Cubs counting on new leaders to step up

Cubs counting on new leaders to step up
February 22, 2014, 9:30 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Welington Castillo struck the Alfonso Soriano pose while chatting with a reporter on Saturday morning, putting one leg up on his chair while leaning his arm back against the locker.

As a young player, Soriano paid attention and learned about preparation and accountability from the great New York Yankees like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Win or lose, you had to face the cameras and the microphones. Ducking the media would be asking for trouble.

Unprompted, the Cubs catcher steered the conversation toward Soriano while explaining his mindset heading into his second full season in the big leagues. If the guy with the $136 million contract can do it...

“Soriano always told me: ‘Hey, you got to come to the park like you have nothing in your hand,’” Castillo recalled. “Even if you have made the team already, just (tell yourself): ‘You have to make the team. You need to work hard.’ I’m never going to forget that from him.

“Sori? What can I say? That guy was something special for us.”

That’s missing at Cubs Park, where a clubhouse lacking veteran presence and institutional memory will have to create a new identity. An organization that talks about building it the right way is still cutting corners.

[MORE: Cubs get an up-close look at Armando Rivero]

Ideally, A-ball prospects wouldn’t be the main focus at spring training. Foreclosing on major-league seasons doesn’t create the optimal environment for developing young players. A few brand-name free agents would have taken some of the heat off Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

It’s about putting people in the best position to succeed. This group will be paying the price as the Ricketts family and Crane Kenney’s business operations department figure out how to run this like a big-market team again.

You can’t just flip a switch when you think the team’s going to contend in 2016 or 2017. Clubhouse culture matters. Having guys who have been there before is valuable, even if it doesn’t show up on a spreadsheet.

“It’s really important, especially in a city like Chicago,” reliever James Russell said. “So many young guys can just get eaten alive there with the nightlife and the fan furor around it and all that. It gets kind of crazy, but that’s what (Ryan) Dempster and all those guys kind of taught us. It’s our job now to pass it on to them. It’s kind of the way baseball works.”

Dempster’s $13.25 million decision to walk away from the Boston Red Sox and take a sabbatical this season brought back the old stories about his strong influence on the pitching staff.

“He had me up at 6 o’clock in the morning for two, three years in a row here in Arizona in the offseason,” Jeff Samardzija said. “It’s easy to feed off other people when one guy has such love for the game. You see it and you kind of understand that you have to have that to be successful.”

There are smart, fiscally responsible investments to be made when you don’t have a 2014 major-league payroll in the neighborhood of $85 million. Have the Cubs surrounded the kids with enough veterans? 

“The honest answer is we have some guys in that clubhouse that are really good character guys and can certainly help our younger players,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Are there as many as we would like? No.

“But I think we still have guys they can lean on and help them out. I certainly hope that number continues to grow with time. You hope that some of our young guys now will be helping our even younger guys in the future. That’s an area we can improve.”

This isn’t a meathead caller on talk radio saying Player X “needs to step up and be a leader.” There are subtle ways to make a difference.

“It’s scary,” Russell said. “You got guys that are making 20 times what you make and you watch them on TV before you’re drafted. They have great careers going on. For them to just kind of go out of their way to say – ‘Hey, what’s up? How you doing? How’s your family?’ – it goes kind of a long way.

“It makes you feel that much more comfortable. It helps you actually think that you belong, whether you do or you don’t. That little sense of comfort kind of helps you relax and be yourself. That will help you on the field in the long run.”

[SPRING TRAINING: Baez shows off power, breaks car window with HR]

Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker are remembered as glue guys who dressed up as Hoyer and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein during the “Superheroes” road trip. They welcomed Rizzo when he got called up in the middle of the 2012 season and helped him deal with the hype.

Someone’s going to have to do that for Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora. Hopefully, by then, they will be viewed as pieces of the puzzle, and not franchise saviors. It’s not easy playing inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl.

“They’re going to tear up the minor leagues,” Rizzo said. “It’s our job (to) make them feel like they’re part of the team. That’s what Dempster did for me. Reed Johnson, Baker, they made me feel like I was part of the team and I just clicked right away.

“That’s our job. The guys up here take care of the young guys when they come up.”