Sunday Rundown: Hoyer Planting Trees, Wesneski Makes Rotation, Affilates Start Seasons This Week

It’s not even Arbor Day and Jed Hoyer is already “planting trees.” That’s executive-speak for exercising patience, particularly from Cubs fans, as the organization continues its transition to a more homegrown product. You have to give the president of baseball operations credit for not creating undue expectations. Hoyer has earned a Ph.D. in threading the needle, and though we’ve yet to see the fruits of that model, rest assured those seedlings will be towering oak trees before you know it.

“We’re planting trees every day,” Hoyer told Jon Greenberg of The Athletic ($). “But those trees don’t show up today. They show up later. And so to me, we didn’t plant good trees [after the 2016 season] and that part of the forest was kind of barren. That’s my biggest takeaway. And I think it’s a great life lesson.”

The Cubs haven’t played postseason baseball since 2020 and haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Dodgers 3-2 in Game 4 of the 2017 NLCS. Hoyer expects this season to be more entertaining than the last two, and the Cubs could compete for a Wild Card if the pitching remains solid. Chicago’s up-the-middle defense will be its calling card, but Hoyer still needs a booming left-handed stick and a top-of-rotation, fireballing starter. If the Cubs do make the playoffs, it will be tough to compete for a championship minus those two commodities.

Hoyer’s tree farm is similar to Theo Epstein’s promise to build sustainability at all levels of the organization. Epstein failed because he and his scouts had an aversion to drafting impact starting pitchers and the system lacked suitable development processes to provide a consistent passageway to the major leagues. I’d add they were a little impatient, too. Dylan Cease was traded to the White Sox for José Quintana and Alex Lange has been more than serviceable with the Tigers.

The Cubs have a veritable arms race at Iowa, Tennessee, and South Bend that includes a blue wave of good-to-great starters, led by Cade Horton, Jordan Wicks, DJ Herz, Caleb Kilian, Ben Brown, and Jackson Ferris. Those young men will eventually follow Hayden Wesneski to Wrigley Field as part of Hoyer’s forest. In the meantime, fans will have to resist getting too caught up in the hype. None are guaranteed to be successful, and except possibly Hortion, none have a potential top-of-rotation pedigree.

Cautionary tales include once-heralded fireballer Brailyn Márquez and a host of questionable picks such as Brendon Little. That said, we’re all much more comfortable with Chicago’s pipeline than at any point in our lives. Health is an obvious key as well, but the team’s developmental staff is much better than it’s ever been. We should start seeing some of those younger players this year, including Brown and Wicks. The Cubs also have enough arms to potentially trade for a left-handed slugger.

Until then, we’ll exercise patience and hope Hoyer and his staff are finally on the right track. The front office is spending again, so that’s as good a sign as any that they’ve bought into the future of this ballclub.

Midwest Farm Report

The Iowa Cubs will start their 2023 season on Friday with a home tilt against the Columbus Clippers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Guardians. Iowa’s roster has yet to be finalized, but Kilian and Jeremiah Estrada are on the team, as are Matt Mervis, Brennen Davis, and Alexander Canario. Pete Crow-Armstrong will play for the Triple-A Cubs at some point this season.

Brown, Herz, and Wicks are part of the Smokies’ rotation at Double-A Tennessee. Third baseman Jake Slaughter, who hit 23 home runs and stole 36 bases last year, is also part of Tennessee’s roster. They open their 2023 season with a home game against the Birmingham Barons (White Sox).

Crow-Armstrong, Owen Caissie, and Kevin Alcántara are starting the season at South Bend, which is where some of Chicago’s better infield prospects will play, including Ed Howard and Kevin Made. The High-A affiliate kicks off its season with a road contest against the Quad Cities River Bandits (Royals) on April 7. Planting trees, indeed.

James Triantos was scheduled to play for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans but he’ll start the season on the injured list. The third baseman was ranked No. 4 among Chicago’s prospects by Keith Law. and was part of Caissie’s cheering section for Caissie during the WBC. Unfortunately, Triantos has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will miss 6-8 weeks after having surgery earlier this week. Myrtle Beach starts its season with a home game on April 6 against the Charleston River Dogs (Rays).

Big League Chew

Wesneski has earned a spot in Chicago’s rotation and will begin the season as the team’s fifth starter. The 22-year-old was the Cubs’ Cactus League workhorse and dominated opposing batters to the tune of a 2.12 spring ERA. He had a team-leading 22 strikeouts in 17 innings of work and walked only six batters. Wesneski beat Javier Assad and Adrian Sampson for the coveted spot in the rotation. Sampson was ticketed for Iowa and Assad may join him there when the Cubs finalize their roster.

Wesneski hit 97 mph in his last start and has been helping Marcus Stroman with his slider. Stroman said Wesneski has helped him get more horizontal movement with the pitch.

The Cubs will make an adjustment or two barring any injuries once Kyle Hendricks returns. Right now, the rotation also includes Stroman, Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon, and Drew Smyly. Assad is still in the mix for a bullpen spot, according to David Ross.

Sunday Six-Pack (by request)

  1. King & Queen by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. A perfect combination of street and sophistication, this underrated gem grows in popularity every year. 10 of the included 11 songs are covers and Redding/Thomas worked with Stax studio musicians Booker T. and the MGs. Though they’re not Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Redding and Thomas have similar chemistry. This was Redding’s final studio recording before his death in 1967.
  2. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You by Aretha Franklin. It’s almost unfathomable to believe that the critics initially panned this masterful recording by Franklin. The title track drips with heaving sexuality, and Franklin launched her first hit with a cover of “Respect.” There is no filler on this album, and you’ll want to listen repeatedly to the tracks “Soul Serenade” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
  3. One Night Stand/Live at The Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke. The former gospel singer is often credited as the originator of the genre, and this live album is Cooke at his soulful finest. Cooke was also one of the first recording artists to have complete control over production. Though the recording took place in 1963, RCA Cictor did not release it until 1985. They were initially concerned that the LP was a little too gritty – and yes, I agree that sounds racist – and then there is the controversy surrounding the singer’s murder in ’64. The link gives you the concert in its entirety. The introduction was used in the movie Ali featuring Will Smith.
  4. James Brown Live at The Apollo. Recorded in 1962 at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, this burner stayed on the album charts for an unprecedented 66 weeks. On top of that, Brown financed the recording because his label thought it was a bad idea to record a live show. Brown and his backing band The Famous Flames were on fire that night, pun intended. They performed a blistering version of “Night Train” and Brown is rapturous on “I’ll Go Crazy.”
  5. Tell Mama by Etta James. Ms. James was down on her luck when she decided to go to Muscle Shoals to revive her career. That full-throttled recording session for Cadet Records resulted in the singer’s finest LP ever. The best song isn’t even its most popular. Everybody knows “I’d Rather Go Blind” from the movie Cadillac Records (sung by Beyonce), but her cover of Redding’s “Security” and the title track are both better.
  6. Otis Blue/Otis Sings Soul by Otis Redding. I once had a two-hour conversation with Chet Coppock about this album, which is hands down the finest soul recording ever. Booker T. and the MG’s, the Mar-Keys, and the Memphis Horns – with Isaac Hayes on the piano mind you – all contributed, and the result is phenomenal. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is the best song Redding has ever recorded. In fact, this is arguably the best 33 minutes of music you’ll ever hear on one album. The result is desperate but fiery soul at its finest. Franklin will always own “Respect,” but Redding’s version is almost as good. He only wrote three of the songs and the rest are covers, but they’re all Otis in their own right.

This Week’s Money Quotes

  • “I think we can play unbelievably clean and aggressive baseball and that’s what I hope our identity is. I hope that leads us to being really competitive. But we have to prove that, we have to go out and do that.” – Hoyer
  • “Last year, we saw just how talented [Wesneski] is and what he can do. It’s been fun to see him continue to grow. This is kind of that first step for him.”Tommy Hottovy
  • “I didn’t say a whole lot. When [Ross] talks, you listen. I didn’t talk a whole lot — I just soaked it in.” – Wesneski

Sunday Funnies

On August 8, 1988, the first night game in the history of Wrigley Field was spoiled by a steady rain that arrived in the 4th inning and eventually led to a postponement of Chicago’s tilt against the Phillies. During the delay, Greg Maddux and teammates Jody Davis, Les Lancaster, and Al Nipper did tarp slides to entertain the soaked crowd. They each received a $500 fine from manager Don Zimmer and a lecture from GM Jim Frey.

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