It has been a whirlwind for me the past five days since the Cubs closed their Cactus League home season at Sloan Park with a 10-0 pummeling of the Rockies last Wednesday. That game was a fun one, but it’s irrelevant now as the Cubs begin the 2016 regular season tonight against the Angels in Anaheim. An important note on last Wednesday’s game, it was another sell-out crowd with 15,108 fans at Sloan Park. This helped the Cubs set a new MLB All-Time Home Spring Training Attendance Record of 226,163 for their 15 home games at Sloan Park, which is an average of just under 15,078 fans per game, both attendance numbers broke the previous records the Cubs set last year. This spring’s record attendance really helps illustrate the excitement about this year’s Cubs team, as well as the continued dedication of the Cubs fans. Out in the Grapefruit League this spring the New York Mets came 837 fans short of their All-Time Spring Home record, but that Mets number pales in comparison at 97,092 or 6,936 per game. One final contrast showing how much spring training has changed over the years, and how it’s become big business – the last time the Cubs won the World Series in 1908, the average attendance for those WORLD SERIES games was 12,446. This year we averaged 15,078 for spring training games! Times have sure changed.
After the game last Wednesday there was a wrap party at the Dos Gringos tent in right field for the Cubs Sloan Park spring training employees. There are many fantastic people that work at Sloan Park, and our group working in the control room are great at their jobs, good people, and fun to work with. Many thanks to Max, Ali, Dan, and Vince for keeping things running smoothly in the booth, in spite of the constantly changing environment that is a spring game. Needless to say, at the Dos Gringos tent many beers were had, and stories told. Later some of us took batting practice on the Sloan Field, I can’t vouch for the quality of swings but it sure was a blast!
Which brings me to Thursday morning. While the Cubs went to Las Vegas for a couple exhibition games, I was headed to Baltimore for a family wedding. I had to rise at 4AM to get ready for an early flight, and was still feeling some residual effects of batting practice and the Dos Gringos gathering.
After a long travel day, and losing 3 hours with the time change going East, I arrived at the hotel at about 6 PM. I’d never spent time in Baltimore before and a beautiful spring evening gave an opportunity to walk the inner harbor. We ended up at Fells Point for some beverage and great seafood. There just isn’t anything like Fells Point in the Phoenix/Mesa area, especially when you consider that the Fells Point waterfront neighborhood was established in 1763. An old neighborhood in Phoenix would be 1963, that is a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. Friday was the rehearsal dinner and Saturday the wedding and reception. The wedding was beautiful and unique, held at the Royal Sonesta Hotel right off the inner harbor. It was a great weekend and very cool to catch up with family and friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen for quite some time.
I had hoped to take a tour of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, however they closed tours from Friday until today to prepare the park for today’s opener against the Twins. I did walk around Camden Yards and take a few photos. I was also able to watch some of the Cardinals and Pirates opener yesterday while at an Irish Pub in Baltimore, and then see the end of the game at the airport while waiting for my flight back to Phoenix. I didn’t intend for this to be a travel-log blog, soooo, moving on.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you probably know that Cubs Manager Joe Maddon has done some unusual things this spring (at least by baseball standards), bringing in clowns, mimes, dancing, 1970’s themes, an electric guitar soloist, etc. to Cubs camp. I’m not going to talk about that here, it’s actually covered quite well in this Sarah Spain article. Instead, I thought it would be appropriate before tonight’s opener, to give a short write-up on each of the Cubs players on the 25 man roster. I’ll start with the position players today, and then finish with the pitchers and a few others like injured Javier Baez tomorrow. Some notes on each player and what I’ve noticed over the past month and a half while watching them practice here in Mesa. This isn’t a Sabermetrics type review, but just some of my observations, I’ll call them – Timservations.
Dexter Fowler – His surprise appearance at Sloan Park after it was reported he had signed with the Orioles helped set the upbeat feeling of this spring Cubs camp. Moreover, it gave the Cubs a true leadoff hitter and Centerfielder which seemed to be missing from the roster…In spite of Maddon batting Schwarber and others at lead off. Fowler is a dedicated pro, well liked and respected in the clubhouse, he’ll be a tone setter for this team. I was there when Dexter showed up unexpectedly at Sloan to start camp, you could feel the buzz and hear the chatter of the fans learning something special had happened. Dexter moving to the Orioles didn’t feel right. He belongs with the Cubs, at least in 2016.
Jason Heyward - I was watching Twitter like a hawk the day most of us found out Heyward was coming to the Cubs. As Twitter is prime to do, there were many false reports saying he had signed back with the Cardinals, etc. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, only to have them dashed. When it finally was confirmed for certain that J-Hey was coming to the Cubs, my feet never touched the ground the rest
of the day. Heyward is now with the Cubs in his prime at 26 years old. You can tell his hard working style quickly earned the respect of his teammates. It feels to me like he’s been part of the team for years, not months. A natural fit in Cubs blue. With Heyward’s defense and OBP, he’s the right guy at the right time for this team full of young sluggers.
Jorge Soler - A big bat, with a mature eye at the plate. Soler has in the past had his ups and downs with injuries and occasional adventures in the outfield. He lost some weight in the off-season and that could help keep him in better health. One of the great things about this Cubs team, is the depth. Depth that allows Joe Maddon to find the best match-ups for his young players and put them in games where they should be successful. Soler must continue to work on his defense. He’s got a cannon arm, but needs more focus and certainly better routes to the ball. Watching Heyward in the outfield can only help.
Matt Szczur - Love me some Szczur! Although he may only be currently on the roster due to Javier Baez’s injury, he’s still an asset to this team. Szczur gives the Cubs speed, defense, and outfield flexibility. With his college football background he’s got a hard-nosed grinder type mentality…and you can’t get enough of that. He started slow with an injury earlier this spring but really started to find his groove of late.
Kris Bryant – He looked so comfortable this spring, even if his numbers didn’t jump out at you. Bryant’s continually working on his defense and has a strong arm. Of course it’s his bat that will likely soon elevate him to MLB super-star status. Watching Bryant in batting practice and spring games it’s somewhat deceptive how his natural swing generates so much power, almost effortlessly. What are warning track fly ball outs for other players, go 30 feet into the stands with Bryant. It’s going to be very interesting to see what he does in year two.
Tommy La Stella – A pro’s pro, and versatile, just what Joe Maddon loves. You can put La Stella in just about anywhere on defense and he’ll do a competent job. Like Matt Szczur, La Stella was injured much of camp, but came on strong at the end when healed.
Anthony Rizzo – One of the real leaders on this Cubs team, it’s easy to see why Theo wanted to bring Rizz to the Cubs a few years ago. Rizzo is the whole package, the bat, the glove, and in the clubhouse. Guy’s got a great sense of humor and pride in what he does. When you’ve gone through cancer as he did with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008, your perspective isn’t the same as most 26 year old’s. If he continues maturing as a player, the sky is the limit.
Addison Russell - Soft spoken and hard nosed ballplayer with insane talent. I watched him in the AZ Fall League when he was with the A’s and really saw something special in him. When the Cubs were able to get him in trade, I was beside myself with excitement. He’s actually come along a little faster than I thought he would, and looks to be a budding star. If the Cubs win the World Series, Addison Russell is likely going to be a driving force. I said privately that the Cubs should trade Starlin Castro so that Addison can be the man at shortstop – they did, and he is. This spring he just looks so comfortable both at the plate and in the field, it’s hard to believe he’s only 22 years old. Don’t be surprised if Russell belts 20 or more HR’s this year, he’s looking stronger than ever.
Ben Zobrist - Another key off-season accusation, Zobrist provides among other things, maturity, position flexibility and a winning pedigree. Another very good OBP guy who can help balance some of the Cubs youth and power, with an experienced batting eye. Ben seemed to fit in right from the start with this club and he’s got that familiarity factor with Joe Maddon.
Miguel Montero – Provides so many things for this team, including some pop with the bat, maturity, knowledge of pitching staff. In his first year with the Cubs I got to hear him answer some off-the-cuff questions and was blown away by his intelligence and the level of dedication he has for the game…Including his extensive video scouting of opponents. Along with David Ross, Miggy sets a good example for Kyle Schwarber to learn the inner workings of the MLB catcher position.
David Ross – Grandpa Rossy had an awesome spring, seems to be a guy the players look up to and respect. Which is why the other players can give him a
hard time for being old(er), because he’s so well liked. His offensive game maybe limited at this point, but his importance to this team and clubhouse presence is noticeable, if hard to quantify. Ross had such a good spring hitting, that we joking in the booth to save some for the the regular season, because we don’t know how many hits are left in the tank.
Kyle Schwarber – We know that Schwarbs will also be playing a lot out in Leftfield depending on the match-ups. He’s another guy I can’t wait to see get more at-bats this year. Talk about strong, he hit a ball opposite-field this spring, it was very high and should have been nothing more than a pop-out can of corn…but it carried and carried and went over the fence by 30 feet. He’s just that strong, and also has a mature batting eye that Theo and Company love. He’ll be a work in progress at both defensive positions, but he’s a better athlete than many think and should continue to improve at both positions.
Here’s to a great start to the 2016 season tonight! Go Cubs! (Cubs player photos by John Antonoff)