MESA, Ariz. -- To say the first few weeks of spring training for the Chicago Cubs have been interesting would be an understatement. That was before actor Will Ferrell donned a uniform, played first base for the Cubs and jokingly berated young Addison Russell while acting as third-base coach during Thursday's game against the Los Angeles Angels. At least it was for a good cause.
For a while this month, it looked as if it might be the same old Cubs. Sloppy play on the diamond led to an 0-6-1 start to Joe Maddon's managerial tenure -- but a stern talking-to about fundamentals by the mad scientist did the trick, and that very day the Cubs won their first game. Not that winning or losing in the spring matters, but how you play the game does, and Maddon stressed just that.
There have been two signature moments this spring, and both occurred in a span of 24 hours. One was Maddon's semi-rant Wednesday about his team making way too many mental mistakes -- in the field and on the basepaths. The other occurred the previous day, when Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant went back-to-back-to-back against the Cleveland Indians. That's one you'll always remember, particularly if all three make it big in the majors.
I would be shocked if Bryant isn't a star in a short time. After Thursday's game, he leads all hitters in Arizona or Florida in home runs, with four in just 14 at-bats. What a surprise, right? The 23-year-old has thrown a few balls away at third base, so management can always fall back on his defense if/when they send him down to the minors next month. And that's nothing to lose sleep over -- he'll be here soon enough, and when he arrives, the Cubs have an instant star on their hands. Nothing fazes the kid, not even all this hype.
Soler, meanwhile, looks like a beast. He has the potential to be an on-base machine -- he'll take some walks and yet is able to muscle balls over the infield or break some bats and earn extra hits because of his strength. All the outfielder needs to do is stay healthy.
Infielder Baez is definitely having his good moments. Some viewed a recent blog post on Baez as harsh, but it wasn't meant to be. It was meant as a reality check, and sometimes, reality is harsh. Production is what counts from here on out -- and I mean starting in April. Yes, the 22-year-old Baez is making some changes to his mechanics, but his approach still needs work. If both need to be addressed in the minors, so be it. If he’s taking the "two steps forward, one step back" path, then it will come in time. If he's stuck in neutral, that's a different story. Maybe he does figure it out now, but we just can't be as sure about Baez as we are about Bryant or Soler. I'd like to see him swing at strikes first and foremost. Let's leave it at that and see how things play out.
Back to Maddon.
It’s been an interesting experience seeing how he operates, and now I understand why players such as David Ross or Jon Lester say it was always difficult to face a Maddon-coached team. He pushes the envelope, maximizes wherever he can and forces the opponent back on its heels. I have no doubt his team took his aggressive instructions to heart at the beginning of camp, which led to all sorts of baserunning blunders during the first week of Cactus League play. Maddon told them not to worry about mistakes and, well, they didn't. But now, he's already started to rein his players in a little until they get used to the right way to do things. When the approach comes together, it will put the requisite pressure on the opponent. I absolutely love Maddon's obsession with baserunning -- such an underrated aspect of the game.
Bigger picture, Maddon is a master of the psychological part of managing. He's loved by his players because he has few rules. But the reality is, the one rule he has -- Respect 90 -- covers a whole lot of things. It's not just about running hard to first base; it's about playing the game the right way from top to bottom. The rules he doesn't have -- such as a dress code or early arrival to the ballpark -- make total sense and have nothing to do with winning or losing. All of this makes the players feel as if they're not being controlled. Who cares what a team wears on a chartered flight? I believe the players will buy what Maddon is selling sooner because he's set this vibe in camp.
As for my job? Business president Crane Kenney should sell tickets to Maddon's daily media briefings. The Cubs would make a lot of money. If you wanted a down-to-earth manager, you have one. I mean, he's giving plot updates on reruns of "The Office." He'll talk fishing and music, wine and schools. Cub University provided some fodder for a couple of days, and he'll talk baseball until every last reporter is done asking questions. And no question is viewed as a challenge to his knowledge. How could it be? The man knows the game. Will everything work once the team gets to Chicago? That remains to be seen. No amount of charisma will make up for it if the Cubs aren't winning when they should be. The charm lasts only so long, but right now, Maddon is as advertised.
On the field, several players beside the usual group have stood out. It's only spring, so take things with a grain of salt. Russell looks so smooth at shortstop as well as at the plate it's hard not to see him at that position in the coming years. The Cubs would not give him up to the Philadelphia Phillies for Cole Hamels, according to league sources, so that tells you how they feel about him. Mike Olt looks like he did last spring: a professional hitter. And he claims it's different this time around. According to him, last March -- even when having success -- he was basically getting lucky. This time, he has a plan at the plate, he claims. So let's play the game. What if Olt wins the third-base job? Does he get a two-to-four-week tryout before Bryant is called up? Olt is by far the best defensive third baseman on the team, so would that then push Bryant to the outfield? Bryant is going to need to take some reps out there. Expect that to happen as this month continues. Like the Cubs would tell you, it's a good problem to have. But let's see if Olt keeps it up.
Meanwhile, it's hard to find fault with anything Kyle Schwarber or Albert Almora have done. Maybe they're facing easier pitching, or maybe they're not being taken seriously when pinch hitting late in the game, but they give professional at-bats as well. As with Olt, Almora said he has a plan this time around -- as opposed to last spring, when the outfielder just wanted to "ambush" the pitcher. And his instincts in center are top notch. Considering his personal issues -- his father was battling cancer during last season -- Almora probably deserves another chance after falling in many prospect rankings.
It might sound as though I'm applauding every young player the Cubs have in camp, but remember, this is the top-ranked farm system for a reason. There's another thing that stands out: the maturity of the organization's young players. That’s not a cliché or a myth. That's real, and it's by design. The peak age of players is coming down in baseball, which means the younger they are when thrust onto the playing field, the more mature they need to be. Cubs president Theo Epstein knows this -- it's his market advantage right now. As a side note, this might be one of the best "interview" teams Chicago has seen in a long time. From Miguel Montero -- the catcher will almost certainly be the first to lose it if things go bad -- to Dexter Fowler to Ross to newcomer Phil Coke, we won't be hard-pressed to find a good quote.
It's a good thing that I've gone this long and haven't even mentioned Anthony Rizzo or Starlin Castro. Remember when they were in every headline, every lead paragraph? Now they are just part of the team -- though Rizzo is the unquestioned leader of this group. And these developments could be the best thing to happen to Castro. Let him go about his business. Let's see what he can do finally being on a good team.
As for Lester, I've never seen a more serious athlete. It might be exactly what the Cubs need. You can’t lead him into a cliché or take him off message. The 31-year-old lefty wants to win and expects everyone around him to pull their weight.
Question: "Should the young players be given some time?"
Lester: "Nope. Time to grow up."
As for the rest of spring training, decisions have to be made with catcher Welington Castillo and with pitchers Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and Tsuyoshi Wada. It's been quiet on the trade front, but noise will get louder as Opening Day approaches. If scouts are paying attention, they would have seen an excellent game Tuesday from Castillo. Lost in the back-to-back-to-backs was his home run, single and throwing out two runners. Many fans probably think Castillo, rather than Ross, is the catcher who should be platooned with the left-handed-hitting Montero -- and maybe he should be -- but there are so few lefty starters it might be a waste of his talent. And the Cubs like what Ross brings to the clubhouse. It can't be measured in the box score. The front office should still max out on a deal for Castillo because there is so little good catching out there.
The Hamels trade talk, meanwhile, should pick up again. Hamels said publicly at the beginning of camp he wanted to be moved, and the Phillies will need to accommodate him at some point. Castillo, Wood and a combination of young players not named Soler, Bryant or Russell has to be a good starting point if Philadelphia finally lowers its demands. Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Almora shouldn't be off limits. If I'm Philly, though, I ask for Kyle Hendricks. Wood's stuff might not work as well in Citizens Bank Park. And this isn't the Cubs getting rid of their trash. Castillo is a legit starter. Wood, if the Phillies would take him, is one year removed from being an All-Star. Yes, the hitters are second tier compared to the Cubs' top guys, but they're not bad. And the Phillies can't have Schwarber, either -- Epstein would nix that quickly. And remember: Come next offseason, the Cubs will be able to get a top-of-the-line pitcher for nothing but money, so they aren't going to be forced into anything.
So there's plenty to look forward to as the Cubs head toward April. There might not be any bleachers to sit in at Wrigley Field, but there will be meaningful games to be played -- something we haven't said about that ballpark in quite a while. After their Las Vegas trip this weekend, the Cubs will start to trim down the roster and Maddon can begin to fine-tune his lineup. Now that he's had some time to evaluate, he can hone in on his message and sharpen his players for the grind. Where it will end this season is anyone's guess, but it's been an interesting start.