Originally written on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 3/25/12

We went to our fourth Chicago Cubs spring training game today.  They played the Rangers in Surprise, AZ.   Our good friend Phil managed to get 42 tickets and we went with a group of Cubs fans. We enjoyed the Chamber of Commerce Weather and a day full of highlights.

So far, this spring training is much different than any we have attended in the past.  I felt the best approach would be to share some observations from your author who saw his first Cubs game 68 years ago.  When this team gets to Wrigley, should they continue as we have seen, Cub fans will be enjoying a whole lot of things which we have not witnessed for quite some time.

The first obvious example was hitters, from veterans to rookies, are hustling down the line regularly.  We have seen Soriano hit two monster home runs and he did not stand in the box observing the flight of the ball; but rather put his head down and got around the bases.  On two occasions the Cubs have had runners on first base, the hitter drove the ball to center field just shy of the warning track, and the runner tagged from first and headed to second.  In one instance the runner beat the throw; the second case a perfect throw beat the runner on a bang-bang play.

We have seen more stolen bases and attempts in two weeks of spring training than we would have seen in a month of regular season play last year.  Indeed it is exciting!

Bryan LaHair

If you look on the 40 man roster you will not find the name Joe Mather.  I can’t imagine him not making the team out of spring training the way he has played.  He is a big tall lanky young man who is currently hitting .421, a team leading 12 RBI’s, 3 stolen bases in 4 attempts, and he can play any of five positions.  I contrast that with the popular Tony Campana who went 4-4 earlier in the week to raise his average to .222.  On two occasions he has attempted to bunt and failed.  Last year it was evident that, despite his speed, he was not an accomplished bunter.  So far it appears he has not improved that element of his game.  My guess is Mather will likely take his place on the roster; he certainly has earned it.

We have seen Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells pitch and they look very good.  On the other side Travis Wood is having a terrible spring and likely has eliminated himself from consideration as a starting pitcher.

Today Garza pitched five innings, gave up two hits and three runs; none of which were earned.  Darwin Barney, who is swinging a good bat played shortstop today and made a couple errors.  This leads me to my first “head scratcher”.

We have watched the two first base candidates; Anthony Rizzo and Brian LaHair share the first base duties.  Rizzo has totally out played LaHair in all phases in the games we have seen so far.  In today’s game there were two different occasions where LaHair did not dig a ball out of the dirt which is a play a decent 1B should make regularly.  One led to an unearned run.  On the other hand Rizzo has made good, running over the shoulder catches, and dug balls out of the dirt in the same fashion as Carlos Pena last year.

Now let’s look at their hitting stats next to each other:

Player           AB      BA      OBP    HR      RBI     K

Rizzo            33      .364    .417    2        5        9

LaHair         40      .200    .195    0        2        14

On Tuesday we saw Rizzo hit one of the hardest balls I have seen hit in quite some time.   From the left side of the plate he hit a line drive that cleared the fence just to the left field side of the huge green wall in center field, over 400 feet.  What impressed me was it was a line drive to the opposite field and did not appear to get more than 30 feet off the ground; it just left the yard quickly.

In this morning’s Chicago Tribune the Cubs GM was quoted as saying LaHair has earned the 1B job based on his terrific minor league season last year.  He went on to say Rizzo would start the season in Iowa because he needed to play every day.  While I understand the logic of those remarks, it sure looks like Rizzo has earned the job in spring training.  This should be interesting to see how it plays out.

It appears to me the Cubs now have a surplus of outfielders.  Mather played CF very well today and is hitting well.  Brett Jackson hit his second home run of the season today and has also looked very good.  There was some discussion in the Chicago papers this morning about trades taking place before the season starts.  It would not surprise me to see the Cubs move a veteran outfielder in the next week or so.

And finally, we have been very impressed with the play of our new 3B Ian Stewart, who is currently hitting .350.  He hit a monster home run today to right field which landed on the roof of the beer tent beyond the right field wall.  The die-hard Rockies fan in our section told us if Stewart stays healthy we will forget Aramis Ramirez fairly quickly.  He described him as a guy who gets his uniform dirty diving for balls all over the place, a good clutch hitter, with some power……as long as he is healthy.  Apparently he has pulled some of his chest muscles in the past which understandably would cause a hitter to struggle.

The only negative we have seen is several pitchers, who we have never heard of, have not pitched well.  A couple of losses we watched, the starter left with a lead only to have the team lose.  While I am not making any predictions about the team record for 2012; I can say Cub fans will be seeing a much different type of baseball than what we have seen in the past.

When Tom Ricketts hired Theo Epstein he indicated the Cubs needed to change their culture.  With Theo being the new sheriff in town, along with the many additional personnel changes he has made since last fall, things are changing and it shows.

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