Results tagged ‘ Vine Line ’

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

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—By Charlie Vascellaro

1000 Words: Watch and Learn

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Three-time National League All-Star Starlin Castro fields a ball during an infield drill at Spring Training while highly regarded prospect Addison Russell looks on. Russell is viewed as a top five prospect in baseball by ESPN, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America.

Cubscast Mesa: Spring sit-down with manager Joe Maddon

After an eventful offseason, Cubs fans everywhere are ready to get the 2015 campaign underway. But perhaps no one is more excited than new manager Joe Maddon. The two-time AL Manager of the Year spent nine seasons in Tampa Bay before taking the reins as the 54th manager in Cubs franchise history in November.

We got a chance to catch up with the gregarious 61-year-old skipper during photo day at the Cubs’ Sloan Park training complex in Mesa, Arizona, Monday. In a wide ranging interview, he talked about his goals for 2015, his influences as a coach and building trust with a new group of players.

This is the first in our spring video series. We’ll be posting videos and stories from Sloan Park all spring, so make sure you’re watching the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

1000 Words: Dexter Fowler is ready for his close up

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New Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler smiles for the camera as a storm front blows in at Cubs photo day in Mesa Monday.

Cactus Notes: Photo day + rain

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Monday was photo day at Cubs camp in Mesa, Arizona, so the players and coaches spent the morning running from station to station getting their pictures taken and doing interviews. The day includes everyone from team photographers to Topps to MLB.com to, well, us.

But just as the gauntlet was coming to an end, the skies opened up and washed out most of the training day in “sunny” Arizona. The players did their work in the batting cages, and they should be back at it on the practice fields Tuesday, when sunnier skies are expected. The Cubs open their Cactus League slate on Thursday with split-squad games against the Athletics at Sloan Park and the Giants in Scottsdale.

All spring long, watch for our video series with players and coaches here on the blog.

Hot off the Press: The March issue featuring a tribute to Ernie Banks

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On Jan. 31, 2015, the Cubs organization laid to rest the most beloved player in franchise history, Ernie Banks. For our special March issue, we talked to former players, front office members, fans and many others whose lives Ernie touched to find out what made Mr. Cub so special. We also have our 2015 season preview and a Q&A with new bench coach Dave Martinez. But, really, March is all about Ernie. Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts opened Banks’ memorial ceremony with a touching tribute. In lieu of our usual opening remarks, this month we let Ricketts, who got to know Mr. Cub well over the years as both a player and a man, kick things off. The following is a slightly condensed version of his speech from the service. I couldn’t have said it better myself.  – Gary Cohen

Hitting: good. Running: good. Attitude: very good.In 1953, baseball scout Hugh Wise typed these words into a report describing a 22-year-old Negro League baseball player named Ernest Banks. When asked on the scouting form how long it would be until the young shortstop was ready to play in the majors, Wise succinctly stated, “Can play now.” And while it was Mr. Wise’s intent to describe Ernie Banks the baseball player, he may as well have been describing Ernie Banks the man when he wrote in that very same report, “No outstanding weaknesses.”

Wise saw Ernie Banks play only three times that year, yet he knew he had found a special player and a special person. Later that summer, Ernie debuted as a Cub, and he went on to play 2,528 games over 19 seasons and collect 2,583 hits, 1,636 RBI and 512 home runs.

While those are incredible stats, never in history have numbers fallen so far short in describing the true greatness of an athlete.

Perhaps more so than any other great player in history, Ernie Banks was known as much for his off-the-field demeanor as for his on-the-field performance. Ernie was a model of decency and humility and was defined by his sunny, optimistic outlook on baseball and life.

Ernie was, of course, known as Mr. Cub. But you don’t get to be called Mr. Cub because you play in a lot of games or hit a lot of home runs. You become Mr. Cub because you love the game, the team, and the ballpark in a truly honest and sincere way.

After he retired, Ernie was asked if he missed going to work, to which he famously replied, “Work? I have never worked a day in my life. I always loved what I was doing.”

Ernie Banks was the most kind, sincere man I have ever known, and despite his fame and high profile, he always had time for everyone. The thing that sticks with me is how hard it was to get Ernie to talk about himself. He would say, “How are you doing? What do you do for a living? Do you have kids? Where do they live? How are your parents?”

Ernie was a warm, friendly human being who truly cared about those around him. I talked to dozens of people who dropped by the visitation yesterday, and almost everyone had a story in which Ernie somehow touched them in some small but meaningful way.

As we all know, Ernie Banks is not Mr. Cub because the fans loved him. Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub because he loved us back. It turns out Ernie became Mr. Cub through no other magic than just being himself. The bond he created with this city and with Cubs fans had no precedent in sport, and it will never be replicated.

For everyone who knew Ernie, and particularly for those of us who work at the Cubs, the thought of a summer at Wrigley Field without the smile of Ernie Banks, the laugh of Ernie Banks, the singing—and, sometimes, dancing—of Ernie Banks is just too painful to consider.

But the pain of the loss will always be balanced by the smiles that are only a memory away and the joy that will always be in our hearts, for we were all truly blessed to have known such a wonderful person.

So as we gather today to pay our final respects to this good and great man, I speak for all fans when I say, “Ernie, thank you. We love you, and we already miss you. And while we miss you dearly, we also know that as the Cubs take the field on a bright, sunny afternoon at Wrigley Field, you will be right there with us.”

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

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Jen-Ho Tseng is one of the many impressive arms in the Cubs system. (Photo courtesy Kane County Cougars)

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

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

In our annual minor league prospectus, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma helps us break down the names to know at all levels of the system. All month long, we’ve unveiled player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 6, the final portion of the Cubs minor league prospectus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

From the Pages of Vine Line: Minor League Prospectus, Part 5 – Keep an Eye On

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

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

In our annual minor league prospectus, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma helps us break down the names to know at all levels of the system. As the month progresses, we’ll unveil player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 5 of the Cubs minor league prospectus:

Part 1 – The Elite
Part 2 – The Up-And-Comers
Part 3 – A Phone Call Away
Part 4 – Ready to Rebound

Keep an Eye On
Like everyone else who watches the game regularly, scouts often fall in love with certain players. Unless you spend a great deal of time digging deep into the farm system, which isn’t all that unusual for Cubs fans of late, you may not have heard of some of the following names. But these are the guys scouts have identified as having a legitimate shot to put themselves on the map in 2015.

Jeffrey Baez – OF
Though he is generally known as the less-famous Baez in the Cubs organization (for the record, he and Javier are not related), Jeffrey is a big, strong-bodied outfielder with a chance to hit for power. He has some speed for his size, which has allowed him to rack up stolen bases early in his professional career and play solid defense from a corner outfield spot. Baez dominated in Boise, and after a slow start following a promotion, he eventually hit his stride with the bat in Kane County. He has the upside to be a legit major league bat, but that depends on his ability to make adjustments and keep his body in shape.

Charcer Burks – OF
A former high school football player, Burks has the tools and athleticism to open some eyes. He possesses an advanced approach for a younger player, but must continue to get stronger and utilize his speed by hitting line drives or keeping the ball on the ground rather than trying to hit it in the air. He has a gap-to-gap, line-drive swing and will likely be more of a singles and doubles guy than a power hitter.

Victor Caratini – C/3B
Caratini plays both third base and catcher, but he will stick behind the plate for the time being. If he can prove he has the skills to remain there, he’ll join Zagunis and Schwarber to give the Cubs some depth at a position at which they were largely lacking just a year ago. The switch-hitter has the flexibility, soft hands, strong arm and overall tools to become a solid backstop. Either way, he has enough bat to provide value. If it’s behind the plate, that value suddenly becomes of the impact variety.

Trevor Clifton – RHP
Clifton was a top-round talent, but the Cubs were able to sign him to an over-slot bonus after selecting him in the 12th round of the 2013 draft. The big, physical righty has an easy plus fastball, and his body has filled out since he joined the organization. With the potential for a solid change-up and a strong breaking ball, he has the weapons to be a starter, but he hasn’t yet shown the necessary consistency

Kevonte Mitchell – OF
Mitchell is a great athlete with a body scouts say is a mix between Giancarlo Stanton’s and Matt Kemp’s. Kemp is the dream here, as he is for every toolsy player who needs everything to go just right to reach his potential. As of now, Mitchell has the tools, but needs his game to catch up, which can only happen with playing time and lots of it. He profiles in a corner outfield spot, but there are some who believe the former basketball player could be adequate in center. Mitchell is the type of athlete scouts dream about. The ball flies off his bat, and he looks the part, but everything needs to click. If it doesn’t, which is the case more often than not with these types of players, he could end up less like Kemp and more like Reggie Abercrombie—a player with monster tools who never fully puts it together and struggles to perform in the high minors.

Cubs duo tops ESPN’s 2015 impact prospects list

Soler

(Photo by Stephen Green)

As described by ESPN Insider Keith Law, there’s a difference between being a top prospect and being an impactful rookie heading into 2015. The Cubs’ youth movement has been well documented, with most media outlets—including Law—ranking the Cubs as the top farm system in baseball.

On Tuesday, the ESPN writer ranked his top 20 impact prospects heading into 2015. These are not the top prospects in baseball, but the players he expects could make major league contributions this year. Law ranked super prospect Kris Bryant, who is expected to see action for the majority of the major league season, tops on his list. Directly following the third base phenom was Jorge Soler, who enjoyed a brief taste of the majors in 2014, following a late-August promotion. Here’s what Law had to say of the Cubs’ talented duo:

1. Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs

Bryant probably won’t head north with the Cubs on April 5, but he’ll be at Wrigley Field maybe two weeks later as the Cubs look to push off his eventual free agency by a year. He’s my pick right now to win NL Rookie of the Year, likely to hit 20-plus homers and get on base at a strong clip even with a strikeout rate that will probably top 25 percent.

2. Jorge Soler, RF, Chicago Cubs

If Bryant doesn’t win the ROY award, maybe his teammate will. Soler hit the majors like he was fusing deuterium and tritium nuclei, but it lasted only about a week before he discovered the travails of a hitter facing the major league strike zone. His hands are explosive, and he’s a more disciplined hitter than the raw strikeout rate he had with the Cubs last year might indicate. He should have 25 homers in him this year, but with a modest OBP and average to above-average defense in right.

Due to Bryant’s service clock, many believe the 23-year-old will make his big league debut a few weeks into the regular season, which would allow the Cubs one more full season of contractual control. Soler, who signed a nine-year major league deal in 2012, will likely start the year in the middle of the Cubs’ order and play right field. Those two, paired with 2014 All-Stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, could be the heart of the Cubs’ order for years to come.

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