two hitters.

It wasn’t until there was one out in the eighth inning that Arrieta gave up his first hit—a double to left by Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. But the Cubs’ ace took down the next five batters in order for his first career complete game, a 110-pitch, 13-strikeout, one-hit effort.

“Today was as good as he’s been all season,” said then-Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “His pitch count was very well in check. His stuff was pretty electric.”

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