Just when it looked like the Cubs’ minor league system might be able to count on a return to some sense of normal after two years of alternate sites, pandemic protocols and a freakishly high number of injuries in 2021, along comes a lockout by MLB.
Among other things, it means all of the Cubs’ sprawling spring training facility belongs to the minor-league side of camp for now and that the system’s non-roster players invited to big-league camp — such as top prospect Brennen Davis — are in camp despite no signs of Willson Contreras, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Heyward or any of the other big-league guys.
But at least the work, the timeline and the Arizona landscape offers normalcy as minor-league camp officially opens this week, right?
Normal is back in play?
“I wouldn’t say it feels normal,” the Cubs’ first-year farm director, Jared Banner, said. “Life over the past few years has changed a bit. We’re just focused on the on-field work daily. We’re just chasing our goals every day.”
Normal or not normal, fans heading to Arizona for spring training figure to at least be able to get a look at the majority of intriguing players in an organization undergoing its second major-league reboot in a decade.
If anything, that fact alone puts the minor-league operation under scrutiny, if not a degree of pressure, to produce the next Kris Bryant-Javy Báez-Anthony Rizzo core after all those World Series-winning All-Stars were traded in July for many of the more intriguing names on the Cubs’ practice fields this week.
“This is baseball and this is Chicago so there’s always some pressure,” Banner said, “but our focus is putting in good processes, good infrastructure, investing in our players and the resources that they need and just making it a good place to develop.
“That’s our only focus. We can’t get caught up in some of the outside noise.”
Banner, with player development credentials tracing back a decade through the Red Sox and Mets, has known only a COVID-19 baseball world, minor-league contraction and system-wide injury issues since joining the organization ahead of the 2020 season.
But that’s no different than 2020 first-round draft picks such as shortstop Ed Howard and outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, whose first summer of pro ball was canceled by the pandemic and who both dealt with injuries last season — Crow-Armstrong the more serious, with a shoulder injury that wiped out most of his season.
Both are back strong this spring, along with other healed-up players such as shortstop Luis Vazquez and pitcher Kohl Franklin — the latter an especially key component for a Cubs team that might finally be on the verge of developing a pitching pipeline for the first time in more than a decade. Maybe.
And whether Cubs’ player development officials can agree on how normal things are, they at least agree on this year’s priorities for the system in 2022.
“The first thing that comes to mind is just health. I just want these guys to play a full season and have the experiences that come with that,” said Banner’s predecessor Matt Dorey, who took over as vice president for player personnel after Jason McLeod left the Cubs over the winter.
“So No. 1, our goal is to keep guys healthy and on the field and allow them to develop without trying to battle through nagging injuries or even injuries that sideline them for four to six weeks,” Dorey added. “And I think we’ve put in a plan that should help that and to get guys prepared earlier. Having [a weeks-long, pre-spring] mini camp hopefully takes care of a lot of the soft-tissue injuries that we had last year.”
And No. 2?
That’s easy. Maybe even obvious.
“The pitching just taking another step forward,” Dorey said. “I think we’ve seen guys’ stuff tick up last year. We had a lot of really encouraging signs with that reliever group [that reached the majors]. But I think this group of starters that we think really highly of and think they have all the ability — really watching that group grow and mature. …”
Pitchers such as 2021 sensation DJ Herz, who excelled at two levels last season and should get his shot in the upper tiers of the system this year. And Caleb Kilian, who was acquired from the Giants in the Bryant trade before playing a starring role during the Arizona Fall League. And Ryan Jensen, the Cubs’ first-round pick in 2019 with a big personality and a bigger competitive streak — who closed out 2021 with a strong four-start run at Double-A.
“Whether they impact the major leagues this year,” Dorey said, “just seeing a 2023 season with several homegrown prospects at the upper levels in our rotations, that really is my goal.”
Banner praised pitching infrastructure boss Craig Breslow for an overall program that has him optimistic that will happen — then circled back to the top focus in the system.
“Being healthy is going to be really important to us,” Banner said. “That’s not always something that we can control. But that is something that we’ve put a lot of time and research into, something we’ll be paying a lot of attention to.”