Weekend Update: One Week Until Cubs Pitchers and Catchers Report to Camp

While many will be focused on some large game in The Big Easy, as Matt Garza pointed out on Saturday it is one more week until the action starts in Mesa. Once the big game is over, a majority of the focus will shift to baseball with only a week before pitchers and catchers report to camps in Arizona and Florida.

The Cubs still have work to do as the focus shifts to Mesa and Fitch Park. The team has not announced the signing of Scott Hairston, or the corresponding roster move and a couple of players could still receive non-roster invites to camp based on the information supplied by Dale Sveum during the convention.

Dave McKay

The Cubs’ first base coach joined Bruce Levine and Fred Huebner during Talkin’ Baseball on Saturday morning. McKay is already in Mesa and spent last week working with some of the Cubs’ prospects, including Jorge Soler and Albert Almora.

Dave McKay liked what he saw from Soler and Almora and now understands why the organization is so high on both players. McKay called both players “impressive” but pointed out there is still work to be done.

When asked how he planned on teaching Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston how to play right field at Wrigley Field, McKay said the plan is to build up their defensive skills from the ground up. They will begin working with the players when camp begins, starting with the basics and going from there. The coaching staff is not going to assume players know how to do certain things this year, even the most fundamental parts of the game and they are going to stress to the players not to rest on what they think they know about the game. McKay said they would be starting from scratch due to the fact they believe every player can get better each year … and that goes for veterans as well as young players, age does not matter.

Dave McKay was very impressed with Dale Sveum last year. He admitted that it is hard to say it was a good year when a team loses 101 games but there were a lot of positives.

Kane County Cougars

The Cubs signed a two-year player development contract with the Kane County Cougars last Fall and the Cubs’ new Class-A affiliate should have an excellent team this spring. Several of the top prospects in the system, including Albert Almora and Dan Vogelbach, figure to be on the Cougars’ Opening Day roster. The Cougars hosted a ‘Meet the Cubs’ event on Friday night and more details were reported on Saturday.

Jason McLeod could not say which players would begin the season with the Cougars or how long each player would remain in Low-A ball. The Cubs do not want to announce their minor league rosters yet because it would not be fair to the players. According to a report from Bruce Miles, the Cubs’ brass would like the players to report to Spring Training and challenge each other.

While team results rarely paint a true picture on how a team’s minor league system is performing, McLeod said that winning is definitely part of a player’s development. The Cubs are not going to put winning games at the minor league level above a player’s development but it is important for them to find the right balance.

James Russell on MLB Network Radio

James Russell joined Grant Paulsen and Kevin Kennedy during MLB Roundtrip (MLB Network Radio/XM Radio) on Friday night and the Cubs lefty reliever discussed a number of topics.

Russell is coming off a career year and figures to play a large role in the Cubs’ pen during the upcoming season. As the roster is currently constructed, Russell is the only lefty going into Spring Training as a lock to begin the year in the bullpen.

Grant Paulsen: Right now, James Russell is on the line. Very excited to talk to with 27-year old Chicago Cub whose career dates back to 2010. Of course, in 2007 he was chosen in the 14th round and has become quite a success story. Last year he pitched in 77 games, 69 innings, struck out 55 batters. Hey James, it is Kevin and Grant here, how are you?

James Russell: How’s it going guys, appreciate ya’ll having me.

Kevin Kennedy: Thank you for joining us James, appreciate that. I love this about you. You came out of the University of Texas in ’07 and you pretty much touched every level before you got to the big leagues. Can you kinda back up? And you had three years, each getting better each year as time goes on. Can you touch on for you the importance of the minor leagues or was it important? Do you feel like you could have come right out and spend only a year or so in the minors?

JR: Everybody comes out once you get drafted a little cocky you know. And then (laughs) you kinda get your first piece of a little humble pie. I was fortunate enough. I kinda cruised through rookie ball. I signed a little late to go to short-season so they sent me to, I think Peoria, and just played a little bit there. And was pretty successful, then started off the next year in Daytona and was cruising the whole year. Finally, I ended up getting my little slice of humble pie in Double-A. I got hit around pretty good and ended up getting sent down. I started the year back in Double-A and that is where I ended up becoming a reliever. They sent me to Triple-A and I started succeeding and then next year made the team out of camp.

GP: You are a starting pitcher James in college and then initially professionally, as you mentioned. You carved out your niche now in the big leagues out of the bullpen. Where you did make five starts a year ago, 193 of your 198 games have come as a reliever, do you feel you as though have any urges to start again if that opportunity presents itself or would you say at this point in your career now you’re a reliever the rest of the way?

JR: I look at it as getting my time and just doing what I can do to help the team. I mean I still have that drive to want to start and to be one of those guys they hand the ball to every fifth day. But I mean it is not my time right now for the Chicago Cubs to do that. I embrace the bullpen. I love, I like being able to get into more games and being that guys that they want to go to whenever there is a tight situation. I like being out on the mound and pitching and trying to make those hitters look as stupid as I can (laughs).

KK: I love that. Well, you are obviously a huge value to a manager because last year you were in 77 games, so you are really talking almost every other day. I was kinda thinking as you were talking James about this because Kenny Rogers for us in 1994, actually ’93, we were on a caravan in Texas way back when and he called me and said you know Skip I’d like to try starting. I’ve been a reliever. Kenny would have 80 appearances and I knew he had the stuff with the curveball and great changeup, plenty of fastball so we did and the rest is history. He won 16 games. So, hey that drive that you have, I mean there could come a time when you call your skipper and say, you know in another year of so I’m ready to try it. Give me another opportunity to see how it goes, I don’t know. You’ve got it made either way, let me just put it that way, especially being left-handed.

JR: (laughs) I know I won’t have any problems making a career out of a bullpen but I still feel like I’m young enough to where I haven’t lost starting completely.

GP: Cubs’ lefty James Russell coming off a career year in 2012 … 3.25 ERA, the 77 appearances my partner just mentioned, 69 innings and just 67 hits. I am always curious. I remember having a conversation with Matt Thornton where he said obviously wins and loses but sometimes even ERA is an over-rated statistic when we talk about relievers. Because, as he put it when I was talking to him, if I have one bad outing, it takes me eight or nine really good ones to make up for that to just even the numbers back out. What numbers, as far as stats go on the back of your baseball card, for a relief pitcher, are a little overused and what are underused do you think?

JR: Yea, I mean I agree with the whole ERA deal. I try not to pay attention to it throughout the year. I mean, it’s a nice number to keep down low but coming out of the bullpen you get caught on one bad day and, I mean, things can snowball pretty quick. It makes it tough to come back from.

GP: What stats, when they are very good, are the most telling? Is there anything specific that you say if this reliever is very good in these couple of areas it means he is probably dominating?

JR: My whole deal is I like the whole appearances and innings. That shows that you’re taking the ball every day and they put you out there and you’re getting through your inning no matter what. It’s one thing coming in and getting a single guy out and all that, I mean guys make great careers out of it. I like being in there and having my own inning and I can make work of it.

KK: Let me ask you this, I know you been asked a thousand times if not more, but what did you take from your dad who was a great pitcher in the big leagues in his own right?

JR: He always taught me to just, I mean the work ethic and just never backing down and always being ready and wanting the ball. Whenever you are out there you want to be out there. He always said look at it as guys are trying to take food off your table (laughs). I always took that to heart. I always thought of that when things were not going good and whenever things are going good.

GP: James Russell has become one of the Cubs’ top relief pitchers in Chicago the past couple of seasons. I know just how difficult going 61 and 101 must have been on you guys last year. Curious if you can look into the crystal ball this year and provide Cubs’ fans listening for some reason for hope and for excitement. Why do you think you guys can have a renaissance-type season in the NL Central?

JR: We made some great moves this off-season. Schierholtz is a great guy that is a solid outfielder that is a great solid, left-handed bat. And we picked up Jackson, Feldman and Baker. I mean those are some quality arms. We gotta get Baker and Garza back to 100 percent, which from what I have heard is going right on schedule. I think everything is moving in the right direction. I mean even last year, granted we had 101 loses, which is a really (laughs) bad number to even think about but we showed some little glimmers of hope. I think that everything we’ve done this off-season is moving on in the right direction.

KK: Hey James, just one more from me. I’m just curious, the upside you see as a teammate of Anthony Rizzo?

JR: He’s just a standup guy. I mean for as young as he is and as much as he’s been through, he’s extremely mature and just knows how to handle himself, just knows how to handle the limelight he’s been put in. He can hardly even walk around Chicago without getting noticed. I couldn’t even imagine trying to go through that as a 22, 23-year old kid.

GP: Rizzo just 23 as you point out, 87 games this past season hit .285, 15 bolts to go along with his 48 runs batted in. Any big plans for you the next couple of weeks before you have to report or has the fun part of your off-season kinda winded down now?

JR: No, I actually just got back home to Colleyville, Texas and my parents are going to be having a Super Bowl party on Sunday so I plan on watching the game and hanging out with friends and family before everything gets up and running.

KK: You are in a nice area there. I was in Las Colinas myself back in the day and I will tell you, living there when I managed there James, it is a phenomenal area to live, isn’t it? I mean great people there. To this day I have great friends that still work for the Rangers and, by the way, the Cowboys too.

JR: I love it. I was just real fortunate to grow up in such a great area.

KK: No doubt.

GP: James, enjoy the time at home. Have a wonderful Super Bowl party with lots of calories being consumed hopefully (laughs) and many a touchdown being celebrated.

JR: It will make me work harder when I get out to Arizona (laughs).

KK: Good luck.

JR: Grant, Kevin, appreciate it, thanks for having me.

News and Notes

While Jorge Soler could start the season with the Kane County Cougars, according to a report from Bruce Miles, Soler will begin the year with the Daytona Cubs. Jason McLeod told Miles during the Rookie Development camp at Northwestern last month that Soler would begin the year with the D-Cubs because the Cubs are looking to push him.

According to Phil Rogers, Alfonso Soriano could become a hot commodity.

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Quote of the Day

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