Caught Looking: Great Moments Make Great Seasons, Meet Dai Dai Otaka, ’23 Cubs Swagger Infectious

Great teams provide great single-game moments. You could probably name a few dozen from 2016 off the top of your head and a few more in the semi-glory years after. We’ll never forget that grand slam by David Bote against the Nationals. One of my favorite memories is the Game 7 blast by David Ross, the last of his career.

Heck, I remember the no-hitter Burt Hooton threw as a rookie. Also the returns of Fergie Jenkins, Ken Holtzman, Greg Maddux, and the last homer that Ernie Banks hit. Aside from a few highlight accomplishments, however, those weren’t particularly memorable seasons.

There’s a new brand of excitement at Wrigley Field this year and the Cubs are on the periphery of their next championship window. Jed Hoyer landed one of the top shortstops in the game when he signed Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger has been an early-season revelation, and Chicago’s rotation has been filthy since last July. Justin Steele and Hayden Wesneski are future stars, and Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, and Drew Smyly are veteran leaders.

The Cubs rode a wave of career-best performances by some of their young stars in ’16 and this year’s team has its share of youthful representation, too. When we talk about electrifying moments that change the course of a season, you have to include the April 11 grand slam by Nelson Velázquez. That blast by Baby Boomstick put the Cubs up 8-7 after they had initially trailed the Mariners 7-0. The Cubs won that game 14-9 and it’s also the loudest we’ve heard Wrigley Field in about five years.

These Cubs have a magical presence about them through 16 games and the fans are buying in, slowly but surely. Let’s hope it continues through September. There’s nothing better than summers in Wrigleyville when the Cubs are playing winning baseball.

Midwest Farm Report

Have you heard of Dai Dai Otaka? He’s Chicago’s minor league infield coordinator, and he has a simple message for his students: “Make all the plays.”

When we talk about the Cubs’ affiliate teams, it’s usually centered on starting pitchers or the organization’s five potential big league outfielders. Chicago has a top-10 farm system that’s still rising up the ranks, but the journey from the very bottom started when Jed Hoyer stocked the organization with a number of promising middle infielders. Ed Howard was drafted in 2020 and James Triantos was a second-round choice a year later. Cristian Hernández was an international free agency acquisition in ’20 after Kevin Made was signed out of the DR a year prior. The front office then added Derniche Valdezthe No. 6 IFA prospect in this year’s class.

None except Hernández are among Chicago’s top 10 prospects, but that’s not a reflection of their abilities. That’s how good the organization’s pitching and outfield prospects are. All of the infielders carry decent hit tools, and it’s Otaka’s job to make sure they can field at a big league level.

“One thing we’re trying to do is obviously make the routine ‘routine’ but also make the extraordinary ordinary, so if we can make and maximize those ranging plays a little bit more routine, then we’re getting to more balls and getting more outs, our outs above average or higher so we’re creating more value from the defensive side of things and preventing more runs,” Otaka said recently. “That’s the biggest goal, preventing runs, so I don’t really care how you do it, but let’s get more outs.”

Vice president of player development Jared Banner described Otaka as a smart, dynamic young coach who connects well with people and demonstrates a willingness to learn and grow. Oh yeah, Otaka is only 25 years old. That means he’s the same age as undergraduate students Chase Strumpf and Matt Mervis.

“Traditionally, we’ve been practicing defense a certain way as a whole in baseball for a long time,” Banner said. “Dai Dai has some new, unconventional ways to teach, and I’m excited to try some of those things.”

Big League Chew

The Cubs now have 11 wins after sweeping the Athletics. It took them 28 games to reach that benchmark in 2022. Starting pitching and timely hitting have been the difference. If you go back to last July, Chicago is 50-37 (.575) on the strength of their rotation alone. That’s a pace for a 93-win season and a Wild Card berth based on last year’s final standings. The Cardinals were 93-69 last season so it appears that Hoyer has significantly narrowed the gap. The Cubs might already be better than St. Louis, and right now the standings confirm that.

Don’t forget, the Cubs won 39 of their final 70 games in ’22 with a lineup that included the likes of Alfonso Rivas, Rafael Ortega, Franmil Reyes, and Michael Hermosillo. Nick Madrigal was the starting second baseman. I said this during spring training, but I fully believe this is a 90-win team based on its rotation and the offseason additions of Taillon, Swanson, Bellinger, and Trey Mancini. They’ll be better when Christopher Morel returns and Matt Mervis makes his debut.

Yes, each win is a pinch-me moment, but there is an air and swagger to this team that is infectious. Imagine how good the Cubs could be if Hoyer finds a dominant closer.

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