Sunny, 60-degree weather greeted the Chicago Cubs for their first full-squad workout Monday.
The sprawling complex in Mesa, Ariz., afforded plenty of space for players to work out on multiple fields, including at Sloan Park, over a two-hour span. Pitchers worked on fielding their position and covering first base — the PFP drills serving as the universal sign that spring training is back. Four pitchers — right-handers Keegan Thompson, Trevor Megill and Michael Rucker and left-hander Jerry Vasto — had side sessions while Jake Arrieta and Craig Kimbrel threw in the Cubs’ pitch lab.
While some position players reported early, Monday represented David Ross’ first chance to address the entire squad. Among the topics he touched on, Ross explained the things that are important to him as a manager and set intentions on where the Cubs want to improve.
“I wanted them to know how I saw them, what I saw when I stare out at the group that’s on the field,” Ross said. “The group that was looking back at me, the ones that are in that locker room, what they’ve done in this game, what my mentality is when I when I look into their eyes and see them and how I see them outside of what maybe another narrative might be.”
Here are four things we learned Monday.
1. The big-league camp is missing a few players.
The Cubs are waiting on a handful of players to clear the intake process and be able to participate in workouts.
Ross estimated all but about four or five players are in camp. He didn’t offer names of who was absent Monday. He said it’s fluid, explaining some players were cleared halfway through the day. It’s dependent on when they can see doctors and receive the medical clearances needed to take the field.
This is the reality of trying to play with COVID-19 protocols in place. Challenges will continue for teams and players. Early camp delays might not be the only time this spring when players miss time because of protocols.
“It’s still a little bit of a process,” Ross said. “But it’s nice to see everybody, that’s for sure.”
It’s a little more difficult to get to know new teammates away from the field this spring, requiring more time and effort while at the complex. Anthony Rizzo feels a responsibility, and by extension the other veterans on the team, to welcome the newcomers — from Joc Pederson and memorable playoff games against the Los Angeles Dodgers to Zach Davies and Trevor Williams, who pitched in the division for the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, respectively.
“A lot of that history from being on the other side of the team that you hate, right? And vice versa,” Rizzo said. “So it’s just getting over that little awkward stage of ‘Hey, where you from? You got kids?’ And just getting down to the boys talking and chopping it up, and that’s the evolution of spring training.”
2. The now-former Mariners CEO’s comments amplified some of the unspoken things players already knew.
When video of Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather from a Zoom meeting earlier this month with a Seattle-area Rotary Club came to light Sunday, his comments highlighted troubling issues within baseball. Among the topics covered in his 45-minute conversation, Mather discussed suppressing prospects’ service time, waiting out the free-agent market until players scramble for deals and complaints about having to pay for an interpreter. Mather resigned Monday.
Understandably, the players union was not happy with Mather’s comments and released a statement that said, in part, it “is a highly disturbing yet critically important window into how players are genuinely viewed by management. Not just because of what was said, but also because it represents an unfiltered look into club thinking.”
Rizzo was not surprised by Mather’s thoughts on service time in particular.
“Being in this game, I mean, what he said is true to about 99.9%,” Rizzo said. “It happens, it’s just not out there and it’s not said, and there’s stories written on it. But there’s teams that manipulate service time all the time. You go back to so many different guys.
“And him coming out and saying that is pretty annoying and frustrating for us players, but it’s not like we don’t know anything. ... I’m happy it’s out there in public now and people are seeing that this is the way it is.”
MLB and the players union are already on a collision course for a contentious battle over the next collective bargaining agreement after the current deal expires at the end of this season. Mather’s comments are more fuel for the impending showdown.
Rizzo didn’t appreciate Mather’s annoyance at having to pay for an interpreter for former Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma. Rizzo lauded former teammate Yu Darvish and how he handled his media responsibilities. Darvish felt comfortable enough last year not to use an interpreter.
“A lot of guys, when you put the mic and camera in front of their face that aren’t used to talking a lot and not used to the English language, need that help, and it’s no knock on them,” Rizzo said. “A lot of guys speak really good English, but if they need the help, they need to help. So not having a (team) translator, you’re nuts.”
3. Live batting practice provided a first glimpse of Adbert Alzolay.
Live batting practice is a spring training staple. Pitchers have a chance to throw to hitters as they build up and can focus on certain pitches or locations in a more competitive simulation. Hitters get their first looks at game-speed pitches and a feel for their swing and timing. Ross just wants his pitchers to stay healthy and feel good on the mound.
“I’m not judging the guys’ live BP,” he said. “You want to see the action, you want to get the feedback, but all the cameras we have now and the machines that can give us the data will tell us where they’re at. But it’s not real competition.”
Adbert Alzolay was the only pitcher to throw live BP Monday, with David Bote, Nico Hoerner, Matt Duffy and Trent Giambrone hitting. Alzolay generated a couple of swings and misses and ground balls during his session. While these live BPs won’t factor into his assessment, the competition will start soon for the key camp position battles, which includes Alzolay fighting to secure a rotation role.
4. Phillip Ervin was claimed off waivers, reducing the outfield depth.
After Monday’s workout, the Cubs announced the Atlanta Braves claimed outfielder Phillip Ervin off waivers. The Cubs designated Ervin for assignment Saturday to make room for outfielder Jake Marisnick.
It’s a seemingly small roster move, subbing in one outfielder for another, but Ervin would have been a solid player to retain had the Cubs been able to get him through waivers.
Marisnick adds value with his defense and can be useful to Ross off the bench as a late-game defensive substitution, with most of his experience coming in center field. Ervin would have competed to be the fifth outfielder on the 26-man roster. The 28-year-old has been a platoon player during his four-year big-league career and showed good pop and on-base ability in 2019, when he logged his most playing time.
Ervin has a career .277/.352/.459 slash line against left-handed pitchers — particularly relevant to the Cubs given their struggles against lefties in 2020, when they ranked last in multiple offensive categories, including slugging percentage, weighted on-base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+).
Without Ervin vying for an outfield spot, non-roster invitees Michael Hermosillo and Nick Martini should get more opportunities to show they deserve to be on the roster.