MESA, Ariz. — This is the postcard the Cubs would like to send back to Chicago.
The blue sky and green grass framed Field 5 at Cubs Park, their brand new Arizona facility. Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod stood around the batting cage in sunglasses, polo shirts and Nike sneakers, the standard uniform in baseball operations.
They looked out into the wide-open space late Thursday morning as the cars moved along the Loop 202 freeway in the distance. The night before, Baseball America had released its annual top 100 list and placed seven Cubs prospects in the rankings.
First-round picks Albert Almora (No. 36) and Kris Bryant (No. 8) hit together in one group during live batting practice. Jorge Soler (No. 41) worked on getting a good jump off second base. First-base coach Eric Hinske yelled out to the $30 million Cuban outfielder: “That a boy, Jorge!”
Javier Baez (No. 5) walked onto the field with another group. Arismendy Alcantara (No. 100) started chatting with Hoyer and had to be reminded when it was his final round in the cage.
“The public perception and the reality of what we’re seeing out there — it’s legitimate,” new manager Rick Renteria said. “It’s something that the organization should be proud of. (All these) guys in the system have done a great job in acquiring and developing the talent that we have. It’s just showing in what people are reading and writing about.”
That won’t do much for the 2014 big-league product. Baez and Alcantara should form the middle infield at Triple-A Iowa. It doesn’t excuse the drastic spending cuts and the small-market philosophy.
But this is what chairman Tom Ricketts means when he says: “The nice part about the last couple years is you see all the pieces start to fall in place.”
Pitching coach Chris Bosio stood behind the mound and watched Jason Hammel, the sign-and-flip guy on a one-year deal. Bosio, a commanding presence with strong opinions, tracked one pitch and told Hammel: “I like that! Nice action!”
The Cubs would love to cash in three good months from Hammel and collect another young arm. C.J. Edwards (No. 28) and Pierce Johnson (No. 87) also made the Baseball America list. Pitching is always fragile, but those two are projected to be a major part of the rotation at Clark and Addison.
“Our arms are probably a little bit underrated. That said, we need at least twice as many as we have now,” Epstein said. “We’ve done a nice job through the last couple of drafts — and especially through some trades — adding to that reserve. But we need to do a lot more, and we’re going to continue to draft primarily arms going forward. Maybe not with the first pick (fourth overall). We’ll see how that shakes out. But certainly after that we’ll continue to hit that area.”
Epstein pointed to the advanced Class-A Daytona team that finished last season with pitchers acquired in the deals for Matt Garza (Edwards), Scott Hairston (Ivan Pineyro) and Alfonso Soriano (Corey Black).
“That rotation didn’t allow an earned run in the postseason and pitched that team to the Florida State League championship,” Epstein said. “Pretty much that whole rotation’s gonna be at Double-A (Tennessee) this year. That example (shows) the difference in pitching talent from the beginning of last year to now, which bodes well, but the job has clearly not been finished with respect to our pitching talent and pitching depth.
“We need to keep pounding it. Every trade we make, try to get an arm. Every time we have a draft pick, look closely at the best available arm we could add to the organization.”
We’ll see if this farm system can live up to the Baseball America hype. But the Cubs walk around spring training and feel like they’re looking into the future.