I finally did it. This March, I made it out to Mesa for spring training with my dad. The entire time, I was trying to figure out what article, or series of articles, I would write. As it turns out, it's not going to be all that simple. Spring training, as much as anything, is a state of mind. Referencing spring training will happen when it does, and as often as not, will be something unspoken as much as anything else. Nonetheless, here are some of my memories of my trip to Cubs spring training.
We arrived on Monday, March 16, and spent the first day getting checked in, doing some grocery shopping, and general non-baseball stuff. One constant began and carried through the whole week. We had great service the entire time. At least, until our flight home was delayed for two hours due to the airline not being able to get a plane ready. But, really, from the hotel (Mesa Extended Stay on Dobson), the restaurants, and the people at the venues, everyone was a pleasure to deal with.
On Tuesday, we made our initial trip to the so-called "back fields" at the Cubs complex. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. When we arrived at Sloan Park, it was a game day, as the Royals were visiting that day. We ended up in the general parking area, for what I'd say was out first rookie mistake if it was. However, we had already made a few. I had noticed some activity to the back and the right, for those of you familiar with the site. That was the wrong way, but it led to a nice morning constitutional. We were walking the other way from the crowds heading to the main gates. It wasn't the first time I've been intentionally going the wrong way.
Thus, we ended up going entirely across Sloan Park and around the six other fields before finding my virtual mailing address for the week. The four fields where the minor league players hone their craft are by no stretch back fields. While I have no idea what the distances are to center, down the lines, and up the alleys, the fields are immaculate. While it's easier to track what the hitters are doing on the field, from BP and shagging flies to infield practice and more BP, the pitchers are occupied doing pitcher things.
On Tuesday, the Cubs were having a scrimmage against some Canadian kids who were younger and less experienced than the Cubs squad. Moving runners over and moving them in was a focus on Tuesday. Handshakes all around when either task was accomplished. I was a bit glazed over by the time the afternoon was over. It was amusing sitting among guys I follow on Twitter and listen to on the Internet five months a year.
On the trip to the back fields, I stumbled into a batting practice ball. For a few days, I was trying to figure out who to get an autograph from. One of my friends wanted a Doug Dascenzo autograph, but that wasn't going to happen. He spends most of the time with the major league club, and I didn't. By the time I was done with the week, I had appropriated four minor league balls. Your challenge, as a group, is to figure out which four minor league players I procured autographs of. The catch is, each guess is to be four names. I will respond with how many of your four are correct.
On Wednesday, we were heading out at around 10 in the morning. The hotel staff informed us that a gunman was running loose in the city. Nonetheless, we headed to the back fields, arriving at the time people were being informed they should leave. Information was sketchy at the time, but by now it's old news. A disturbed individual went on a crime spree, and at least one person didn't survive. Having the Cubs site so well protected was very helpful for the team.
Not so many years ago, players were staying in hotels in the area. To move from the warm-up facility (which was much less spacious than the team has now) to the park where scrimmage games were held, the players would walk through the streets of Mesa. Now, the players readying for a game were dispatched to the secure comfort of their housing compound. Might as well hit the weight room or the batting cages, kid. You never want that scenario. When needed, it truly is a comfort to have your players cordoned off in safety.
We headed to a casino, as baseball was done for much of the day.
The next day was a double-header day. Al had informed me of a "B" game going on at Sloan. We arrived far earlier than necessary, and eschewed watching the opening day of minor league games. Instead, my iPad and I spent most of the first six innings in the front row behind the plate. Kris Bryant and Albert Almora homered, and I have the Bryant one on my iPad. It was a bit of a spooky setting, with the vendor stations unoccupied and the seats sparsely filled.
That night, we headed up to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick to watch the Cubs play the Diamondbacks. Welington Castillo and Edwin Jackson did well considering, and if Arizona was "All In" on the season (they aren't), they might be interested in trading for one or both of them. I have Soler's triple on the iPad, and once I get things sorted mentally, you'll be able to see it, on-site.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were about being at the back fields. I'll go with memories of four players. Two are hitters, two are pitchers, and one is on my list of four autos. The first will be of Tyler Ihrig, a left-handed pitcher from Marin College in Kentfield, California, who was the Cubs' 23rd-round selection in the 2013 draft. I was watching the game on the other field when he pitched his first inning, but a few pitchers (presumably) came to remark on his outing. Ihrig doesn't throw hard. At all. However, he changes speeds, then changes them again. When you drop from 84 to 76, then to 68, when you come back with an 85 after that, it appears to be mid-90's. The guys that were hitting him were knocking 87 foot grounders to first, and a two-hopper to short.
Ihrig may never pitch in the majors, or be included in a trade. However, I hope that guys like Ihrig are retained in the system after their playing days. He appears to be the type that could coach or scout, even if he has no other special skills. The guys that he was carving up will likely be hitting some good minor league pitchers this season. Ihrig won't be one of them. As a bit of a veteran, he will likely fill in as needed, be that in Myrtle Beach (High-A), South Bend (Low-A) or even Tennessee (Double-A). He makes the very compelling case that pitching isn't all velocity.
The second is Alexander Santana. He also won't be in your "Baseball America Handbook." Santana is starting his third year in the States in 2014. He's 6-1, though he might have grown a bit since they measured him for bb-ref. He had a WHIP under 1.2 in the Arizona Summer League last season. He might be in Eugene this season, likely as a reliever. He is a typical Cubs reliever. He has a repeatable delivery. He changes speeds. He throws strikes. I don't remember seeing him field his position, but I'm confident he can rather well.
Cubs pitchers are well-trained, these days. When a player gets the mid-season bump from one level to the next, the same sort of instruction awaits him at the next level. There are no surprises: "Trust your stuff. Let your fielders make plays. Don't try to strike everyone out." Having a put-away pitch is very helpful, but if you give up a few first pitch singles to right, your prospect status won't be exploded. Santana is the one I chose to go with, but there are dozens like him that are trying to be the next pitcher making a run up the system.
The last two are Eloy Jimenez and Kevonte Mitchell. I've talked about both at length, and I was hoping to get to see them both swing. I was able to. A 13th rounder last June, Mitchell shouldn't be this advanced already. Most prep hitters finish off their first season in short season ball, which would equate to an eventual assignment to Eugene (Northwest League) in June or July. Mitchell was batting third most of the time for the shadow South Bend Cubs both days I saw him. While players will often tumble a level after veterans get released from the major league camp, Mitchell was getting a serious look with the Midwest League affiliate. I wouldn't be surprised to see Mitchell play some or most of the season in South Bend. That would put him on the same track Albert Almora has been on. Not bad for a 13th-round pick.
Jimenez has been the white whale for me. I knew he existed, and the only way I would see him live this season was to go to Mesa. However. While Mitchell was hitting third, Jimenez was hitting fourth, until potentially tweaking something in his ribcage area (I'm willing to admit that I speculate at injuries) on Monday. He will be very raw, wherever he's playing. He was, however, squaring the ball up fairly well, and homered once to left while I was watching. It isn't on video, but with Jimenez, it will be a matter of time.
With both Jimenez and Mitchell, their defense is probably a bit behind their offense. They might get Ihrig'd by advanced pitchers at the full season level. However, they don't appear to need that many more at bats against rudimentary pitchers. That is what they would face if left in Mesa in April. If they would make the leap to South Bend, a few other more polished outfielders will lose at-bats. If they both head to northern Indiana, a number of better defenders with far more polish will be held back, and the pitchers in South Bend might have longer innings, due to misplayed fly balls to right-center.
That may be taken as a wholehearted criticism of their defense. It isn't. However, sending and of a number of better defenders to South Bend will help the pitching more. However, keeping both halves of the game in mind is how the system is most-wholly improved. I'm not sure if Jimenez or Mitchell will, or should, head east to Indiana. Their efforts were being scrutinized, and the decision to be made will be based of the whole portfolio of the system, not just what benefits Mitchell and Jimenez.
If you can make it, try to get out to spring training sometime. I finally got to meet Al, and I sat beside Tim Sheridan for a few innings, talked to the guys broadcasting the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (look for a six-man rotation for the Cubs' new Carolina League affiliate), and started chatting with a guy who I realized, five minutes later, was Arizona Phil. I'm ready for the season, and the trip helped the finishing process. It is a beautiful facility, very well-organized, and very fan-friendly. The needle is pointing in the right direction, and the next few years will be rather enjoyable.