Cubs school top prospects with taste of Chicago
Baez, Almora, Soler, Bryant among those in Rookie Development Program
EVANSTON, Ill. -- The 15 prospects taking part in the Cubs' Rookie Development Program took a break from their baseball studies to attend a Blackhawks game Tuesday. For many of them, it was their first NHL game, and also a chance to see how rabid Chicago fans are about their teams.
"Being at the stadium and watching all the people go crazy during the national anthem, that was awesome," pitcher Pierce Johnson said Wednesday of the rousing performance before every home Blackhawks game. "I can just imagine what it'll be like when we turn it around and actually win a World Series. I'm excited. It gives me chills."
The Cubs are counting on the talent participating in this week's program to get them that championship.
Joining Johnson were pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Neil Ramirez, Eric Jokisch, C.J. Edwards, Armando Rivero and Arodys Vizcaino; outfielders Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Rubi Silva; and infielders Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Christian Villanueva, Mike Olt and Arismendy Alcantara. Eleven of the players rank among the Cubs' top 20 prospects, according to MLB.com. Hendricks, who completed his economics degree at Dartmouth, was the Cubs' 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
The week-long program includes drills, work with new hitting coach Bill Mueller, a hospital visit and seminars and will end with the Cubs Convention this weekend. The guest speakers included Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, manager Rick Renteria and former player Rick Sutcliffe.
"It prepares us for what's coming," Almora said. "They're teaching us about what to get ready for, what to expect, what they expect from us. We're taking it to heart, we're taking notes. We're in this for the long run."
On Wednesday, the players practiced at a fieldhouse near Northwestern University's Ryan Stadium. Junior Lake, who is expected to be one of the Cubs' Opening Day outfielders, also took part.
Several of the players were still excited after seeing their first pro hockey game even if they weren't sure what was happening on the ice.
"Whenever [the fans] cheered, I cheered," Almora said.
"We want to expose them to the market, to the city," said Jason McLeod, senior vice president of scouting and player development. "we want them to see what the fans are like here and what a great sports town it is."
Edwards took advantage of the outing to continue his program. The Cubs want the right-hander to add some weight to his skinny 6-foot 2-inch frame. He's listed at 155 pounds, looks thinner, and is trying to gain another 20 to 25 pounds.
"Anything I see, I eat," Edwards said. "Last night at the hockey game, I had an Italian sausage, cheese fries, Sprite, Coke and a hot dog with cheese on it."
The Cubs nutritionist may have a chat with Edwards.
Of course, all Cubs fans want to know is when the prospects -- especially the core four of Baez, Almora, Soler and Bryant -- will be playing at Wrigley Field and not just attending lectures.
"Ultimately, it comes down to them," said McLeod, who won't put a timetable on any of the kids. "They're going to let us know when they're ready. They have to go out and perform, they have to go out and meet some of the things we've outlined in their individual player plans and that's been a theme this week. They know that and they recognize it.
"We're not going to rush them up just to pat ourselves on the back and say, 'Hey, look, we drafted the right guy,' or 'We traded for the right guy,'" McLeod said. "We're in this for the right reasons and for the long haul. We feel really good about this group and the players who are here plus other guys who aren't here right now. We're taking it year by year but we have a plan in place and the guys are feeling really good about it."
The players know fans are impatient.
"That's not up to me to decide," Bryant said about when he'll get to the big leagues. "I have confidence in myself to go out there every day and play as hard as I can and that's all I can do right now."
Baez, named the Cubs' Minor League Player of the Year in 2013, has heard the fans clamoring for him to move up quickly. McLeod repeated that the highly touted shortstop will open the 2014 season at Triple-A Iowa.
"[Fans] don't decide what [the front office is] going to do with us," Baez said. "We just have to wait. ... I'm just trying to make it to the big leagues."
"As soon as possible," Baez said.
On Wednesday, the players met Renteria, who gave a passionate speech.
"From the day I got drafted, I've said this team and this organization is a family, and Rick, it seems like he just fits in," Almora said of the new Cubs manager, who told the players he'll be there for them but also that they need to be accountable.
All of the prospects shrugged off any notion that they feel pressure to be the ones to deliver the first World Series to Wrigley Field and the first for the Cubs since 1908.
"There's no pressure," Bryant said. "Baseball's a fun game. If you let pressure creep in, then you're not having fun, and that's why I play the game [to have fun]."
And to get a chance to see the defending Stanley Cup champions. Lake admitted he didn't know much about hockey but he got the message.
"The most impressive part is how the fans are so invested in every inning, every pitch, and they're like that in every sport," Lake said. "It makes you as an athlete want to work harder so you can bring a championship home for the fans."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.