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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Luke Stuckmeyer talk about the first week of spring training. 

The two discuss ace contracts, leadoff intimidation and give their thoughts on the Sammy Sosa saga. 

Plus CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with general manager Jed Hoyer. 

Listen to the Cubs Talk Podcast below. 

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

[MORE CUBS: No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]

Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."