Cactus League will help determine roles

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
1:18
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MESA, Ariz. -- Let the games begin! The Cactus League starts Thursday for the Chicago Cubs, and here’s what you need to know:

The Cubs will play 31 games before ending their stay in Arizona with two exhibition contests against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 3 and 4. The only day they don’t have a game scheduled is March 23. Thursday’s split-squad openers feature Travis Wood taking on the Oakland Athletics at Sloan Park and Jacob Turner pitching against the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale.

While spring statistics are mostly meaningless, that may not be the case for those vying for roster spots. Manager Joe Maddon has said a player’s “body of work” is most important, but if all things are equal, the guy who dominates in the spring could win the job. The opposite is true of the player who struggles all month. Last year Jose Veras never found his groove during the spring, and he struggled to start the season. The same was true of Carlos Marmol in 2013.

But be wary of the hitter who puts up monster spring numbers. Maddon doesn’t put much stock into it. However, again, the player who never gets it going is the one the Cubs should keep an eye on. Is it part of the process or the next Veras?

“I want to have that one outing where everything clicks,” pitcher Jason Hammel said Wednesday. “As long as the progression is there and then I have that game, I’m good.”

Fifth starter: For all practical purposes, this is Wood’s job to lose. But if Edwin Jackson somehow regains any kind of decent form, he could end up being the fifth starter. Crazier things have happened. More than likely, if everyone is healthy, the Cubs will trade one of those two pitchers -- or Tsuyoshi Wada. Turner and Felix Doubront are long shots for the job. Turner thinks he can be better after a year that produced a 6.13 ERA and then a winter of reflection.

“It’s tough to make adjustments during the season,” Turner said. “That’s what the offseason is for.”

Javier Baez: There’s plenty to watch when Baez comes to the plate, starting with his approach.

“For now, we are going to be working on making more contact and seeing the ball all the way through the zone,” Baez said.

Baez was asked if he’ll shorten up with two strikes, something he never did last year.

“You’re probably going to see me doing it with one strike too so I can work on it,” he responded.

Remember, early offensive results in the spring should be taken with a grain of salt, as hitting conditions are ripe for batters and pitchers aren’t throwing their hardest -- or with their best stuff.

Lefty in the pen: It doesn’t get much attention -- until the eighth inning of an April game on the line -- but the Cubs need a lefty specialist, or at least a lefty long man, in the bullpen. There is no clear cut favorite for the job.

“I don’t think one person has the job over another,” southpaw Zac Rosscup said. “Its fun to compete. They’re all great guys.”

Rosscup joins a group that includes newcomer Drake Britton and Joe Ortiz as candidates to make the bullpen.

“This is a great opportunity for me,” Britton said. “There are a lot of good lefties here. We’re in a friendly competition. I’m going to do everything I can to get it.”

If there is any position on the team that spring games will determine a roster spot, it’s left-handed reliever.

Third base: The other position up for grabs is third base. Is it Tommy La Stella or Mike Olt? Or maybe Arismendy Alcantara finds his way there. Their defense at the hot corner might help determine a winner, as only Olt has played there on a regular basis. But is the winner really winning when he’ll lose his job as soon as the Cubs bring up Kris Bryant from the minors? In a way, he is, because if he’s playing well, he may retain his roster spot even though he might not be the starter for more than a few weeks.

The lineup: Maddon revealed a partial lineup for Thursday’s home game against the Oakland Athletics. He’ll try different combinations throughout the spring:

Dexter Fowler
Anthony Rizzo
Starlin Castro
Miguel Montero
Javier Baez
MESA, Ariz. -- Baseball's top prospect, Kris Bryant, sat down for a question-and-answer session as he and the Chicago Cubs get ready for Cactus League games to start this week:

Jesse Rogers: I'm going to give you a break and not ask you about making the team out of camp. Instead I'll ask an equally awkward question. Kyle Hendricks recently told me you could be the "best player in baseball, hands down." That's an exact quote. Your response?

Kris Bryant: That's, well, incredible to hear from a teammate. Obviously he's a good player himself and I enjoyed playing behind him. Just to hear that kind of praise from him is an honor.

I mean this is a pretty quiet guy, a man of few words, and he's well-educated, from Dartmouth, so maybe he knows what he's saying.

[laughing] He's probably smarter than me, though University of San Diego is pretty good but, man, Dartmouth.

Rogers: Does it make you think, "Hey, slow down a little?"

Bryant: Yeah, but it's the nature of playing this game. I did have a good season and I was talking to some buddies this offseason about the hype and they were like, "That's your fault, you brought that on yourself." I enjoy it. I enjoy my teammates, but I have equal praise for them. They've taken me under their wing and treated me amazing. I feel so comfortable here and I couldn't be more happy where I am.

Rogers: It's funny you bring that up about your friends because I was going to ask you how tiresome the questions are about you making the team, but then I figured your smile tells the story. It beats the alternative. We could be asking "What happened to Bryant last year?" or "Is he ever going to make it?"

Bryant: I agree. I'm doing something right and I'm going to continue to do what I've done to get to this point. Hopefully I have a great season, but you can't see the future. You just have to try and get better. I remember coming into spring training last year and I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know where I was going to play -- Daytona, Tennessee or where. I was just taking everything in stride and focusing on the day to day. I got my feet wet in big league spring training, then got sent back to the minor league side. I did absolutely terrible in minor league camp. I probably hit .120, then I go out there and have a great year. You just never know what to expect. You have to take things with a grain of salt and play as hard as you can.

Rogers: Do you think you struggled in minor league camp because of a little bit of a letdown, little adrenaline drop or something?

Bryant: I can't blame it on that, but sure you go from 30,000 fans to 10. Not 10,000 but 10. Count it on two hands.

Rogers: The reason I asked that is because guys like Hendricks or Javier Baez were on the cusp last year, and when they went down to Triple-A they struggled. Hendricks admitted it was on his mind. But he also said he didn't think that would happen to you.

Bryant: Yeah, I don't approach the game that way. If there is an umpire and some fans in the stands, I turn on the switch and I'm ready to go. I don't care if it's Wiffle Ball and my dad is umpiring. I'm a competitor and I want to win in everything I do. That brings out the best. If I were to struggle, it won't be because of that. I'll just have to figure it out.

Rogers: OK, with games finally starting this week are you excited to put a hurting on some balls? And I say that because I know you are a baseball rat and you've been away from competitive baseball for a while since the minors season ends early.

Bryant: Sept. 1 was the last game. Batting practice got the feeling back here, but nothing beats hitting the ball on the fat part of the bat with people watching and cheering you. It's very exciting, so yeah, getting that feeling back on the field and trying to win every spring training game is our goal.

Rogers: And seeing what [Cubs manager Joe] Maddon is like in-game? He has this larger-than-life reputation.

Bryant: Yeah, absolutely. He's instilling the winning way early in us. He's made it clear he wants to win every spring training game. That's really cool. For me, I'm a competitor. I like it. I'm going to run just as hard down the line and let them know I'm here to play.

Rogers: You mentioned hitting the ball on the fat part of the bat. I was looking up some numbers and the hard hit average last year when a batter goes up the plate is .166. So 16.6 percent of the time hitters are making really good contact. It's hard, isn't it?

Bryant: This game is so tough. When you're struggling, that's normal. You can't be killing it every time. And these pitchers are crazy. With the pitches they throw now, sometimes I've wondered how I hit them or my teammates hit them. It's just that good. But the times that you do -- the 16 percent -- it's why we play this game. It's like golf. You hit a good shot and you come back for another round, but it's hard.

Rogers: Tell me about the pitching machine/cage at your home.

Bryant: It's just like the ones we have here. Last offseason my dad was just lobbing them in there, so it was good to see some curveballs and some velocity earlier so I'm ready for these games.

Rogers: You and Anthony Rizzo seem to be bonding. Is it because you have similar paths as highly touted players and stuff like that?

Bryant: He's been just a good teammate and a good guy. And our interests are very alike and aligned. We like to give back and be nice to the people that got us here, as well as do well on the field. And we're kind of similar players. It's cool to have a guy like that -- one I can kind of cling to and learn how he goes about his ways. He's helped a lot so far.

Rogers: Yeah, I caught a bro-hug between you guys the other day. Was that about anything in particular?

Bryant: Oh, I think that was after the live batting practice I had. He's like, 'You're a stud, dude.' He said something like, 'Whatever you're doing now I want to do, so I'm going to follow you around.' Something like that.

Rogers: Isn't that high praise? I mean it's only BP, but ...

Bryant: Oh for sure. It's definitely weird because he's done it in the big leagues and I haven't, yet he's saying he wants to be like me. It should be the other way around, but it gives me that boost of confidence and I appreciate that.

Rogers: Your dad has been a big part of your baseball life. Any advice he's giving you for this specific season or camp?

Bryant: Yeah, make the decision hard for them. That's always what I'm going to do. I've done a good job of that my whole life, so I don't think it will change.

Rogers: What have you been doing away from the park?

Bryant: I'm rooming with Albert Almora, Dan Vogelbach and Stephen Bruno; it's a good group of guys. We're hanging out, goofing around. We went golfing a couple times and we have a putting green in our backyard, so we're out there. We went to Top Golf a couple of times.

Rogers: Where is your defense right now at third base?

Bryant: It's good, but practice is a whole different animal. It might take me a little to get back into it because there is a hitter in the box and you have to react to it. But yeah, it's coming along.

Cubs Notes: Ross to catch Lester -- on Friday

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
7:06
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MESA, Az. -- It's not the most important question in Chicago Cubs camp -- far from it. But who catches Jon Lester on opening night and throughout the season is an ongoing query for manager Joe Maddon this spring. He has lefty Miguel Montero or righty David Ross to choose from. If somehow, someway Welington Castillo is still around, that further complicates matters. Don't count on that latter option being an issue, though.

Naming Lester as the Day 1 starter on April 5 was an easy call. The catcher that night? Not as easy.

"I have not agonized over that thought yet," Maddon said Tuesday after workouts. "I don't think he [Lester] wants to attempt to dictate who's going to catch him on any specific night. I haven't gotten there yet."

Lester has downplayed the connection with Ross, though the two have worked well together. There are those who believe Ross was signed solely to catch Lester, so there's little reason for him to be around if he doesn't. The Cubs would strongly disagree with that notion, as Ross might be the best of the veterans they acquired this offseason in terms of much-needed leadership.

This much we know: Ross will catch on Friday when Lester makes his spring debut for the Cubs. Maybe that's a sign. But Maddon added that Lester will throw to all catchers in camp throughout the Cactus League season.

And then there's this thought:

"I don't want to catch Ross too much," Maddon said. "That's not good for him or for us."

Ross will be 38 on March 19 and he's coming off a season in which he hit .184, but he's 20 points better against lefties than righties in his career. There is little doubt Montero will sit against some left-handed pitching. So will Ross really play once every five days to catch Lester and then against lefties? Probably not.

And consider this potential bottom of the lineup on opening night if Kris Bryant starts the season in the minors, as expected, and Ross is behind the plate:

6. Javier Baez (.169, 95 K's)
7. Mike Olt (.160, 100 K's)
8. David Ross (.184, .158 versus righties)
8. Jon Lester (.000, career 0-for-41 including postseason)

Of course Olt might not be in there, and even Baez might not be, but you get the picture: Montero might be needed for his offense. And remember, he's just as good a defensive catcher as Ross and led all of baseball in getting extra calls from umpires due to his pitch-framing ability.

Maddon was asked if Lester might want the comfort of Ross, considering it's opening night and he's pitching for a new team.

"My first thought is Jon Lester has pitched in the World Series," Maddon responded.

In other words, he's felt a lot more pressure and succeeded. Stay tuned to opening-night drama. We have a month left.

Fundamentals: The Cubs worked on relay throws and did some baserunning drills Tuesday. Maddon said baserunning is an area of the game in which you can learn a young player's baseball smarts, so he'll be watching as Cactus League games begin.

"I'll try to bear down on [a player] on the bases to figure out how high his baseball acumen is," Maddon said.

Pitchers hitting: Maddon said he'll use a designated hitter in the lineup until the middle of the month when starters are stretched out on the mound and will need at-bats to prepare for the season.

The Quote: "You don't have to go to an Ivy League school to overthink it. You could go to a state school, too." -- Maddon, on some players who overthink the game.

Wrigley renovation faces time crunch

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
1:50
PM CT
[+] EnlargeWrigley
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Cubs want to extend working hours in order to complete the Wrigley Field renovation as soon as possible.

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs' scramble to get as much of a massive renovation of Wrigley Field done before next month's opening day hit a bump Tuesday when Mayor Rahm Emanuel dashed the team's hopes of winning city approval to keep construction crews working around the clock.

"The city ordinance is clear that you can't have 24-hour building,'' the mayor told reporters. Emanuel also made a point of saying that whatever the Cubs told the media about extending the hours of construction, they had not raised the issue with him.

Team officials, who said that they need to pick up the pace of the project because winter weather has put construction behind schedule, tried to assure people that whatever they said Monday about asking the city to let construction go "more 24/7'' was not what they would seek.

Saying the team understands the mayor's "perspective'' and the "need to be conscious of the impact on our neighbors,'' the Cubs in a statement issued Tuesday said they hope the city will allow work to be done from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. and Monday through Saturday, instead of the 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. schedule they must adhere to now.


(Read full post)


Anthony Rizzo Twitter mailbag: Be ready to hit

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
12:01
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MESA, Ariz. -- This week’s Twitter mailbag features Chicago Cubs first baseman and All-Star Anthony Rizzo:

Rizzo: I played football and baseball. I quit football my junior year when I hurt my leg. I played tight end and defensive end.
Rizzo: I don’t know yet. You guys will have to wait and find out. I’m still figuring it out myself. But I’ll have one.
Rizzo: If someone is a captain he has earned the respect of his teammates and the organization, all of his peers. It’s a responsibility that comes along with the territory of hard work. It’s not something I think about at all.
Rizzo: The biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone is ‘see the ball, hit the ball.’ And be ready to hit. Lefty, righty, whatever. Be ready when the pitch is coming and if you see it, hopefully everything else takes care of itself.
Rizzo: No, I haven’t done a thing on it (sarcastic and laughing). Of course, been doing a lot of Core work. Just have to stay on top of it throughout the season.
Rizzo: I would bring a knife for survival. Same with water and I guess an iPod.
Rizzo: The biggest difference is we’re a year older. It’s another year for the young guys getting to grow up, including myself. Castro getting to grow up. And then bringing in some real veteran presence here, it’s nice to have that after a few years. And everyone is more excited.
Rizzo: Just keep going about my business. My expectations for myself are higher than anyone else can put on me. Just never satisfied.
Rizzo: Zero faith. None. For me the game is all feel. Every situation dictates itself. In game situations that the average person and even the numbers may not get. But at the end of the day, I know those numbers don’t lie, but I don’t pay attention at all.
Rizzo: The biggest factor is balls falling in. Honestly. You can’t control everything. I’ve liked my approach the last two years but sure I’ve understood my swing as things have gone on. The biggest thing is consistency. I have to stay more consistent. Next step is being a better teammate. It doesn’t matter how I do, it matters if we win.
Rizzo: I would probably say myself. Yeah, I’m an idiot. Oh, wait. Junior Lake. I forgot about him. He’s hilarious.
Rizzo: I would rather not answer that one.
Rizzo: I would say Citi Field in New York. It’s New York. I love New York. It’s always fun going there. I have some family in New Jersey and I’m just a big fan of the field.
Rizzo: The Marlins. I’m from there so I followed them the most. Gary Sheffield was the guy I followed the most.




Time for Albert Almora to use what he's learned

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
11:37
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs centerfield prospect Albert Almora almost bristles at the question: What happened last year?

After hitting .270 with 69 strikeouts and just 14 walks split between Single-A and Double-A last season, the former No. 1 pick of the Cubs dropped out of the top 100 in ESPN.com’s prospect rankings. But Almora doesn’t feel like it was a lost year.

Hardly.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t have bad year,” Almora said Tuesday morning before spring workouts began for the day. “I thought it was a great year when it comes down to how to deal with stuff. I learned a lot of things. I was happy with the outcome of the year. Sure the numbers weren’t there like previous years, but when it comes to my development, I thought it was a great year.”

Is he being nave? We’ll know more after this season as Almora does admit the numbers have to catch up. ESPN prospect guru Keith Law is most blunt about Almora’s game: He needs to take a pitch, Law says. For Cubs brass, Almora’s nearly 5:1 strikeout to walk ratio in 2014 must stick out like a sore thumb. It’s no secret it might be the most important statistic they look at in assessing -- and advancing -- their prospects. One size doesn’t fit all, but Almora knows this is where he needs to improve.

“Mostly pitch recognition,” he said. “Getting my pitch to hit. It (walking more) would help my game out tremendously. I definitely think it’s part of the game I need to work on. If I’m on base it helps the team.”

(Read full post)

Podcast: Addison Russell on future with Cubs

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
11:26
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers talks with the Cubs' second-rated prospect, Addison Russell, about his trade to Chicago, being healthy and where he might play this spring and summer.

Play Download

Click here for more audio from ESPN Chicago.

Cubs notes: Spring rotation set

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
5:37
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MESA, Ariz. -- After announcing Chicago Cubs lefty Jon Lester would be his Opening Day starter in April, manager Joe Maddon revealed his pitching rotation for the first five days of Cactus League play.

Travis Wood will start at home on Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds while Jacob Turner will be on the mound at the same time in Scottsdale against the San Francisco Giants. Here’s how the early pitching schedule shakes out:

Thurs: Wood/Turner
Friday: Lester vs. the Reds
Saturday: Jason Hammel starts, Felix Doubront relieves, vs. Colorado
Sunday: Jake Arrieta starts, Tsuyoshi Wada relieves, vs. Texas
Monday: Edwin Jackson starts, Kyle Hendricks relieves, vs. San Diego

Who starts and who comes in from the bullpen has no significance, it’s just about getting the requisite amount of pitches in. These nine players are vying for the five starting spots, but in reality it’s just Wada, Wood, Jackson, Doubront and Turner in competition for the No. 5 starter.

“What’s obvious is obvious,” Maddon said of the top four starters. “But things can change. Of course they can change. The competition around here is unbelievable on so many levels.”

Davey on the road: Maddon will manage the home game on Thursday while bench coach Davey Martinez and spring assistant Rick Sutcliffe will handle the road duties in the split-squad affair. Additionally, Maddon isn’t planning on traveling to Las Vegas for games on March 13 and 14 as his daughter could be in labor in Arizona around that weekend. Martinez will handle those duties as well.

Monday rain: Rain on Monday canceled outdoor workouts as the Cubs were planning on doing base running drills as well as working on cutoffs. Maddon said they didn’t want to take any chances on a wet field and those fundamentals drills will take place on Tuesday.

Morning Maddon: The Cubs' new manager says he’s not a “morning person” and needs to figure out how to handle the Cubs' day-game schedule.

“I’ll have to think of ways for me personally to wake up mentally earlier in the day,” Maddon said. “I’m pretty good later in the day.”

Maddon joked he’ll be ready by the time he has to make decisions regarding his bullpen.

Bleacher-opening delayed further due to cold

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
4:41
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
WrigleyJon Greenberg/ESPNChicago.comCarl Rice, vice president of ballpark operations, gave reporters a tour of the Wrigley Field construction site Monday.


CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs opened up an under-construction Wrigley Field to reporters on Monday afternoon and admitted the right field bleachers won’t be “ready for occupancy” until mid-June, a month after the left-field and center-field sections are slated to receive fans.

At their annual fan convention in January, the Cubs announced that the left-field bleachers wouldn’t open until May 11, and at the time, they predicted the right-field section would be open in late May, because of sewer work on Sheffield Ave.

But a cold February pushed things back even further, Cubs vice president for ballpark operations Carl Rice said Monday.

The Cubs are on the road for the first 10 days of June. They open a five-game homestand on June 11. Starting May 11, there are 13 home games before the June 11 homestand.

Rice said the new left-field videoboard will be ready by the April 5 opener, a Sunday night game against the St. Louis Cardinals on ESPN, but the smaller right-field one will be up sometime in May and "no later than June 1."

The Wrigley Field portion of the massive construction project was projected to cost $375 million, and be completed in four phases, ending during the 2018 season. To help pay for the construction, the Ricketts family recently confirmed they added minority investors to the holding company that owns the team. Media reports pegged the investment at around $175 million.

With overtime coming, they’ll need it.

[+] EnlargeWrigley Construction
Jon Greenberg/ESPNCubs president of business operations Crane Kenney stands amid the construction inside Wrigley Field.
Because of bitterly cold temperatures, construction workers couldn’t work outside for five out of the previous nine days, Rice and president of business operations Crane Kenney told reporters during the media tour. So the team is asking the city for permission to extend outside work hours for certain days during the week.

“It’ll be overtime, which is good for the steelworkers, not so good for us,” Kenney said. “But we’d like to pick up that time.”

By city law, construction projects outside of downtown are limited to an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. schedule, Rice said.

“The city has been wonderful with us in terms of support,” Kenney said. “We’re about to ask the city to let us work beyond the 8-8 hours. The next two weeks are critical for us. April 5 is Opening Day. That day is not moving, so these next two weeks are really time to recover a couple lost days from last week.”

The media were given hard hats and safety goggles and led on a tour that began at Gate K, the entrance on Waveland Ave. that leads fans into the left-field concourse. That area is currently full of exposed steel beams, dirt and busy construction workers. But the Cubs say it will be ready by Opening Night.

The outbound side of the left-field concourse will walled off until sometime in June as construction continues, and some restrooms and concession options will be limited for that time. But all entrances to the field will be open and there will be room to walk. That “serpentine” ramp in the left-field concourse is being eliminated for a stairwell, Rice said, along with other alterations.

A lot of work being done in the concourse is to reinforce the upper deck, which will be altered during the third and fourth phases of construction in the coming years.

“There are approximately 35 main columns,” Rice said. “We had to do work on 30 to support the upper deck.”

Giant machines and construction workers are building the foundation for the Cubs’ new underground clubhouse, which will be located beneath the plaza on Clark Street. It is scheduled to open for the 2016 season. Fans can see the machines rising out of the construction zone now, but by April, those inside the park will be able to see a giant hole in the ground where the clubhouse will be located. It will connect to the park by a giant tunnel in the left field concourse.

After this phase is done, next season, the team will focus on the right-field concourse, and also start work on the hotel across the street where a team store and a McDonald’s are currently located. Rice said they want the hotel opened by the “holiday season” in 2017.

While the Cubs are expected to compete for a division title this season after years of minor league construction, fans should expect to co-exist with construction off the field as well.

“Throughout the season, you will see a lot of work going on,” Kenney said. “And you’ll see these pardon our dust signs. .. It’s going to be dusty and dirty this year.”

Even bigger Soler ready to 'take off'

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
4:07
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Jorge Soler, Chicago CubsMatt York/AP ImagesCubs outfielder Jorge Soler could be a Rookie of the Year contender in 2015.


MESA, Ariz. -- The presence Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler provides in the Chicago Cubs' spring training locker room is all about the visuals. He’s a man of few words -- in Spanish or English -- but his size stands out among any athletes.

“He’s real big,” was the first observation new manager Joe Maddon made of Soler on Day 1 of camp.

He has a few more now.

“I liked his feet,” Maddon said after watching Soler in defensive drills recently. “His arm is really good.”

Cubs fans got a taste of Soler last season and they must have liked what they saw -- and not just in his 6-4, 215-pound frame. Make that 242 pounds, now. Soler put on muscle this offseason on an already freakishly athletic body. You can see it in his arms.

“I feel real good,” Soler said Monday through staff assistant/translator Franklin Font. “I feel great.”

(Read full post)

Jon Lester to start Cubs' opener

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
2:04
PM CT
[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsJon Lester has been named the Cubs' opening night starter against the Cardinals on April 5.

MESA, Ariz. -- New Chicago Cubs ace Jon Lester will throw the first pitch of the new baseball season April 5 against the St. Louis Cardinals, manager Joe Maddon announced Monday.

Maddon also said Lester will make his Cubs debut this spring Friday against the Cincinnati Reds in a home contest at Sloan Park.

The lefty signed a six-year, $155 million contract in December, becoming the immediate face of the pitching staff and one of the leaders of the team after winning two World Series championships with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and 2013.


(Read full post)


Studying the leadoff hitters: NL

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
1:34
PM CT
Schoenfield By David Schoenfield
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
On Friday, we looked at the state of leadoff hitters in the American League. Now let's move to the National League. Last season, the average OBP for leadoff hitters was .326, a tick above the overall MLB average for non-pitchers of .318. Still, only two teams -- St. Louis and Houston -- received an OBP over .350 from their table setters. In other words, we're not exactly in the glory days of leadoff hitters.

NL EAST

Atlanta Braves
2014 totals: .314 OBP (24th in majors), 86 runs (24th)

Jason Heyward was fine in this role in 2014, but after Fredi Gonzalez moved him down in the order in mid-June, Melvin Upton Jr. and Emilio Bonifacio were terrible at the top of the lineup. Heyward eventually went back to the leadoff spot. Of course, he's gone this year, so now what? Maybe Nick Markakis, who hit leadoff with the Orioles but doesn't steal bases and took the extra base just 18 percent of the time compared to the MLB average of 40 percent (that's all baserunners, not just leadoff hitters). Rookie second baseman Jose Peraza -- who had 60 steals in the minors -- could slot here if he makes the jump from Double-A.

Miami Marlins
2014 totals: .346 OBP (fourth), 104 runs (ninth)

Christian Yelich started 139 games here and provided very good production. So of course, the Marlins went out and acquired a worse leadoff hitter in Dee Gordon, who is one of the fastest players in the majors but posted a mediocre .326 OBP (and just .300 in the second half) in 2014. If Gordon can learn to draw a few more walks and get his OBP back into the .340 to .350 range, he'll be an asset here, with Yelich likely moving to the No. 2 hole.

New York Mets
2014 totals: .308 OBP (26th), 92 runs (19th)

Eric Young Jr. and Curtis Granderson got the most time here -- with 53 and 52 games, respectively -- but combined for a sub-.300 OBP. The Mets don't have a good solution but may go with Juan Lagares against left-handers and Daniel Murphy or Granderson against right-handers.

Philadelphia Phillies
2014 totals: .335 OBP (10th), 91 runs (20th)

Ben Revere drew 13 walks in 626 plate appearances -- not exactly the kind of eye you want from your leadoff hitter -- but he did hit .306 and was an efficient 49-for-57 stealing bases. He had a .332 OBP while batting leadoff, which was still above the MLB average, so he's not terrible as long as he keeps that batting average over .300 and steals bases as effectively as he did last year.

Washington Nationals
2014 totals: .347 OBP (third), 101 runs (12th)

Denard Span will be back after a solid 2014 in which he posted a .355 OBP overall, hit 39 doubles and stole 31 bases in 38 attempts. That was his highest OBP since 2009, however, so I would expect a little regression. The guys behind him didn't do a particularly good job of driving him in either, even though Span's rate of taking the extra base was 52 percent.

NL CENTRAL

Chicago Cubs
2014 totals: .303 OBP (27th), 85 runs (25th)

The leadoff spot was a big problem a year ago, but new center fielder Dexter Fowler and his career .366 OBP should help plug this hole. Fowler left the Rockies and still put up a .375 OBP with the Astros (he split his time hitting first, second, third and cleanup), but if he's the regular leadoff guy the Cubs will improve on that 85 runs scored ... and Anthony Rizzo will drive in a lot more runs.

Cincinnati Reds
2014 totals: .298 OBP (28th), 90 runs (22nd)

Billy Hamilton didn't do a good job of getting on base -- and also led the majors by getting caught stealing 23 times -- giving the Reds subpar production despite his blazing speed. He'll get another chance in 2015, but he's clearly more Vince Coleman than Tim Raines.

Milwaukee Brewers
2014 totals: .339 OBP (sixth), 115 runs (second)

This production wasn't all Carlos Gomez's, but he did bat here for 106 games and hit 20 home runs, helping the Brewers to an MLB-leading 26 homers from their leadoff hitters. Ron Roenicke tried some other guys at the top of the lineup around midseason before putting Gomez back there. Scooter Gennett or Jean Segura could conceivably get an opportunity here, but there's nothing wrong with power in the leadoff spot, especially since the Brewers still have some pop coming up behind Gomez in Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Khris Davis.

Pittsburgh Pirates
2014 totals: .332 OBP (12th), 110 runs (fourth)

Josh Harrison eventually took over this spot last season and will presumably return this year. We'll see if he can come close to repeating his .315/.347/.490 batting line. Starling Marte is another possibility, although Clint Hurdle seemed to like him lower in the order.

St. Louis Cardinals
2014 totals: .369 OBP (first), 102 runs (11th)

Matt Carpenter is your unconventional leadoff hitter because of his lack of speed, but he has scored the most runs in the majors the past two seasons. The Cardinals struggled to get good production from a variety of No. 2 hitters in 2014, however, so it's possible Mike Matheny will move Carpenter there and try Kolten Wong or Jon Jay (.372 OBP in 2014) in the leadoff spot. Wong has the best speed but had just a .292 OBP as a rookie, so I'd hit him lower in the lineup to start the season and make him earn his way up to one of the first two spots.

NL WEST

Arizona Diamondbacks
2014 totals: .331 OBP (13th), 99 runs (13th)

Ender Inciarte got the most time here -- 76 games -- and posted a .725 OPS when hitting leadoff, much higher than his overall OPS of .677. He's probably a bench player in 2015, so maybe A.J. Pollock (.352 OBP) will slide in here. I certainly wouldn't recommend Chris Owings and his .300 OBP.

Colorado Rockies
2014 totals: .325 OBP (19th), 93 runs (18th)

Charlie Blackmon hit here for 137 games last season and posted a .291/.335/.446 line while batting leadoff. He struggled mightily on the road, however, and didn't hit lefties that well. Drew Stubbs has his flaws, but he can still pound left-handers, so if they end up platooning in center, it makes sense to platoon them in the leadoff spot as well.

Los Angeles Dodgers
2014 totals: .333 OBP (11th), 109 runs (fifth)

Minus Gordon, the Dodgers lack an obvious candidate. Jimmy Rollins spent most of his career with the Phillies as a leadoff hitter, of course, but he's had an OBP above .325 only once since 2008. Don Mattingly has said he's not committed yet to using Rollins at the top of the order. Carl Crawford has never liked hitting leadoff, although he did it regularly in 2013. Howie Kendrick is coming off a .347 OBP with the Angels, matching his career high as he saw his walk rate spike, but he's never been a leadoff hitter. Yasiel Puig is another option, considering his .382 OBP from 2014. Of course, Puig is also the team's best No. 2 hitter, best No. 3 hitter and best No. 4 hitter. Mattingly will probably want to split his lefty-righty hitters, so I could see something like Kendrick, Crawford, Puig and Adrian Gonzalez in the first four spots, or maybe Crawford-Puig-Gonzalez-Kendrick. No reason to hit Rollins up there when he's not one of your best hitters.

San Diego Padres
2014 totals: .292 OBP (29th), 71 runs (29th)

They were terrible here in 2014 and didn't find a solution in the offseason, so Bud Black would be wise to think outside the box rather than do something dumb like use Alexi Amarista (career OBP of .279) just because he runs well. I'd suggest Wil Myers or Jedd Gyorko (who had a .347 OBP in the second half last year as he walked more and struck out less).

San Francisco Giants
2014 totals: .314 OBP (23rd), 96 runs (16th)

If Angel Pagan's back holds up, he's the guy. I actually liked the 30-game experiment Bruce Bochy had with Hunter Pence hitting leadoff, but he'll be back in the middle of the order. I'd be more worried about Joe Panik hitting second, wasting an important lineup spot with a guy who has no power and a mediocre-at-best OBP.

C.J. Edwards diary: 'We won the dance off'

March, 1, 2015
Mar 1
5:17
PM CT
By C.J. Edwards
Special to ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards is writing a spring training diary for ESPNChicago as he attends his first big league camp. He’ll provide periodic updates about the goings-on both on and off the field. His first entry discussed arriving in Arizona when just the pitchers and catchers reported. Here’s his second installment.

We all got together on the first day (last Thursday) with the owner and the whole team. It was like a dream. I pinched myself, so I knew for a fact I wasn’t dreaming. It’s just amazing, finally. (I'm) not saying I’m in the big leagues, but I’m on this side (major league side) and starting to see things work in my favor.

Then I threw against live hitters for the first time in camp. It was pretty cool. I felt great. My arm feels really good. I have a lot of confidence in all my pitches. My lesson for the day was just to focus on my target -- not to gas people. I just wanted to make sure my command was there. I did get a little adrenaline going. I faced Albert Almora, Christian Villanueva and a few other guys.

The pitching coach (Chris Bosio) was watching me from behind the mound and he was complimenting me. He would say to the catcher, ‘Go up with the target,’ and I would hit the target up. Stuff like that. We would go over scenarios like runner on second, one out, so they want me to pitch inside to a righty or outside to a lefty so they hit it to the left side. It helps out a lot so when you get into a game you already know what to do.

I had a little fingernail problem. Just split it. It didn’t stop me from pitching or anything. It was kind of like a hangnail. Clipped it off and had to put a band-aid on it.

Away from the field we had a little dance off outside here. Addison Russell and I against Dallas Beeler and Justin Grimm to Missy Elliot’s “Music Makes Me Lose control.” Addison and I won easily. It was just to have fun.

Back at home my fianc is starting to (show more) because we’re having a baby in August. I’ll be a dad. It’s an awesome feeling. And my roommate (Cubs minor leaguer) David Garner got to town so that’s cool. We’ve been playing video games, catching up on lost time and laughing. He’ll be on the minor league side. Looking forward to games coming up. That’s it for now.

Cubs notes: Doing the little things right

March, 1, 2015
Mar 1
5:11
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MESA, Ariz. -- One of the biggest needs for the Chicago Cubs on offense this season is simply for more hitters to reach base safely. The front office acquired several players this past offseason who have shown the ability to do that, including Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero.

After ranking 28th in the league last year in on-base percentage, it was necessary to go outside the organization for improvement.

“It will take a guy or two like that to infiltrate a lineup, to get a little bit of a paradigm shift within the group,” manager Joe Maddon said Sunday. “It normally takes that. But it is very difficult to do at the major league level. Their DNA is to swing. Their DNA is to hit, and it’s not necessarily to be a good decision-maker at the plate regarding balls and strikes.”

That coincides with how the front office feels: On-base guys are either drafted or acquired -- they are rarely developed from within. But there is a subtle distinction between striking out too much and just not getting on base.

“You can give a major league hitter tools maybe not to strike out more, [more easily] than you can give him tools to walk more often,” Maddon said.

(Read full post)

Cubs, Maddon mourn passing of Minoso

March, 1, 2015
Mar 1
4:24
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs issued a statement mourning the death of Chicago White Sox icon Minnie Minoso on Sunday, while manager Joe Maddon reminisced about time spent with him at U.S Cellular field while managing the Tampa Bay Rays.

“He liked how we did things,” Maddon said after the Cubs were done with workouts on Sunday. “That’s what he always wanted to talk about. He liked our team, how we played, things like that. Very complimentary.”

Minoso even showed up to Maddon’s press conference when he was hired by the Cubs in November and waited for him until after Maddon had finished all his media obligations.

“I became friends with him over the last couple years,” Maddon said. “Always came by to say hello. Always upbeat, always friendly. One of my dad’s favorites.”

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts added the team “was deeply saddened” by the passing of Minoso.

“Having recently lost one of our all-time greats, Ernie Banks, we share the heartache with the White Sox organization and fans everywhere who were blessed to enjoy the talent, heart and passion of Mr. White Sox,” the statement read. “He will be forever known as an electric offensive player and great ambassador for the game of baseball.”

Maddon had been planning on spending time with Minoso in Chicago this summer.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s sad.

“A couple of icons are gone.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES

TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Starlin Castro
BA HR RBI R
.292 14 65 58
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
WJ. Arrieta 10
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167