Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

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Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011
Posted 10:12 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didnt go out and sign the free agent that will automatically sell tickets, drive television ratings and change the direction of the franchise. And they didnt hire a celebrity manager to create more buzz.

Quietly, Jim Hendry and his staff executed their plan this winter. The general manager looked to the past by bringing Kerry Wood home, and not too far into the future with Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract. It was a coherent, disciplined approach at a roster that last year had too many mismatched parts.

Players have already begun to assemble in Mesa, Ariz., where on Sunday pitchers and catchers will officially report. The next day Matt Garza the teams biggest offseason get will go through his first formal workout in a Cubs uniform at Fitch Park. By then, a new deal for closer Carlos Marmol could be announced.

You cant guarantee that Wood wont go on the disabled list for the 15th time in his career. We dont know if Pena, who will turn 33 in May, will make us forget his .196 average last year, or how Garzas numbers will translate outside the American League East.

Those answers will come, as this season slowly reveals itself through baseballs relentless daily rhythms. But here are five big questions hanging over the Cubs this spring.

Who is Mike Quade?

A baseball lifer was given six weeks to audition for the job. That amount of time wont even take us to Opening Day. Quade earned the right to stay on as manager with a 24-13 finish, but he really won over the organization with the way he handled young pitchers and pushed the veterans. This is a chance for Quade to put his imprint on the team.

Its time to take over, outfielder Marlon Byrd said. He showed at the end of last season what he can do. (You) need the players and he has (them). Were going to go out there and do it for him.

Where does the rotation turn?

Amazingly, the Cubs led the National League in quality starts (96) last season, and yet never spent a minute above .500. The best competition in camp will be for the fourth- and fifth-starter spots behind Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Garza. Randy Wells could cement his place in the rotation, but knows several prospects are coming after it.

Casey Coleman, the third-generation big-leaguer, has impressed club officials with his poise. Carlos Silva looked like an All-Star at one point in 2010, but injuries limited him to only 5.1 innings combined in August and September. Braden Looper, a non-roster invitee, is trying to get back into baseball.

Can the kids handle the spotlight?

From ownership to baseball operations to the marketing department, the Cubs are heavily invested in the idea that Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin are about to become stars.
Starlin Castro certainly appears to have superstar potential, but can he handle the glaring spotlight and high expectations? The Cubs present, and certainly its future, rely heavily on the young shortstop. (AP)
Cashner will be given every opportunity to make the rotation. Castro and Colvin will need to make adjustments at the plate during their second year around the league. These three homegrown players have to show growth. Every level of the organization is counting on it.

Will an older core stay strong?

The effects of age cant be ignored. Aramis Ramirez has missed nearly 120 games the past two seasons. Byrd emerged as an All-Star last year, but faded in the second half. They will turn 33 and 34 this summer. At 35, Alfonso Soriano is only halfway through his 136 million contract.

A lot of times when people think hes not giving full effort, Hendry said, he really is trying to stay healthy and hit those home runs to stay productive. We all feel that Soris got some solid years left. Will he ever be the guy that can steal 45 bags again? Absolutely not. Hell never be that kind of guy as a threat, but I think hes very capable of still hitting 30 home runs.
Should Albert Pujols start looking at real estate in Chicago?

Once Pena signed a one-year deal, speculation immediately focused on Pujols heading to Wrigley Field in 2012. The rumors wont stop, not with the Red Sox (Adrian Gonzalez), Yankees (Mark Teixeira) and White Sox (Paul KonerkoAdam Dunn) having long-term answers at first base.

Between the McCourt divorce and Bernie Madoffs Ponzi scheme, scandals have created long-term questions about ownership of the Dodgers and the Mets and their financial health.

That leaves the Cubs, with several big contracts coming off the books, as a team well-positioned to gather all of their large-market resources to sign the best player of his generation.

Tom Ricketts has stressed player development and repeatedly praised Hendry, but hes also mentioned that hed like his general manager to be smarter with contract structures. Its unclear whether the chairman has the appetite for the 250 to 300 million it might take to convince Pujols to leave St. Louis should he hit free agency.

But its certain that Cubs and Cardinals fans will be arguing over this for the next nine months.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs studied all the MRIs and analyzed every pitch Wade Davis threw last season, poring over the information on the All-Star closer. During the winter meetings, Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore even took the unusual step of allowing the Cubs to give Davis a physical exam.  

The Jorge Soler trade wouldn’t be announced until athletic trainer PJ Mainville met with Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. The Cubs got another read on the flexor strain in his right forearm that twice put Davis on the disabled list last season.

Davis now has a 19.64 ERA through five Cactus League appearances – and the complete confidence of a manager who isn’t connecting those dots.

“The injury’s really not an issue,” Joe Maddon said Sunday at the Sloan Park complex. “He feels really good right now. He kind of thought that whole thing was a little bit overblown last year, according to (what he told) me. Because even in talking to him in the offseason: ‘I’m fine. I’m good. I feel really good.’”

Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays while Davis broke into the big leagues as a starter and began the transition to reliever. Everything clicked in Kansas City’s bullpen, with Davis blowing away hitters and notching the last out of the 2015 World Series.

“I’m watching him,” Maddon said. “He’s throwing the ball really well easily. That’s what’s really encouraging to me. From the side, there’s no bumping and grinding and…” Maddon made a grunting noise to illustrate his point: “There’s none of that. It’s easy. I look up at the gun and I’m seeing 94, 95 and sometimes 96 (mph). It’s like: Wow, I have never seen him do that in camp.”

Across the last three seasons, Davis allowed three home runs while piling up 234 strikeouts in almost 183 innings. This spring, he has twice gotten only one out, like Saturday’s 29-pitch, four-run appearance against the Colorado Rockies. Overall in March, he’s given up eight earned runs, nine hits and five walks in 3.2 innings.  

“Honestly, I’ve known him long enough that it’s not” a concern, Maddon said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he’s actually throwing better than he normally does in spring training. The biggest problem he’s having right now is command.

“Velocity looks good. The break on the breaking ball looks good. He’s just not throwing the ball where he wants it. And this guy is normally the kind of pitcher that can dot it up really well.

“But everything else looks really good to me, (because) I had him back with the Rays and in spring training you always saw him throwing like 86, 87, 88 (mph). I’m seeing easy 94-95. I’m seeing sharp break on some breaking stuff. It’s just bad counts and bad command right now.”

This isn’t the Cubs saying Carlos Marmol or Jose Veras is our closer. A guy with a 0.84 ERA in 23 career playoff appearances doesn’t care about Cactus League stats. As long as Davis is healthy, there should be no doubts about the ninth inning. Check back next week amid the sea of red at Busch Stadium.

“A lot of it’s just an adrenaline rush sometimes,” Maddon said. “A lot it’s just a moment that you can’t recreate here. You can’t do it. It’s impossible.”