The Chicago Cubs, my baseball team, always have been blind to symbolism when it comes to spring training in Arizona. Their long-time base in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa was across the street from a cemetery, a fitting setting for a famously moribund franchise. Now they have a spiffy new complex in another part of the same town but, for cash, just named it Sloan Park, for a company whose main products are toilet valves. Need I say more?
That’s one reason I’m resisting being swept up in the hype surrounding the team as it heads into a new season. After five consecutive last-place finishes in the National League’s Central Division—the last three on purpose—Cubs’ brass has signaled the intention of being serious about winning again. During the late off season they pirated manager Joe Maddon from the Tampa Bay Rays, where he’d made lemonade with lemons for nine seasons, traded for genuine major leaguers at catcher (Miguel Montero) and center field (Dexter Fowler), and paid ridiculously big money ($155 million over six years) for stud starting pitcher Jon Lester. With a pipeline filled by prime prospects accumulated during the latest string of bad years, they have declared themselves ready to rock and roll.
Most of the coots and codgers attending the teams’ spring games at Flush Field appear to be lapping it up, anticipating great things. The fact that the Cubs were winless after their first seven outings has mattered not a bit, with SRO crowds showing up for every gate opening. A t-shirt reading “THIS IS NEXT YEAR” summed up the positive vibe.
By reasons of temperament and training, though, I’m a harder sell. Even as a kid I took fandom with a grain of salt, which was a good thing because if I’d lived and died with the woebegone Cubbies I’d never have made it to my bar mitzvah. My outlook was further leavened by my stint as a sports writer, during which I learned that good guys and jerks are about evenly distributed among big-league rosters in every sport. Thus, I had no trouble complying with the “no cheering in the press box” rule.
Casting a beady eye on Cub prospects is easy when it comes to their pitching, baseball’s most-important element. Lefty Lester, a rugged and stoic sort in his prime (he’s 31), is their only proven starter, while the other three gents currently penciled into the team’s rotation (Jason Hammell, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks) have question marks after their names. Hammell pitched well enough for the Cubs last year, but not so well that he wasn’t traded away before being re-signed in the off season. Arrieta was in and out of the Baltimore Orioles’ rotation for four seasons before landing in Chicago, and just once has logged more than 150 innings in a season. Hendricks has had only 13 Major League starts. There is no No. 5 starter yet, and the position probably will change hands as the season goes on.
The Cubs’ bullpen is even iffier, composed of a mixed bag of youngsters lacking proven records and vets coming back from injuries. In that respect the team is no different from most, the cobbling together of a bullpen being every front office’s biggest annual challenge. But while the reward for success can be great—witness the amazing run of last year’s bullpen-driven, American League-champion Kansas City Royals—the usual result is less auspicious. Spring returns have been less than favorable.
The Cubs look to be okay at least at four other positions—catcher and center field with the above-mentioned Montero and Fowler, first base with Anthony Rizzo and shortstop with Starlin Castro. Rizzo has emerged as a solid if not exceptional power hitter and, at age 25, looks set for years to come barring injury. Castro seems to be a more complex sort. The team’s best player since he arrived in Chicago in 2011 at a tender 21, and still only 25 years old, he has star-level talent, but his interest in the game at hand often seems to wander and he attracts off-field problems. The trade rumors that have accompanied his last couple of seasons attest to the fact that the team might believe he’s not a long-term fixture.
To succeed mightily the Cubs will need some of their prospects to bloom. By far the best of these is Kris Bryant, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 amateur draft. Bryant is Roy Hobbes come to life, a tall and powerful hitter who has excelled at bat at every level at which he’s played. He was a college All-American at the U. of San Diego, MVP in the 2013 Arizona Fall League and Minor League Player of the Year last season, and he’s kept it up this spring with six home runs and a .450 batting average in his first eight games.
Bryant is a third baseman, a position requiring quickness at which his height (6-feet-5) might be a liability. A bigger short-term obstacle to his promotion seems to be a kink in the MLB contract system that would reward the team down the road for keeping him in the minors through April, but if it’s serious about winning it’ll burn that bridge when it comes to it. A team that hasn’t won a pennant since 1945, or a World Series since 1908, can’t be playing contract games.
The Cubs’ other two Great Young Hopes seem a good deal less sure-fire than Bryant. Jorge Soler was plucked out of Cuba at age 20 in 2012, and did well as the team’s starting right fielder last September. Tall, broad and lean, his 6-foot-4 physique screams ATH-UH-LETE. The trouble is that despite his youth and apparent vigor he’s been plagued with leg problems since he arrived on these shores, suggesting congenital weakness.
Javier Baez’s problems may be greater. The team’s top amateur pick in 2011, and currently plugged in at second base, he’s enormously strong, popping eyes with towering home runs both in the minors and as a late-season Cub. But when he’s not homering the 22-year-old usually is striking out with swings that cause passing airliners to wobble. This bespeaks an all-or-nothing mindset that rarely leads to stardom, and could be tough to change.
Worse, Baez has a weight problem that last season added 45 pounds to his program weight of 190. He’s said he’s back down to about 210 pounds now, but let’s face it, anyone who struggles with his weight at age 22 is doomed by 30. The Cubs should trade this guy soonest, maybe for a relief pitcher who’s shown he can get people out. Sans a good bullpen, finishing much above .500 only will be a dream in 2015.