The Cubs won’t conduct a classic spring training, beginning today when pitchers and catchers report to spanking-new 15,000-seat Cubs Park in Mesa, Ariz.
With plug-ins like outfielder Justin Ruggiano, right-hander Jason Hammel and reliever Jose Veras the biggest off-season acquisitions, the rebuilding club is hardly in the mode of tuning up for a pennant run.
The third camp of the Theo Epstein regime will expose its top core of position-player prospects to big-league competition when games begin Feb. 27. Before the quartet of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora are re-assigned to minor-league camp by mid-March, they’ll have a chance to make even more impressions on Epstein and his front-office posse.
If the hard-hitting Baez, rated the closest to major-league delivery, shows he’s bearing in on his promotion to the Cubs, the brass will have to expand an ongoing project: keeping shortstop Starlin Castro’s focus straight.
Baez also plays shortstop. Two consecutive departed managers, Mike Quade and Dale Sveum, were driven batty by Castro’s mind-wanderings in the field. Castro, a .283 lifetime hitter, slumped to a career-worst .245 in 2013. The Cubs certainly don’t need Castro hearing footsteps and responding accordingly.
That’s another reason longtime Padres coach Rick Renteria was hired to replace the more dour Sveum. Epstein figures to get more with sugar than vinegar from the lighter style of the bi-lingual Renteria.
“Starlin is going to be one of those guys that I hope not only myself, but his teammates, continue to re-gravitate to,” Renteria said recently. “He’s a great kid.”
Despite four big-league seasons under his belt, Castro could still be classified as in a developmental stage. He turns 24 just before Opening Day. Renteria’s job may be as much a minor-league field coordinator as big-league manager in trying to shape up Castro and the kids coming up after him.
“Certain guys might be affected by too much information,” Renteria said. “Let them be themselves. Always encourage them, always motivate them. “They’re still human beings and they still are people dealing with a lot of different things in their lives. Sometimes we forget that.”
Baez could be tried at third during his time with the big leaguers. Bryant’s main position is also third. Other journeyman place-holders are penciled in at that position to start the season, so it’s possible Baez or Bryant could simply play alongside Castro.
How quickly any of the kids come up will depend on their bats, not gloves. They need to identify hittable pitches to the satisfaction of Epstein and Co.
“To me, controlling the strike zone,” general manager Jed Hoyer said of the final step of a young hitter transitioning to the majors. “You’ve got to be able to get on base. That’s really the biggest thing we’re looking for – guys who can control the zone, guys that can get on base. We’ve got to get that at the big-league level.”
The Cubs also will keep a close eye through camp on the comeback ability of first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who like Castro took big backward steps at the plate in 2013.
They’ll have one newcomer happy to come to the 96-loss Cubs from another tail-ender in Miami. The right-handed-hitting Ruggiano will be happy to bat in Wrigley Field, even with the wind blowing in, after losing homers in huge Marlins Park.
“Miami is the hardest place to hit,” he said. “Hitting there is tough and sometimes discouraging.”