Every spring, there seems to be one guy who comes out of nowhere to post amazing numbers in Cubs practice games.
Most of the time, this is an illusion, due to small sample size, thin air in Arizona, pitching being different, etc.
But some of the time, that player makes an impression on the brass and winds up on the Opening Day squad. Or, is someone who hadn’t been particularly on the MLB radar, but the strong spring got them noticed.
Here’s one Cubs hitter for each spring since 2006 who kind of burst upon the scene unexpectedly and hit extremely well, or a better-known player who simply dominated the entire spring. Why 2006? Well, because that’s the earliest season MLB.com currently has visible in its database.
Let’s remember some guys!
2006: Angel Pagan
Pagan had been a 1999 draft pick of the Mets and spent six relatively undistinguished years in their system when the Cubs purchased him in January 2006.
In 24 spring games Pagan hit .381/.417/.833 (16-for-42) with five home runs, 13 runs and four stolen bases. That was good enough to get him on the Opening Day roster. Pagan hit .255/.306/.415 in 148 games for the Cubs in 2006 and 2007 before they traded him back to the Mets for two minor leaguers you’ve probably never heard of.
Eventually Pagan wound up with the Giants, where he had a very good year in their World Series championship season of 2012 (.288/.338/.440, led MLB with 15 triples, 4.2 bWAR).
2007: Ronny Cedeno
Cedeno, who had been the Cubs’ starting shortstop in 2006, hit .328/.427/.516 (21-for-64) in 26 games in spring 2007 with 16 runs, three home runs and 11 walks.
He got off to a terrible start in the regular season and spent most of 2007 at Triple-A Iowa, and after spending 2008 as a part-timer with the Cubs, was traded to the Mariners for Aaron Heilmann before the 2009 season.
He last played in the majors with the 2014 Phillies, but was still active playing baseball in Venezuela this past winter.
2008: Micah Hoffpauir
Maybe this is where everyone seemed to decide they wanted to replace Derrek Lee with Hoffpauir. He had hit pretty well at Iowa in 2007, and in spring 2008 he hit .419/.422/.742 (26-for-62) in 28 games, with four home runs.
Then he destroyed Triple-A pitching that season, batting .362/.393/.752 with 25 home runs... in only 71 games. Called up a couple times during that season, he returned in September and memorably went 5-for-5 with two home runs in a game against the Mets which the Cubs wound up losing 7-6.
He got more playing time in the majors in 2009, but didn’t hit well (.239/.300/.427, -0.3 bWAR) and eventually wound up playing three seasons in Japan.
2009: Jake Fox
Fox was going to be the Next Big Thing for the Cubs... either at catcher, or third base, or somewhere, and this is where the NL really needed the DH, because Fox couldn’t really play defense.
But man, this guy could hit. In spring 2009 he hit .350/.400/.633 (21-for-60) with four home runs.
Even that didn’t get him on the Opening Day roster. He was finally called up when Aramis Ramirez was injured and took over at third base for a while.
He had a memorable few weeks when, over a 16-game stretch from late June to mid-July he hit .339/.393/.696 (19-for-56) with five home runs. But he couldn’t sustain that production and eventually he (and Aaron Miles) were traded to the A’s for reliever Jeff Gray and a couple of minor leaguers, neither of whom ever played in the big leagues.
Fox was still playing in the minor leagues as recently as 2015. Here’s an article from earlier this week about how Fox dominated the Grapefruit League for the Orioles in 2011.
2010: Tyler Colvin
Colvin was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick (13th overall) out of Tennessee in 2006.
By 2010, it looked like he’d be ready for the big leagues after hitting .468/.468/.753 (36-for-77) with two home runs in 25 spring games.
He hit pretty well for a mediocre Cubs team that year, .254/.316/.500 with 20 home runs in 135 games, but he was impaled by a piece of Welington Castillo’s bat on this hit against the Marlins September 19, 2010:
Colvin missed the rest of the 2010 season and was never quite the same after that. He was eventually sent to the Rockies as part of the infamous deal where DJ LeMahieu was traded to Colorado. Colvin played briefly for the Rockies and Giants from 2012-14 and his last games in pro ball were in Double-A in the Dodgers system in 2018.
2011: Scott Moore
Moore hit .342/.405/.658 (13-for-38) in 21 spring games with three home runs, but there was really no place for him on the Cubs, who had reacquired him in free agency after 2010. He’d been acquired from the Tigers in 2005 for Kyle Farnsworth (!) — and then was traded to the Orioles late in 2007 for the reacquistion of Steve Trachsel. In 2011, even after that great spring, he spent the entire season at Iowa, never even getting a September callup.
He left the Cubs after 2011 as a free agent and spent four more years in Triple-A in the A’s, Padres and Cardinals organizations.
Fun fact: Moore is a month older than Cole Hamels.
2012: Joe Mather
Mather became known as “BCE” (“Best Cub Ever”) on this site for some of his exploits early in the 2012 season, but he presaged that in spring training that year by hitting .382/.425/.691 (26-for-68) in 26 games with three home runs and four stolen bases.
Mather played in 103 games for the awful 101-loss 2012 Cubs and hit poorly: .209/.256/.324 (47-for-225). He did have one memorable walkoff hit against the Cardinals in April on a very cold evening:
You know, I made fun of Mather a bit when he was a Cub, but really, every MLB player should get to experience something like that. The win meant nothing in a lost season, but for Joe Mather, I bet he thinks about that night from time to time, and if he has kids or grandkids he can call up that video and show them his walkoff hit against the Cubs’ biggest rival.
2013: Brian Bogusevic
In 20 spring games that year, Bogusevic hit .410/.452/.692 (16-for-39) with six doubles, a triple and a home run. That got him a backup outfield spot for another bad Cubs team.
He hit all right in that role: .273/.323/.462 with six home runs in 47 games. Eventually the Cubs traded him to the Marlins for Justin Ruggiano.
His name might be familiar to you for something he did against the Cubs two years earlier — a walkoff grand slam for the Astros off Carlos Marmol [VIDEO].
2014: Luis Valbuena
He hit .244/.333/.780 (10-for-41) in 15 spring games. That’s kind of a weird slash line, but all 10 of his hits went for extra bases — four doubles and six home runs.
Valbuena filled a valuable role for some bad Cubs teams from 2012-14 and then he and Dan Straily were traded to the Astros for Dexter Fowler, so I suppose you could say he had some impact on the Cubs’ World Series team.
He always had a smile on his face and was a popular teammate and fan favorite, and became well-known for his bat flips:
Sadly, Valbuena died in a car accident in Venezuela in December 2018. He was only 33.
2015: Kris Bryant
KB’s 2015 spring has reverberations for the Cubs to this day.
He hit .425/.477/1.175 (17-for-40). That’s a 1.652 OPS. He hit nine home runs (and another one in a “B” game).
It was clear that he was ready for big-league pitching. You know the rest, the Cubs kept him in the minor leagues literally until the first day they could get an extra year of team control. A grievance was filed and nearly five years later, an arbitrator ruled in favor of the Cubs.
Service time is going to be a big part of the next CBA negotiation, largely as a result of this.
That spring, though — KB’s at-bats were of the “stop what you’re doing and watch this” variety. I’ll remember it forever.
2016: Jeimer Candelario
Candelario hit .350/.381/.675 (14-for-40) with three home runs. At the time he hadn’t played above Double-A, and he was blocked at the big-league level, although he did play five games for the MLB Cubs in July 2016 when Chris Coghlan went on the disabled list.
The following year he was sent to the Tigers in the Alex Avila deal. He had a very good year for the Tigers in the 60-game season in 2020: .297/.369/.503 with seven home runs in 52 games.
And he’s got a Cubs World Series ring.
2017: Ian Happ
Happ pounded the ball all over the Cactus League, hitting .383/.441/.750 (23-for-60) in 29 games with five home runs.
He started the year at Iowa, was called up in May and homered in his first big-league game [VIDEO].
You know the rest — a decent rookie year, a bit of a setback in 2018, a trip to Iowa in 2019 and near-MVP numbers for the first month of the 2020 season.
I expect big things from Happ this year.
2018: Ryan Court
Court, a Chicago-area native (Dundee-Crown HS in Carpentersville) was trying to make his hometown team and nearly did so with a great spring, hitting .360/.458/.660 (18-for-50) with four home runs in 29 spring games.
He was the last player cut before Opening Day and spent the entire season at Iowa without a callup.
He finally did get to play two games at Wrigley Field — as a member of the Mariners in September 2019. He went 1-for-5.
Court was in the A’s system in 2020 but obviously didn’t play due to the pandemic and was let go after the 2020 season.
2019: Mark Zagunis
Here’s another guy who likely would have benefitted from the universal DH. In spring 2019 he hit .370/.444/.761 (20-for-49) with four home runs in 22 games.
Originally drafted as a catcher, he wasn’t very good behind the plate and moved to the outfield, but his defense there wasn’t that great either.
Eventually he’ll be the answer to a trivia question: “Who was the Cubs’ Opening Day left fielder in 2019?”
He didn’t play in 2020 due to the pandemic and was granted free agency by the Cubs after the 2020 season. He remains unsigned.
2020: Ian Miller
Spring training in 2020 got cut short due to the pandemic, but before that Miller hit .371/.450/.457 (13-for-35) with eight stolen bases in 20 games.
He’s the perfect guy to have around if you have a 28-man roster, because then a team could carry a speed guy/defensive replacement. But with a roster crunch, Miller, still in the organization, probably spends this year at Iowa.
2021: Ildemaro Vargas
We still have 10 days or so left in spring training this year, and some guys are hitting better than Vargas — but those are guys you might expect to, like Joc Pederson (12-for-24, five home runs).
Vargas is hitting .375/.400/.583 (9-for-24) with a home run so far this spring, and it appears likely he’ll be on the Cubs’ bench on Opening Day. Vargas did have a decent year as a bench player for the Diamondbacks in 2019 (.269/.299/.413, six home runs in 92 games) and if he can do that again, he’ll be valuable.
Honorable mention to Rafael Ortega for his walkoff grand slam March 9 against the A’s.