Cactus Catchup: It’s March in Mesa

All the Dexter Fowler excitement concluded by the time our Cactus Catchup #2 went live, so I’ve been left without much in the way of good news to report. Even so, the Cubs have everybody in camp and little tidbits of information are beginning to roll in as the team prepares to begin its slate of actual fake games later this week. So, without further ado, I give you Cactus Catchup #3: This time, it’s personal.

Putting in Work: The Cubs did make one signing, bringing in 35-year-old former Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino on a minor-league contract. Victorino hasn’t been healthy since he played an instrumental role (5.5 WARP(!)) on the 2013 Red Sox team that won the World Series. Over the last two seasons, he’s played only 101 games and hit just .246/.306/.329 with a total of 0.1 WARP.

Victorino has dealt with back issues the last two seasons which have led to him ditching switch-hitting and batting strictly from the right-handed side of the plate. But he claims to be fully healthy now, and intends to add switch-hitting back into his repertoire. If Victorino is indeed fully healthy and back to some semblance of his 2013 form, he could have an outside shot at winning a job on the team as an extra outfielder.

Dearly Departed: It’s sad to report on this, but the Cubs had their first real casualty in camp this week. Third base prospect Christian Villanueva broke his leg going after a ball during infield drills and is expected to miss a few months after having surgery. It’s a terrible break (pun intended) for a promising player that is, unfortunately, blocked at every viable position on the major-league roster.

Villanueva will be 25 in June and was in an interesting roster crunch situation prior to his injury. Barring several other players around him getting hurt, he wasn’t likely to make the big league roster, and because he is out of options, he would have had to clear waivers before being sent down—an unlikely proposition. And even if he did clear waivers, he might not have had his Triple-A job to return to, with Jeimer Candelario set to take over at third base.

When healthy, Villanueva is a versatile player who has experience at first base, second base, and left field, so he could’ve been useful in some capacity had he passed through waivers. He hit .257/.314/.438 last year, mostly at Triple-A, with 20 homers and just a 15.7 percent strikeout percentage. He’s also a potential Gold Glove caliber fielder at third. As unfortunate as this is for Villanueva, placing him on the 60-day DL allows the Cubs to open his 40-man roster spot and hang onto him a little while longer, which could end up a blessing in disguise if they end up finding a way to make things work later in the season when he’s healthy again. For now, though, his future with the organization looks very much in doubt.

Camp Happenings: This is all about Joe Maddon and his wacky antics. It’s well documented that Maddon likes to keep things light-hearted throughout the season, but it begins with spring training. On Sunday, Maddon broke things up a bit with a relay drill that allowed the players and coaches to form teams and compete against each other to win $500. The idea is that four players on a team stand about 90 feet apart and throw a baseball from man-to-man, all the way through the line and back again with the fastest team winning.

For what it’s worth, the team that earned the $500 had Jorge Soler, Addison Russell, David Ross, and Ben Zobrist—a strong mix of veterans, kids, and arms. The Cubs also had a short dance competition—won by reliever Justin Grimm—and did other little exercises thought up by Maddon to keep the team loose and relaxed.

It’s been discussed ad nauseam, but to break up the monotony, Maddon really does go out of his way to find things that are not only fun but also useful. The relay drill, for example, is something the players enjoyed doing, because it wasn’t the typical infield or baserunning drills. And, at the same time, it also teaches the value of a clean catch-and-throw and how much a quick relay can really matter in a game situation. If the early returns mean anything, nothing about the approach to the game has changed in the eyes of Maddon, which is great for creating good chemistry and a low stress level in the clubhouse.

And finally, if you’re interested in such things, the Cubs will begin playing Cactus League games on Thursday with a matchup against the Brewers in Maryville. Maddon announced that Travis Wood will start that game, and Kyle Hendricks will follow him in relief. Scheduling two guys that are being stretched out as starters to throw in the same game isn’t an uncommon thing to do early in the spring, but it’s interesting that Maddon is having Wood actually start the game with Hendricks coming on in the middle innings, and not vice versa. There may be nothing to read into here, but everything Maddon does is worth keeping an eye on.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports

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