With spring training finally in full swing and the start of baseball’s regular season less than a month away, the Chicago Cubs hope their new Cactus League digs in Mesa can aid in the development of their prospects and net them their first World Series victory in more than a century.
The process to get to Thursday’s grand opening game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Cubs Park — located near Rio Salado Parkway and Dobson Road — began in 2008 when the team told the Mesa government it had an offer to move to Naples, Fla. The sides reached an agreement to build a new spring training complex funded largely by a bond approved by voters — the city invested $99 million into the stadium — for the team.
Construction of the new park, as well as neighboring Riverview Park, concluded last winter with the largest spring training stadium in Arizona — it can fit approximately 15,000 fans — and a field that blends local aesthetics with a couple of features from the Cubs’ home in Chicago.
“We took the best of both worlds between Wrigley and the southwest,” said Cubs Vice President of Communications and Community Affairs Julian Green
From the city’s perspective, the reasons for keeping the Cubs in Mesa stemmed largely from the economics benefits the team provides, the $138 million in revenue during the season makes it what Mayor Scott Smith called the city’s “second Christmas.” Having Cubs Park also allowed the city to attract the Oakland A’s to the Cubs’ former home, Hohokam Stadium, with the A’s set to move in for the 2015 spring training season.
For the Cubs, the advantage of staying in Mesa is the result of the millions of dollars invested by Mesa and the team into the project. The final product features an indoor batting cage with 12 batting tunnels and a video room where players can review their form; an approximately 70,000 square foot player development facility with exercise equipment and pools for rehabilitation; and multiple fields for simulation games.
Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod said all of those amenities will help the Cubs develop the talented core of young players it has accumulated since the team flirted with a move to Florida a bit more than five years ago. Much of that has come over the last two years and under the guidance of Cubs President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer, who have rebuilt the farm system through the draft and a series of trades.
All of the efforts have turned what Baseball America considered a middle-of-the pack system into one McLeod says oscillates between second and fifth among MLB teams, depending on the publication. Among the core players include shortstop Javier Baez — MLB.com has him ranked as the seventh-best prospect in all of baseball — Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Mike Olt, Arodys Vizcaino and C.J Edwards.
Adding that talent is the first step, but developing it into the core that will help the Cubs’ be a future World Series contender and end the team’s 105-year championship drought — is a vital second step. It’s why McLeod said all of the tools offered by the new facility are so important for the team’s success with both physical training and means a little less tangible.
The former is the most easiest to quantify, as having whirlpools, weight equipment and the fields will contribute directly to the player improvements. McLeod said having multiple fields located close to one another provides the team’s coaches a direct means to evaluate development.
“Now we have so much more at our disposal we can use for the specific purposes of our players,” he said.
The secondary effects stem from an atmosphere that connects the 150 minor league players with the 60 players invited to the major league camp, as having them all congregate together can reduce that star struck feeling the less experienced players can have will around major leaguers. Plus, McLeod said the players who have made the majors can give the minor leaguers a few bits of advice: One of the Cubs’ pitching prospects could learn how to throw a cutter from starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija during lunch, and a hitter could pick up a few tips on how to handle major league pitching from first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
“Having all the players under one roof cannot be spoken lightly of,” McLeod said.
Those reasons are practical advantages of the Cubs’ new facility, but the new stadium and training components can better connect the team with fans. That little perk comes from the pathway the players take to go from the development facility to the ball field, which takes them right across a small field where fans can tailgate before a game.
The experience isn’t quite the same as the Green Bay Packers’ tradition of riding kids’ bikes to practice during the NFL preseason, but it does offer a personal connection between fans and players. It’s kind of a fun experience as well, one McLeod has a fondness for when he lived in Yuma and got to watch the San Diego Padres during their spring training season.
“It’s going to create some fun interaction and be a niché for the Cubs,” he said.
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