Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’

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

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(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

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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

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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

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(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

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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

From the Pages of Vine Line: Ron Coomer makes his Chicago return

Coomer

New radio analyst Ron Coomer spent the 2001 season with the Cubs. (Photo by Stephen Green)

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

Who says you can never go home again?

After nine years working for the Twins—the team with which he made his major league debut in 1995 and spent the bulk of his professional playing career—Ron Coomer will join play-by-play man Pat Hughes in the Cubs broadcast booth for WGN Radio. He replaces Keith Moreland, who left after three years with the club to be closer to his family in Texas.

The affable 47-year-old, affectionately known as “Coom Dawg,” most recently worked on the Twins’ pre- and postgame shows for Fox Sports North and often filled in for Bert Blyleven during game broadcasts. He also hosted a music show on KTWN, the radio station that began airing Twins games in 2013.

For all intents and purposes, Coomer and his family were extremely happy in the North Star State, and they weren’t looking to make a move. But when your dream job comes open, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity.

And Coomer has been waiting for the chance to broadcast Cubs games since he hung on Jack Brickhouse’s every word as a child growing up on Chicago’s West and South sides. Throughout his career as a player and broadcaster, he has always been eager to get back to his hometown.

The Lockport (Ill.) Township High School graduate spent nine years as a major league player and was named to the 1999 American League All-Star team as a member of the Twins. When he reached free agency for the first time after six years in Minnesota, he signed with the Cubs in a matter of days. He spent only one year on the North Side before moving on to the Dodgers and Yankees, but he returned to establish the On Deck Baseball Academy in Orland Park following his playing career.

Once Moreland announced he was leaving, Coomer received a call from Hughes asking if he’d be interested in the job. That kicked off a series of interviews with WGN and the Cubs front office that culminated in his hiring on Dec. 13. We spoke to Coomer just after he joined the Cubs radio team, and needless to say, he’s very happy to be coming home.

Vine Line: You went to high school on Chicago’s South Side. How did you end up a Cubs fan?

Ron Coomer: I actually grew up right by Midway Airport. I was two blocks from Midway on that southwest side of the city. I grew up a Cubs fan for one simple reason: When you ran home after school, the Cubs game was always on in the daytime, and you could catch the last four innings of the game with Jack Brickhouse or whoever was broadcasting.

I couldn’t get the White Sox games on our TV when I was a little guy. So that started me being a Cubs fan as a real little kid. Once I started doing that, then my dad would take me to Wrigley Field on a regular basis, and I just fell in love with going to Wrigley and watching the ballgames. I never really went to Comiskey Park back in the day. I always went to Wrigley. I wasn’t real popular with my grandparents and some of the people in my family, but it’s worked out pretty good so far.

VL: You’d been with the Twins for a long time. What made you want to chase the Cubs job?

RC: I had a very good situation in Minnesota. I do 100 broadcasts for Fox with Twins baseball. I have a music radio show here in town on the Twins Network that we do on drive time every afternoon from 3-7. I really enjoyed my time here. This has been home for a long time now. But I’ve always wanted to do games. Every player, when you get into the broadcast booth, you want to be a part of the game broadcast.

When the Cubs job came available, I didn’t know if I would be thought of at all, but I got a call from Pat Hughes asking me if I was interested. Probably the only place I would go to leave Minnesota would be the Chicago Cubs. My situation with family and everything [in Minnesota] is phenomenal. But it’s the Cubs job. It’s been a dream of mine since before I knew I could hit a baseball.

VL: In baseball, you seldom get to choose the city in which you play or work. What’s it like for you to get a chance to come home to Chicago?

RC: It’s incredible. I can’t even describe it. As a player, I became a free agent, and by 9 a.m. the first morning, [former General Manager] Andy MacPhail had a contract couriered over to my house. So at 9 o’clock in the morning, Day One of free agency, I had a great deal from Andy. Two or three days later, I was a Cub. I started fielding some calls from other teams, and I’m like, “Don’t even bother. We’re already done.” And they’re like, “But free agency just started.” I go, “Nah, not for me it didn’t. It’s over.” So that took all of three days. When this job became available, [it’s a] lifelong dream. To be in Major League Baseball doing this—as crazy as the baseball life is—you couldn’t ask for anything more.

VL: What’s your relationship like with your new partner, Pat Hughes?

RC: Pat’s just one of the nicest people in the world. I’ve always made a point when I come to the ballpark or I’m going to a game at Wrigley to see Pat and whoever was broadcasting, because they’re such good people. So you want to say “hi” and kind of renew your friendship, even if it’s just for that day. It’s been that kind of relationship for a long time with Pat, where you really respect what he does and how he does it and the kind of person he is. So I’ve always made a point to try and see him, and we’ve been friends for a long time. Now we’re going to be partners.

VL: Can you describe your style in the booth?

RC: I’m kind of analytical when it comes to understanding the little nuances of the game, whether it’s your swing as a hitter or what certain things are happening with a pitcher. I basically talk about the pitcher from the hitter’s perspective. So fans will get an idea of what’s going on with the pitcher, what the hitter is looking for from the pitcher, how the pitcher is trying to set the hitter up, things like that. I love the intricacies of baseball and those little battles that happen throughout the day. Those are very fun for me, and they’re fun to try and get across to the fans.

VL: Did you have any broadcasting idols growing up in the city?

RC: I grew up watching Cubs baseball. Jack Brickhouse was our broadcaster when I was a young kid—and I mean a young kid. You’re talking 4, 5, 6, 7 years old when you’re just watching with bright eyes and listening to how excited Jack Brickhouse would get over a Cubs game and a Cubs win. I think he stood out the most to me as a young kid.

VL: You’re obviously not the first Ron in the WGN Radio booth. Is that legacy a little daunting?

RC: Without question it’s daunting when you look back at the names, from Lou Boudreaux to Vince Lloyd to Brickhouse and all those people. And the analysts—Steve Stone was there forever. But Ron Santo and I became friends when I signed with the Cubs. You know, Ronnie was a third baseman. I was a third baseman. We’d go out after games on the road and go have dinner and hang out. You just loved his passion for everything he did. And if it had something to do with the Cubs, there was nobody more passionate than Ron Santo. It was infectious with everybody. It’s one of those things I’ll always remember. Some of his calls on the air were just priceless. You couldn’t make them up. So it is daunting. As a Cubs fan, you look at that and go, “How cool is this that I’m going to be a part of that family that’s been doing these games since I was a little kid?”

VL: You played for the Cubs in 2001. Do you have a favorite Wrigley Field memory from your time here?

RC: There are a few. I think Opening Day that year. It was great just to be part of Opening Day. I had some good games at Wrigley. You hit a couple of home runs or something like that. I remember a few games like that. But it was like a daily routine of you jog out to third base to start a game, and you look around the stands and go, “Yep, I sat over there. I sat over there. I was with my dad there watching a game.” Now you’re in uniform, and my friends and my family are coming out to Wrigley Field, and I’m on the field. The biggest memory of Wrigley is that—is having that emotion almost every day.

VL: How excited are you to call Wrigley Field your office again?

RC: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are the last two of a dying breed. It’s baseball. When you walk into Wrigley Field, and you come up from the concourse, and you look down at that green field and the ivy, that to me is what baseball is all about. It’s not the new stadiums and all the big stuff. That’s all great. All these new ballparks are phenomenal. Target Field is great here in Minneapolis. But when you look at those fields like Wrigley Field, that’s what baseball is to me. It’s a nostalgic old look and knowing guys like Babe Ruth were in the batter’s box, and Ernie Banks and Santo and Billy Williams. All these guys have played in that ballpark. That’s what baseball is—the old with the new.

VL: What’s your take on what the Cubs front office is doing to try to build a winner?

RC: What the Cubs are doing is exactly what’s been going on here in Minnesota for the last few years. It’s the only way you can build a team and have it sustain itself. You can’t go out and not have homegrown players make an impact on your club day after day. It just doesn’t work. It might work for half a season. It might work for a season. But it doesn’t sustain itself for the long haul. So you have to build from the bottom up, and you have to have homegrown players contribute in a big way to the success of the organization. Then you add pieces to that. That’s the only way things work in Major League Baseball for any length of time.

VL: You’ve been in baseball your whole life. What do you do to get away from the game?

RC: I do a couple of different things. I’m a big golfer—love to play golf. I live on a golf course here in Minneapolis. So I’ll play some golf in the summer in Chicago. And I’m a bike rider. I love to bike—pedal bike—so I’ll be biking around the city. God knows I’ll probably bike to Wrigley Field a few times.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, The Elite

Edwards,-C.J.

Top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards should start 2014 at Double-A Tennessee. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

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 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 frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player 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.

When President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein introduced Jason McLeod as the Cubs’ VP of scouting and player development, Epstein referred to his new hire as a “secret weapon.” More than two years later, it’s easy to see why Epstein was so effusive in his praise.

Under McLeod’s watch, the scouting department hasn’t stopped working to revamp a system that’s jumped from the lower third of baseball to arguably one of the best in the game. Whether it’s through trades, international free agency or the draft, McLeod and his staff are grinding tirelessly to improve the Cubs farm system. This past season, he and former farm director Brandon Hyde oversaw one of the more fruitful years in recent memory in terms of player development, as prospects like Pierce Johnson, Javier Baez and Kyle Hendricks all took big steps forward.

Hyde will switch roles in 2014 to become new manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, and Jaron Madison, formerly the director of amateur scouting, will take his place. Madison will oversee a minor league coaching staff that experienced minimal turnover after undergoing a major overhaul heading into the 2013 season. That continuity gives the Cubs confidence their recent player development success at the minor league level will continue, and there is certainly reason to believe the positive trend in scouting will carry into 2014 as well.

One of the most important steps in the process—and certainly one of the most exciting—could take place this season, as some of the team’s highly touted prospects may finally get a chance to shine at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs system has it all: elite-level talent, near-ready bats and arms, raw youth and some real pitching depth. It doesn’t have a consensus top-of-the-rotation arm, but due to some shrewd trades and bulk drafting, it’s stocked with pitchers to dream about over the next few seasons.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at many of the key names to know. Some could be arriving at Wrigley soon—others still may be years away—but the Cubs hope they will all earn their stripes at some point down the line.

The Elite
Not long ago, the top of the Cubs system consisted of players who were lucky to break into the top 50 of most national prospect rankings. Those days are gone. Entering last season, it was all about the big three—Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. After last June’s draft, Kris Bryant entered the conversation. Then the Cubs traded Matt Garza for a little-known righty, formerly of the South Carolina bush leagues, named C.J. Edwards, who simply lit up the Florida State League and vaulted himself among the game’s top prospects.

Having elite talent, or impact talent, as the front office often calls it, is a difference maker. The Cubs have done well in stockpiling high-ceiling players over the past few seasons and, in doing so, have increased their chances of producing a top-tier major leaguer in the near future.

There have been rumblings that both Baez and Bryant could reach the big leagues in 2014. While they both certainly have immense talent, forecasting All-Star-caliber production from the get-go may be a bit optimistic. But great expectations come with the territory, given the system the Cubs have assembled. All five of these players are aware of the pressure that comes with strong performance, yet they’re prepared to try to live up to it. As Almora once said about hype, “Bring it on.”

ALBERT ALMORA
DOB: 4/16/1994
POSITION: CF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .329/.376/.466 (61 GAMES)

Watching Almora play, no one tool stands out as elite. However, it’s the complete package, including his tremendous makeup and infectious confidence, that really sets him apart.

“For a guy without an 80 tool (the top grade on the scouting scale), he’s a game changer,” McLeod said. “He won’t light up scouts with his power or speed, but he lights you up just by watching him play.”

Like Soler, Almora was felled by injuries in 2013. A wrist injury sidelined him early and a bone bruise in his groin ended his season prematurely in August. However, Almora returned to action in the Arizona Fall League, posting a very impressive .307/.342/.480 line and playing his usual stellar defense despite being the second-youngest player in the league.

JAVIER BAEZ
DOB: 12/1/1992
POSITION: SS
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: TENNESSEE
2013 STATS: .282/.341/.578 (130 GAMES)

Baez’s game can be described in one word: aggressive. But his style of play is both helpful and detrimental. The Puerto Rico native believes he can hit any ball 500 feet and make every play on defense. This can result in wild swings at the plate and poor decisions in the field.

“I’ve never seen anything like him, to be honest,” McLeod said. “He’s a tough one to put into one box. On certain nights, he looks like the best player you’ve ever laid eyes on, and then you might walk in and he’s 0-for-4 with three punch-outs and looks awful doing it because the swing is so violent.”

But Baez passed what many feel is the toughest test for a developing player (outside of the big leagues, of course) by crushing Double-A pitching, hitting 20 of his 37 home runs in 54 games at that advanced level. He’ll always have high strikeout totals, even if he continues to improve, but a player who can hit the ball 430-plus feet to every part of the field is rare. As McLeod said, if he can take that final step and figure out when to be aggressive and when to tone it down at the plate or stick a ball in his pocket on defense, Baez can be as good as anybody.

KRIS BRYANT
DOB: 1/4/1992
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .336/.390/688 (36 GAMES)

The Cubs selected Bryant second overall in last June’s draft, and it didn’t take him long to make an impact. The slugging third baseman followed up a historic college season by hitting at every level, then going on to play in the AFL, where he was named league MVP.

Bryant may end up in right field when all is said and done, but when it comes to hitting, he is a true student of the game. The 22-year-old will likely rack up some strikeouts, but he has a chance to become a consistent star—someone who hits .240 with 25 home runs in a bad year and .280 with 40-plus bombs and an impressive on-base percentage at his peak. Bryant prides himself on his knowledge of the game and is always studying video, working to improve his swing and refining his defense at the hot corner.

With his combination of talent, work ethic and movie-star good looks, Bryant’s face could someday be plastered all over billboards from Wrigleyville to Rockford.

C.J. EDWARDS
DOB: 9/3/1991
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 116.1 IP, 1.86 ERA, 115 K, 41 BB (24 STARTS)

Edwards has all the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation arm—a downhill fastball with nasty cutting action, big curveball and solid change-up. The question with him is whether he has the durability to handle the load of 180-plus innings in the big leagues.

At 6-foot-2 and just over 160 pounds, the “String Bean Slinger” is lean and lanky—hardly the prototypical build of a workhorse ace. The focus this offseason has been his training program, as the Cubs are attempting to add some weight to his frame to prepare him for the rigors of a six-month season.

Edwards certainly has the necessary work ethic to get his body where it needs to be. Even if he can’t add much weight, he projects as an elite reliever who could help solidify the back end of the Cubs bullpen for years to come. Either way, Edwards will lead what looks to be a very impressive rotation in Tennessee next season.

JORGE SOLER
DOB: 2/25/1992
POSITION: RF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .281/.343/.467 (55 GAMES)

After a stress fracture in his left tibia ended Soler’s 2013 season early, he was left with a combined 89 professional games in the Cubs organization over two seasons. His limited playing time has evaluators wondering where his true talent level lies. Looking to shake off the rust, Soler played in the Arizona Fall League. At times, he looked uninterested, often failing to run out ground balls. But according to McLeod, Soler had been given specific instructions not to run too hard on easy outs to protect his recently injured foot.

The goal in the AFL was for the Cuban prospect to continue honing his swing mechanics (something the Cubs have been working on since he was signed), see some pitches and get some reps in the outfield.

The bottom line: Soler has immense power, a tremendous work ethic and all the tools needed to catapult himself back among the elite prospects. The hope is a healthy spring will allow him to start the year at Tennessee and finally put together that strong, full season the Cubs have been hoping for since he signed.

 

From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs Jaron Madison a team player

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

140118_Convention_145

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Cubs front office made one under-the-radar move this winter that’s no less important than signing a big free agent. With Brandon Hyde moving to the dugout to serve as bench coach for new manager Rick Renteria, the Cubs shifted scouting director Jaron Madison to the vacated farm director spot.

That makes the 38-year-old Madison the guardian of the team’s future, a role he admits comes with a great deal of pressure as the Cubs move forward with their plan to build a sustainable winner from within. But that pressure, he said, is one reason he left the Padres a year ago in a lateral move to the Cubs.

“San Diego is a great organization, but working for an organization with the history and tradition of the Cubs is a bigger challenge,” Madison said. “I know how much more it would mean to the city when we win. Chicago sports fans are some of the best sports fans in the world.”

In Madison, the Cubs have a farm director with a strong track record. Since beginning his career in scouting and player development in 2002 with the Padres, he has worked for two other teams, the Cardinals and the Pirates, that have cultivated winning big league teams from within.

The common thread among all three organizations, Madison said, is the constant, open communication that extends from the big league front office all the way down to the low minor league levels. For the farm system to produce, everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction.

And few people are more capable of keeping everyone together than Madison.

“He’s very intelligent and has a great presence,” said Hyde, whose relationship with Madison extends back to the late ’90s, when they played together at Long Beach State. “I think a key to him being a great leader is he’s a great listener.”

That was an obvious asset for him as a scout, a job that relies on relationship building with young players and their parents and coaches. But while Madison said his new job is completely different, he’ll still need to flex those relationship-building muscles.

“Everyone has to have complete buy-in, and to get there everyone needs to know what’s going on at all times,” he said. “There can’t be any whispering going on behind closed doors.”

Madison will spend the summer doing the same thing he did after the draft last year—traveling in a constant loop among Cubs affiliates to talk, listen and observe. Hyde said he thinks Madison will love it.

“The relationships you build with the staff members, the constant interaction with the coaches, rovers and instructors, and the process of getting your organization to be successful make it a fun job,” Hyde said.

But both Hyde and Madison understand the job is not about having fun. Not with a nation of Cubs fans anxious for a return to winning baseball.

“I read the blogs,” Madison said. “I know how much the fans want it.”

Madison, of course, is in firm agreement with the rest of the Cubs brain trust, preaching patience with the process and avoiding any firm deadlines on when the organization will turn the corner.

“I’m really excited about the guys we have in our organization,” he said. “I see a core of strong players we can build on and rely on for the foreseeable future, and I think the payoff will be a lot sooner than people may think.”

From the Pages of Vine Line: Moving forward with Rick Renteria

Renteria

(Photo by Dave Durochik)

This offseason, the Cubs named former Padres bench coach Rick Renteria the 53rd manager in the organization’s history. Though he’s a first-time major league skipper, Renteria is a baseball lifer, spending the last 30 years in the game in some capacity. This month, Vine Line sat down with the 52-year-old to get a better understanding of his philosophy, his take on the job and much more. The following can be found in the January issue of Vine Line.

You could call it a premonition.

About 10 years ago, with the Cubs in the early stages of a successful run that saw them claim the NL Central crown three times in six years, Rick Renteria was coaching his son’s baseball team when one of the moms, who happened to be from Chicago, mentioned he would make a great manager for the North Siders. Perhaps it was his calm demeanor or the way he patiently explained things to the young players, but something struck a chord with her.

Renteria didn’t think much of it, but the conversation stuck with him over the years.

“Well, I hope she had a premonition that we’re going to have a lot of success,” joked the 52-year-old California native, who was recently named the 53rd manager in Cubs franchise history.

Renteria, a 30-year baseball veteran who has spent the last three seasons as the bench coach for manager Bud Black’s San Diego Padres, wasn’t the most likely choice or the highest-profile name out there. But what that team mom said a decade ago turned out to be surprisingly prescient. The first-time big league manager joins the Cubs organization with a reputation as a relentless optimist and an experienced shaper of young talent. And he might be the perfect fit for a team that is looking for a new voice and is stacked with high-upside young prospects just a year or two away from the major leagues.

Though Renteria is well aware of the Cubs’ recent history, it’s not his style to dwell on the past. It’s his job to take a franchise in the midst of a youth movement and help it improve and move forward. He credits much of his positive coaching style to his former Single-A manager Johnny Lipon, who coached Renteria at Single-A Alexandria in his third professional season in 1982.

“[He was] the most positive individual I’ve ever seen,” Renteria said of Lipon. “Here’s a guy who was a shortstop with the Detroit Tigers in a different era. He was an infielder. His demeanor was one that kept moving you forward, and that stayed and resonated with me.”

Renteria was officially hired on Nov. 7, 2013, but he didn’t make his first appearance at Wrigley Field until Dec. 5 because of offseason hip surgery. In his initial foray in front of the Chicago media, he certainly lived up to his reputation as an excellent communicator and an easy guy to get along with.

“I was struck by how comfortable I was watching him,” said President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein of Renteria. “Normally when you hire somebody new, and he meets the media for the first time, you’re kind of holding your breath to make sure he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth. We’ve worked with Ricky for a month now, and I was totally comfortable. I was actually checking emails while he was talking because I feel I already trust who he is as a human being. He comes from a genuine place, he’s extremely intelligent, relates to people really well, so it’s nice to really trust somebody in that role.”

The Cubs’ new hire has spent his early days as manager reaching out to his new players by phone or text and filling out his first coaching staff. He’s planning to head out to Arizona soon to see the new practice facility firsthand and to start working with his coaches on a plan for Spring Training. Vine Line was there for Renteria’s introduction to the Chicago media, at which he opened up about his plans for 2014, his notoriously positive disposition and his previous relationship with Cubs GM Jed Hoyer.

Vine Line: What was it that made you want to take the job here in Chicago? You may have heard from guys like Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, this can be a difficult place to manage.

Rick Renteria: It’s a wonderful city, first of all. But the team that’s out there, the kids that are here, as you’re watching from the other side, they’re a very talented group. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be here and be with this particular club. I’m looking forward to hopefully moving things forward and chipping away at whatever we need to chip away at to continue to advance the process. It’s just a great challenge. It’s a great opportunity.

VL: Is there any overall philosophical difference we’re going to notice from the first days of Spring Training?

RR: I think everybody comes in probably not trying to reinvent the wheel. We want guys that are going to give us great effort, guys that are going to hustle, guys that are going to prepare. I’m sure these are things that everybody asks of their players. They’re young players. [They need to understand] that, as professionals, this is part of who they’re supposed to be. We want to be a club that’s going to be aggressive on the bases, that’s going to be smart, that’s not going to be reckless. A club that’s going to hopefully continue to grind through at-bats, execute, and get beyond falling into the trap of if you get a bad call against you, you get bothered and that you continue to add to that spiral by not finishing out a plate appearance or a tactical hit or whatever the case might be. A club that’s there to pick each other up.

Hopefully, these guys come together as a kind of family. I think if you have that, you start to build your own chemistry, and it can be a strength.

VL: You said in your initial press conference that you think the team can compete this year. The Cubs lost 96 games last year and haven’t made significant improvements yet. What’s going to be different in 2014?

RR: Well, I can’t speak to the losses of the past. My mentality has always been to continue to move forward. What we can do is learn from that experience. What occurred? What kind of mentalities did we have? What approaches did we have? What were the things that occurred during a particular ballgame that maybe changed the dynamic of that particular ballgame? Those are the things we have to study and retrack and retrace and use to our advantage.

The players we have, they’re intelligent. They’re gifted. Starlin Castro, [Darwin] Barney, [Anthony] Rizzo. You had a combination of guys at third base with [Luis] Valbuena and [Donnie] Murphy. Then you had Welington Castillo and Junior Lake, who came up later on during the year. These are guys that have talent. [Ryan] Sweeney. Nate Schierholtz is an experienced player who’s been around a little bit. You have the makeup of a club that can do some things. I think you’re playing in the big boy division [in the NL Central]. We all grew up wanting to play against the big guys. Well, here we are. That’s our lot. That’s the challenge. We have to accept it and do what we can with it and move forward.

VL: This is a team that’s going through some growing pains right now. So how is a guy with your positive disposition going to manage that?

RR: I try to maintain an even-keeled approach. No player wants to go out there and fail. They want to do well, and I think I understand that. We know that the game is about the players and that sometimes we need to help them through those moments when things aren’t going very well. Hopefully, we’re able to articulate what it is they need to do to improve, whether it’s their approach or if it’s a physical action that we’re able to address and help them move forward.

VL: Did you put your coaching staff together with that in mind?

RR: I think so. Speaking to all of the [coaches], their attitudes are extremely positive. They’re going to bring in the idea of wanting to continue to teach. Sometimes we forget that players still want to learn. They’re never not learning. We have to be able to present a consistent message. I think all these guys that are going to come on board have that ability.

VL: You talk of being even-keeled. Do you have a temper?

RR: Oh, I can get hot. Any competitor can get hot. You’ve got to pick your spots. I don’t think players appreciate people just losing it for the sake of losing it. Will I do it for the sake of people watching me do it? No. You may not see me do it at all, but I can’t guarantee that. When it happens, it’s got to be the right time. Those things kind of take care of themselves. It’s a feel thing. If you’re a guy that’s pretty even-keeled and then you end up losing it, [players] understand that you mean business, that it means a little bit more. But, for the most part, I think conversations need to be had behind closed doors.

VL: This organization has a lot of potential stars that are perhaps a year or so away. Have you looked at some of those players, and how excited are you to manage them down the road?

RR: Obviously, I’m very excited about the guys we have right now. And I look at the players that are coming, and we have some talent in the organization. They’ve done a wonderful job in drafting and selecting some of these players. Right now, my focus is going to continue to be on the guys that are here. They’re extremely talented, and—it’s like anything—they have to put it forward between the lines.

I think if we maintain a consistent and positive message, we’ll be able to have some of these players do what they’re capable of doing. There are peaks and valleys, but that’s where, as a manager and a coaching staff, we have to remain even-keeled and give them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

VL: Castro has been in that valley for a while. What’s your approach to turning a young veteran like that around?

RR: People ask me about Starlin, and I watch him from the other side and think, “Gosh, what a tremendously gifted athlete.” First of all, I’ve got to get to know him as a person, and I have to figure out what it is that moves him. He’s a wonderful kid. I actually was able to speak to him at length. He was one of the first guys I called, and he’s willing to do anything we ask him to do. I know people talk about him losing focus and having bad at-bats and things of that nature, and we have to address those things.

Sometimes we don’t have conversations thinking we don’t want to have a confrontation or maybe we won’t like the answer we’re going to get. But the reality is you have to have dialogue. The only way you can improve things is to converse and to try to [give players] a plan or an idea of how they can move forward. That’s one of the things we’re going to have to do as teachers. The whole coaching staff is going to have to approach this as being teachers.

VL: What’s your take on using advanced metrics to influence pitching decisions, defensive positioning and the like?

RR: I think all information is actually quite useful. It’s how you decipher it and how you use it—how you apply it. If you limit your understanding, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I use numbers. I’ve used numbers since I was in the minor leagues. I used to keep numbers on my board when people weren’t using numbers. But it’s how you use them and how you apply them [that determines] how beneficial they really are.

It’s basically consequences and outcomes. It’s telling you what guys have been doing. Sometimes you still have to put your eyes on those guys to have an idea of what they’re doing at that particular moment. You can’t limit yourself. You’ve got to use a combination.

VL: You have a reputation for connecting with young players. In your career, you’ve done just about everything. You’ve played, you’ve managed in the minor leagues, you’ve coached in the major leagues. Is that what allows you to understand what players are going through?

RR: Probably that and probably the idea that, you know, I was pretty much a grunt coming up through the systems [as a player]. I fought and hustled through every ground out and everything I could possibly do to play this game. I understand and appreciate the privilege it is to be here as a player. I understand that most people when they come out to see a ballgame, they want to see somebody give you a good effort—beyond winning. They want to know that you’re invested in what it is you’re doing. Hopefully, that comes out in how I approach the players, because I am invested in this.

VL: Describe your relationship with Jed Hoyer. You worked together in the Padres organization. Is that familiarity one of the factors that made you want to come here?

RR: Jed, you know, was in San Diego. And when he was there, we used to have conversations when he’d come down to talk to Buddy [Black] and what have you. For me, it’s nice to be in a familiar setting, knowing the people I’m going to be working for, or alongside. That played a factor in how things progressed. I expressed that this was the place I wanted to be. I saw the makeup of what’s coming up. I like who we have here now, and I think it’s going to be something that we can move forward.

VL: Everybody has an opinion about playing at Wrigley Field. You’ve been here as a player and as a coach. What was your take on this place as an outsider?

RR: Awesome. I don’t think there’s any player that ever comes into Chicago thinking, “This is a bad place to play.” We loved coming here. Everybody does. It’s a great city. The fans are always there. Even if they’re booing against you, at least you know everybody’s in it. That’s a tremendous asset for this team to have, quite frankly. Their home-field advantage is their community—is their fan base. When we understand it and use it and take it to our advantage and really understand how it works, hopefully we’ll be able to articulate that message, and we’ll get it, and we’ll be able to do some things that make the fans feel really good.

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