Upon entering manager Jimmy Gonzalez’s office on South Bend media day, two familiar sights greeted the media: his Bible perched atop his desk and a set up chess board. “I’m always looking for a match” exclaimed the third year manager, not clarifying whether that was theologically or strategically. But the challenges Gonzalez will face this season are beyond the typical tactical and developmental issues that confront a manager at the first full season level of professional baseball. Gonzalez will also have to contend with high expectations.
The Cubs’ player development department bestowed the South Bend roster with three players ranked in the teams’ Top Twenty prospects, including Top Ten player in RHP Dylan Cease and OF DJ Wilson. In addition, three other players ranked in the organization’s top thirty are currently in extended spring training, biding their time and waiting for an opportunity to play in Northwest Indiana. With all that talent for the Cubs’ faithful to witness just about ninety miles away, the anticipation factor is ratcheted up a notch.
On top of all that, twenty members of the roster were a part of the 2016 Eugene Emeralds, a team that easily claimed the Northwest League title. The Emeralds finished with the league’s best pitching staff in an organization thirsty for a home grown pitching prospect, including Northwest League Pitcher of the Year Manuel Rondon. However, Rondon was already looking forward when the subject was brought up on the eve of his first start. “That is already behind me” said Rondon through interpreter Jonathan Mota, “I now have to come through and work on improving my game”.
Cease was likewise humble when addressing last season’s successes. “It is about process above results” said Cease. “I just expect to stay in the process and do as good as I can.”
One of the things having such a carryover from one roster to the next was the camaraderie that appears to have been built between the players. That was evident as Wilson came up in front of the media. Teammate Cease lurked behind the reporters, peering over their shoulders in an attempt to “stare down” Wilson as he tried to concentrate on his answers. For his part, Wilson seemed unperturbed, stating “we have great chemistry last year and it has gotten stronger throughout the spring”. Outfielder Kevonte Mitchell echoed Wilson’s sentiments, “it creates a great level of trust”.
In commenting on his group, Gonzalez focused on how the organization’s mental skills program will be a big plus in his players’ development. “It’s important to know that adversity is going to come…how are they going to handle it? You have to stay in the moment.” Pitching Coach Brian Lawrence also feels the same, noting that his pitchers “have never pitched meaningful innings in April before”.
As far as the nuts and bolts of how the team is going to be run, Lawrence reported that player development has scrapped the six man rotations that they have been running at the lower levels for a number of years in favor of a five man rotation with “piggyback” starters. “We found that our starters were having a difficult transition when going from Advanced-A to Double-A” said Lawrence, who also stated that pitchers would be on an eighty pitch limit and throw no more than thirty pitches in one inning.
On offense, Gonzalez likes the speed and athleticism the team brings. “They’re an exciting bunch of guys” said Gonzalez, “those speed guys create a spark and excitement”. The players also recognize their abilities, as Wilson exclaimed “I have good first step quickness” while Mitchell claimed “I bring energy to the team”.
Defensively, Gonzalez enjoys the versatility that the roster has. “I love having that as an option” said an animated Gonzalez, “it’s great for their development and gives them a rest”. The members of the South Bend outfield can all line up and any outfield position, while first baseman Chris Pieters can also play outfield. It the infield, Wladimir Galindo will line up at third and first base, with Isaac Paredes playing shortstop and third base while Yeiler Peguero and Zack Short will see time at third, short, and second base. Through coach Mota, Galindo said his goal was “to improve defensively” as Short felt his ability would “give me an opportunity to play a lot”.
With a long season on the horizon, South Bend stumbled a little out of the gate thanks, in part, to some fickle April weather that had them begin the year with a doubleheader on the road. Although they failed to score a run in their first three games, confidence seemed to be high as they S-Cubs went on the score twelve runs in the next two games, both wins. But it appears, at least for the time being, that the team is taking their lessons to heart, and staying in the moment.