It always feels great when baseball returns. The Cubs played their first spring training game yesterday against the Diamondbacks. Shark got the “start” (2 innings) against Bronson Arroyo. There wasn’t much insight to be gained from the action on the field – since it’s the first game, guys were in and out of the game very quickly – even the broadcasters were having a hard time keeping up. Starlin Castro looked great in his 2 at-bats, smoking a line-drive double to right center in his second at-bat. Mike Olt did nothing with his two at-bats, and the big-time prospects didn’t make it into the game, so we’ll have to wait for Baez-Bryant-Soler-Almora highlights.

Rick Renteria did his first in-game interview as Cubs manager. I know those things are always sort of awkward (the manager is trying to pay attention to the game while speaking to the broadcasters), and I know Rick was probably a little nervous doing this for the first time, but man, is that guy LOW KEY. That’s not a bad thing, but I think I nodded off 3 times when he was speaking (the content – the most important part – was just fine).

This was the first game in the brand new Cubs park in Mesa. I have to admit, even though it’s a corporate, suburban nightmare simulacrum of Wrigley, it looked pretty fun. This game set the Cactus league record for attendance at over 14,000. The dimensions of the outfield walls are a replica of Wrigley (the walls are moved back a few feet to compensate for the thinner, drier air of AZ), and the grandstands have that Wrigley look as well (there’s even replica brick behind home plate). That’s where the similarities end, however. The player facilities at this new park are state-of-the-art. The training facilities, weight room, batting cages, video rooms, theatre, etc. are amazing. It’s going to be a real downer for the players to leave those facilities and return to the horrendous  player facilities in Chicago. I suppose we’re getting a taste of what the Wrigley facilities could be if the renovations ever begin.

The most interesting part of the WGN broadcast was surely the interview with Theo Epstein. There are so many great quotes that make me feel good about the future of the team:

  • “You want wave after wave of prospects. When these kids come up to the big-league level, you want another wave that’s knocking at the door in the high minors. You want to avoid a gap. One bad draft can set an organization back for years because it creates a vacuum, and you often have to fill that vacuum from a position of desperation from outside the organization, and you can make mistakes that way.”
  • “We attack [pitching depth] with volume through the draft every year, and we try to get an arm back in every deal we make.”
  • When asked about the timeline of prospects coming up to the minors: “When people ask me, ‘when is player X gonna get here,’ I try to shift the question from ‘when’ to ‘how.’ How is he gonna get here? We don’t focus on timing as much as we do getting the player as fully developed as possible in the minor leagues. Our goal is to develop each prospect to their maximum potential physically, mentally, and fundamentally. We have individualized development plans for each player, they have them in writing, they sign off on them, they contribute to them. So when we talk about what it will take to get to the big leagues, we point them back to the plan. Here are your weaknesses physically, here are your weaknesses fundamentally, here are your weaknesses mentally, and here’s a plan to get better in those areas. When they turn those weaknesses into strengths, that’s when they’re ready for the big leagues. It’s not a question of time, it’s rounding out their development. You only get one chance to develop a player in the minor leagues – you can do an awful lot of damage by calling a player up too early.” This is my absolute favorite quote. I love the emphasis on a player’s accountability and ownership of their own development. I love that they sign a written copy of their own development plan. As a teacher, I always try to emphasize process with my students, so I’m thrilled to hear Theo speak about “how” over “when.” You can argue the merits of Theo’s plan, but you certainly can’t argue that he doesn’t have one.
  • Good news for those that have lamented the bullpen woes of late: “We’re pretty excited about the power arms we have now [in the bullpen]. We have plenty of depth in the bullpen this year, we’ll have two left handers, some more power arms with good breaking stuff, some swing-and-miss stuff. Knock on wood, but we have a chance to get off on the right foot with the pen this year. The last couple of years, the pen has cost us early, and it has a chance to be a strength for us out of the gate this year.”

I’m excited to finally have on-the-field action to write about, and I’m looking forward to our discussion from now until October. Hey, if you haven’t checked out the VFTB podcast, give us a try. You can subscribe to us on iTunes, where we always appreciate your ratings and reviews. We’d also love to receive your questions for our mailbag segment.

Until the podcast Monday night, have a great weekend, Cubs fans!

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Sean Powell is a music education professor currently based in Georgia. He is also a co-host of VFTB Radio. He started following the Cubs in the 1985 season, growing up on WGN after-school broadcasts. Connect with Sean on Twitter @powell_sean or E-mail.