I have been going to Cubs Conventions for quite a while. Every convention has a different vibe, a unique energy—whether it be excitement or a sense of urgency. This year was no different. On the drive home Sunday afternoon, I thought a lot about what I would take away most from 2018. Considering I spent most of my time dealing with minor league matters, my mind drifted to the minor league portion of the weekend.
While Farm Director Jaron Madison and International Scouting Director Alex Suarez spoke eloquently about prospects Adbert Alzolay, Jose Albertos, Corey Black, and Javier Assad, what stayed with me most was the praising of three prospects in particular over the course of three days.
While the Cubs don’t necessarily have a finishing school, the 2018 Cubs Convention came across like that for three prospects: Victor Caratini, Mark Zagunis, and Dillon Maples.
Over the past few conventions, the Cubs have trotted out Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Javy Baez as minor leaguers to expose and prep the player to the media, while exciting the fanbase at a time when the fanbase needed a few cookies before the meal. Now, with a World Series in tow, the flow of prospects to the majors has slowed to a trickle. However, the Cubs are now going to have to deal with salary limitations for the next few years, and one way around a “cap” is to use your own prospects.
Both Caratini and Maples have legitimate shots to make the opening day roster in 2018. Zagunis could fill a role in the outfield at some point in the next year as a fill-in replacement player in case of an injury, or he could make the team outright as a fifth outfielder.
How they spent their time this weekend was interesting to me.
To begin, Caratini signed autographs for kids only Saturday morning and then for season ticket holders Saturday afternoon. In between, he squeezed in an interview with Jared Wyllys of Cubs Den on the Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ Facebook Live account. He showed a great sense of humor that I had not seen before in four summers of covering the young catcher. He also closed out the convention on Sunday by appearing with Maples in the “Down on the Farm” session and spoke of his love for Roberto Clemente and how important his coaches and extra work were and are to his development. It was cool to see him show some personality.
When you watch Mark Zagunis play, he always comes across very serious. He can make Ian Happ and Kyle Hendricks look emotional in comparison. He still showed that side of himself this weekend. From the fans’ standpoint, he got some nice applause when he was introduced Friday night in the opening ceremonies. He signed autographs Saturday afternoon for an hour, and he also squeezed in an interview that day with Evan Altman of Cubs Insider for the Pelicans. While he did come across as a baseball rat, he also took his time and thought about each question. I really liked how he treated each question with respect and gave each answer its due diligence. Hopefully, the convention experience will help his confidence doing press and provide some lessons for him as he gets closer to the majors.
On the other hand, Dillon Maples is an enigmatic figure – part Roy Hobbs, part prodigal son. Drafted in 2011 by Jim Hendry, Maples was blessed with an unbelievable right arm. His career, however, was not so blessed. He struggled to get past Low-A South Bend for the past two years after struggling with injuries for the two years before that. Last year, though, Maples exploded from High-A Myrtle Beach to Chicago in one season. His story feels like it could be worthy of a Disney movie.
But this weekend, I saw a Dillon Maples I had never seen before. He appeared Friday night in the opening ceremonies, did an interview with Evan Altman for the Pelicans on Saturday morning, signed autographs Saturday afternoon, and returned to steal the show Sunday in the “Down on the Farm” session. At each point of the Convention, he spoke at length about nearly everything. Evan would barely finish his question and away Dillon went with a three-minute explanation. I was stunned by this transformation from the young, shy pitcher from Kane County and South Bend.
Maples later explained that his missing ingredient was partially a devastating slider that he developed, but he also suffered from a lack of confidence. Yeah, I think you can put that confidence issue to bed. He came across as a very self-assured player all weekend. He told a great story of Jon Lester and how Dillon was more afraid of dancing in the bullpen than he was pitching. Maples even made a few jokes about pitchers wanting to hit but getting exposed when they do. It was an amazing weekend for the young man.
In the end, it had to have been an enthralling weekend for all three players. As I look back at the experience of this convention, I imagine it was a whirlwind for all three. As all three have had some exposure to playing in the MLB, this can only help them in the long run as their inclusion in the festivities this weekend signals to them, and fans, how highly the Cubs think of them to show them off in such a personal format. That, in and of itself, should be a major confidence booster heading into Spring Training, which is now less than a month away.
Lead photo of “Down on the Farm” session — Todd Johnson