Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: Maddux at the head of the class

MadduxHOF

(Getty Images)

By Carrie Muskat, The following can be found in the March issue of Vine Line.

I covered Greg Maddux in 1987, his first full season with the Cubs. I remember his great 15-3 first half in ’88, his 19-win season in ’89 (capped by a victory in Montreal to clinch the division) and his first Cy Young season in ’92. I was there for his strange return to Wrigley Field in a Braves uniform and for his Chicago reunion in 2004.

Last December, it was with great pleasure that I could finally check Maddux’s name on my Hall of Fame ballot. He’s the smartest pitcher I’ve ever seen.

On Jan. 8, the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Maddux was headed to Cooperstown, after receiving 555 votes out of a possible 571 (97.2 percent) in his first year of eligibility. Players need 75 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to be elected. Mark your calendars: The ceremony will be held on July 27 in upstate New York, and Cubs fans have no excuse for not showing up.

Maddux won a Cy Young Award with the Cubs and three more with the Braves, where he also claimed a World Series title in ’95. He pitched 10 seasons in two stints with Chicago and 11 seasons in Atlanta. Though he had his best years with a tomahawk on his chest, he has chosen to go into the Hall of Fame with no logo on his plaque in a tip of the cap to his original organization.

“My wife, Kathy, and I grew up in baseball in Chicago, and then we had just an amazing experience in Atlanta with the Braves,” Maddux said in a statement. “It’s impossible for me to choose one of those teams for my Hall of Fame plaque, as the fans of both clubs in each of those cities were so wonderful.

“I can’t think of having my Hall of Fame induction without the support of both of those fan bases, so, for that reason, the cap on my Hall of Fame plaque will not feature a logo.”
I told you he was smart.

GREAT START
A little trivia: Maddux made his first appearance on Sept. 3, 1986, not as a pitcher but as a pinch-runner in the 17th inning of a game that had been suspended the previous evening after 15 innings because of darkness. Remember, Wrigley Field didn’t have lights until 1988. Nolan Ryan started for the Astros that day against the Cubs’ Jamie Moyer.

Maddux stayed in to pitch the 18th, but he served up a one-out home run to Houston’s Billy Hatcher to take the loss. In what would become classic Maddux fashion, he shrugged it off. Four days later, on Sept. 7, Maddux picked up his first win, an 11-3, complete-game gem against the Reds at Riverfront Stadium—the first of 109 complete games he would toss in his 23-year career.

Maddux didn’t intimidate hitters with velocity, but he dominated the NL with tremendous movement on his pitches and his vast understanding of the game. Still, it took a winter in Venezuela with pitching coach Dick Pole to convince the young right-hander not to throw as hard as he could. So what made Maddux change his approach?

“The hitters make it click with you,” Maddux said. “When you start throwing it, and they start whacking it, that’s what makes it click.”

Pole had some influence on Maddux’s decision as well. After the pitcher’s brief big league call-up in ’86, Cubs General Manager Dallas Green wanted Maddux, Pole and catcher Damon Berryhill to spend part of the winter in Venezuela to fine-tune some things. Apparently, it worked.

“I kind of understood the importance of, being at the big league level, that I needed to be able to throw my fastball to both sides of the plate, not just for a strike,” Maddux told author Alan Solomon, who wrote A Century of Wrigley Field. “I think that was the reason for the big turnaround. That and my first year, I was able to understand the importance of locating my fastball and, even more so, pitch slow. I didn’t pitch slow very good at all my first year. Then, after that, once I retaught myself how to throw my change-up with the help of Dick, things got better for me.”

Better might be an understatement. From 1988-2004, Maddux won at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons en route to 355 career victories.

“I knew he was going to be good when I saw him when he was young, but I didn’t know how good he was going to be,” Pole said. “If you want to find the definition of pitcher, it’s going to be Greg Maddux. It’s not stuff with him. It’s location, pitch selection, changing speeds.”

STUDENT AND TEACHER
Maddux stressed that lesson to young pitchers as well. After his playing days ended in 2008, he returned to the Cubs as a special assistant to General Manager Jim Hendry in 2010. In this position, he visited the minor league teams, often sitting on the bench with players.

On one of those days, Cubs pitcher Chris Rusin found himself next to Maddux in the dugout and asked how the future Hall of Famer got the same two-seam movement on both sides of the plate. Rusin applied Maddux’s advice in a start last July against the Giants, in which he threw seven shutout innings without any of his pitches topping 90 mph.

“[Maddux] relied on movement, and he obviously has way more movement than I do,” Rusin said. “But he could locate everything on both sides of the plate.”

It was The Professor’s cerebral approach to the game and the way he emphasized team first that earned him the respect of everyone around him.

“To me, the most amazing thing about Greg Maddux is that he’s the best student of pitching I’ve ever met,” said former teammate and current Yankees manager Joe Girardi in 2004. “He never missed a hitter on the bench. He paid more attention than other pitchers, and I think that’s what has made him so great.”

Maddux honed his baseball acumen by spending time with position players and hitting coaches to better understand how they approach pitchers. There are countless stories about how he would call pitches from the dugout during a game or warn a teammate about a foul ball that would soon be heading his way.

In 2004, MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy and I combined to write a story about Maddux and his older brother, Mike, who was the Brewers’ pitching coach at the time.

“I would say it’s the same book, different covers,” Mike said of his relationship with his brother. “You might think he’s more serious than me, but get to know both of us, and we’re a lot alike. Maybe I’m more extroverted than he is.”

Said Greg of his big brother: “He’s a little bit further out there than I am. We have a lot in common—hobbies, beliefs, sense of humor, stuff like that.”

The pitching pair grew up in Madrid, Spain, where their father was stationed at a U.S. Air Force base. All the TV shows were in Spanish, so the boys would go outside and play baseball instead—and both were incredibly competitive. When the Maddux brothers played golf, they didn’t wager money on each round. Instead, the winner would give the loser a wedgie.

Another reason Maddux’s teammates respected him? He was excellent, efficient and almost always in control on the mound. On July 17, 2004, back with the Cubs for a second turn, Maddux threw a six-hit, complete-game shutout to beat the Brewers, 5-0, and 17 of the 27 outs came on ground balls.

“I’ve battled against him before, and it’s just not fair,” Milwaukee’s Dave Burba said after the game. “He has movement on everything that is unreal. Shoot, if I had stuff like that, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I’d probably have to retire.”

“Or go to the Hall of Fame,” the Brewers’ Matt Kinney chimed in.

It was a classic Maddux performance. His take on the game? That also was vintage.

“As far as days to pitch on, this was as easy as it gets,” he said. “It was cool, the wind was blowing in, and the mistakes were hit at people.”

Reporters usually got better comments about Maddux from the opposition than from the unassuming pitcher himself. He didn’t like being the center of attention, especially as he approached his 300th win in 2004.

“For me, personally, I’d rather win 15 games and have a chance at the postseason,” he said. “That means more to me than winning 300. … It’s hard to say it’s just another game, but it is. We’ve got more important things to worry about than one guy reaching a goal. It’s not about me. It’s about us.”

Flashback to July 7, 1987, when San Diego’s Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face with a pitch in the third inning. Dawson had homered off Show in the first.

Maddux started that day, and Rick Sutcliffe warned the young pitcher not to retaliate. The Cubs were thinking about sending Maddux back to the minors for some seasoning, and he desperately needed the win. Instead, Maddux struck out the first two batters he faced in the fourth, then plunked the Padres’ Benito Santiago with a pitch and was ejected.

“He hit him as hard as a man can,” Sutcliffe said, retelling the story. “That tells you what that kid was made of. When he came back up [from the minors], Dawson and [Ryne] Sandberg made sure they never took a day off when he pitched.”

THE LIGHTER SIDE
Maddux was also known in the clubhouse for his pranks. Cubs fans saw his playful side when the first night game at Wrigley Field, on Aug. 8, 1988, was postponed because of rain. Al Nipper, Les Lancaster, Jody Davis and Maddux made the most of the delay and delighted rain-soaked fans by sliding on the tarp.

“I don’t know who instigated it, but I’m glad I did it,” Maddux said in his interview for the Wrigley book. “It was fun, and 20 years later, people are still talking about it.

“You know, being the first night game and everything, it started raining, and we were just kind of hanging out in the dugout, kind of enjoying the thunderstorm and the rain and all that,” Maddux said.

“You sit there long enough, I guess you start talking about some stupid things to do—and we came up with that, and we ended up doing it.”

In the offseason, even after Maddux and Pole were no longer together with the club, the pitcher would check in on his former coach or call with some obscure, off-the-wall question. Pole remembered the time when Todd Walker got his 1,000th hit, and someone threw the ball into the dugout for safekeeping.

“Why doesn’t anyone save balls from low points in their careers?” Maddux deadpanned to Pole.
The next day, Pole found a ball in his locker that was signed by Maddux, commemorating the 300th home run the pitcher had given up. Maddux also signed a ball to commemorate his 200th loss. Pole still has both of those souvenirs.

In my office, I have a black Wilson glove with Maddux’s name and “No. 300” stitched in gold. Maddux had the gloves made for teammates, coaches, friends and family after he won his 300th game on Aug. 7, 2004, in San Francisco. The Wilson rep knew I’d followed Maddux since his beginning with the Cubs, and made sure I got one too.

Before the Hall of Fame announcement in January, I checked in with Pole. He’d already sent Maddux a text to congratulate his former pupil. Maddux’s response was, “Thanks, Coach Pole, for all the tips.”
My favorite Maddux moments weren’t actually his games. When he rejoined the Cubs in 2004, he and his son, Chase, who was 10, would be in the Wrigley Field bullpen early in the morning. The ballpark was quiet, except for the grounds crew mowing the grass, and father and son would become teacher and pupil.

The day after the Hall vote was revealed, Maddux took part in a news conference in New York with Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, who will be joining No. 31 in Cooperstown. Later, Maddux tweeted: “Pretty cool last 48 hrs!! Glad I shared it with Glav and the Big Hurt. The baseball world is awesome.”

Thanks, Greg Maddux. So are you.

 

From the Pages of Vine Line: Our Spring Training roster preview

RizzoDefense

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Major League Baseball’s offseason got off to a fast start roughly a week before the Winter Meetings began in December. There was an early rush that included address changes for multiple All-Stars; then marquee players like Robinson Cano and Clayton Kershaw nabbed record-setting contracts. And the frenzy stretched into late January this year as organizations, including the Cubs, awaited the decision of Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka, who eventually signed with the again-free-spending Yankees.

As for the Cubs’ roster? On paper, the squad looks quite similar to the one that wrapped up the 2013 campaign. Though that might worry some fans, especially after a 96-loss season, one of baseball’s youngest lineups should only improve with another year under its belt. Many members of the young Cubs core got their first full season at their respective positions in 2013, and that experience should pay dividends. Plus, the Cubs have one of the top farm systems in baseball, and many of those coveted players are getting closer to making their debuts at Wrigley Field.

“There’s room for improvement,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “There are a lot of talented players on the roster who didn’t have their best year. I know they’re really committed to the work they’re doing this offseason and to doing better this year. And we had guys who did have big breakthroughs last year, and they want to sustain that progress and build from there.”

The team also added depth at several positions and bolstered the bullpen. Last season, the rotation was good enough to win, but the team struggled to close things out. This offseason, they plugged Wesley Wright and closer Jose Veras into the back end of the ’pen, which should keep the squad in a lot more games.

To get you ready for the upcoming season, we go around the horn to see what the roster could look like as the Cubs open up the season in Pittsburgh in late March.

The Infield
Defensively, nobody plays the second-base position better than Darwin Barney. He captured a Gold Glove Award in 2012, and the 28-year-old had comparable numbers in 2013. But if Barney hopes to move into the Cubs core, the defense-first player is going to have to improve his offensive production. His on-base percentage and wins above replacement ranked worst of all qualifying NL second basemen last season.

“I think you have to remember that this game is hard, and that you’re not always going to play as well as you want,” Barney said. “Unfortunately, nothing came together last year, but I’m very confident that isn’t going to happen again.”

Logan Watkins, the Cubs’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, will continue his playing-time push at second and compete with the versatile Emilio Bonifacio and nonroster invitee Ryan Roberts for the extra infield spot.

Around the diamond, nobody’s job appears to be safer than first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s. Despite a dip in his slash line, the power numbers were pretty much as expected, including a position-leading 40 doubles. It’s easy to forget the 24-year-old just concluded his first full season in the majors, and the grind of a 162-game schedule might have gotten the best of him. The slugger’s numbers dipped midway through the year—he hit .210 in July and just .190 in August. But throw in his Gold Glove-caliber defense, and it’s safe to assume mistakes will be kept to a minimum on the right side of the infield.

The left side, however, has a few question marks surrounding its personnel. Sure, young veteran Starlin Castro will begin the season as the team’s shortstop. New manager Rick Renteria has gone out of his way to describe the great communication he’s had with the 23-year-old two-time All-Star, who is under contract for at least six more seasons. But it’s hard to ignore the production of top shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who has received plaudits from the front office, minor league experts and anyone else who has seen his lightning-fast, ultraviolent swing.

Depending on Castro’s production, as well as Baez’s continued development, the incumbent may have to eventually make way for baseball’s No. 4 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, and shift to second or third. For now, the position is Castro’s to lose. He’s never been a patient hitter, but he’ll have to cut down on his 18.3 percent strikeout rate, which was second highest among qualifying NL shortstops last year. A simpler approach might be necessary to get the 2011 NL hits leader back to that level of success.

“I can’t really speak to what was the change or what transpired to cause how he approached his at-bats,” Renteria said of Castro’s offensive struggles in 2013. “But I can assure you that [the new coaches] are just looking to have Starlin Castro be himself and swing at good pitches.”

Third base is the grab-bag section of the Cubs infield. There are upward of five players who could realistically man the position at any point this season, and that doesn’t include the overflow from short. As it currently stands, the underrated duo of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy should begin the year as a hot-corner platoon, with the left-handed Valbuena likely seeing more time. Despite a .230 batting average between the two, they combined for 23 homers, 23 doubles and a .327 on-base percentage last year.

Trade deadline acquisition Mike Olt also has an outside shot of breaking camp as the everyday third baseman if he can regain the form that once made him an untouchable prospect in the Rangers organization. But that will depend on whether he can put last year’s concussion- and allergy-related eye issues behind him and show the power/defense combination that got him all the way to the major leagues with Texas in 2012.

Catcher
The first full season of the Welington Castillo era was a resounding success. The 26-year-old backstop exceeded expectations offensively while serving as one of the finest defensive catchers in the game. At the January Cubs Convention, pitching coach Chris Bosio and catching instructor Mike Borzello both took time to praise Castillo’s work ethic and the strides he made over the course of the year.

Typically, catchers don’t get to call their own games until they have years of experience, but Castillo picked up the ins and outs of the position so quickly—and so impressed Bosio with his ability to dissect the scouting report—that he had free rein on pitch selection in 2013. According to baseball website Fangraphs, he also posted 19 defensive runs saved, tops at the catcher position and sixth best for any player in the NL.

Former Royal George Kottaras will replace Dioner Navarro, who signed with Toronto this offseason, as the club’s backup backstop. Though Kottaras is only a career .214 hitter, he is a base-on-balls machine, drawing walks in 14 percent of his 820 career plate appearances. He should be a good addition for a team that had the third-lowest on-base percentage in the game last season.

The Outfield
Much like the infield, the outfield appears to be pretty well set, at least for Opening Day.

Expectations are high for 30-year-old right fielder Nate Schierholtz, a 2013 free-agent signee who opened eyes in the Cubs outfield last year. He led all of the team’s returning outfielders in WAR and nearly doubled his career home run total with 21, though he’s significantly better against right-handers (.262 average and 20 homers against righties vs. .170 against lefties).

It’s also a safe assumption that Junior Lake will get plenty of regular playing time in left field this season. Thanks to his slightly surprising but solid major league debut in mid-July, fans are expecting big things from the Dominican, who will turn 24 four days before the season opener. If Lake can cut down on his strikeout rate of 26.8 percent, it will bode well in other categories. His 27.8 percent line-drive rate ranked second in the NL among players with 250 plate appearances, and his .377 batting average on balls in play ranked third among NL outfield rookies. If Lake can cut his K total down, even to just his career minor league average of 23.8 percent, he could finish with a near .300 average.

The biggest offensive acquisition this offseason came in the form of Justin Ruggiano, a 31-year-old former Marlin with the ability to man all three outfield spots. Traded from Miami during the Winter Meetings for Brian Bogusevic, Ruggiano adds much-needed right-handed pop to the lineup and could form an effective platoon with Schierholtz. The lifetime .251 hitter had a career-high 18 homers last season and looks to improve on that total now that he is away from the spacious Marlins Park, where he hit only three dingers in 2013.

“I don’t think it can get much tougher [as a] ballpark than Miami,” Ruggiano said. “I’ve seen so many balls go 420-plus feet and go for doubles. [Wrigley Field] is going to be a good park to hit at.”

Ryan Sweeney, who re-upped this offseason to stay on the North Side, could see a lot of playing time in center field. Sweeney got off to a fast start in 2013, hitting .295/.342/.527 in 44 games before fracturing a rib trying to make a play on June 29. Though his return was less than stellar, he is a singles machine. More than 20 percent of his at-bats have resulted in singles since he started playing regularly with Oakland in 2008. That ranks 21st of all players during that time.

Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald and former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan will compete with prospects Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur for a potential fifth outfield spot.

The Rotation
The starting rotation was undoubtedly the strong point of last season’s squad, as fans saw many young talents evolve with more playing time and higher inning totals. But the byproduct of two active trade deadlines under Epstein and Hoyer has been a lack of depth. Though the Cubs fell short in the bidding war for Japanese ace Tanaka, they did make a few under-the-radar acquisitions, adding Jason Hammel and James McDonald late in the offseason, that should serve them well.

Former manager Dale Sveum tabbed Jeff Samardzija as the squad’s Opening Day starter in 2013, and the power arm fought to live up to that honor all year. Though his 8-13 record and 4.34 ERA were not what Samardzija or Cubs fans had hoped for out of a No. 1 starter, he did strike out 214 hitters, reach 213.2 innings and complete an entire season for the first time as a starter. His 9.01 strikeouts per nine innings were fifth in the NL, and his cumulative strikeout total was good for fourth.

“I really feel like last year was a big learning process, coming off starting 30 times the year before and, before that, throwing 80 innings of relief. I really feel like I had to adjust myself toward the end of the year,” Samardzija said. “I think you look at August and July, and they weren’t great. You look at my September, and I really liked my September and how I finished.”

Though Samardzija slotted in as the ace last year, nobody put up a better season in the rotation than left-hander Travis Wood. The Cubs’ lone All-Star representative was as consistent as it came, going at least six innings in 26 of his 32 starts and making it into the fifth inning on all but two occasions. His 3.11 ERA was good for 12th in the NL, and he kept his team in a lot of games with his 6.9 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio, fifth best in the NL.

After signing a four-year, $52 million contract last offseason, Edwin Jackson will need to step up in his second year in Cubbie blue. Though he showed glimpses of the top-end guy the Cubs hoped he’d be last year, Jackson’s ERA ballooned to one of the worst in baseball, and his 18 losses led the NL.

The good news is E-Jax has dealt with adversity before, having been traded six times in a five-year period. At 30 years old, he has already been around the game for 11 major league seasons and has earned a reputation as a solid workhorse. The last time he finished with such a high ERA, he cut the total down by well over a run the following season.

A newcomer to the fray, right-hander Hammel adds some veteran experience to the rotation. The Cubs signed the 31-year-old, who was Baltimore’s Opening Day starter a year ago, to a one-year deal on Jan. 31. Hammel got off to a fast 7-2 start in 2013, despite a 4.98 ERA during that time. However, he dropped his next six starts and spent more than a month on the DL with a forearm injury. When he returned, he was inserted into Baltimore’s bullpen.

Many predict a successful first half for Hammel could lead to a trade, similar to what happened with Scott Feldman a year ago. Looking at the right-hander’s career splits, he could make a perfect midseason trade candidate, as he has proven to be significantly better in the first half (36-30, 4.47 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in the first half vs. 13-29, 5.29 ERA, 1.49 WHIP post-All-Star break).

Jake Arrieta looks to slot into the final spot despite and while he had arm issues as camp got underway, he comes off a successful spell with the North Siders in 2013. The once highly touted prospect came over in the Scott Feldman deal, and gave up one run or fewer in five of his nine starts to finish his Cubs run 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA.

That should give the Cubs a solid (and hard-throwing) front five, but the team also has some depth behind them, with lefty Chris Rusin and right-handers Justin Grimm and Carlos Villanueva. Rusin came up after the Cubs parted ways with Matt Garza in July and made 13 late-season starts. Though he definitely faded in the last month, he showed he has the ability to get major league hitters out.

Grimm, one of the arms exchanged for Garza, was told to prepare to compete for a starting job prior to Spring Training. Despite having just 19 career major league starts, the 25-year-old has an effective fastball/cutter combination and is still viewed as a solid prospect going forward.

Villanueva will serve as a nice cushion for the Cubs, who know exactly what they’ll get out of the 30-year-old swingman. He won a starting job out of Spring Training in 2013 and was great in April (2.29 ERA, .171 OBA) before stepping in to stabilize the bullpen. If Villanueva doesn’t win a rotation spot, he’ll likely serve as a long reliever while Grimm and Rusin are sent to Triple-A to hone their skills in the I-Cubs’ rotation.

The Bullpen
If the rotation was the strong point last year, the bullpen was definitely its weaker counterpoint. Cubs relievers finished with a 4.04 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP (both 13th in the NL), 26 blown saves and 210 walks (both 14th in the NL).

The front office spent the early part of the offseason overhauling the ’pen, adding closer Veras as the group’s centerpiece.

“I think we’re bringing [Veras] in because I have confidence that he can follow through in the ninth inning. That’s a special inning in baseball,” Renteria said. “Obviously you guys have seen in times past that there have been particular issues in that particular inning.”

The 33-year-old finished last year with a 3.02 ERA and converted 21 of 25 save opportunities between stints in Houston and Detroit. He also brought his WHIP down nearly half a point from 2012 to an impressive 1.07, while striking out a respectable 8.6 batters per nine innings.

Pedro Strop should continue to improve since his July arrival via trade. The right-hander got off to a rough start to open the year in Baltimore, but finished with a 2.83 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and 10.8 K/9 over 35 innings with the Cubs. He fits the mold of a two-pitch, late-innings power arm, and could spell Veras in the closer’s role if needed.

James Russell will again operate as the top lefty in the ’pen—but this year, he won’t be the lone lefty, thanks to the acquisition of free agent Wesley Wright. Though Russell gave the club all it could ask for in the first half of 2013, pulling into the All-Star break with a 2.78 ERA, the southpaw was plagued by overuse down the stretch.

Wright should help ease the load this season. The veteran lefty uses a combination of a two-seamer and a slider to get batters out, and he fanned 55 hitters over 53.2 innings in 2013.

Aside from Arodys Vizcaino—who hasn’t pitched since 2011 because of complications following Tommy John surgery—and possibly Villanueva, there are a number of arms who could compete for the final bullpen spots, including Alberto Cabrera, Blake Parker, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon and Zac Rosscup. Last year’s big free-agent acquisition Kyuji Fujikawa should also be back in the mix by the All-Star break.

Down the Line
For the past two-plus years, Epstein and Hoyer have been preaching patience. Just one look at the Spring Training invitee list is proof positive that the club’s patience is close to paying off. The five biggest offensive prospects will all be in attendance to start the preseason, including the aforementioned Baez.

Kris Bryant will likely begin the year as Double-A Tennessee’s third baseman, but he could really push Valbuena, Murphy and Olt in camp. Though his professional career just started late last year, the game’s No. 17 prospect (Baseball Prospectus) has hit at every stop along the way, including in the Arizona Fall League. A productive half season of minor league ball could have him knocking on Wrigley Field’s door by the end of the season.

Another name to keep an eye on at the hot corner is Christian Villanueva, a return from the Ryan Dempster deal with Texas in 2012. Villanueva will start the season at Triple-A Iowa, but most scouts believe the plus defender could excel at third base right now. The only questions in the past have surrounded his bat, but an impressive offensive campaign in 2013, in which he showed strong doubles power and drove in runs, opened eyes around the game.

Infielder Arismendy Alcantara started gaining recognition after his scorching first half at Double-A Tennessee in 2013 and his productive Futures Game performance, in which he hit a homer for the International side. Though he’ll begin 2014 at Triple-A, the five-tool player could give Barney a run for his money at the keystone sooner rather than later.

A year from now, we might be having similar conversations about top outfield prospects Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. Though hopes of seeing the two manning the Wrigley outfield when camp breaks are a little premature, the duo will get an opportunity to impress in spring camp before being sent to their respective minor league destinations.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with hitting coach Bill Mueller

MUELLER-B081302A-batting1

The following can be found in the Profile section of March’s edition of Vine Line.

Former American League batting champ Bill Mueller is back in Cubbie blue as the new big league hitting coach.

Born: 3/17/71 in Maryland Heights, Mo.
Resides: Mesa, Ariz.
Joined Cubs: 11/22/13
Position: Hitting Coach

COMING HOME  It’s a wonderful experience to be back in this city. Being a part of the team again is exciting. And being a part of an organization like this, with Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] and everyone, I think it’s an exciting time to be in this organization. I’m looking forward to having a great year and enjoying this wonderful opportunity.

TOP DOG  [Rick Renteria] is as genuine as they come. And knowledgeable, very experienced. Basically, you know what you’re going to be getting. You know what you’re going to have in that [dugout] every single day. Same with the coaching staff. All of these guys are excellent, solid individuals with an enormous amount of experience.

FEELING GOOD  We all know the pressures of performance in what we do out there. With our [coaching staff’s] experience, it’s just a matter of working with each individual and working with where they are. It’s our job to figure that out and enhance all that and get them consistent. We’re all about enhancing their confidence and minimizing their insecurities.

IN THE SWING  You just want to be a good listener and listen to where they’re at, where they place value in their swing, how cognitive they are, what’s their approach, where do they see their role on the team. You’ve got to get these questions going, and then you can dissect it better if you want to take it in a certain direction—whether it’s a swing path or a lower half thing or an approach thing—and start interjecting things at the right time so they make an impact.

ME, MYSELF AND I  When we were in the minor leagues, a lot of us didn’t even have hitting coaches. You had to watch the good hitters in that league and figure things out. I wasn’t ultratalented, so you had to ask questions of other guys on your team, and you had to tinker around with things. You had to learn who you were, your strengths, your weaknesses, what made you tick, swing path, timing, rhythm and all that stuff. You started becoming your own coach.

ON THE FARM  It’s an enormous amount of talent [in the Cubs system]. On top of that, there’s an enormous amount of character. That’s what’s really special, because there’s a lot more growing mentally as well as physically for all these guys. No matter how talented you are, there’s always that big step of transitioning to get to the big leagues and stay in the big leagues. With that foundation of character and their work ethic and their talent, they’re fortified to really come up here and start having some success.

TOP MOMENT  The one that comes to mind first is my first at-bat in the big leagues. When you’re not really a prospect coming up and you’re not 6-foot-4, 225 pounds—not highly skilled where I’m pumping jacks just because—that moment was an unbelievable experience and an enormous accomplishment, to make it to that point and reach my dream that I had been dreaming about since I was 7 years old.

HOME TURF  I was born and raised in St. Louis. [Before playing in the 2004 World Series with the Red Sox], the last World Series game I was ever at was in 1982 with my dad in the nosebleeds—[the Brewers’] Cecil Cooper hit a home run up there. The next moment, I’m part of a World Series, and I’m winning it at Busch Stadium with my mom and dad in the stands and friends and family. So it was an exciting time, breaking a curse of 86 years and winning a World Series on my home soil.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs system is hitting its stride

epstein

The following is from the Inside Pitch section of March’s Vine Line.

From 1929-38, as the world suffered through the Great Depression, the Cubs ironically experienced their last sustained run of on-field prosperity. Over that 10-year stretch, they had the best record and most World Series appearances (four) of any NL team.

Since then, whether the organization has attempted a quick fix or a measured reconstruction, efforts to rekindle that flame have produced only flickers.

Two and a half years ago, Ricketts family ownership hired Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as general manager to end the organization’s 75-year drought of inconsistency. Now entering their third season, Epstein and Hoyer realize the progress they see internally isn’t always obvious to fans.

“We take grief from friends, family and critics,” Epstein said. “But we know what’s coming. We have to continue to build with our group, because it’s going to be a lot of fun when we get there.”

The Cubs’ aim all along has been to become baseball’s next model organization, and, unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix for that.

“We feel great about the people we have in place now,” Epstein said. “We’re talking about our scouting department, player development, professional scouts and major league staff. You’re constantly looking for new ways to improve. We look to do this by putting people in the right place, promoting the right guys and making sure everyone gets better at their job every year.”

Epstein’s goal is not to generate a single World Series title, but to create a consistent contender as he did in Boston. In his nine seasons there, the Red Sox made six postseason appearances and won both World Series in which they played. Moreover, almost half of Boston’s 2013 World Series championship roster was traceable to Epstein and his BoSox staff.

“We’re looking to be in position to win 90 games every year, which puts you in postseason [range],” Epstein said. “Winning 95 games gives you a chance to win your division. That’s our plan—not only to win a World Series, but to get into the postseason every year.

“Our group concentrates on a 10-year period, and we hope to be in contention at least eight out of 10 years, rather than going for one super team that might be fleeting—disappearing the next year and getting old the next.”

That’s why the Cubs have concentrated so heavily on amateur draft picks, international free agents and minor league prospects.

“We want to build a core that can be our nucleus for a long time,” Epstein said. “We’re not going to define our organization by scouting major league free agents. By the time they’re free agents, the good players are mostly 30 or older and huge investments. Our goal is to be an organization that doesn’t need to go into free agency that often because it has homegrown players.”

Since 2011, Jim Hendry’s final season as GM, the Cubs have enjoyed the bittersweet gift of drafting high after finishing low. But this process is already starting to bear fruit. Their last three No. 1 picks—Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant—rank among baseball’s top 20 prospects, and the club has seven players in the top 100, according to MLBPipeline.com.

Despite falling short in a valiant winter effort to land Japanese pitching prize Masahiro Tanaka, Epstein’s energetic group remains undeterred.

“You first and foremost cannot put together a successful organization without drafting well,” Epstein said. “Most of our trades in this phase will be about acquiring prospects.”

Just as the little things that win games don’t always show up in the box score, small details that produce a winning organization seldom make hot-stove headlines.

“Our group looks to find something every day to make this organization healthier,” Epstein said. “Hiring a good scout or making the right choice on a 10th-round draft pick, adding a quality coach or player development person—all are good short-term goals to become a great system. Finding a better bunt play to run or picking up a guy on waivers is all part of what we do to put us in a position to have more homegrown talent coming through our system—and to provide preprime and prime-age players to our roster and core.”

Still, Epstein realizes fans judge the front office by what occurs on the field.

“You can’t put in all your systems the first year,” he said. “It takes time. The market is different in each major league city. That’s part of the adjustment tour people must make when coming here. Take player development. You start a development program, bring in people and create a manual. Still, it takes years for the plan to be completely institutionalized and ingrained.

“Our analytics department took us a while. We wanted to make sure we had the right people. … We now have a full-fledged department working to get an advantage on our competition, and that only this year has come into play. We’re just hitting our stride in prioritizing player development and scouting first. We were objectively behind in those areas.”

So how do you gauge progress?

“Two and a half years into this,” Epstein said, “we’re spending a lot less time in our meetings talking about the process we have to go through.”

—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig

From the Pages of Vine Line: An inside look at the new Cubs Park

Cubs-Park-6

(Photo by Charlie Vascellaro)

The paint is still drying on the new Cubs Park Spring Training and player development facility in Mesa, Ariz. No one has grilled a hot dog or spilled a beer. The bathroom fixtures are clean enough to eat off of—not that you’d want to. The sights, scents and sounds that will craft cherished memories have yet to occur. The place is a blank canvas waiting to be colored in the blue and green hues of spring baseball.

It takes a while for a ballpark to develop a personality of its own. Something has to happen—a mammoth home run hit by a rookie prospect, an anonymous young pitcher emerging from a corn field to strike out the side, or a brushback pitch revisiting a previous season’s rivalry and inciting a bench-clearing brawl. There must be something fans can look back on later and say, “I was there.”

But the crack of the bat and the thwapping of balls into gloves can finally be heard at the facility, as pitchers and catchers officially reported to camp Thursday.

The Cubs had a spectacular run at two different Hohokam Parks from 1979-2012—setting Cactus League and MLB Spring Training attendance records and enjoying a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with the ballpark, the city and the fans—but the team’s new multipurpose Spring Training and player development facility is a vast improvement for both the organization and its loyal fans. Coming on the heels of the new training academy in the Dominican Republic and in conjunction with the restoration of Wrigley Field, the Cubs have made great strides under owner Tom Ricketts in terms of facilities and comprehensive player development accommodations—an essential step for a team looking to build from the lower levels up.

The new complex also simplifies things from a logistical standpoint. Previously, the organization’s minor leaguers conducted workouts at Fitch Park, about three-quarters of a mile down the road from Hohokam, where the big leaguers practiced and played games. The new facility puts all of the Cubs’ operations under one roof. This is an improvement for both the front office—which can keep better tabs on the team’s young players—and fans—who no longer have to make a trip down the road to watch top prospects like Albert Almora, C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson make their way to the big leagues.

BIGGER AND BETTER
Designed by Populous, formerly the renowned HOK ballpark architectural firm of Kansas City, Mo., and built in conjunction with the Hunt Construction Group of Scottsdale, Ariz., the $99 million facility was approved by city of Mesa voters in a 2012 ballot measure. Keeping the Cubs in town was a front-burner issue for the city and its mayor.

“The Chicago Cubs have been coming to Mesa each spring for more than half a century,” said Mayor Scott Smith. “The team is a part of who we are as a community, and I am excited to see that legacy continue for my children and grandchildren.”

The massive 125-acre complex contains six practice fields, one infield practice diamond, 12 indoor batting cages and a huge, 70,000-square-foot player development facility. Aside from the vast physical resources, the team is also taking advantage of new technological advances. The Cubs’ new home comes equipped with a 120-seat theater for meetings and video review, and each practice field offers a camera feed to the video rooms to enhance evaluations.

For a team that has dealt with substandard strength-training areas at both Wrigley Field and Hohokam Park, the new player development complex is quite a luxury. It includes a two-story weight room and gym filled with stationary bikes, four whirlpools and a hydrotherapy pool, and floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the scenic McDowell Mountain range. The big league clubhouse, which dwarfs the space at Wrigley Field, has 63 lockers, and there’s another clubhouse for minor league players with 200 spaces.

In addition to being the Cubs’ Spring Training home, the new site will also be the team’s year-round player development and rehabilitation headquarters, and home to the club’s Rookie League and Arizona Fall League teams.

“This is our space to develop players to move onto the big league club,” said Cubs Park Facilities Manager Justin Piper. “So there’s also been a lot of focus and attention from the Cubs on our player development facilities and practice facilities on the site.”

JUST LIKE HOME
As Major League Baseball’s scope continues to evolve and grow, Spring Training has become a big business, with host cities aggressively competing for entertainment and tourism dollars. It seems like almost every year another big league club is moving into an updated, state-of-the-art facility.

The Cubs’ brand new Spring Training site, the fourth new ballpark to arrive on the Cactus League’s desert horizon in the last six years, is located in Mesa’s booming Riverview Park entertainment district. It’s adjacent to the sprawling new Riverview Park and Mesa Riverview shopping center on Rio Salado Parkway by the busy crossroads of the 101 and 202 loop freeways near the Mesa/Tempe border.

North Side fans have always had a way of making themselves feel at home in Mesa, and while Cubs Park is not intended to be a scale model of Wrigley Field, reminders of the Friendly Confines abound in features like the light towers, scoreboard clock and replica Wrigley Field marquee.

“People will be able to walk up right next to it,” Piper said. “We can put their name on the marquee, and they can take their photo next to it.”

Already being heralded as the crown jewel of Spring Training facilities, the ballpark boasts a seating capacity of nearly 15,000, the largest in the Cactus League. The stadium has 9,200 fixed seats, and the expansive outfield berm, a signature component of Arizona’s Spring Training ballparks, has room for 4,200 more sun-worshipping fans.

Because Arizona’s atmospheric conditions cause the ball to carry farther than it does in Chicago, the dimensions of the outfield wall are about 15-20 feet deeper than those at Wrigley Field, but the two outfields share the same shape. Just like at Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ home dugout is situated on the third-base side (it was located on the first-base side at Hohokam Park), and the wall behind home plate is made of red brick. This will make Spring Training games broadcast on television appear strikingly similar to Cubs regular season home games when the center-field camera is in use.

Of course, the ballpark’s southwestern setting is also evident in many design touches, including the massive louvered awnings that provide shade over most of the seating bowl and the red-clay exterior that reflects the facility’s desert surroundings. There’s also a beautiful mountain vista beyond the outfield walls, including such iconic local imagery as the Superstition Mountains to the right, Four Peaks and Red Mountain to dead center, and the vast McDowell Mountain range to the left. Phoenix’s signature Camelback Mountain is farther to the left, but still visible, off in foul territory.

While Cubs Park will be a huge upgrade for players, it will also provide a better overall experience for fans. Throughout the past several decades, Spring Training baseball has evolved from a destination for die-hards to a prime vacation spot for spring revelers. For many, the game on the field is secondary to other amenities and a chance to spend time with friends in the Arizona sun. The new Cubs Park has adequately addressed this phenomenon as well.

One of the most unique features of the facility will be the left-field party deck, which is designed to be reminiscent of the rooftops outside of Wrigley Field. The second-story deck comes equipped with bleachers and patios with loose patio furniture, and can be accessed with a general admission ticket.

“You’ll have 1,000 people mixing and mingling, sitting in the bleachers and having a great time,” Piper said. “It’s going to be pretty unique.”

But the best aspect of Spring Training has always been the opportunity to rub shoulders with professional ballplayers in a relaxed environment. The walkway from the ballpark to the clubhouse is designed with this in mind. It’s a long, narrow dirt path where players will pass in close proximity to fans, who will undoubtedly line the sides seeking autographs and pictures. There are no walls or barriers of any kind on either side of the trail, but a string of dwarf oleander bushes have been planted and will eventually create a natural barrier.

ARIZONA LEGACY
Cubs fans have been making the religious pilgrimage to Arizona for more than six decades since the team first set up a spring camp at Mesa’s Rendezvous Park in the spring of 1952. Prior to that, the club spent time on Catalina Island in California, where they conducted Spring Training for 30 years on former owner William Wrigley Jr.’s island paradise, 25 miles off the Los Angeles coast.

After the team’s first spring season at Rendezvous Park, which was originally constructed in 1920, owner Phillip K. Wrigley (William’s son) paid $20,000 to build a grandstand in exchange for the city of Mesa footing the bill for a new clubhouse on the third-base side. The grandstand’s exterior Rendezvous Park sign and the water towers looming beyond the outfield walls would become the signature images associated with the facility.

The Cubs remained at Rendezvous Park until 1966, when they moved to Long Beach, Calif., for the spring. But they returned to Arizona in 1967, taking up residence at Scottsdale Stadium, where they remained until 1979. The Cubs then moved to the original Hohokam Park in Mesa, swapping sites with the Oakland Athletics, who had occupied the stadium for two years following its opening in 1977. The Cubs remained at the original Hohokam Park until a new one was built at the opposite corner of Brown and Center streets in 1997. With the team now moving into Cubs Park, the A’s will again take over Hohokam Park in the spring of 2015.

The idea of moving into a new ballpark after just 17 years at the renovated Hohokam is more a testament to the advances being made in ballpark design than a reflection of the old ballpark’s obsolescence. And with the recent addition of three spectacular new training facilities in the Cactus League cities of Glendale, Goodyear and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, it’s also a matter of keeping up with the Joneses.

“We’re real excited about the new Cubs facility,” said Cactus League President Mark Coronado. “It’s these opportunities that continue to be the magnet for us to draw fans from across the country, and the Cubs facility is going to be a Wrigleyville mecca—the Disneyland of Baseball. It will be the jewel of Spring Training facilities, there’s no question about it. It will be a standard that [others] will be hard-pressed to duplicate because they’ve spared no expense. I think once again you’ll start to see the Cubs become the No. 1 attraction in the Valley.”

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with LHP Zac Rosscup

Rosscup

(Photo by Stephen Green)

After five minor league seasons, left-handed pitcher Zac Rosscup made his major league debut out of the Cubs bullpen in September 2013. The Oregon native was drafted in the 28th round of the 2009 amateur draft by the Tamps bay Rays and came to the Cubs in the 2011 trade for Matt Garza. We sat down with the 25-year-old as last season was coming to a close. The following can be found in the Profile section of February’s Vine Line.

MAJOR DEBUT  That was intense. Knees shaking a little bit. I was nervous. After you warm up and you take a deep breath, you realize it’s the same game you’ve been playing your whole life—just a little bit better talent on the field. It’s great. There’s not a whole lot you can say about it. It’s one of those feelings that you just have to do it to know the feel.

THE CALL-UP  When you picture it in your mind and growing up and stuff, [you think] when you get here, “I’m going to be perfect.” But that’s not realistic. It’s been really nice. It’s definitely given me a taste of what it’s like, and I’m going to work hard in the offseason to get back here next year for sure.

GETTING TRADED  Obviously, you don’t expect it, just being in Low-A rookie ball with the Rays. When it happens, it just kind of hits you. You’re like, “Oh, I guess I’m on a new team now.” You don’t really know what to expect coming into that next spring, because it was in the offseason. Both organizations are really good—good to their players and great for developing players—and it’s been a fun experience and a fun ride so far. I look forward to spending many years here.

THE NEW GUYS  Justin Grimm [came] over and those guys from the Rangers, Kyle Hendricks. [There are] a few guys I’ve met that came over from a few different organizations. It’s really not that different. You come into a locker room, and there are a bunch of guys getting ready to play a game. It’s not like you’re going to go haze them or not talk to them. They’re a part of the team now, they’re part of the organization, and they’re here to help the team win. So you’ve got to treat it as, “We’re all working together to be a part of something that will grow into wins.”

REALIZING POTENTIAL  You work hard at any level, and you just hope to be seen. [My opportunity] happened by chance. I started pitching and gaining some velocity by working out at [Chemeketa Community College in Oregon], and that really helped me along the way. I wasn’t ever really serious about it until that first scout card from the Astros’ regional scout out there. I called my mom and told her, “This thing could turn out to be a real goal for me.” After that, it was just putting my head toward the right things and working hard to make it to pro ball.

SAFETY FIRST  I played football until eighth grade. At the time, I hadn’t quite hit the growth spurt. I hadn’t hit puberty. I was just kind of in an awkward stage in my life, and I didn’t know how I was going to be in high school. So I called it quits and stuck to baseball, where size doesn’t matter too much and I wasn’t going to get thrown around.

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs next wave of talent

Almora1

Albert Almora could be part of the next big Cubs renaissance. (Photo by Jason Wise)

The following can be found in the Inside Pitch section of February’s Vine Line.

“The good ones get to the big leagues fast. The great ones come faster,” said Cubs superscout Hugh Alexander, circa 1987.

For Cubs fans, the great ones can’t arrive fast enough.

A total of 288 losses—the most of any three-year period in franchise history—has tested everyone from ownership to the beer vendors. There is, however, hope on the horizon.

After two years of aggressively building the minor league system, many of the organization’s prized draft choices and international free agents are getting closer to Wrigley Field. Fans might want to circle the third week in June for the possible big league debuts of No. 1 picks Javier Baez (2011) and Kris Bryant (2013).

It’s been at least 30 years since the last meaningful renaissance in Cubs player development. In the mid-1980s, GM Dallas Green produced a succession of big league stars, including Greg Maddux, Shawon Dunston, Joe Carter, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace and Jamie Moyer.

But you have to go all the way back to GM John Holland to find the Cubs’ longest stretch of player development success since the 1930s. He kept the franchise over .500 for six consecutive seasons between 1967-72.

Under Holland, eventual Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo arrived in 1960, followed by two Rookies of the Year—HOF outfielder Billy Williams in ’61 and second baseman Ken Hubbs in ’62. Even after Hubbs’ death in a 1964 plane crash, Holland’s astute trades fortified a talented nucleus of Santo, Williams and Ernie Banks.

Now, having drafted in the top 10 three years in a row, the organization hopes to launch another golden age. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer generally believe hitters need 500 Triple-A at-bats before they’re major league ready. Still, exceptions arise.

“We won’t rush our young people,” said Jason McLeod, VP of scouting and player development. “Each is different, though. We view individual development as a combination of a player and a person being ready.”

Shortstop Baez, the ninth-overall pick in 2011, has more experience than third baseman Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013. But Bryant’s maturity makes him equally worthy of promotion.

To merit a quick jump, a player must dominate the competition. Bryant, 22, was the 2013 College Player of the Year, leading the nation with 31 homers.

He then slugged his way through three minor league stops (.336, nine homers, 32 RBI in 128 at-bats) and helped Single-A Daytona win the Florida State League title. He followed that by being named MVP of the Arizona Fall League, a breeding ground for future superstars, with a .364 average and six homers in 20 games.

Between Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, Baez, 21, was one of the most potent offensive players in baseball. He led the minors in RBI (111) and extra-base hits (75) and tied for second in homers (37).

“This young man will be a monster in the majors when he gets there,” said an AL scout. “His bat is lightning fast. He might not be patient now (147 strikeouts and 40 walks in 577 at-bats last season), but he’ll reduce strikeouts as he moves up and matures.”
For Baez, defense is the greater challenge. He committed 44 errors in 2013.

“He has a great arm, and when he learns to control his responses, he’ll be a reliable fielder,” the scout said.

Though the 6-foot-5 Bryant currently plays the hot corner, many feel he could end up in the outfield.

“Guys over 6-foot-4 generally lack the quickness to stay at third,” an NL scout said. “With his presence and work ethic, I don’t doubt he can play the position. But with his arm, he could easily play a corner outfield spot.”

The goal is to meld the likes of Baez, Bryant, and outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler with young big leaguers Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Junior Lake.

Almora, who turns 20 in April, was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 2012 (6th overall) and hit .329 during an injury-shortened 2013 season at Class-A Kane County. Scouts project some power, and they like his bat control and stroke to all fields. They also rave about his instincts in center. Though he lacks great speed, he makes up for it with quick reads.

Maturity seems to be the hurdle for Soler, who turns 22 in February. In an injury-marred 2013 season with Daytona, he was suspended five games for charging the opposing dugout with a bat and benched one game for not hustling.

The NL scout said Soler, in addition to possessing a strong arm, “has the most natural power in the system.” Some scouts believe the Cuban defector is still adjusting to the U.S. after signing a nine-year, $30 million contract in June 2012.

Contractual control can certainly be a consideration in timing a player’s promotion to the majors. By postponing a big league debut until the end of June, a team guarantees three full seasons of control before that player becomes arbitration eligible.

Though Baseball America ranks just three pitchers—Arodys Vizcaino, Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards—among the organization’s top 10 players, there’s little cause for concern.

“They have more right-handed power hitting than anyone in baseball,” said the NL scout. “If all pan out, they’ll be able to add pitching [by trading] hitting depth.

—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, Pitching Depth

Kyle-Hendricks-(Credit-Matthew-Shalbrack)

Kyle Hendricks was the Cubs 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. (Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. We’ll post some of the profiles here on the blog in the coming weeks so you can keep track of all the names to know in the Cubs highly ranked system.

Also from the series:

2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – The Elite
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – Close to Big Leagues
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – International Impact

PITCHING DEPTH
The Cubs’ last two drafts kicked off with position players Albert Almora and Kris Bryant, but the next dozen rounds or so were focused heavily on adding pitching depth to the system. While the Cubs still lack a knockout pitching prospect (something missing from most systems around baseball), they have some interesting arms acquired via bulk drafting, trades (both major and seemingly minor ones) and international free agency.

The draft strategy the Cubs have employed over the past two Junes has done two things: It’s increased their chances of finding a gem who can be a big contributor in their rotation and given them options to fill the bullpen with arms who don’t stick as starters. In the long run, this will save the Cubs money and keep them from investing heavily in relievers, who are notoriously erratic from year to year. That way, they can allocate funds in different areas while attempting to improve the major league ballclub.

COREY BLACK
DOB: 8/4/1991
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 107.2 IP, 3.93 ERA, 116 K, 55 BB (24 STARTS)

It’s easy for scouts to peg Black as a bullpen arm, because he’s a smaller guy with a slender upper body. However, while he does have some effort in his delivery, he brings premium stuff, including a mid-90s fastball and a big-time slider to complement his very aggressive personality on the mound.

“I love watching this guy pitch,” said SVP of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod. “He is a bulldog and a half.”

The most common guess is that Black ends up as a reliever, with the potential to be an elite back-of-the-bullpen arm. But the Cubs are going to keep him in their loaded Tennessee rotation to see if his stuff will play up in a starter’s role.

PAUL BLACKBURN
DOB: 12/4/1993
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: 46.0 IP, 3.33 ERA, 38 K, 29 BB (12 STARTS, 13 APPEARANCES)

With a strong delivery, three pitches and good arm action, Blackburn has all the ingredients to be an advanced feel pitcher. He relies on plus command, but the youngster had some outings in which his walk totals perplexed the Cubs front office. While he has room to fill out and possibly bring his average fastball into plus territory, Blackburn still projects as an efficient, innings-eating, athletic pitcher even if the velocity stays where it is now.

He can move the ball all around the zone, but he often nibbles, which creates the high walk totals. If he can trust his stuff on a consistent basis, he has everything it takes to develop into a solid middle-of-the-rotation piece.

KYLE HENDRICKS
DOB: 12/7/1989
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: IOWA
2013 STATS: 166.1 IP, 2.00 ERA, 128 K, 34 BB (27 STARTS)

Recent Dartmouth grad Hendricks is a premium strike thrower who has the ability to cut up both sides of the plate with multiple pitches. He is the type of pitcher who throws to a scouting report rather than relying on pure stuff, and was one of the more efficient pitchers in the Cubs system in 2013. He lasted six innings or more in 19 of his 27 starts and did so while throwing a minimum of pitches.

Though his fastball isn’t light, it isn’t overpowering either, sitting at 88-92 mph. But his ability to locate the pitch with precision, combined with a cutter he can throw to both sides of the plate, keeps hitters from barreling him up too often. He’s never going to rack up strikeouts, but with his four-pitch arsenal, he will keep hitters guessing and could fit nicely in the back end of the Cubs rotation.

PIERCE JOHNSON
DOB: 5/10/1991
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 118.1 IP, 2.74 ERA, 124 K, 43 BB (21 STARTS, 23 APPEARANCES)

Johnson did everything asked of him in 2013 and progressed just as the Cubs hoped he would. He showed steady improvement throughout the season and got stronger as the year went on—his velocity actually ticked up when he was promoted to Daytona.

Johnson is getting better at repeating his delivery, an important point of emphasis as he often finishes upright, causing his fastball to be up in the zone. He also developed more consistency with both command and his breaking ball. His focus this offseason has been on adding weight to his frame, as he looks to increase his workload. He should team up with C.J. Edwards to lead a formidable Tennessee rotation.

DILLON MAPLES
DOB: 5/9/1992
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: 76.2 IP, 4.93 ERA, 75 K, 50 BB (16 STARTS, 21 APPEARANCES)

With Maples, the key is and always has been consistency with his delivery. After a very up-and-down couple of months at Kane County, Maples was sent down to Boise in July and turned his season around. It was the best many in the Cubs front office had ever seen him perform in terms of his delivery. During that time, Maples got his curveball over the plate and down in the zone, generating swings and misses.

Not only were the results different, but so was Maples’ attitude. Observers say he looked more confident on the mound in Boise, with a chest-out bravado. He was aggressive in the zone, a stark contrast to the pitcher who seemed to be constantly thinking about his mechanics and worrying about getting hit, which led to nibbling and high walk totals. If the new and improved Maples can carry over this season, he may end up turning into the steal many thought the Cubs had when he was drafted in the 14th round in 2011.

BARRETT LOUX (RHP) – Loux brings a four-pitch mix, but injuries have diminished the stuff that made him a top 10 pick in Arizona just three years ago. Despite shoulder issues, he still proved competitive on the mound last season. He will continue his shoulder maintenance program with hopes of recovering some of the life on his once-plus fastball and other pitches.

TREY MASEK (RHP) – Masek is on the smaller side, so his eventual role could be out of the bullpen. He uses a fastball-slider combo and has a split-grip change-up. He will be given the chance to be a starter in 2014.

NEIL RAMIREZ (RHP) – The former Rangers first-rounder suffered through shoulder and elbow injuries in 2013, so the Cubs are taking a conservative approach with him. When healthy, he shows a typical three-pitch arm, featuring a fastball that sits at 90-94 mph and a hard slider. The focus is on getting him strong and healthy so he can get through a full season.

TYLER SKULINA (RHP) – Skulina is a big man who touches 96 mph with his fastball and has a swing-and-miss slider. At 6-foot-6, his key is getting consistent rhythm to his delivery. He impressed in instructs and could jump up the rankings if he continues to develop his change-up.

ROB ZASTRYZNY (LHP) – Zastryzny is a hard-nosed lefty with a 90-93 mph downhill fastball, plus curveball and solid change. He’s a strong competitor who pitches with a chip on his shoulder and will attack the zone every fifth day.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jaron Madison on the value of statistics

x

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following can be found in the Farm Report section of February’s issue of Vine Line.

Every major league team has a department dedicated to analyzing statistics that are designed to help big league managers and players gain an edge over the competition. For player development personnel, however, the potential of statistics isn’t yet clear.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Cubs farm director Jaron Madison ignores the reports he gets from the number crunchers.

“If you don’t pay attention to and use information available to you, you’re doing yourself and your club a disservice,” he said. “But you have to recognize it’s just one tool to help our players get to Wrigley Field.”

Just how valuable are stats? It depends on where a player is in the system. Numbers are less valuable to Madison and the Cubs front office when they pertain to players in the organization’s lower levels.

“Those players are still growing into themselves and making corrections,” he said. “There are still quite a few things they have to learn and work on.”

With a Single-A player, Madison said he looks for more general information, such as how that player compares with his peers. As a prospect moves up the ladder and becomes more of a finished product, statistical analysis can help determine how he can best help the Cubs at the big league level or what tweaks he must make to get there.

“By the time they reach [Triple-A] Iowa, players have already had four or five years to work on specific tools and develop into who they are,” he said.

One thing Madison doesn’t do with numbers is use them to set benchmarks. Leadoff hitters, for instance, aren’t required to walk a certain number of times, and pitchers aren’t told they’ll be promoted only if their ERAs stay under a specific number.

“Our evaluations are more comprehensive, paying attention to how guys control the zone on both sides of the ball,” Madison said. “We look at the things they can control.”

Plus, there is definitely such a thing as too much information, especially for players. Young hitters, Madison said, can put too much stock in their home run totals and batting averages, often to the detriment of their overall development.

“It’s more important for our hitters to work on the process and focus on having good at-bats,” he said. “You can square it up and hit the ball hard seven out of 10 times but hit it right at someone. Or you can go up there and get on base on six balls that don’t leave the infield.”

That means Cubs minor league coaches must convince prospects to forget about their numbers, which isn’t an easy task in such a results-oriented business. Hitters often take a while to realize that striking out but seeing 15 pitches can actually be a good thing in the long run.

The bottom line is the Cubs don’t want prospects thinking too much when they’re on the field, and statistics can definitely lead to overthinking.

“The message we send our players is to have a plan and work that plan,” Madison said. “Yes, we will tell them they need to control the zone better to get a good pitch to hit. But when they get that pitch, it’s OK to let it rip.”

Statistical analysis is yet another tool to help Madison and his staff move prospects forward in the system, but every team has access to similar information. It’s how the Cubs use all this new data—and keep players focused on their development plan—that will determine how useful the numbers really are.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, International Impact

Torres-Mitchell

Shortstop Gleyber Torres was one of baseball’s top international prospects in 2013. (Image by Bill Mitchell)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. We’ll post some of the profiles here on the blog in the coming weeks so you can keep track of all the names to know in the Cubs highly ranked system.

Also from the series:

2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus- The Elite
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus- Close to the Big Leagues

INTERNATIONAL IMPACT

Over the past 15 years, the Cubs have done well on the international free agent market, especially in Latin America. From Carlos Zambrano to Starlin Castro to, most recently, Junior Lake, the organization continually produces international players who impact the major league roster.

However, while teams like the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees were competing for big-money players, the Cubs were content to sign low-cost free agents and hope their bulk purchases would eventually pay off. But with the signing of Soler in 2012, the new Cubs regime announced to the baseball world they were becoming serious players in the international community. Even with spending restrictions in place, the trend continued in 2013, as the Cubs blew past their allotted cap, signing numerous highly regarded prospects. Due to their free-spending ways, they will have even harsher limits on their spending next summer, but clearly Epstein and company believed the talent level available this year made it worth the risk.

Along with the many players inked during the international signing period in July, the Cubs also have some intriguing names who are young and still growing into their bodies. These raw athletes likely won’t make an impact at Wrigley anytime soon, but they help create the depth necessary to ensure the Cubs system can consistently funnel talent to the big league roster.

ELOY JIMENEZ
DOB: 11/27/1996
POSITION: RF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

At just 17 years of age, Jimenez is already a physical specimen. He was the consensus top player in last summer’s international free agent class, and the Cubs paid him accordingly, giving him a $2.8 million bonus, the highest handed out in 2013.

The Dominican native already has great strength, and scouts expect him to display his tremendous raw power in game action as he continues to grow. Jimenez also has the strong arm and athleticism necessary to play a solid right field.

GLEYBER TORRES
DOB: 12/13/1996
POSITION: SS
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

Many considered Torres the second-best prospect in the 2013 class, just behind Jimenez, but that’s where the similarities end. Torres doesn’t project to have much power—he might touch double-digit home runs at his peak—but he already has an advanced hitting ability and approach for his age.

If his development goes as expected, the Venezuelan could hit for a high average, knocking doubles into the gaps while playing plus defense at shortstop.

JEN-HO TSENG
DOB: 10/3/1994
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

Of the big names the Cubs signed this July, the 19-year-old Tseng could be the most developed. He throws a lot of strikes with three strong pitches—a split-finger fastball, curve and slider—and his fastball can touch 95. With an advanced feel for pitching, it wouldn’t shock anyone if Tseng started the year in Kane County.

The Taiwanese pitcher has already performed on a bigger stage than most international free agents, pitching for his home country in both the World Baseball Classic and the 18U World Championship Games. Though the overall quality of his stuff was down in his most recent outings, some believe it was due to heavy usage. Some time off should help as he gets acclimated to a less intense workload stateside.

JEIMER CANDELARIO
DOB: 11/24/1993
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .256/.346/.396 (130 GAMES)

Candelario first caught scouts’ eyes in 2011, when he posted a .443 on-base percentage at the age of 17 in the Dominican Summer League. While those statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, he also performed well the following year in Boise, earning time at full-season Kane County in 2013.

While the numbers at Kane County don’t jump off the page, his performance was still impressive considering his age and the league in which he was playing.

A switch-hitter with a feel for the zone, Candelario, who was born in New York but grew up in the Dominican, is still growing into what McLeod referred to as his “man strength,” which should help increase his power numbers in the future.

YASIEL BALAGUERT
DOB: 1/2/1993
POSITION: OF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: .261/.334/.439 (67 GAMES)

In 2012, Balaguert was sent to Peoria (the Cubs’ low-A affiliate at the time) and performed poorly, hitting only .208 in 149 at-bats. But he rebounded for a solid season after spending most of 2013 at Boise. He is still trying to figure out who he is as a hitter, but he’s strong, has a lot of power and is learning to control the strike zone better.

Balaguert is the type of athlete with a wide variance of possible end points. In 2014, he could explode into a top prospect or struggle mightily and get lost among the numerous other talented players in the Cubs system. If things do click for the young Cuban, it’ll be a credit to his tremendous work ethic as well as the Cubs’ scouting and player development team for identifying and molding a truly raw kid into a valuable piece of the puzzle.

ERICK LEAL (RHP) – This 18-year old, acquired for Tony Campana, is tall and lanky with average velocity and good feel for a change-up. He’s a strike thrower with minimal walks and a good understanding of pitching. The Cubs hope his velocity will tick up as he gains strength.

CARLOS PENALVER (SS) – The best defensive shortstop in the system, Penalver has smooth hands, easy transfer and plenty of arm strength. He also shows the ingredients of someone who can handle the bat, including a good idea of the zone and strong swing path. He needs to gain weight and strength to put his offensive skill set to use at the major league level.

JEFFERSON MEJIA (RHP) – Mejia has a big frame and projects to have three plus offerings if he fills out and adds velocity to his current 87-90 mph fastball. He works down in the zone and keeps bats off his fastball with an advanced change-up and a quality breaking ball.

ERLING MORENO (RHP) – This 6-foot-7 Colombian throws in the low-90s with a change-up that can miss bats and an average curveball. His athleticism allows him to repeat his delivery with consistency, something that can often be an issue with taller pitchers.

—Sahadev Sharma

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,120 other followers