MESA, Ariz. -- The first day of full squad workouts for the Chicago Cubs started with some laughter but ended with a scare, as pitcher Matt Garza walked off the mound after throwing 20 pitches of a 40-pitch batting practice session.
Garza hurt his left side but says he should be OK. But for a team that has been searching for answers during, well, the past 104 years, it was an inauspicious start.
Before practice and the injury, the Cubs held a team meeting, with ownership and the entire front office present. It’s at that point the Cubs donned orange hunting gear, mocking manager Dale Sveum’s winter hunting expedition, during which he was accidentally shot, though not seriously. After the laughs subsided, Sveum had words for his 2013 team.
“The message I want to get through is accountability and work ethic and preparation, and things aren’t accepted here as much as other places sometimes,” he said. “The players have to realize how much change has gone on in the organization in one year.”
A lot of that change will be on display in spring training as new meets old.
The Cubs have a season to play very soon but at every turn in Mesa during the past week there has been a storyline looking toward the future. There’s the future of spring training (new facility opens next year), the future of Wrigley Field (hope that renovations begin soon) and, of course, the future of the on-field product. All three were addressed by owner Tom Ricketts.
“I think everyone knows from top to bottom that everyone is on the same page,” newcomer pitcher Scott Baker said after the meeting. “Everybody wants to get this organization to being one of the best, if not the best in baseball. That all starts at the top, with ownership and the front office. Everybody had the same points to make; everyone is working toward a common goal.
“Do the best you can: We’re going to have fun, but at the same time we’re working toward something special.”
As the present meets the future in spring training, it’s not difficult to envision how things might look in 2014 or 2015. Every time 20-year-old Cuban prospect Jorge Soler picked up a bat -- even in unofficial workouts for position players -- it was a lot more interesting to watch than any current Cub. Maybe that’s because the current ones are well known, losers of 101 games last year. Or maybe because future Cubs such as Soler and Javier Baez are simply more talented than anything the Cubs have had around the organization in a while.
“I’m optimistic about what we can do now,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said this week.
Many fans are more optimistic about what Rizzo himself can than what the team can do. Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro represent the present and the future.
And to be sure, the arrival of players such as Ian Stewart and left fielder Alfonso Soriano will get their share of attention. However those storylines are either worn out (Soriano) or not very intriguing (Stewart). Why? Simply because there’s a good chance those players won’t be Cubs when the team is good enough to win something unless they shock the world this year.
Sveum said he spoke about “a lot of the positives that came out of last year.”
That must have been a short part of the meeting.
The biggest positive? It’s a year later. And the prospects are inching their way to the big leagues, while the Cubs will draft the No. 2 overall pick this June. That’s about the only advantage of a 101-loss season.
It was one thing when Soler and Baez were just new names in the organization. It’s another thing when they are viewed up close, and with other major leaguers. Soler doesn’t have to hit bombs in batting practice, but he did. And so a legend begins. But, again, that’s mostly because the 2013 storylines aren’t that compelling.
Dreaming of a productive outfield of Soler, Brett Jackson and Albert Almora, while Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Castro and Baez hold down the infield, is a better narrative for Cubs fans than anything else this spring training. The problem is that dream is a ways off and has no guarantees, but at least we have the faces and names.
Of course, who will be on the mound in the future is even less certain. Jeff Samardzija has a good chance and Edwin Jackson is signed long term, but even then there are no guarantees. And Garza needs to assure his bosses -- and a fan base -- he can be durable after last season and even after what happened on Sunday.
Which brings us back to what we do know for certain.
A new Mesa spring training facility will open next year, as well as a new Cubs training facility in the Dominican Republic. Wrigley will be renovated and the Cubs won’t ask taxpayers to pay for it. The Cubs will struggle this season, as they’ve identified only a few core players. Everyone else is either on a one-year tryout or is simply taking up space until the aforementioned prospects arrive.
Cubs president Theo Epstein recently said that once spring training begins, it’s all about 2013. It’s a nice thought, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.