Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: Stretching out with Jeff Garlin

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The following can be found in the Short Stops section of the June issue of Vine Line. (Photo by Stephen Green)

Comedian. Actor. Cubs fan. That’s probably the best way to describe Jeff Garlin (though maybe not in that order). He is such a big fan of the team, he even enjoys hanging around the Friendly Confines when the Cubs are out of town. Vine Line caught up with the funnyman during the opening series to discuss why he keeps coming back to Wrigley and how little he likes seeing Ryne Sandberg in a Phillies uniform.

Vine Line: What’s it like for you to spend an afternoon at Wrigley Field?

Jeff Garlin: The idea that you’re here for a game is amazing. But when I come by here, on a day when the Cubs are even out of town … I remember once even being here, eating an ice cream bar—it was 10 degrees outside—eating an ice cream bar with my friend right by the entrance to Wrigley, just because. It makes me happy.

VL: Who’s your all-time favorite Cub?

JG: Well, I have a bunch—Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger. The point being I just love the Cubs. … But I guess my favorite all-time Cub if I were to pick one would be Ron Santo. When I met him—I met him quite a few times, singing and being here—every time I left the booth, he stood up to shake my hand. Mind you, that’s a guy with no legs standing up to shake my hand. So from that moment on, I always get up. Always.

VL: In addition to your other jobs, I’ve heard you enjoy photography. How did you get into that?

JG: I was watching Colin Greenwood. He’s the bass player for Radiohead. I was hanging out with him, and he just loved taking pictures. I sort of had started a little bit, and he inspired me more. Then, over the years, I’ve gotten more and more into it. I don’t show anybody my pictures though. I’m not good enough yet. Someday I’ll have a book, do an exhibition.

VL: How does it feel seeing Ryne Sandberg in a Phillies uniform?

JG: I’ve ignored it, which means I’m not looking for it. I don’t want to see it. I don’t like the way it feels … just knowing he’s the manager of the Phillies. I’m happy he’s got a gig, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. It really makes me nuts, more so than I even thought. I thought I’d be cool with it. I’m not cool with it. The manager, [Rick] Renteria, seems like a great guy, a really good manager. But I just love Ryne Sandberg. He’s Ryno, gosh!

VL: If you were allowed to take one souvenir from Wrigley Field, what would it be?

JG: The scoreboard. [I’d put it] in the front of my house, put it on the ground, lean it back. That’s where it would be. I’d lay it on an angle, and I’d clean it. But I’d let things grow on it over time.

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs’ recent draft trends

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Kris Bryant visits Wrigley Field shortly after the Cubs made him their top pick in 2013. (Photo by Stephen Green)

Major league scouting directors tend to be vague when asked about their draft strategies leading up to the big day in June. They generally offer some variation on the same theme.

“It is the simple answer of picking the best guy available,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “We’ve made no bones about trying to get as much pitching as we can. But in the last two drafts, we’ve taken position players with our first picks, because we felt Albert [Almora] and Kris [Bryant] were the most impactful guys for us at those draft positions.”

The 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft will take place next week, from June 5-7. Though McLeod and his staff have consistently gone after the best available players with their top picks—regardless of need—they have shown a few common tendencies that might inform their decisions this year.

Since 2011, the year before the current front office took over, the Cubs have trended toward college selections. That year, 40 percent of the players the team picked came out of college. Last year, 55 percent of draftees played college ball. Meanwhile, the percentage of high school players drafted has decreased from 42 percent in 2011 to 27.5 percent in 2013.

Second, right-handed pitchers have dominated the draft board. Nearly 40 percent of the players selected by the Cubs in each of the last three drafts were righties. Under the Epstein/Hoyer regime, the Cubs have picked 38 right-handed arms, 20 of them from college and seven from junior college.

But the Cubs’ right-hander-heavy drafts may be less a function of preference than of consistent depth at the position. And this year is no exception. According to Baseball America, there are 19 right-handed pitchers among the top 50 draft-eligible players for 2014.

McLeod also added that pitchers in general are easier to project.

“You walk into a ballpark and see someone with fairly clean mechanics who’s throwing 90-94, and you’re pretty comfortable recommending him,” McLeod said. “Hitters, especially high school hitters, take more investment. You have to see them on multiple occasions and in the right circumstances before you can say that, yes, you think this guy will hit at the next level.”

Of course, drafting players is only half the battle. Signing them takes just as much work. A year ago, the Cubs signed just 60 percent of their draft picks. The prior season, the team had better luck, inking 81 percent of players selected.

The good news is the organization has gotten better at signing premium talent. In 2011, 17 of the club’s first 20 picks signed, followed by 18 of 20 in 2012 and 19 of 20 last year. Plus, the Cubs signed every one of their top 10 draftees in 2013—a crop that includes hot prospects Bryant, Tyler Skulina and Jacob Hannemann.

The team has also shown a knack for getting quick returns on draft investments. Seven of the organization’s top 20 prospects, according to MLB.com, were selected in 2012 or 2013.

“The last few drafts have had a few no-doubt guys,” McLeod said in late April. “This year, the draft is deep, but we’re still waiting on players to step to the forefront. We’re pretty wide open in terms of who we’re looking at for that top pick.”

History and the current talent pool may suggest the Cubs will take a right-hander with their top pick. But the only certainty is McLeod’s assertion that the front office will select the best players available when they are on the clock.

—Chris Gigley

From the Pages of Vine Line: Scouting the mental game

Moyer

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

Before every start, former Cubs pitcher Jamie Moyer prepped for the task at hand. He had already watched video of his opponents, mentally digested a quarter century of notes and done a final crosscheck with his battery mate. Now it was time for the journeyman to get in the zone.

Many players can’t reach the proper psychological place without some screaming, chest bumps or high-octane heavy metal. But as Moyer’s on-field demeanor might indicate, that wasn’t really his style. The ageless southpaw with a fastball that might have last reached 90 miles per hour sometime during the Clinton administration had a milder approach—one you might expect from somebody who threw his last major league pitch only six months shy of his 50th birthday.

Just before every game, Moyer would sit at his locker, concentrating on a small series of laminated 5×7 notecards. The text contained nothing directly related to the game or that day’s opponent. For Moyer, however, those cards had everything to do with the fast-approaching tilt.

One 5×7’s big, bold header read: “After making a mistake, make an adjustment.” Below that, there were three questions: “1. What was I trying to do? 2. What went wrong? 3. What do I have to do next time?”

The second card carried a similar bold headline that read: “Problem Solving.” Below that, in bullet points: “1. Awareness (define the problem). 2. Forming a strategy (what has to be done?). 3. Act it out (do it).”

For a large portion of Moyer’s career, these were the final items to be checked on a lengthy to-do list before he took the mound. This is what pumped him up and got him focused.

“To me, it almost became part of putting my uniform on,” Moyer said. “If I didn’t do it, it felt like I was missing a shoe.”

Beyond Statistics
It’s probably safe to say the days of having an advantage through Moneyball philosophies are over. Advanced statistics have evolved into standard practice for the majority of baseball organizations. Now teams that don’t use The Bill James Handbook or some variation of it to gain an advantage over the other 29 clubs are viewed as outsiders. Even the common fan has access to much of this information through avenues like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs.

So the multimillion-dollar question might be, what’s next?

The bottom line is all professional baseball players have physical talent. Most minor leaguers were perennial All-Stars in Little League and prep or college standouts. The goal for major league front offices is to find the thing that separates the cream of the crop—the characteristics that allow a player to succeed in high-leverage situations where others fail. That’s why clubs are going to great lengths to find guys who are ready to perform at an elite level psychologically as well as physically.

“I think now we’re at a point in time where 30 clubs have analyzed and done pretty in-depth research, so I’m not sure how much of an advantage [advanced statistics are] in that area,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “So now I think a lot of clubs are looking at physical health and mental health, trying to get an edge in those areas.”

Looking into an athlete’s mental state is nothing entirely new. The most recognizable example takes place around the NFL’s spring draft, as football hopefuls are asked to take an examination known as the Wonderlic Test to gauge their problem-solving abilities.

Dr. H. David Smith, a professor at Northwestern University and an expert on sports psychology, said major league clubs have been using tests like the Athletic Coping Skills Inventory and the Athletic Motivation Inventory for years. These exams attempt to ascertain a player’s motivation and preparation, and determine how they’re likely to perform under pressure.

“You have to think and plan and predict to be successful in sports—and baseball in particular,” said Smith, who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. “I think there’s a huge mental aspect, in part because there’s so much inaction. Because of the amount of time between plays, there’s a lot of thinking that happens.”

Sports psychologists try to educate athletes on the mental preparation necessary to do their jobs, including how to perform well under pressure. It’s easy to overlook the fact that professional baseball players routinely work in front of 40,000 screaming fans and a media contingent eager to point fingers after every miscue.

Mental relaxation training might consist of putting the person in a high-pressure situation for an extended period of time and instructing him on how to prioritize the task at hand, rather than be crippled by emotion. It should come as no surprise everyone operates differently.

“Sports psychologists … are figuring out under what circumstances [athletes] have succeeded and under what circumstances they failed, and trying to figure out with them how best to prepare them to succeed in the mental aspect,” Smith said.

Draft Day
One of the main places big league teams are working hard to win the psychological battle is in the MLB amateur draft. Prospects are located across the country, and they play against varying levels of talent. That makes evaluating a player’s skill level even more difficult. By getting to know their personalities, clubs can get a better grasp of who the prospects really are. And any additional information is a bonus when deciding whether to hand an 18-year-old a multimillion-dollar contract.

“At the major league level, everybody’s on the same field—everybody’s at the major league level,” said Jason Parks, the director of scouting and player development for Baseball Prospectus. “Looking at advanced statistics at the minor league level, or even the amateur ranks, I think that because of the different context involved, advanced statistics start to get a little thin. And that’s when you have to try to rely on more scouting. I think the psychological element is becoming even bigger. The makeup component is becoming more vital and important.”

When scouting a young player, the Cubs try to dig up as much information as possible. They’re not just looking to see what a player does on the field, but also how he interacts with others. Scouts visit with the potential farmhands’ families and ask questions that aren’t always directly related to the player’s physical abilities.

“We challenge our scouts in the draft to get to know these guys as well as we can and find out as much information as we can [about] what makes them tick,” McLeod said. “Anything that might prohibit them from being the player they can be.
“What kind of upbringing does this guy have? How involved are his parents? Does he lean on his family? If not, who does he go to?”

Because most other organizations ask similar questions, McLeod said the Cubs try to come up with different angles to keep repetition to a minimum while still getting accurate answers.

For Parks, who spends much of his time at high school fields and minor league complexes, there are some on-field mannerisms he likes to look for that help him determine a prospect’s mental stake in the game. One is how a batter fares the second time up against a pitcher who struck him out on a questionable called third strike. Parks likes to see how that hitter adjusts, to both the pitcher and the expanded strike zone.

“Remember how you got beat, but don’t carry it over emotionally,” Parks said. “Understand that you’re not going to get that call and adjust accordingly.”

With the new collective bargaining agreement capping the dollars an organization can spend on amateur and international prospects, identifying the right players is becoming even more important. In previous years, big-money teams could stock up on talent by overpaying prospects. If they missed on a few, it was simply money lost.

That all changed in 2012. The CBA leveled the playing field and made it essential for teams that want to build through youth to succeed in the scouting department.

Cubs 2012 first-round draft pick Albert Almora is the perfect example of a player who excels both mentally and physically. He is known as a talented athlete with a plus hit tool and a plus glove. But the biggest asset the 20-year-old brings to the table might be his baseball savvy.

“You can tell Almora has been playing baseball since he was born,” Parks said. “What Almora does, it seems like he’s been going through these motions his whole life. Now everything is just muscle memory, and it’s just easy for him.”

Almora’s case is well documented. The Cubs’ No. 3-ranked prospect (according to MLB.com) grew up with a makeshift training facility—complete with a batting cage—in his backyard and played on a record six U.S. National teams. He’s a natural leader, his instincts are off the charts, and he spends hours after games signing autographs and meeting fans. It’s hard for scouting experts to stop raving about him—even a seasoned baseball vet like McLeod.

“Intangibles—[he’s] wired so well that he has confidence,” McLeod said. “Players that are with him, he’s going to get them better just because of the way he approaches the game.”

And finding more players with that approach might be a key component of future scouting.

“I think that is going to be a wave with scouting,” Parks said. “The Almoras are the ones who wind up making it to the major league level, instead of just being the dreams, and you look at their physical gifts and say, ‘I wonder what.’”

The Mental Game
This brings us back to Moyer. A sixth-round pick in the 1984 draft, the 51-year-old Phillies TV broadcaster threw his last big league pitch in May 2012. He said he prepped with those notecards starting in 1991, after he spent two and a half days with mental skills coach Harvey Dorfman. Dorfman served as the Oakland Athletics’ mental performance coach and later spent time with the Marlins and released a series of books, including The Mental Game of Baseball.

In their time together, Moyer gained a better grasp of positive thinking.

“When you think negatively, you talk negatively. When you talk negatively, you’ll respond negatively,” Moyer said. “And when you tell your body negative things, usually negative things are going to happen. ‘I don’t want to hang this curveball.’ Well, you do, because it’s your last thought, so you hang the curveball.”

Ridding himself of negativity was a large factor in Moyer’s remarkable 25-year baseball career. Never one to overpower his opponents, he instead found success with his ability to locate pitches while keeping a constant focus on the game—even though he knew failure was inevitable.

“If you succeed three out of 10 times, you’re considered quite successful,” Moyer said. “For a starting pitcher, if you get your 33 or 34 starts a season and you win 15 games, you’re considered very successful. But that’s still [losing] some 50 percent of the time.”

Most players who sign a professional contract aren’t all that used to failure. At a very competitive high school, Cubs top prospect Javier Baez hit .771 his senior season. Front office members are very aware of how a player’s growth can be stunted at the first signs of failure. On the other hand, they see how much a player can learn from overcoming early issues.

“I think we’ve all seen those players who we say, ‘Wow, this guy should have been better than he was’ or ‘Wow, this guy really gets the most of his ability,’” McLeod said. “Most of the time, that has to do with how that certain person is wired, how they prepare themselves, how they deal with success and failure.”

Moyer was a clear-cut example of the latter. Over his lengthy career, he managed just one All-Star Game (in 2002, at age 40) and was likely never the anchor of any rotation despite two 20-win seasons.

But it’s probably a safe bet that if he was on the bump five days after a defeat, he had those 5×7 cards in hand and was ready to make the necessary adjustments.

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs are giving 100 Gifts of Service

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(Illustration by Jerry Neumann)

Most people looked at the Cubs Convention as the official kickoff to the Party of the Century, but the festivities actually began a few days earlier at the annual Cubs Caravan, when the team launched their new 100 Gifts of Service initiative.

Cubs associates, players, alumni and corporate partners will celebrate the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field by performing acts of service and volunteer projects in the community throughout the 2014 calendar year. So far, activities have included visiting hospital patients, serving lunch to active military at the USO and volunteering at local schools.

“The 100 Gifts of Service give everybody in the organization the opportunity to get out and interact with our fans and with families and kids in the community and see the result of having an impact on their lives,” said Jennifer Dedes Nowak, manager of Cubs Charities programs.

The Cubs are no strangers to community service. Every year, the team and Cubs Charities fund about $2.4 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and programs serving youth and families in need. They also donate thousands of autographed items and tickets to charitable organizations supporting health, fitness and education.

The Cubs are tracking their 100 Gifts of Service progress on the WrigleyField100.com website and through social media. The goal is to perform 100 hands-on projects—both large and small—in 2014, but the Cubs hope to surpass that number before the year is out.

Future gifts include renovating Chicago playgrounds with Friends of the Parks and the Chicago Plays! program, helping get kids active with the Cubs on the Move Fitness Trolley, and hosting a summer camp cookout at the Lakeview YMCA.

“We’re all part of this monumental year,” Dedes Nowak said. “We just want to come away with a great story and leave a legacy that we made an impact on the community in 2014.”

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jason Hammel is making his dreams come true

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs starter Jason Hammel is enjoying his first season on the North Side. The 31-year-old is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in six starts. He’s also enjoying his opportunity to pitch at Wrigley Field, something the veteran hurler had never done prior to this season. The following can be found in the May issue of Vine Line.

Everyone has a wish list—places they want to see, things they want to do. For pitcher Jason Hammel, that list has always included pitching at Wrigley Field. That’s part of the reason the veteran free agent wanted to sign with the Cubs this offseason.

Remarkably, in eight previous major league campaigns, including three with the Colorado Rockies, Hammel made only 21 starts against NL Central opponents and never threw a pitch at the Friendly Confines. Now, he hopes he gets the chance to throw a lot of them.

“I love the fact that it’s a stadium in the middle of a highly residential area,” Hammel said. “I’ve never been to Lambeau Field [home of the Green Bay Packers], but I’ve heard so many things about it. That’s why they have such a great following, because it’s so accessible. Wrigley’s the same. It’s a neighborhood.

“The Cubs have so much history in their own franchise, going way back. There are so many stories about so many big names and Hall of Famers who have come out of this franchise, it’s a bucket list [item] for players. You want to go there at some point. Now I get to go there, and it’s a dream come true.”

The right-hander, who signed a one-year, $6 million contract in February, knows there’s a chance he could be traded this season. He also knows Cubs history doesn’t include many World Series championships. But that doesn’t concern him. His goal is to help turn the franchise around and have a long, successful run on the North Side.

“Obviously, we haven’t won in a long time,” he said. “But we’re going to change that.”

Hammel brings some much-needed experience to a relatively green starting staff. He joined Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva in the Cubs Opening Day rotation, and, at 31, he’s the oldest of the bunch.

“And I’m longer off the tee than all of them,” he said, laughing.

Over the years, golf has been a good way for Hammel, now with his fourth major league club, to get to know his teammates.

“All the teams I’ve played on before, all the guys say, ‘Oh, I love golf, we’ll play,’” Hammel said. “You come into the season and go on the road, and most of the guys sleep. I’m getting to that stage in my life where I need to get up and get moving, go do something to get the body moving, and it’s always been golf.

“All the guys—Jeff, Woody, [James Russell]—play a little. It’s fun having guys around with the same common interest and also goes to the baseball side of it. They’re all pushing in the same direction. They want to win. We want to continue to get better. Winning seasons are based on starting pitching.”

Though he’s the newest member of the rotation, Hammel has worked hard to forge a bond with his fellow starters.

“It’s a new team for him, and, as the new guy, he wants to get to know everyone. A lot of times that’s what the conversation is about,” Samardzija said of their talk on the golf course. “Ham’s great. He’s a great dude.

“He enjoys talking baseball, which is always an important attribute for a ballplayer. You learn so much more from talking than playing sometimes.”

So who’s the best golfer? According to Hammel, it’s Russell.

“He just bangs it out there,” Hammel said of the lefty reliever. “He’s really good with his irons.”

WINNING WAYS
The Cubs are hoping Hammel can provide the kind of veteran leadership the club has been lacking since the departures of players like Ryan Dempster and David DeJesus. And Hammel knows a thing or two about winning. He was on the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 when they reached the World Series (though he didn’t pitch), and was part of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles team that shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games and reaching the American League Division Series.

A 10th-round pick in the 2002 draft by Tampa Bay, Hammel was traded to the Rockies in April 2009 for Aneury Rodriguez, and then traded to the Orioles in February 2012 along with Matt Lindstrom for Jeremy Guthrie.

“I’ve always wanted to be a one-team guy—that’s everybody’s dream,” Hammel said. “I’ve learned about the business side of baseball through [my transactions]. As much as it’s tough and sad, it’s also more opportunity. Every team I’ve gone to, I’ve had a better experience than the last.”

He’s also gotten the opportunity to learn from different pitching coaches and players, and discovered new things about himself and how to be a big leaguer. Now, he’s taking that accumulated knowledge and using it to mentor the Cubs’ young players.

“His first year with us in Baltimore was 2012,” said Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who was Hammel’s teammate with the Orioles. “My first impression was that he was turning into that veteran-type guy, a guy who really understood himself. He understood what it takes to be successful at a high level on a consistent basis and [was] a guy who exuded a lot of confidence. I really liked that and respected that and those aspects about the way he carried himself. It really showed, especially in 2012.

“I think he’d agree that he had a down year [last year] and wasn’t happy with it,” Arrieta said of Hammel’s 7-8 record and 4.97 ERA with Baltimore. “In 2012, we got a good look at what type of guy he really can be. It was fun to watch. He brings a lot to the table. He’s got a lot of insight and knowledge that a lot of guys in the clubhouse can utilize. I think he’ll have a good year for us.”

In that magical 2012 season for the Orioles, Hammel went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts, including a one-hit shutout of the Braves on June 16. Though he struggled last year, Hammel certainly knows how to bounce back from adversity. In his first big league season in 2003, he was 0-6 with a 7.77 ERA in nine starts with the Rays.

He also knows what’s ahead of him in Chicago. He’s seen teams rebuild—and rebound—beginning with Tampa and then again with the 2012 Orioles.

“[The rebuilding] was something I was able to learn and go through, and it helped give me my personality in baseball,” he said. “You see a lot of that here with the Cubs—a lot of young guys finally starting to reach their peaks. They’ve got, from what I can see, the right amount of veteran leadership and the right amount of young guys who are really starting to pull their weight and getting an idea of how to be a big leaguer, and the guys in the middle who are doing well. There are a lot of positive things.”

During Spring Training, Hammel got a glimpse of the Cubs’ future watching top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora make their mark on the Cactus League. Hammel said he would like to stay and see those players develop.
“Staying with the same group of guys, that builds winning teams,” Hammel said. “If you have guys coming in and out, it’s tough to gel and mesh and find that comfort zone with everybody around you.”

BUSINESS SENSE
Hammel is also well aware of what’s happened with the Cubs roster over the last two years at the trade deadline. In 2012 and again in 2013, the Cubs front office dealt two of their starting pitchers by July 31. One of those was Scott Feldman, who was traded to Baltimore for Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

“When he came over at the trade deadline last year, I immediately liked him, and we meshed well,” Hammel said of Feldman. “He said it was a great experience over here, and he had a lot of fun being part of the Cubs franchise. He said they treated him very well. It was very family oriented and just a bunch of great guys.”

Feldman gave Hammel a little advice when he became a free agent this past offseason.

“[Feldman] said, ‘Give [Chicago] a good thought, and I bet you’ll like it if you end up there,’” Hammel said.

Hammel listened, but he also understands he could be gone at the deadline, like many veteran pitchers before him. The Cubs are still trying to stockpile young talent in the minor leagues, and if a team is out of contention coming into the All-Star break, moving veteran players is one of the fastest ways to accomplish that task. Previous trades have yielded prospects like C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt and Arodys Vizcaino.

“Anybody can be flipped during the season, whether you have a long-term contract or you’re just a rookie,” Hammel said. “I’ve seen it all happen. It’s part of the game, but my job is to come over here and win baseball games, and it doesn’t matter what uniform I’m wearing. I’m excited to be here, and I want to win here. If further down the road, something happens, it happens. I can’t be thinking about that.”

Instead, he’s focused on finally pitching at Wrigley Field. Prior to the season, Hammel’s teams had come to the ballpark, but it was never his turn to pitch. He thought he’d be the starter for the home opener on April 4, but Travis Wood landed that assignment

Even before he threw his first pitch at Wrigley, Hammel already knew about the quirkiness of the wind. But he said it shouldn’t bother him too much because he’s a sinkerball pitcher.

“I want to get ground balls, so I’ll try to stay in the bottom of the zone,” he said. “Sometimes my four-seamer will end up [in the zone], but if you make good pitches, you should get the product of the pitch that you want. I’m not going to worry about what the wind is going to do. Yeah, the wind can dictate certain ways to pitch guys. It will tell you if you want to challenge a guy who’s a pull hitter, and he’s going to hit right into the teeth of the wind. That’s fine. Overall, it’s not going to change my game plan.”

Despite the fickle winds, Hammel knows his wife, Elissa, and 2-year-old son, Beckett, are excited to be in Chicago. Elissa was a social worker and was associated with an adoption agency when the couple was in Tampa. It’s something she wants to pursue again onceHammel’s baseball career is over. Right now, the couple is expecting their second child, a girl, around mid-September.

“Hopefully, she’s a playoff baby,” Jason said.

Fans can stay connected with Hammel through his blog, HammelTown, on cubs.com. He started it a year ago to promote some of his off-the-field activities and recently posted a photo from Opening Day at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

“It won’t be an everyday thing, but it’ll be something we’ll go in and out on,” he said.

While on the golf course, Hammel has talked to other Cubs pitchers about the direction the team is headed and what they want to accomplish this season. He sees a lot of similarities between his career and Samardzija’s, as both have moved between the rotation and the bullpen.

“He throws a lot harder than I do, but there are similarities,” Hammel said. “We talk. I’m not a guy who’s going to force myself on someone. I try to make that feeling for young guys that if they want to approach me, I’m there.”

Arrieta and Hammel became close through their wives, and both have sons about the same age.

“He’s a good friend of mine,” Arrieta said. “I’m glad to call him a teammate again.”

And Hammel is glad to call Wrigley Field his home.

—Carrie Muskat, MLB.com

From the Pages of Vine Line: Wrigley Field 100th birthday photo gallery

Wrigley Field Memories

Few people get to see Wrigley Field in all her glory. This is before the hot dogs are on the grill, before the distinctive sound of cowhide meeting hard maple rings through the park, before 40,000 cheering fans make their way into the belly of the Friendly Confines.

The best time to experience Wrigley Field is in the morning, when the sun is shining and the park is empty. That’s when you can see the venerable, 100-year-old ballpark for what she is—a beautiful, lush green oasis in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities on the planet.

Bereft of fans, players and noise, you also get a better sense of just how anachronistic Wrigley Field is—from the brick outfield wall, to the ivy, to the manual scoreboard, to the light standards. Wrigley is a shrine to baseball. Not a modern, Disney-meets-Dave & Buster’s amusement park, where a sporting event just happens to be played amidst other fanfare designed to keep modern, iPhone-obsessed fans occupied. Wrigley is all about the game.

And sitting solo in the grandstand, it’s easy to imagine what the stadium looked like and felt like when Andre Dawson roamed right field, or Ron Santo manned the Hot Corner, or Grover Cleveland Alexander toed the slab. The concourses and halls of the stadium are filled with memories, stretching back past Babe Ruth’s supposed called shot.

For 100 years, Wrigley Field has been the altar upon which North Side baseball is consecrated. And a century of sporting (and other) events calls for a little celebration.

Ultimately, what else can be said about one of the great, historic cathedrals of baseball? We decided to turn it over to the people who know the stadium best and let the images and quotes speak for themselves.

Happy 100th birthday Wrigley Field. Here’s to 100 more. (Click the images below to start the slideshow.)

From the Pages of Vine Line: The best home opener from every decade of Wrigley Field

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Wednesday marks 100 years of home openers at the stadium we now call Wrigley Field. The following can be found in the April issue of Vine Line.

For a century, it’s been the day when everything is new again. To mark the occasion, there have been fireworks and parades; tributes to legends and unforgettable, edge-of-your-seat wins; warm spring days and blustery, winter-like afternoons.

Opening Day at Wrigley Field has always been a time to remember what it feels like, sounds like and smells like to be a part of Cubs history. Since 1914, fans from across Chicago and around the world have made their way to the Friendly Confines to witness the start of a new season and pin their hopes on the lovable North Side nine.

Over the years, the park has evolved: Weeghman Park became Cubs Park became Wrigley Field; the Chi-Feds became the Whales and then gave way to the Cubs; and 14,000 seats grew to 41,000. But the game and the excitement of the fans remain the same, season after season.

To celebrate the Cubs’ home opener on April 4 and Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday on April 23, we’re taking a look back at the most memorable Opening Day from each of the Friendly Confines’ 10 decades. Because this is, by nature, a subjective exercise, we called on Cubs historian Ed Hartig to help choose the games.

Without further ado, here are Vine Line’s 10 most exciting Wrigley Field openers.

1910s
April 20, 1916: Cubs, meet Weeghman Park

The Cubs’ official debut at their new, North Side home was no small event.

The matchup with the Cincinnati Reds kicked off with fireworks, six brass bands, a 21-gun salute and an official flag-raising ceremony. Local dignitaries gave speeches—though it’s possible few in attendance actually heard them. The roar of the brass bands drowned out at least one address, given by a local judge.

Members of the 25th Ward Democratic Organization paraded around the park with a donkey. There was a car parade, and the team’s president was presented with flowers and a live bear cub. (The cub, Joa, was led to home plate, where he mugged for photographers.)

Outside of the park, hundreds of people gathered on rooftops and clustered around windows to catch a glimpse of the action. Workers even added extra seats to the outfield to accommodate the crowds.

“There was a newness and a curiosity to things,” Chicago Tribune writer James Crusinberry noted. “It was the first time many of the players and doubtless many of the fans had ever seen the North Side park. But they seemed to have no trouble finding it.”

After all the festivities, the Cubs didn’t let their fans down, topping the Reds 7-6 in 11 innings. Cy Williams doubled to reach base in the bottom of the 11th, and a Vic Saier single drove him in to score the winning run.

Reds left fielder John Beall recorded the game’s only home run­­­—which meant he should have earned a free suit from a local tailor named George Kelly. The tailor was offering suits to any player who hit a home run during the opener, but it’s unclear if Beall ever took Kelly up on the offer.

1920s
April 14, 1925: The Chicago Cubs are on the air

For the first time in Cubs history, fans tuned into the action at Wrigley Field without leaving the comfort of their homes.

The 1925 home opener was broadcast on WGN Radio, with announcer Quin Ryan calling the game from the grandstand roof. At the time, it was a revolutionary—and risky—concept. Other baseball clubs had held off on radio broadcasts, because they worried airing the games would deter fans from actually coming to the ballpark.

The Cubs faithful, however, still turned out in droves. The crowd was estimated at 40,000, a then-Opening Day record.

“That the North Side park—newly painted and looking as neat as a Dutch bakery—will be jammed today is a certainty,” Chicago Tribune writer Irving Vaughan noted the day before the game. “The advance sales of seats have been so heavy that the supply of reservations was exhausted early yesterday.”

WGN’s broadcasts were sporadic in the early days, but the practice caught on soon enough.

As for the game itself? On a particularly chilly April day, the Cubs topped the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-2, thanks to the efforts of starting pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. The right-hander hit a home run, double and single, and pitched a complete game, surrendering just two runs, neither earned.

1930s
April 12, 1933: Prohibition is (almost) over—and Cubs fans know it

About two months after the 21st Amendment, which would repeal Prohibition, was proposed to Congress—but still three months before Illinois officially ratified it—beer was back at Wrigley Field for the first time in more than a decade.

After the game, two bars located under the grandstand reported that they sold more beer at the 1933 home opener than they had soft drinks at the same game in 1932.

Fans enjoying the affair with a cold one got to see the Cubs top the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-0. Gabby Hartnett had three hits in four at-bats, driving in two runs.

Cubs ace Lon Warneke, who had a few peculiar habits, took on the equally colorful Dizzy Dean.

“They called [Warneke] the Arkansas Hummingbird,” teammate Phil Cavarretta said at the time. “He’d be by his locker, and he had a little ole ukulele, and he’d play that and hum and sing, which was fine. As long as he kept winning ballgames, why complain?”

1940s
April 17, 1945: The start of something big

The story about 1945 wasn’t so much the home opener as the season it launched. The Cubs went 98-56 to capture their most recent NL pennant, beating out the Cardinals before falling to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

The campaign was bookended by a pair of series against St. Louis. Bill Nicholson hit a home run early in the opener and later scored the winning run on a ninth-inning single by Don Johnson.

Later in his life, Cavarretta would compare Johnson to another second baseman with a reputation for starting a rally.

“Don Johnson was our Ryne Sandberg,” he said.

The Cubs would finish 6-16 versus the Cards for the year, but they still outpaced the division by three games.

1950s
April 18, 1952: A spirited comeback

With the Cubs down 4-1 heading into the ninth inning against the Cardinals, it looked like the team was poised to start the season on a disappointing note.

But the Cubs knocked in four runs in the final frame against three Cardinals pitchers, who didn’t retire a single batter, to notch a 5-4 win. A pinch-hit double from Bill Serena with the bases loaded drove in Roy Smalley and Joe Hatten for the tying and winning runs.

“I never saw such spirit,” said Cavarretta, who was managing his first home opener and considered sending himself in as a pinch-hitter. “In that ninth inning, four or five guys were eager to hit while we were building up the rally. I was going to get into the act until they switched to a left-hander.”

1960s
April 8, 1969: Just when you think you’ve got it …

The 1969 home opener looked like a clear-cut win, as the Cubs headed into the ninth inning up by three runs. But then Philadelphia’s Don Money slammed a three-run homer off Fergie Jenkins, and fans were left on the edge of their seats.

The Phillies took the lead in the 11th, but the Cubs battled back. In the home half, Randy Hundley singled and scored on Willie Smith’s two-run, walk-off, pinch-hit home run. Ernie Banks also homered twice in the Cubs’ 7-6 victory.

“I was in the dugout trying to keep warm, and I wanted to give Willie a kiss for doing it because I was freezing,” said Cubs infielder Glenn Beckert.

Cubs pitcher Bill Hands was sitting next to manager Leo Durocher in the dugout as Smith stepped up to the plate.

“[Durocher] kept saying, ‘Just a dying quail over third, that’s all I want.’ And I said, ‘The hell with that, Skip, he’ll hit it out.’”

1970s
April 14, 1978: Climbing the wall to get in

Typically, the team would save about 22,000 tickets to sell on gameday, but they’d cut that number to just 12,000 prior to the season. Knowing they’d have to be quick to get a seat, eager fans started lining up outside of Wrigley Field at 3:30 a.m.

Ushers pushed back people trying to climb over the outfield wall to get in, and, for a while, vendors were worried there could be trouble—especially since they were going through more beer than they ever had before.

In the end, the park saw its largest Opening Day crowd (45,777), and Woodie Fryman took a no-hitter into the sixth before a fly ball by the Pirates’ Dave Parker fell in. Gene Clines should have caught the ball, but Clines turned the wrong way, and the ball fell to safety.

The Pirates rallied to tie the game, but the Cubs ultimately won, 5-4, on a walk-off home run from Larry Biittner.

“When he left the bench, honest to God, he told me he was going to hit one out of here,” manager Herman Franks said of Biittner.

“I never said that,” Biittner countered. “I’m not a home run hitter. You know that.”

1980s
April 4, 1989: “Ulcer city”

Mark Grace said he’d never been involved in a more nerve-racking or exciting game.

The situation: With the Cubs holding a slim 5-4 lead, the Phillies opened the ninth with three straight singles off closer Mitch Williams. Noted Cubs-killer Mike Schmidt, who had already knocked a home run in the game, was due up.

“When you have the bases loaded, no one out, and you’re 2-0 on Mike Schmidt, I can’t think of a worse situation to be in in all of baseball,” pitcher Rick Sutcliffe later said.

Luckily, Williams was up to the challenge. The quirky reliever rallied to fan the slugger and then struck out Chris James and Mark Ryal to preserve the win.

Williams’ former Texas teammate Paul Kilgus had given Cubs manager Don Zimmer some advice on how to survive watching Williams pitch in such a game.

“Ulcer city,” he said. “Drink a lot of milk, Zim.”

Sutcliffe picked up his third Wrigley Field opening win in five seasons, and Jerome Walton and Joe Girardi both made their major league debuts, each chipping in two hits.

1990s
April 3, 1998: Farewell to a legend

On an emotional day, the Cubs opened the 1998 season by paying tribute to Harry Caray, who had passed away in February.

The team unveiled a Caray caricature above the WGN-TV booth, and Caray’s wife, Dutchie, pinch-hit for her husband, leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” When the song finished, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” and 3,000 blue and white Harry Caray balloons were released from behind the left-field wall.

In the game itself, the Cubs beat Montreal, 6-2, for their third straight victory, but it was the spontaneous wave of emotion that swept the ballpark at the top of the seventh inning that was the talk of the team afterward.

With one out to go before the start of the seventh-inning stretch, virtually everyone in the stands was on their feet, and chants of “HAR-RY, HAR-RY” echoed across the El tracks.

“I was looking around thinking, ‘Oh, geez, what if a ball is hit to me right now?’” said third baseman Kevin Orie. “I was trying to pay attention, but, at the same time, I was trying to soak it all in. Everyone had goose bumps.”

At one point, Montreal’s Chris Widger sent a fly ball into the outfield. Right fielder Sammy Sosa and second baseman Mickey Morandini went running for it, but the crowd’s chanting was so loud they couldn’t hear each other. The ball bounced out of Sosa’s glove.

Starter Steve Trachsel did a little bit of everything, pitching 7.1 innings of two-run, four-hit ball, striking out seven and driving in three runs with a pair of singles.

2000s
April 13, 2009: Lilly’s near no-no

Rain nearly postponed the game, but after a 72-minute delay, the Cubs and the Rockies got things going on a miserable 36-degree day.

The Cubs featured a makeshift lineup, as they were missing projected starters Milton Bradley (groin), Geovany Soto (shoulder) and Aramis Ramirez (stiff back) due to injuries. Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez was his own worst enemy, lasting only 3.2 innings, walking six and hitting a batter. The Cubs finished the game with nine walks.

The weather was the story until Ted Lilly got on a hot streak. The lefty didn’t give up a hit until the seventh inning, when he allowed a single to Garrett Atkins. He followed that with a walk to end his day. Three relievers finished off the Cubs’ 4-0, one-hit win before 40,077 fans at Wrigley Field.

Would manager Lou Piniella have left Lilly, who had thrown 104 pitches through 6.2 innings, in the game if the no-hitter had still been intact?

“It would’ve been a tough decision, because it’s early in the season to let a pitcher go much more than what he pitched,” Piniella said. “You’re looking for problems.”

Lilly said he knew he was on a good run, but didn’t let it shake his concentration.

“I was still trying to focus on making quality pitches, and not so much, ‘How am I going to protect the no-hitter?’” he said. “I just wanted to make good pitches and felt if I did that, I like my chances.”

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

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(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

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(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

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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.

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