Cubs prospect Szczur: Baseball 'just seems right'

Cubs prospect Szczur: Baseball 'just seems right'

Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011
2:15 p.m.

By Jim Salisbury
CSNPhilly.com

Matt Szczur would love to see the Chicago Cubs end their century-old drought and win the World Series in 2011.

Hes rooting for them in a big way.

But if they want to wait a few years until he makes it to Wrigley Field well, he wont complain.

That would be great, a dream come true, to be in centerfield and win a World Championship, Szczur said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

To Philadelphia-area sports fans, Szczur is the Villanova University kid who led the Wildcats football team to a national championship in 2009. Hes also the young man who took time off from his junior year baseball season at Villanova to help save a young girls life with a bone marrow transplant.

To Cubs officials, Szczur is all this and then some. They selected him in the fifth round of the major league draft last June and were so impressed with his play and potential in the minor leagues last summer that they have agreed to pay him 1.5 million for the coming season. The Cubs believe Szczur is worth the investment. All they asked was that Szczur give up his aspirations of playing in the NFL so he can focus completely on baseball.

The Cubs have gotten to know Matt as a baseball player and a person and they wanted to do everything they could to ensure he remained a Cub, said Rex Gary, Szczurs Philadelphia-based agent.

Szczur, a receiver and return specialist who was MVP of the 2009 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision game, was a candidate to be selected as high as the fourth round in the NFL draft. He had been in Florida preparing to showcase his talents in the Senior Bowl when he accepted an offer to have dinner with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry on Sunday night.

Hendry made his pitch.

Good-bye, Senior Bowl. Hello, Cubs.

Jim and I had a very nice dinner, Szczur said. There was no pressure at all. I just looked at the figure they offered and it was tough to pass up. I love both sports. Going this way just seems right.

Im definitely going to miss football, but the way I look at it is I was going to have to give up one either way. I would have missed which ever one I would have given up equally. I dont really have a first love I love both. It was a hard decision, but I think its the right one for me.

Szczur pronounced Caesar is a 21-year-old product of Erma, N.J., and Lower Cape May Regional High School. He is 12 credits shy of a Liberal Arts degree at Villanova.

On the football field at Villanova, Szczur won All-America honors. On the baseball field, he was an All-Big East outfielder, finishing with a career batting average of .392 in two seasons.

Szczur had an impressive pro debut with the Cubs last summer, hitting .347 with a .414 on-base percentage in 25 games at the rookie and Single A levels. He began his pro career with a 21-game hitting streak. His season ended with a trip to Wrigley Field, where he took batting practice with the big team before a game.

That was unbelievable because I was in one of the last groups and the stands were full, Szczur said. It was crazy, a great feeling.

I just loved the pro ball experience. It was so much fun being able to focus on baseball fulltime.

Szczur, 5-11 and 200 pounds, has excellent speed and strength to go with an impressive bat. Scouts believe hes only begun to scratch the surface of his baseball potential and will benefit by concentrating fulltime on the sport.

During his time at Villanova, Szczur also shined off the field. He missed 10 baseball games last season while undergoing a procedure to donate bone marrow to a young girl with leukemia. Szczur doesnt know the girls identity. Maybe someday shell watch him play in Wrigley Field.

I missed a few games and spent a couple of days in a hospital bed, but I got to help save a life, Szczur said. It was a great experience.

So, too, was his first season of professional baseball.

So much so that hes ready for more, even if it means giving up football.

This is the first time Ill be giving baseball 100 percent concentration, Szczur said. Im excited to see what it brings to me.
Jim Salisbury is CSNPhilly.com's Phillies Insider.

Cubs: Could Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez be this year's Gleyber Torres at trade deadline?

Cubs: Could Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez be this year's Gleyber Torres at trade deadline?

MESA, Ariz. — An agent sort of joked that this is where every big-leaguer wants to play — and no minor-league prospect wants to be. Of course, that is an oversimplification, but it sums up life around the Cubs, where the World Series champs are treated like kings and it can be difficult for the kids to see the path to Wrigley Field.

With no obvious blue-chip pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system yet — and Jake Arrieta and John Lackey positioned to become free agents after this season and the fifth-starter job up for grabs this spring — the Cubs are hoping for someone to take a big step forward.

Theo Epstein's front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff certainly have a long track record of committing to young talent and developing players at the major-league level. That open-minded philosophy will not change.

But if a frontline starting pitcher who makes sense in a pennant race and for the future suddenly becomes available — or the Cubs have to rebuild their bullpen on the fly again or respond to a different roster emergency — then Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez could be this year's Gleyber Torres.

"You know that's the reality of our business," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "But you also try to develop each guy and focus on each guy as if they're definitely going to come up and impact us.

"We didn't want to trade (Gleyber). We felt like we needed to do it. But certainly the way we have to think about these guys is that they're going to have a big impact on the Cubs someday. And both guys have the right makeup to do that."

While shipping their elite shortstop prospect to the New York Yankees in a blockbuster 4-for-1 deal for rental closer Aroldis Chapman last summer, the Cubs asked themselves: If not now, when?

Chapman joined a team that had a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. It would be almost impossible to do another deal on that kind of all-or-nothing scale — the 1908 stuff is over — but the Cubs have a reputation for being bold, creative and aggressive.

"It's out of your control," Happ said. "You have to go out and try to be better every day and work hard. The team is so good. We have so many good players to learn from here. It just really motivates you to continue to improve and try to get better every day."

Happ fits a Cubs Way demographic as a polished, fast-track switch-hitter who performed at the University of Cincinnati, in the Cape Cod League and in the classroom (first-team academic All-American). The potential to play second base and shift to the outfield would also fit on a Maddon team.

Happ — the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft — has already played a half-season at Double-A Tennessee, homered from both sides of the plate in an Arizona Fall League title game and appeared on top-prospects lists for MLB.com (No. 28), Baseball Prospectus (No. 54), ESPN (No. 63) and Baseball America (No. 63).

While the 2016 Cubs experienced that unforgettable playoff run, Happ and his Mesa Solar Sox teammates would hover around an iPad in the dugout in between innings. This is the next phase for a player-development system that used to revolve around the idea of "When It Happens."

"I think this team is going to be good for a long time," Happ said. "It's nice to be part of an organization that doesn't feel like it's a one-and-done situation. It feels like they're building something here and you're going to have a chance to play for the pennant, for the World Series, for years to come. But just being able to be a part of the organization when that happened was special."

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

MESA, Ariz. – Chairman Tom Ricketts wants the Cubs to be known someday as one of the greatest sports franchises in the world, right up there with global brands like the New England Patriots, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

But the most relevant blueprint for baseball operations right now might be the Atlanta Braves model that won 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, an unbelievable run that still only resulted in one World Series title.

In a "Chicks Dig The Long Ball" era, the Braves had 60 percent of a Hall of Fame rotation (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz) and a manager (Bobby Cox) who would get his own Cooperstown plaque.

The Braves Way still didn't only revolve around baseball immortals. The churn of young talent and under-the-radar contributors makes big-time prospects Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ — and somehow finding a next wave of pitching — so important to The Plan.

"The Braves did such a great job during their run of always breaking in a guy or two," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "There's a lot of benefits to always trying to break in a guy every year, trying to add new blood every single year. Young guys are great even for a veteran team, because they provide the spark. They provide new energy.

"I thought Willson (Contreras) was a big part of that last year. Coming up in the middle of the season, it was like a great spark for our guys. Maybe one of these guys can provide that spark."

During that 15-year window, the Braves had 14 different players show up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting:  

1991: Brian Hunter, Mike Stanton
1992: Mark Wohlers
1993: Greg McMichael 
1994: Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez
1995: Chipper Jones
1996: Jermaine Dye 
1997: Andruw Jones 
1998: Kerry Ligtenberg 
1999: Kevin McGlinchy
2000: Rafael Furcal 
2001: –
2002: Damian Moss
2003: –
2004: –
2005: Jeff Francoeur

The Braves produced Rookie of the Year winners in 1990 (David Justice), 2000 (Furcal) and 2011 (Craig Kimbrel). That gap in the early 2000s foreshadowed a relative down cycle where the Braves averaged almost 82 losses between 2006 and 2009 and made zero playoff appearances.

Jason Heyward's big-league debut in 2010 coincided with a run of four straight seasons where the Braves averaged 90-plus wins and made the playoffs three times.

[MORE: Why Joe Maddon sees Kyle Schwarber as the leadoff guy in Cubs lineup]

Baseball America put Jimenez (No. 14) and Happ (No. 63) on its preseason top-100 list of prospects. Whether it's making an impression on Joe Maddon's coaching staff, being showcased for a future trade or getting more comfortable in the spotlight, Jimenez and Happ will be two players to watch when the Cubs begin their Cactus League schedule on Saturday.

"Everyone thinks our future is here," Hoyer said. "It's really important to never get caught in that. You always want to have guys in the minor leagues ready to come up. Having organizational depth is really important. Those guys are good players and they're going to help us at some point."

Jimenez is a dynamic 6-foot-4 corner outfielder from the Dominican Republic who figures to begin his age-20 season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach. Happ, a 2015 first-round pick, finished last season at Double-A Tennessee and can switch-hit and move between the infield and the outfield.

Contreras is trying to make the leap from energizer to everyday frontline catcher. Albert Almora Jr. — who also contributed to a championship team as a rookie — is trying to earn the center-field job. The Cubs already trusted Carl Edwards Jr. in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 and now hope he can keep evolving into an Andrew Miller-type reliever.

The Cubs need the assembly line that's rolled out Anthony Rizzo (June 2012), Kyle Hendricks (July 2014), Javier Baez (August 2014), Kris Bryant and Addison Russell (April 2015) and Kyle Schwarber (June 2015) to keep delivering talent.

"It's something that we have to be really mindful of," Hoyer said, "to make sure that we continue to put a lot of focus on player development, the same kind of focus that we put on it when we were rebuilding, because those guys are going to have a huge impact on us."