The land of opportunity before Cubs build mega-team

The land of opportunity before Cubs build mega-team
February 13, 2013, 7:45 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Fast forward several years to when the Cubs are supposed to be a mega-team stacked with homegrown stars and select big-name free agents.

The herd of national writers and newspaper columnists that once abandoned the Cubs beat has returned to Arizona, trying to find their way around the new complex on the Mesa/Scottsdale border.

Albert Almora and Jorge Soler – who spent the winter working out together in Miami – have lockers next to each other in one corner of the room. Javier Baez smiles and points to the Major League Baseball tattoo on the back of his neck, telling Starlin Castro he could have been a better shortstop.

Jeff Samardzija is wearing his powder blue “(Bleep) the Goat” T-shirt, one of the few still remaining in circulation. He jokes about how creepy his moustache looks on the new Michigan Avenue billboard. (He had found out about the ad campaign the morning it was unveiled, when someone from the marketing department sent him a text message.)   

The ESPN and MLB Network satellite trucks have taken over one corner of the parking lot for the news conference to introduce Player X, the $200 million finishing piece that Theo Epstein signed at the winter meetings.  

But right now Fitch Park is The Land of Opportunity.

Veterans signed here for their platform years, to show they’re recovering from Tommy John surgery (Scott Baker) or ready to be big-league starters (Carlos Villanueva, Scott Feldman) and everyday players (Nate Schierholtz, Ian Stewart).

Growing up in Naperville, Scott Hairston had never worn a Cubs hat before Wednesday, because his father Jerry Sr. played for the White Sox. His brother Jerry Jr. – who once played for the Cubs – told him he’s going to love it here.

Hairston found out he’ll be wearing No. 21 – Sammy Sosa’s old number – when his wife saw it on Twitter.

“I used to love going to Wrigley Field,” Hairston said, “especially in the late 90s, when Sammy was doing his thing. I sat in the bleachers a few times when he was hitting all those home runs. That was a good time in Chicago.”

Hairston – a 32-year-old outfielder who hit 20 homers in 377 at-last for the Mets last season – drew interest from both New York teams before agreeing to a two-year, $5 million contract.

Schierholtz – a 29-year-old outfielder who won a World Series ring with the Giants in 2010 – had multi-year offers and interest from contending-type teams before accepting a one-year, $2.25 million deal.

After being shipped to Philadelphia in the Hunter Pence deadline trade, Schierholtz was at home in the Bay Area while the Giants went on another championship run. He doesn’t want to be typecast as a platoon player or a defensive replacement and spoke at length with manager Dale Sveum before making his decision.

“I felt like if I got the opportunity here to play, I could be here a lot longer,” Schierholtz said. “That was more appealing to me than going somewhere for a couple years and maybe not having the same opportunity.

“Plus, you can’t go wrong playing in Wrigley and all the history this organization brings.”

The Cubs had their Big Three – Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Matt Garza – throwing from the mounds on Wednesday and that’s where any optimism for this season starts.

Brent Lillibridge – who has the inside track for a job as a super-utility guy backing up at shortstop, first base and in center field – noticed the changes on the North Side while playing for the White Sox and took a minor-league deal.

“Every team has to go through that change of the guard,” Lillibridge said. “(Theo’s) going to get the guys he wants. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but the biggest thing I saw (is) they added some really quality arms.”

If healthy, Baker should be a lock for the rotation. But Sveum is already saying he’ll be “babied,” that there’s “no timetable.”

After Baker signed a one-year, prove-it contract worth $5.5 million – plus $1.5 million in incentives – last November, Epstein floated the possibility of a long-term deal if everything breaks right.

“They’ve given me the opportunity to prove myself healthy and I think that’s the first step in this whole process,” Baker said. “No doubt, I think any player would say that if there’s a mutual interest in being somewhere, they’re going to talk. That’s a little farther down the road, but so far, so good.”

This week the Cubs are holding their organizational meetings inside a Mesa hotel. They’re reviewing all the prospects in the system, as well as “The Cubs Way” manual.  

These bridge seasons exist to figure out which ones are core players.

Fast forward several years and Samardzija has just returned to the complex after running up Camelback Mountain with Pierce Johnson. He makes fun of Dillon Maples, the new kid in the rotation, for almost sticking with the University of North Carolina football team as a punter/kicker.

Alfonso Soriano – “What’s up, papi?” – surprised everyone by accepting an invitation to become a spring-training instructor, but he’s already a familiar figure at the team’s new academy in the Dominican Republic, telling the kids what it takes to make it in “The Show.”

Sveum – who has really grown into the job but still walks through Wrigleyville unrecognized in his jeans, hoodie and trucker hat – is telling the story about how Robin Yount shot his other ear hunting for quail this winter.

These are best-case scenarios the Cubs are pushing out to their fans while writing off a 101-loss season. They told free agents what they want to hear, though general manager Jed Hoyer has said that it almost always comes down to years and dollars.

“The city of Chicago and playing for the Cubs sells itself,” Sveum said. “It’s one of the greatest cities, if not the best city in the country. It’s a great venue. The organization’s going in the right direction. That kind of sells itself.”

Years from now, we’ll know whether this big plan was a fantasy or not.