Category: Spring Training

Ranking the Cactus League: James’ Top 10 Arizona Spring Training Parks

With Monday’s game between the San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox at Peoria Sports Complex, O have officially visited every spring training park in the Cactus League. That includes one that is no longer in use (Phoenix Municipal Stadium), but I’ve been to all 10 and have enjoyed my trip throughout the league.

With that in mind, I decided to rank my favorites in a completely arbitrary and non-objective way. None of these stadiums are particularly bad, and a lot of them are truly great, but I just went with my first instinct on every one of them, and here is how they shook out.

10 Maryvale Baseball Park –Milwaukee Brewers

It’s easy to pick on Maryvale because of its age, but the issues I had with it run deeper than that. There are way too many metal bleachers in the place, which get nice and toasty warm under the Arizona sunshine, and the traffic flow around the neighborhood is abysmal. Add to that the fact that it’s a sketchy neighborhood once the sun goes down (so you want to get the heck out of there as soon as the game ends), and it was pretty easy for me to put it at the bottom of the list.

9 Scottsdale Stadium – San Francisco Giants

There isn’t anything particularly wrong with Scottsdale. The neighborhood around the park is cool, with all sorts of shops and restaurants to choose from, and the ballpark is a nice place to watch a game. The problems I have with it are two-fold: one is that it’s a bear to get in and out of, and the other is that there isn’t anything particularly memorable about it. Tempe Diablo Stadium has the mountain alongside of it. Sloan Park has food trucks and little homages to Wrigley Field. Scottsdale doesn’t really have any of that.

8 Surprise Stadium –Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers

This park was a really nice one, and I have been to it several times to watch baseball at various levels (spring training, Arizona rookie league, and Arizona Fall League). The food is good, there’s plenty of shade, and the field is immaculate. The ONLY issue I have with this place is the location. It’s quite a haul off the 101 to get there, and the traffic on Bell Road as you head back east is simply appalling.

7 Goodyear Baseball Park – Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians

Goodyear also gets dinged for its location, but at least it’s conveniently located off a highway, as you just have to go westbound on Interstate 10 to get there. The food at the ballpark was delicious, and even though it was relatively small compared to some of the other Cactus League parks, I found it very inviting and nice when I went.

6 Tempe Diablo Stadium – Los Angeles Angels

This park is a little odd, since it doesn’t have outfield berm seating all around and it is a little bit of a drive if you’re heading out of downtown Phoenix, but there is plenty to like about it. There is a lot of character in the park, including the aforementioned mountain beyond left field, and the food choices are awesome. Any park that includes the barbeque stylings of Honey Bear is aces in my book.

5 HoHoKam Stadium – Oakland Athletics

If the A’s still played at the Muni, it’d be dead last. If the team hadn’t renovated the park after the Chicago Cubs moved out, it would have been near the bottom, if not last place. The changes they’ve made to the park, the amenities they’ve brought in, and the food that they serve have all conspired to lift the park up this list, and it definitely doesn’t feel like Sloan Park’s little brother from down the street in Mesa.

4 Camelback Ranch – Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers

Camelback is a baseball paradise, with fields stretching out as far as the eye can see and a seating bowl that makes it feel like every seat is on top of the action. There’s plenty to do and see in the ballpark as well, and the only quibble that I have about the place is the parking situation. If you park in the south lot, it feels like you’re walking all the way back to Chicago before you arrive at the park.

3 Peoria Sports Complex – San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners

This park doesn’t have much shade, but other than that (which is actually overcome by the fact they offer free sunscreen dispensers in the bathrooms), this place is great. The seats have all been angled back toward the field thanks to a recent renovation, and the food is out of this world. Deep-fried Twinkies and jumbo hot dogs slathered in pulled pork and coleslaw? Yes please.

2 Salt River Fields at Talking Stick – Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies

When this park opened, baseball fans rejoiced because it meant that the Cactus League was closer together than ever before (sorry Tucson). What fans didn’t realize is that the park would set a whole new standard for opulence and awesomeness. The place honestly feels like a big league park, but without losing the closeness and intimacy of a spring training facility. It’s a weird mix that doesn’t sound like it exists, but it really does.

1 Sloan Park – Chicago Cubs

The top spot on this list can honestly go to any of the top three stadiums I have listed, but Sloan Park is a worthy champion. Food trucks beyond the right field wall? Awesome. Subtle homages to Wrigley Field, from the clock atop the scoreboard to the facing on the press box to the light fixtures? Awesome. A huge seating capacity that fills up just about every time the North Siders take the field? Awesome.

Spring training is supposed to be about relaxing and watching some baseball, with some fun touristy elements as well. Sloan Park delivers all of that, and the Cubs have set a new standard for fun with this stadium.

 

Boras, Epstein Square Off Over Bryant’s Big League Debut

The Chicago Cubs have a decision on their hands as they decide what to do with third baseman Kris Bryant after spring training, but on Tuesday afternoon, it became clear that a key member of Bryant’s camp has ideas on what the North Siders should do.

“Cubs ownership has a choice,” Bryant’s agent Scott Boras told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. “Are they going to present to their market that they are trying to win? Tom Ricketts said they were all about winning.”

Boras clearly wants Bryant to be up with the Cubs when camp breaks in early April, and his motives likely have more to do with his client’s major league service clock (if Bryant opens the year with the Cubs, the team would have to spend options to send him back to the minors if they chose to do so, and it would mean that Bryant would likely become a free agent after the 2020 season, not the 2021 campaign) than the Cubs’ chances of winning a World Series.

Kris Bryant Stands In vs. Indians

Kris Bryant Stands In vs. Indians

Cubs president Theo Epstein had a blunt response to Boras, saying that “comments from agents, media members, and anybody outside our organization will be ignored.”

To be blunt, there is only one correct choice for the Cubs to make here: starting Bryant in the minors. Bringing him up with the team out of Mesa would give the early season games a bit of extra juice, but at what cost? Getting Bryant 10 or 11 extra games this season at the expense of losing an entire year of relatively cheap service time during the prime of his career?

This isn’t even a debate, but Boras’ desire to frame this as a matter of the Cubs choosing to deliberately shoot themselves in the foot competitively shouldn’t be taken as gospel. He’s merely an agent trying to get his client a bigger payday sooner rather than later, and fans would be smart not to buy into his comments.

Maddon Suggests Cubs Could Carry Three Catchers Into Season

The Chicago Cubs have made some big roster moves over the course of the offseason, but with the acquisitions of Miguel Montero and David Ross to bolster their catcher position, the big question is what they plan to do with Welington Castillo.

Castillo, who hit 13 home runs and drove in 46 RBI for the Cubs last season, isn’t the best catcher defensively behind the plate, and that coupled with his youth led the Cubs to act this winter as they brought aboard a couple of veterans with leadership ability and defensive skill.

Sloan Park 3-11

To his credit, Castillo has been playing well so far during the Cactus League season. In 19 at-bats, he has racked up seven hits, four runs scored, clubbed a home run, and driven in five RBI. With those numbers, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Cubs try to trade him to another team, but manager Joe Maddon isn’t shying away from the idea of carrying three catchers when the team breaks camp in early April:

Muskat also brought up a good point about the versatility that players like Arismendy Alcantara (who has been seeing time at second base and in center field this spring, and could also potentially fill in at third base in a pinch) and Tommy La Stella (who has been squaring the ball up nicely at the plate and can play several infield positions) bring to the table, and how that could potentially allow the Cubs to carry three catchers out of Cactus League play.

Even with that being the case though, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs holding onto all three catchers. Ross is probably going to catch quite a bit when Jon Lester is toeing the slab (although all three catchers have caught him so far this spring), and Montero wasn’t brought aboard to be a platoon guy. That leaves Castillo as the odd man out, and no matter how much the Cubs say that they are looking into keeping three catchers on their roster, it just feels like they’re trying to maintain a higher trade value for a guy who could be a lucrative asset as catchers with other teams succumb to injuries this spring.

Quintana, White Sox Take on the Dodgers in Spring Training Opener

Under the blue skies at Camelback Ranch in Arizona the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are getting ready to toss the first pitches in the 2015 spring training season for both teams.

Jose Quintana will take the mound for the north side against the stout Dodgers lineup that features Jimmy Rollins and Carl Crawford at the top of the lineup and a healthy mix of lefties and righties throughout the lineup. The mix in the lineup will give Quintana an excellent chance to work on whatever he needs to for hitters on both sides.

A couple players to keep an eye on during the game would be how Gordon Beckham does at third base and Carlos Sanchez at second base,  Both players are looking to make a statement this spring, going forward it’ll be interesting to see how both positions play out in the next month.

Another thing to watch out for is the lineup in general for the White Sox.  Throughout the offsesason it was expected that the lineup would feature Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Adam LaRoche, Avisail Garcia, and Alexei Ramirez as the order of the top six.  It’ll be interesting to see if this lineup will prosper as is or how Manager Robin Ventura might tweak the lineup throughout the spring to see what different combinations are the most successful since a majority of the positions are already set.

The rest of the week will see the south side ball club take on the Dodgers again tomorrow, then will go to the Padres at , come back to Camelback Ranch to take on the Mariners Saturday and will go to the Athletics on Sunday.  Thursday, Friday and Saturday’s games are at 2:05 Central Time and Sunday’s game will be at 3:05 Central Time.

Chicago White Sox Positional Preview: Middle Infield

While shortstop and second base are next to each other on the diamond, the statuses of both positions for the Chicago White Sox couldn’t be further apart. One is emphatically decided for at least one more season, and the other has several options for manager Robin Ventura to pick from.

The locked in position is shortstop. 33-year old Alexei Ramirez came out of spring training last season on fire. March and April are traditionally Ramirez’s weakest months, but last season he figured out something early and hit a combined .329 in those months. In fact, he was so hot at times, longtime Sox announcer Ken “Hawk” Harrelson said that Ramirez was the same level shortstop and even better than Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

Not long after those proclamations were made Ramirez dropped off. He would go onto hit below .235 three out of the last four-plus months. A couple of categories that he was successful and an asset in to the club were with men on base and with runners in scoring position. He hit .295 and .305 respectively in those categories and was one of the reasons the Sox offense showed life at different times throughout the seasons.

While Ramirez is the guy now, one prospect to keep an eye on for the future at the position is Tim Anderson. The 21-year old hit a .301 batting average in rookie ball, high-A and double-A last season. WhiteSox.com rates Anderson as the number two prospect in the organization and number 81 overall amongst all prospects in the league. According to the site he grades at an above average level in his bat, arm and fielding while being well above average running.

Second base is a much different matter for the club. Carlos Sanchez at the position once they traded Gordon Beckham towards the end of August. Despite that chance last year, he currently resides in second place on the depth chart.  The 23-year old got the chance to play in 28 games last season and hit for a .250 average. He also struck out 25 times in his 100 at-bats while supplying very little power.

Unless he blows the minds of the management with his play the likelihood of him making the roster as the starter is small, and since they are already deep with utility players he’ll probably be sent to the minors.

The top spot on the depth chart is currently held by the White Sox top prospect at the position and fourth overall in the organization, Micah Johnson. It appears that Johnson has the inside track for the starting role as long as he puts in the work and has a solid spring.

Johnson put together a solid campaign in 2014. He managed a .294 batting average while only striking out 69 times in 419 at-bats in both double-A and triple-A. His batting average was actually right on par with his career average of a .297.

He also provides a speed threat on the bases. In 2013 Johnson stole 87 bases in 114 attempts between low-A, high-A, double-A, and Arizona fall ball. His speed is something the Sox have been missing on the base paths for a while now.

For the last several years the Sox seemed content with a base to base approach to running or making mistakes on the base paths that runs the team out of the inning. So if he is able to break camp with the big club, he could provide a spark at the bottom of the order ahead of leadoff hitter Adam Eaton.

Another person in the competition for the position is the formerly departed, but now returning, Beckham. He was signed as a utility player who could play all over the infield and that’s how the Sox plan to use him. He currently sits third on the depth chart at third base and second behind Alexei Ramirez at shortstop. So unless Johnson and Sanchez blow their chance at the position this spring, Beckham should remain as the reserve across the majority of the infield positions.

A couple other players fighting for playing time this season are Emilio Bonifacio and Leury Garcia. Bonifacio is set to split time at third base with Conor Gillaspie so the amount of time he’d see at the other positions should be limited. He also could potentially be used as a back-up outfielder in center as well.

Garcia will be fighting to break camp with the Sox. The 23-year old spent time at a wide variety of positions last season, including an inning on the mound in extra innings. His dismal year last season could play a role into the Sox managements decision if he has a mediocre spring training.

The Sox are deep with players at both positions. As Cactus League games begin, keep an eye on the race for second base because it could be a tight one down the stretch between the young guys and the veteran players.

Opinion: Negative Reaction to Jackson’s Comments Overblown

The Chicago Cubs bolstered the top of their rotation this offseason with the acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, but the back end of their rotation is still a big question mark, with several hurlers competing for the final spot in the five-man group.

One of those pitchers that will be competing for a job will apparently be Edwin Jackson, as manager Joe Maddon revealed on Friday that the pitcher will be stretched back out to compete as a starting pitcher. The last two years haven’t been kind to Jackson after he signed a four year deal with the club prior to the 2013 season. In those years, Jackson has a 14-33 record, a 5.58 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.54.

Last season was especially bad for Jackson, as he struggled through poor play, an inability to keep the ball in the yard (he gave up 1.2 home runs per nine innings, his worst number since he made eight starts for the 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers.

With those kinds of numbers, and with players like Travis Wood, Felix Doubront, Eric Jokisch, and Tsuyoshi Wada all competing for a spot, it’s going to be a tough slog for Jackson to crack the rotation, but he’s feeling confident even in spite of the obstacles in front of him.

“I’ve been just looking forward. I haven’t really looked back in the past too much,” he told MLB.com. “Those two years, they were what they were. I’ve been ready, getting in shape and ready to go.”

Jackson was also asked about what it was like to play under Maddon, who managed Jackson during his brief stop in Tampa Bay earlier in his career.

“It’s definitely cool having a good manager,” he told Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.

That last statement stirred up a bit of resentment on social media, as some fans took it as unwarranted criticism of the job that Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria have done in the past two years as Cubs manager. Most fans who criticized Jackson blasted him for being cruel about previous managers while seemingly glossing over his own failures on the mound for the Cubs.

That is one way to look at it, but it all feels a bit overhyped. Jackson has struggled with the Cubs, and there’s no way that he’s going to be guaranteed a roster spot even though the team is stretching him back out as a starter. He’s merely expressing confidence that he can win the job, knowing full well that there is an open competition for it.

As for the Maddon quote, Jackson is merely saying what everyone in the organization has said and inferred since Renteria was dumped and Joe was brought aboard. Maddon’s hire represents a shift in the focus of the Cubs away from competing to avoid the NL Central cellar to competing for a division title.

Part 1: Q&A With New Cubs Pregame Host Mark Grote

When the new season begins for the Chicago Cubs, there will be some big changes both on the field and in the broadcast booth, as the team moves from WGN Radio to WBBM for the new campaign.

As part of that transition, the team will have a new voice handling pregame and postgame duties on the radio, and that man will be Mark Grote. Before he slides into the chair for the first time, he sat down with us instead and talked about his new job, what he expects from the Cubs this season, and whether or not he thinks the team can win the World Series.

Part two of the conversation can be accessed here. 

Windy City Hardball: I have to go with the most obvious question first: what is the interview process like for a job like this? Did you have to pass a Cubs trivia test or anything crazy like that?

Mark Grote: My third gathering with Ron Gleason and Mitch Rosen stands out to me. I was asked to report to Ron’s office for a meeting with about ten minutes advanced notice, and no knowledge of the specific content. I was then sent into a production studio and told to do a few minutes of a Cubs pregame. Improvised. The way I would do it. Anything I wanted.

Beyond that, there was no ‘Cubs trivia test,’ per say. I was asked for my thoughts on the team and its players, and there was a natural flow of Cubs chatter throughout the sessions. The entire interview process was thorough and sincere. It was never interrogation style. Instead, (there was) a genuine curiosity of exactly how I would handle specific scenarios, and my philosophies of what a professional pre and post game should sound like.

WCH: Now that we’ve covered the “who,” let’s move to the “why.” What drew you to this job?

Grote: It sounds a bit flowery, but the Cubs truly drew me to sports and broadcasting in the first place. I was obsessed with the game, the players, and the announcers growing up. Jack Brickhouse, Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau, Harry Caray, Steve Stone, Dewayne Statts, and on and on. The broadcasters were just as important to me as what Jerry Martin would do on a typical day.

Beyond that, just from a pure broadcasting standpoint, it was a prime opportunity. The type of position that does not emerge frequently. My current full-time position as an anchor on the “Mully and Hanley” show on 670 the Score is an absolute blast because of the freedom those two allow me on their popular show, but I couldn’t resist making a play for the Cubs job.

WCH: Pat Hughes is making the trip over from WGN to WBBM, and that news has Cubs fans excited. Have you gotten to talk to Pat yet, and how excited are you to work with him?

Grote: Pat Hughes was the first person to call me when it was revealed that I had landed the job. What a thrill. It was funny, I told him, ‘Pat, I am just going to follow your lead, and play whatever role you and Ron Coomer need me to play during the broadcast.’ Pat’s response (in that great, syncopated Pat Hughes voice) was, ‘Oh no Mark. I want you to be YOU. Perhaps if the Cubs are leading the Mets 11-1 in the 7th, you can come on and do an impersonation or two.’

The key thing he told me is that we are going to have fun, and I do fun well. Hughes is an unbelievable play by play man. If you listen to him, you know he doesn’t miss things and that his recall is scary good.

Part 2: Q&A With New Cubs Pregame Host Mark Grote

In Part One of our conversation with new Chicago Cubs pre-and-postgame host Mark Grote, we discussed what the interview process was like, and what drew him to the job. In Part Two, we’ll discuss the on-field issues that the team will have to address in the coming year.

WCH: Now that we’ve covered the broadcast part of the equation, let’s talk a bit about the team. After seeing Javier Baez make his debut last season, what are your expectations for him in the new year?

Grote: Baez is that guy that took your breath away at times when he connected with that ferocious and wonderfully untamed swing, but the strikeouts are too much. I think the Cubs’ coaching staff has a very delicate task as it pertains to Baez. You don’t want to turn this guy into a doubles hitter, but striking out half the time is unacceptable. He could be a monster at Wrigley Field if he makes slight changes to his approach.

WCH: The other big prospect story with the Cubs concerns whether or not Kris Bryant will start the season at the big-league level. Do you think he’ll be on the team’s roster when they leave Mesa, or do you see him going back to triple-A?

Grote: I believe that Kris Bryant will be on the Cubs’ opening day roster IF he tears it up in spring training. I respect and understand the money clock, but there is a point where a baseball player becomes undeniable. Where the player means actual wins at the big league level now. And, if this is to be the next phase of the Cubs’ “rebuild,” they are going to have to act accordingly.

WCH: When he does make his way up here, do you see him staying at third base or shifting to the outfield?

Grote: I’d like to see him get a crack at third base. I realize his height is not ideal for the position, but it would be easy to rearrange pieces if necessary.

WCH: Out of the Cubs’ big offseason moves, which one do you think is the one that will make the biggest impact?

Grote: The answer is Jon Lester. Not just because of his immense skills, but because he allows the rest of the rotation to fall into place. He legitimizes things, as I like to say. Remember last year when everybody was asking if Jake Arrieta was a number one guy? No need for further inquiry.

A comfortable number two spot is where he can thrive. The jovial Jason Hammel seems tailor-made for the three, and where Lester really works his magic is with Kyle Hendricks, who was a pleasant surprise in his first year. Now he can continue to play it cool and perhaps take the next step without everybody EXPECTING him to take the next step.

It also puts Travis Wood in a perfect spot, and I do believe Wood will have a turnaround season (assuming he’s not traded).

WCH: What do you think this team’s biggest need is as they head to Mesa for spring training?

Grote: Who’s on third? If Kris Bryant doesn’t break camp, it’s everybody. Mike Olt? Tommy La Stella? Arismendy Alcantara? Steve Ontiveros?

Dexter Fowler smoothed out the outfield situation, but what about left field? My vote is to give Chris Coghlan a shot. The former rookie of the year was fantastically consistent last season. I really like him, and not every position has to be ‘Cubs super-prospect.’ Coghlan could be one of those guys who is just now figuring it out. It happens.

WCH: Outside of the big stars and hotshot prospects, which player do you see being a surprise for the team this year?

Grote: I already alluded to my faith in Chris Coghlan to be something real. The other I keep thinking that may be ready to pounce is Jason Motte. He had 42 saves in 2012, and Joe Maddon is uniquely qualified to make those bullpen guys jump.

WCH: There’s one last question that absolutely has to be asked: do you, Mark Grote, think that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015?

Grote: Let’s see. I was just named the Cubs pre and postgame host. I’m going to be on the team plane, and around these guys 24/7.

Um.

OF COURSE THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES IN 2015!!

The real answer is that I would not predict the Cubs to win the World Series this season, but there is life. Real life. What one can begin to predict again is good things. It is safe to go back into the water.

 

Chicago Cubs Position Previews: Second Base

As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).

We keep things rolling today with a look at the team’s options at second base.

The Starter:

The Cubs have a ton of options available to them at this position, but who the starter will end up being is up in the air. In all likelihood it is a two-horse race, with Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella going head to head for the job. Baez has plenty of upside and can hit the tar out of the baseball….when he makes contact. As for La Stella, his slash numbers were solid last season with the Atlanta Braves, and his plate discipline was a heck of a lot better than Baez’s.

Javier  Baez bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd.

Javier Baez bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd.

The problem with La Stella is that he provides literally nothing else if he isn’t getting on base. His power is nonexistent, and going into his second season in the bigs, pitchers are really going to start adjusting to him in the new year. Baez’s power upside is definitely something that could give him an edge in the battle, but if he struggles in the warm air in Arizona, then we could see a shift in thinking on the part of the Cubs.

Back-Ups:

Either Baez or La Stella could get the primary back-up job at second base (Baez could get a leg up for a roster spot since he can also fill in at shortstop, and potentially at third base in a pinch), but Arismendy Alcantara will also see plenty of time at the position. With Dexter Fowler in center field, Alcantara will be looked at as a utility guy extraordinaire, and he provides a nice insurance option in case Baez and La Stella both struggle out of the gate.

Arismendy  Alcantara warms up prior to September 3rd game vs. Brewers

Arismendy Alcantara warms up prior to September 3rd game vs. Brewers

Position Ranking:

The Cubs may have quite a few guys that can play the position, but we still have this spot ranked seventh out of the eight fielding spots. The questions about Baez’s plate discipline and about La Stella’s ability to continue hitting for average with the Cubs are serious concerns, and even though Alcantara does give the spot a bit of a boost, not having an established guy to man the position is a bit concerning.

Prospect Watch:

The Cubs’ plethora of middle infield prospects is an asset that many teams would love to emulate. Logan Watkins made 68 plate appearances for the Cubs in the 2014 season, putting up an OBP of .269, so he could start the season in the minors. Gleyber Torres is another guy to keep an eye on, with an insanely high ceiling and some great tools that he could use to jump higher on the team’s overall prospect rankings.

One other player to keep an eye on this season is Gioskar Amaya. He could be poised for a jump after playing well in high-A ball last year with Daytona, and he has some decent speed (14 stolen bases in 21 attempts in 2014) to go along with a solid OP of .379 a season ago.

Chicago Cubs Position Previews: First Base

As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).

We keep things going with the first base position.

The Starter:

There are only a couple of positions on the Cubs’ roster that are absolutely guaranteed, and their starting first baseman is one of them. Anthony Rizzo went from being a really solid player last season to being a potentially elite one, slugging 32 home runs, racking up an impressing 5.6 WARP and even garnering MVP votes for a last place team.

Perhaps more impressively than his play overall was the fact that he embraced his role as a leader on the team. With precious few veterans on the squad, Rizzo took it upon himself to be the voice of the team, and even though guys like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero will be helping out in that department this season, they aren’t likely to tell Rizzo to quiet down since he’s the guy who’s been around the longest on this particular team.

As for what we can expect from Rizzo in the upcoming year, it’s tough to say. Some advanced metrics suggest he’ll suffer a dip in his home run total but an increase in his RBI total (having guys like Dexter Fowler ahead of you in the lineup will help with that), but it wouldn’t be shocking to still see him hit around 30 home runs and drive in close to 90 runs. That would be a big boost to the Cubs’ offense, and with a guy like Kris Bryant potentially coming up midseason to help provide more protection, Rizzo could really take another step forward in the coming year.

Back-Ups:

First base is really the only position that the Cubs don’t have a certain back-up for at the moment, but guys like Mike Olt will likely be looked at to give Rizzo an occasional break. Calling up a guy like Dan Vogelbach is off the table (at least we’d assume it is), but other options like Tommy La Stella, Chris Coghlan and Arismendy Alcantara (who is likely shifting into a utility infielder role with Fowler taking over as the full-time center fielder), aren’t exactly palatable.

Position Rating:

Even though they aren’t blessed with a tremendous back-up, the Cubs’ first base situation is their second-best position in our eyes. Rizzo is one of the top first basemen in the National League, and with Joe Maddon at the helm and with the confidence of his breakout season still fueling him, the Cubs won’t have to worry about addressing this spot for a while.

Vogelbach bats vs. the Scottsdale Scorpions in AFL action.

Vogelbach bats vs. the Scottsdale Scorpions in AFL action.

Prospect Watch:

With tremendous depth at other positions, the Cubs have a really shallow group of true first basemen in their system. Vogelbach is just about the only guy that immediately comes to mind, and while he’s a solid prospect, he’s likely not a game changer at the position from a defensive standpoint. That’s not a deal-breaker, especially considering how good he is at the plate (he had an impressive .357 OBP and 45 extra base hits in 560 plate appearances in High-A Daytona last season), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a step or two up the ladder this season.