Ramirez and Soriano have something to prove

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Ramirez and Soriano have something to prove

Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011Posted: 6:40 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Whether or not you think Aramis Ramirez gets his uniform dirty often enough, you cannot argue with the numbers when hes healthy. And you may not like Alfonso Sorianos contract, but forget it that money is already spent.

The Cubs can talk about young players and the system but they need to maximize Ramirez and Soriano to contend. Combined, they will make more than 33 million this season. They understand that things arent getting any easier.

Im 100 percent, Ramirez said Saturday. I just got to stay on top of everything my shoulder, my thumb, everything. I just got to work a little harder. The older you get, its a little tougher.

Back in the Dominican Republic this winter, Ramirez added several pounds on purpose, while Soriano focused on his legs, even if he will never run the way he once did.

Ramirez will turn 33 in June, but this will be his 14th season in the majors, and it has taken a toll on his body. He has played more than 145 games just three times in his career. The Cubs hold an option for 2012 either pay him 14.6 million or buy him out for 2 million.

Theres no other place that I want to be, Ramirez said. But well see what happens. I dont know what they think. Im still under contract for this year.

The 35-year-old Soriano is halfway through his 136 million deal. The Cubs will have to think about pulling Soriano late in close games, but he will continue to work on his defense and wants to be a nine-inning player every day, though they have three other outfielders.

Soriano has dealt with the loss of his mother, who died of a heart attack last month in the Dominican Republic.

My mom is everything for me, he said.

Soriano still had a big smile and a handshake for everyone on Saturday morning, and he automatically is an energetic presence in the room.

Soriano just checked his numbers from last year 24 homers in less than 500 at-bats. That is a unique skill. He drove in 79 runs, which isnt overwhelming, but its also the highest total during his four years in Chicago.

Why not? he said when asked about hitting for more power.

It is the same calculus for Ramirez. He believes he will produce if he can avoid the collection of injuries that conspired against him last season. He was hitting under .200 after the Fourth of July, and was ultimately limited to 124 games. Yet, he still reached 25 homers for the eighth time in his career.

The next free-agent class of third basemen is weak, and its easy to imagine Ramirez being the most coveted if hes cut loose. He doesnt know how much longer he wants to play, but could force the Cubs to pick up the option if he can put together another good year.

Mike Quade talks fast and he speaks with his hands. Standing beneath a gray sky, the Cubs manager addressed his players on one field at Fitch Park before the teams first full-squad workout.

Quade did not stay on the sidelines Saturday, taking a lead off second base while demonstrating one drill for bunt defense.

Im not reinventing the game, he said. But we wanted to talk specifically about something as simple as a No. 1 bunt play with runners at first and second. (They) ran it for Casey Stengel. So Mike Quades not coming in here changing stuff. But there are points of emphasis within that play that I think give you an edge.

The veterans responded well to Quade during his six-week audition last season, and the next seven months will depend in part on how he connects with players like Ramirez and Soriano. His first speech to the entire group contained a simple message.

We touched on effort, Quade said, and the fact that I dont think theres any shortcuts to being a good team.

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

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."

Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’

Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Javier Baez plays the game on a higher plane and at such an instinctual level that he can point to the catcher and start celebrating before even catching the ball and dropping a no-look tag.

Baez believes it when he looks back on his World Baseball Classic experience and says: "We're not showing anybody up."

Because the adrenaline surged so quickly for Team Puerto Rico that Baez needed that play to go viral on Twitter to realize what actually happened. Even if elements of that style – and a preplanned win-or-lose parade through San Juan – may have bothered American players like Ian Kinsler and Adam Jones or anyone else with a hot take and a fun-police badge.   

"To be honest, I didn't know I did that until after the game," Baez said. "I got to my phone and I had so many messages and so many videos about it. I was like: 'Oh, whatever, I did it.'"

Baez skipped Thursday's parade after Team USA's 8-0 championship-game victory at Dodger Stadium, returning to Arizona and rejoining a Cubs team where he won't be an everyday player when everyone's healthy. Even after being a National League Championship Series co-MVP and the second baseman on the all-WBC team.

"I'm going to play a lot here," Baez said. "I'm just happy with that."

With a split squad in Las Vegas this weekend, Baez rolled into a quiet, mostly empty clubhouse on Saturday morning in Mesa and sat down in his chair to eat a McDonald's breakfast, a WBC equipment bag stashed in an extra locker. 

The Cubs made Baez their starting shortstop and cleanup hitter for that afternoon's Cactus League game against the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Baez spoke with reporters for almost 10 minutes, explaining what it meant to unleash his emotions and represent his island during an economic crisis.

"We do a great job playing and having fun out there," Baez said. "That's what it's all about. This is a game. It's not as serious as a lot of people take it. But, you know, everybody's got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.

"It's their choice to look at how we play, how excited we get. To us, it's really huge what we did, even though we didn't win. All of Puerto Rico got really together.

"We were going through a hard time over there and everything got fixed up for at least three weeks. Hopefully, they keep it like that."

Baez appreciated the opportunity to play with Yadier Molina, the Puerto Rican captain and invaluable St. Louis Cardinals catcher. Before facing the Dominican Republic – and All-Star Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez – Baez said Molina joked to teammates: "I can't tell you many details, because then Javy will tell the Cubs."

[Buy Cubs tickets right here]

Baez confirmed the stories that Puerto Rican fans got so swept up in the tournament that the island ran out of blond hair dye: "Yeah, they really did."

Baez also said that he's not going to keep this look: "No, I'm going to cut it soon. Or dye it back black."

What will this do for Baez beyond his Q rating? Eh, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has already seen the swim moves and freaky tags and trusted Baez enough to start all 17 playoff games at second base last year.

"I don't know that there's going to be any greater impact than the World Series had on him," Maddon said. "There's a strong nationalistic component to this year's WBC. That was great. I think it was fueled by a lot of world events right now. I'm curious to see what's going to happen four years from now, if there's the same kind of interest or passion employed in the games.

"Hopefully, that's true. But it was almost like the perfect storm for the tournament this time around with world politics, national politics and the way everybody reacted to everything right now. I mean, you can't pick up a Twitter account without reading something volatile.

"I'd much prefer being fueled by a World Series than a WBC that happens every fourth year."

Over the years, instructors throughout the minor leagues, including Manny Ramirez, have tried to harness all this raw talent and help Baez develop a routine, make adjustments and play under control. But Baez said the Cubs haven't directly asked him to tone down the "Javy Being Javy" act.

"No, not really," Baez said. "Joe came to me last year about doing the routine plays and not (only) the great plays. That's about it.

"But in the Baseball Classic, I think everything counts. You can do a bat flip. You can pimp whatever you want, because it's the Baseball Classic. You don't know how many times you're going to do that in life. 

"I was really happy to be in it – and really happy that we enjoyed it."