The Super Bowl is over, March Madness isn't until next month, and the NBA and NHL regular seasons (AKA the playoffs) haven't started yet. So what time IS it? Well, it's time again for Spring Training, which is when professional baseball teams gather in Florida and Arizona to prepare for the coming season.
Spring Training is kind of like rehearsing for a play, except there is no script and you don't know for sure how it's going to to turn out. However, in the peculiar case of the Chicago Cubs (sometimes stupidly referred to as "YOUR Chcago Cubs"), the end of the show is usually generally well-anticipated and is practically a given. And it's never a happy ending. (Well, it was in 1908, but not since then).
The Cubs conduct their Spring Training (ST) each year in Mesa, AZ. Mesa was founded by Mormon missionaries a few years ago (actually a couple of centuries ago), but oddly enough, that's not really why the Cubs have ST there. Although there is a Mormon Temple in downtown Mesa, the Cubs do not play baseball there. (The Mormon Tabernacle Cubs?)
There are actually two other places of note in Mesa that relate directly to the Cubs and Spring Training. One is a place called Fitch Park (which is a City of Mesa park), and the other is a place called HoHoHam Park (which is also a City of Mesa park). So think "city park." Like Grant Park. Or Lincoln Park.
Fitch Park is the year-round home to the Cubs minor leagues, and it's here that the Cubs team in the Arizona Rookie League (the AZL Cubs) play their home games in June, July, and August, and where the Cubs Arizona Instructional League team operates in September and October. It's also where Extended Spring Training (for the very lame and the very young) is conducted in April and May, after the Cubs and their four "full season" farm clubs begin their regular season schedules.
And it's at Fitch Park where the Cubs (players on the club's 40-man rosters, as well as players signed to minor league contracts who receive a "Non-Roster Invitation"--or "NRI"--to ST with the major leaguers), begin their season each year in mid-February, when the pitchers and catchers report for physicals on or about February 15th.
There are four full baseball fields at Fitch Park that fan out from a center area where a two-story tower is located that allows Cubs bosses to watch the action on all four of the fields. In addition to the four fields and the tower, there is a large clubhouse on the far east-side of the Cubs section of the park that includes administrative offices, workout facilities, covered batting cages, and a "pit" that allows several pitchers to throw at the same time. There is also a "half-field" used occasionally for infield drills located at the far northeast corner of the Cubs section of the park.
The Cubs pitchers and catchers report before the rest of the team because it takes longer (about six weeks) for pitchers to get ready for the season, and the catchers are needed to catch the pitchers while they get their throwing in at the very beginning of ST (during the first few days).
Position players need less preparation time, but even so, a lot of the position players report early anyway (right along with the pitchers and catchers). The rest of the team (position players who choose not to report early) report to camp the week after the pitchers and catchers, and so the full team is together at Fitch Park by the second week (first full week).
Workouts start daily around 9 AM, but there is no absolute start time. It starts basically when everybody is dressed and outside the clubhouse. There is a lot of meandering around, but the team eventually manages to gather for calisthenics and some running, mostly the kind of low-impact exercises elderly people do at nursing homes to keep from getting bed sores. Not a lot of stress, and not too demanding.
Then around 10 or 10:30 or 11 (whenever), the team breaks up into two, three or four groups (like catchers, pitchers, infielders, and outfielders, for instance) for specialized instruction, training, and practice on the four fields. This is when the pitchers will practice the old "try and cover first base on a ball hit to the right of the first-baseman" drill, or when infielders will practice not screwing up rundown plays.
By the second week (first full week) of ST, and once the fundamentals have been drummed into the players collective body memory through relentless practice and perfection, daily Batting Practice (BP) becomes the main focus, with position players hitting against their teammate pitchers, who throw BP for usually about 15 minutes each, with each pitcher throwing maybe every third day. Sometimes the coaches will throw BP after all the pitchers scheduled for work that day are finished, and it's when the coaches start lobbing the ball up to the plate when the hitters can really unload moon shots! (Sammy Sosa used to regularly hit 'em off the City of Mesa Public Safety Communications Building across the street). ST BP typically runs about 90 minutes (like maybe from 10:30-12:00). Then the players are finished for the day and they head for the nearest golf course or bar, careening out of the players secured parking lot at about 80 MPH.
By the middle of the third week (second full-week), the taxing 90 minute morning workouts stop and the games begin, as the Cubs relocate a half-mile north up Center Street (or Centre Street, for those of you in the UK) to HoHoKam Park. (The HoHokam were a mysterious indigenous people who lived in the Phoenix area many, many centuries ago, long before the Cubs started having Spring Training in Arizona, and even before Phoenix was known as "Pumpkinville").
HoHoKam Park is where the Cubs play their "home" Spring Training games, at 1:05 PM (plus an occasional 7:05 PM night game) during the month of March. (Some games are called "Split Squad" games, as the team occasionally will "split" into two "squads" and simultaneously play a home game at HoHoKam AND a road game somewhere else at the same time... the "Cubs" are literally two places at once!). Unlike Fitch Park, though, there is an actual real baseball stadium (with dugouts, a press box, box seats and grandstands, concessions, rest rooms and a gift shop) located at HoHoKam Park (capacity about 12,000+), and this facility is known as "Dwight Patterson Field." (Dwight Patterson was the guy who helped bring MLB Spring Training to Arizona many years ago, and to Mesa in particular).
As the major leaguers move up to HoHoKam on or about March 1st, the Cubs minor leaguers (about 125 strong) take over Fitch Park (and this is called "Minor League Camp"). Meanwhile, the Cubs players assigned to the major league camp play ST games against 11 other MLB clubs (AZ, CHW, COL, KC, LAA, MIL, OAK, SEA, SD, SF, and TEX, with CLE scheduled to relocate from Florida to Arizona in 2009) who also have their Spring Training in Arizona. MLB clubs play ST games just about every day, with only one scheduled day off (usually on a Wednesday) in the middle of March. However, individual players (especially established guys) get frequent days off throughout ST.
The other 11 MLB teams who train in Arizona are located at sites in cities like Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tempe, Tucson, Peoria, and Surprise (and Goodyear starting in 2009). Some clubs share their ST facility with another MLB club (SEA with SD in Peoria, KC with TEX in Surprise, and CHW with AZ in Tucson), while others (like the Cubs) are all alone.
As ST progresses through the month of March, players on the 40-man roster who don't win a spot on the Opening Day 25-man roster are "optioned" to one of the Cubs minor league clubs (Iowa, Tennessee, Daytona, or Peoria) training at Fitch Park and non-roster players who don't make the Cubs Opening Day 25-man roster are "sent to the minor league camp for reassignment." (The Cubs four "full-season" minor league teams that train at Fitch play Spring Training games, too, but they play their games on the four fields at Fitch Park, not at HoHoKam).
At the end of Spring Training (right around the end of March), the Cubs "break camp" and head to Las Vegas for a couple of final tune-up exhibition games, shows, and non-stop gambling. And then the regular season starts! (The Cubs four full-season minor league teams training at Fitch Park leave Arizona a few days after the Cubs depart, and Minor League Opening Day is usually the Thursday or Friday after MLB Opening Day).
So with that information as prelude and background, I give you the TCR 2007 Chicago Cubs Preview for the Casual Fan (Spring Training Edition):
The Cubs have about a dozen legitimate starting pitcher candidates going into Spring Training, so new Cubs manager Uncle Lou Piniella will have a LOT of choices. If everybody is healthy come Opening Day (and that's a real long-shot), the most-likely five-man rotation is Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, and two of three from among Wade Miller, Rich Hill, and Mark Prior. (Again, that's only if everybody is healthy and ready to pitch on Opening Day).
Because he re-signed with the Cubs prior to the end of the Free-Agency Filing Period, Wade Miller does not have an automatic "no trade" through June 15th. (Lilly and Marquis do). So Miller could be traded at the end of Spring Training if there is a logjam in the starting rotation, although the Cubs might still want to hang onto him anyway. Or if they are healthy but ineffective--or even just because of a numbers crunch--Hill and/or Prior could be optioned to AAA, because both have minor league options left. Prior will have the right to refuse an optional assignment to the minors once he accrues five years of MLB service-time, but the earliest that can happen is 41 days into the 2007 season, which will be sometime in May.
With three other lefty relief candidates (Eyre, Ohman, and Rapada), Neal Cotts (acquired from the White Sox for David Aardsma) will be available for starting duty if needed, and Angel Guzman, Sean Marshall, Carlos Marmol, Juan Mateo, Jae-kuk Ryu, and Ryan O'Malley (all of whom started at least one MLB game for the Cubs in 2006) also would be available for consideration should injuries or ineffectiveness attack a couple of the other starters higher up on the pecking order. Top pitching prospects Sean Gallagher and Jeff Samardzija will be in the major league camp, but neither figure to be ready for MLB before 2008 (Gallagher) or 2009-10 (Samardzija).
Although they have been rotation starters the past couple of years, I would expect Marmol, Mateo, and Ryu to be moved to the bullpen in 2007, with Marmol groomed as a closer (for some reason, Marmol dials-up his fastball about 3-4 MPH when he throws just one inning), and with Mateo and Ryu prepped for future roles in middle relief. There just is not going to be enough room for all of them in the starting rotation at Iowa, much less in Chicago!
Ryan Dempster had a TERRIBLE last couple of months in 2006, but he still comes to camp next week--and will probably start the '07 season--as the Cubs closer. However, if Kerry Wood's shoulder will allow him to pitch on consecutive days, Woody could very well supplant Demp as closer before too long. Bob Howry and Scott Eyre are valuable and experienced set-up guys, and Will Ohman is a quality MLB lefty reliever. Michael Wuertz has a history of being either very good or very bad, but he is at the point in his career where he should be able to start displaying greater consistency from appearance-to-appearance. So that's six relievers right there, leaving one spot left.
Competition for the one last spot in the pen should be spirited, featuring a battle between Cotts (if he doesn't start), Ryu, Marmol, Mateo, Roberto Novoa, rookies Clay Rapada and Rocky Cherry, and Randy Wells and Carmen Pignatiello (both of whom once again get an NRI to ST with the big club). Other than Dempster, Howry, Eyre, and Wood, all of the other bullpen candidates (including Ohman and Wuertz) have minor league options available, so it really doesn't matter who gets the last spot or if Ohman or Wuertz can't hold their slot.
In addition, there will be four more pitchers in camp with extensive minor league and some MLB experience (Ben Howard, Jason Anderson, Les Walrond, and John Webb) who were signed to minor league contracts and who have received non-roster invitations to Spring Training, and it is not inconceivable that one of them could pitch "lights out" and unexpectedly contend for a spot in the pen.
We all know that Michael Barrett is by no means a "Gold Glove" defender behind the plate, but he certainly is one of the better offensive catchers in MLB today, and Henry Blanco is a solid, veteran back-up who consistently throws out 40%+ opposing base-stealers each year.
Geovany Soto will likely be back at AAA for the third consecutive season, and he would probably get the "first call" if anything happens to either Barrett or Blanco simply because he is already on the 40-man roster and because he is very familiar with most all of the Cubs pitchers. Switch-hitting Koyie Hill will probably share receiving duties with Soto at Iowa, and he would be a second option should Barrett or Blanco go down for an extended period of time. Hill was once a hot-shot prospect in the Dodgers organization, before having his career adversely affected after suffering a broken leg shortly after being acquired by the Diamondbacks in the Steve Finley trade a couple or three years ago.
Veteran 3B-1B-LF-RF-C Mike Kinkade and rookie 3B-1B-C Casey McGehee (who had the best winter ball season of the many Cubs playing in Latin America post-2006) could be a third catcher if Piniella wants the 5th man on his bench to have that capability. Otherwise, the primary utility infielder (probably either Ryan Theriot or Tomas Perez) will be the #3 (emergency) catcher.
1B Derrek Lee and 3B Aramis Ramirez will provide the 3-4 punch in the middle of the Cubs batting order, and having D-Lee available for the entire season should give the Cub lineup a huge lift. And Ramirez should be better by not having to be the prime-mover "main man" in the middle of the order, as happened last year when Lee went down with a fractured wrist early in the season.
Cesar Izturis was an N. L. All-Star shortstop with the Dodgers in 2004, before suffering a torn elbow ligament and undergoing season-ending "Tommy John" ligament transplant surgery in 2005. But his main problem last year wasn't rehabbing and trying to comeback from the TJ surgery, it was a cranky hamstring that kept him out of the lineup. If Izturis is 100%, he is one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, and the offensive numbers he put up prior to his elbow injury were comparable to what Rafael Furcal did at a similar point in his career. Ronny Cedeno will likely be optioned to Iowa (he has one minor league option left), where he hopefully will build on his fine Venzuelan Winter League playoff performance and get his confidence back to where he can perhaps maybe be the Cubs #1 shortstop in 2008.
Mark DeRosa has excelled in recent years as a jack-of-all-trades super-sub utility player, but he chose to sign with the Cubs because he was (apparently) promised the starting 2B gig. Whether DeRosa can be a quality everyday MLB defensive 2B remains to be seen. If DeRosa falters, Ryan Theriot is available to play 2B. Meanwhile, Eric Patterson will be at Iowa trying to improve his defense to where he can maybe be an MLB second-baseman by 2008. Maybe.
If DeRosa does indeed hold the starting 2B job, then Theriot will probably be the #1 back-up middle-infielder. If Theriot struggles, veteran switch-hitting infielder Tomas Perez will be in camp as a non-roster player, and he could possibly grab the #1 utility infielder slot if Piniella is unhappy with Theriot. The Theriot/T. Perez battle will be the litmus test to determine if Lou Piniella is Dusty Baker Redux.
If Piniella chooses to keep two reserve infielders but doesn't want the two to necessarily be Theriot and Perez, ex-Cub Bobby Hill will be in camp. The switch-hitting Hill spent the entire '06 season in AAA (Padres), but he was one of the best PHs in MLB with PIT in 2004-05, and he could provide an additional back-up at 3B and at 2B. Also, the Cubs signed versatile IF-OF Derek Wathan (ex-FLA) to a minor league contract, and he could maybe factor into the Cubs bench at some point in '07.
Speaking of pinch-hitters, Daryle Ward was signed as a free-agent during the off-season. The left-handed hitting Ward was THE best PH in all of MLB last season, and he can also give Derrek Lee an occasional rare day-off at 1B and play a corner OF spot in a pinch. But Ward is first and foremost a PH De-Luxe.
The Cubs didn't sign Cliff Floyd to play just once a week and pinch-hit. If Floyd's achilles is close to 100%, it's VERY likely that Floyd and Matt Murton will alternate in LF, and it will probably be a true platoon, with the one exception being that Floyd will probably rarely play a day game following a night game. Otherwise, Murton will start against all LHPs and Floyd will start against all RHPs (and Floyd is every bit as bad against LHP as Jacque Jones).
Although he is a prolific home run hitter, Alfonso Soriano will hit lead-off (I guess he just feels more comfortable hitting there) and will play either CF or RF, with Jacque Jones the starter in the third outfield spot. Soriano has the speed to play CF and the arm to play RF, but he has really only been an outfielder for one year, and he may still have problems judging fly balls, line drives, and balls that are hooking and slicing. With Wrigley Field having one of the toughest--if not THE toughest--RF in MLB (late afternoon sun, wind, and a bullpen mound in foul territory), it would probably be better to play Jones in RF, even if Soriano has the superior arm.
Top CF prospect Felix Pie could very well be ready sometime during the 2007 season, and if he does play well enough at AAA to force a recall, Jones will probably get traded at that time, with Pie playing the more-difficult Wrigley RF while Soriano finishes the '07 season in CF. Then depending on how things go with Soriano in CF, Pie and Soriano could possibly switch spots in 2008.
Angel Pagan is a protypical "4th OF" (a switch-hitter with some power, above-average speed, and the ability to play all three OF spots), but (barring injury) the only way Pagan can avoid getting optioned to AAA to start the 2007 season is if Piniella opts to go with only one reserve infielder.
Scott Moore has outstanding power and runs well, but he also strikes out a LOT. With Ramirez signed through 2011, Moore will likely be moved from 3B to the OF at Iowa in 2007, where he will be groomed as a Geoff Blum/Rob Mackowiak-type IF-OF-LHPH (with a MLB ETA in 2008). Buck Coats is another potential athletic-type IF-OF-LHPH-PR super-sub with some MLB experience who will likely be at Iowa in '07.
OUTLOOK FOR 2007
Cubs Win!!!! Cubs Win???!!!!! Woo-hoo!!!! Cubs Win!!!! (I'm having a heart attack!!!) Cubs Win!!!!!!