Amid empty seats, Cubs build for next year

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Amid empty seats, Cubs build for next year

Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010
Updated 7:18 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Wrigley Fields smallest crowd in almost four years came out on Monday night to honor Andre Dawson. The Hall of Famer admired throughout the bleachers for playing the game the right way walked through the right-field gate on knees that had gone through 12 surgeries.

That box-office draw was sapped by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the worst team in baseball, and the frustration building through a Cubs season that hasnt lived up to expectations. School will be back in session and people are focused on the Bears and their fantasy football drafts.

While the White Sox have added Manny Ramirez for the stretch run, the Cubs have been importing players from Triple-A Iowa. A fraction of the 29,538 fans accounted for Monday night got there early enough to see Dawson. It has not gone unnoticed.

Obviously, you want every seat full every game, chairman Tom Ricketts said. The attendance has been very, very strong in the grandstands, but certain day games and the last couple night games the bleachers were softer.

We got to put a winning product on the field to make sure all the seats are full every year.

Amid the empty seats, the Cubs hung on to beat the Pirates 5-3 on Wednesday afternoon to win a series, their second under new manager Mike Quade and first this season against Pittsburgh (44-89). They used six pitchers and 11 position players in front of 33,555 fans.

Tom Gorzelanny dropped to his knees after a line drive hit his left hand in the third inning. X-rays taken at Northwestern Memorial Hospital were inconclusive, though a displaced fracture has been ruled out. He will undergo a CT scan on Thursday on the top of his left pinky.

In relief Thomas Diamond gave up two runs in 1 23 innings, but still earned the first big-league win of his career. He got a beer shower in the clubhouse afterward and planned to give the ball to his 19-month-old son.

Before the game, Darwin Barney was running in from third base to practice catching pop-ups. Until this series, his previous experience at the position included one inning last year in the minors, two more in spring training and a state final Little League game when he was 12.

My dad put me at third because this team loved to bunt, Barney said, so (we) shut that game down.

Thats what it has come to for the 57-77 Cubs auditions on the major-league level. Barney is trying to stick as a utility infielder, Quade wants to manage this team next season and rookie pitchers are hoping to show they belong.

Were here because we want to help this team win, Barney said. Im trying to learn as fast as I can, so I can be that guy that can help the club out. Im not trying to go out there and still be learning on the job.

Sink or swim, its kind of a team thing. Were trying to really pick this team up.

The Cubs have approximately 103 million already committed for 2011. That does not include arbitration-eligible players and the nice raises due closer Carlos Marmol and catcher Geovany Soto.

Nor does it factor in what contracts general manager Jim Hendry might be able to shed in the offseason, or the money it will take to fill out a 25-man roster. Ricketts hasnt set the budget for next season yet, but it will be influenced in some way by ticket sales.

Yeah, theyre related, Ricketts said. Obviously, more attendance generates more revenue. More revenue gives you more flexibility to be able to increase your payroll. (But) we have a real strong fan base. Hopefully well put a very attractive product on the field next year. Attendance we did pretty well this year even with kind of a tough season.

Ricketts is right in that the Cubs have so far drawn 2,632,366 fans and are on pace to hit the three-million mark. That total would outperform all but three or four teams in baseball, but not necessarily their own recent history.

In April a Team Marketing Report study one the organization disputed found that the Cubs will have the highest average ticket price in the majors this season at 52.56. Even in rebuilding mode, theres no guarantee the cost wont rise again.

We dont have a pricing strategy for next year locked down, but well see, Ricketts said.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester couldn't resist when a reporter mentioned the two home runs Willson Contreras launched off Danny Salazar, an All-Star talent who might have changed last year's World Series if he had been at full strength.

"It's about time we got an offensive catcher," Lester said.

Zing! Lester had already seen David Ross on "Dancing with the Stars" by the time he finished up against the Cleveland Indians and met with reporters on Monday night at Goodyear Ballpark. While Lester knew Grandpa Rossy would appreciate that one-liner, there is also some truth behind it.

Yes, Ross became the security blanket for a $155 million pitcher, helped push and encourage young players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and got carried off the field after delivering his own Game 7 homer. But whatever Contreras may lack now in game-calling experience and pitcher psychology, he can make up for it with his rocket arm, smooth swing and willingness to learn.

A camp that began with questions about how Lester would work with Contreras ended with a sincere endorsement.

"Willie's obviously very special, to be serious about it," Lester said. "He's definitely going to add a presence to that lineup as far as protecting ‘Rizz' and ‘KB' to where they're not going to be able to just pitch around those guys. We're going to have some other guys to do some damage in the middle to the bottom of that order.

"He's a special kid, just like anybody else on this team. He's (24), so he'll only get better as time goes on and (he gets) the at-bats and the innings and all that stuff. So I'm excited to see him for a full season and how well he can do back there."

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That's another reason why the defending World Series champs might actually look better on paper than the unforgettable 2016 Cubs. Ross did a "Dancing with the Stars" routine based off Young MC's "Bust a Move," a song released in 1989, or years before Bryant, Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. were born.

Before the Cubs packed up and left Arizona, Ross made a promotional appearance in Mesa this week and caught up with some old friends like John Lackey.

"We got rid of Rossy," Lackey told reporters as the Cubs finished their Cactus League schedule with Wednesday's 15-11 win over the Oakland A's at Sloan Park. "He stinks. And we should be better. Actually, I was just inside talking to Rossy and he said that, so that's from him."

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."