9:03 PM CST, February 23, 2013
TEMPE, Ariz. — And so it begins.
On a cool, sunny Saturday alongside scenic Interstate 10, the Cubs played their first game with real promise since August 2009, when the worm turned for Lou Piniella. It didn't matter, of course, but it did suggest that you won't have to wait another lifetime before there is again a buzz at Wrigley Field.
Take a bow, No. 68. You too, No. 70. And, yes, you, No. 73.
Jorge Soler, Javy Baez and Junior Lake all did their parts in an 11-2 victory over an underwhelming Angels lineup without Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout and the rehabbing Albert Pujols even though this was the Cactus League opener at Diablo Stadium.
It's going to be awhile before those guys are together at Wrigley, but probably not as long as the cautious Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer want us to think.
The guess here is they all will be there by the second half of the 2014 season, and at that point we could be looking back on this spring as Blackhawks fans do the preseason in 2007 when Denis Savard gathered together Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp for the first time. The cast supplied around them — pitchers especially — will determine if they can win like Chicago's NHL franchise but engines are only as good as their pistons, and the Cubs have those.
"They have some guys with bat speed,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "You have rare talent when you have bat speed like that. You can see how much talent those guys have. But the way they just played this game, the way they ran the bases, carried themselves, that's impressive as well. … You're not always going to get these results, 11 runs a game, but you can see what they're starting over there.''
It was the old guy, 24-year-old Brett Jackson, whose two triples set the tone for this pounding of former Cub Jerome Williams and a blue-collar group of relievers. But the talking points came when manager Dale Sveum turned to his bench.
Soler pulled a two-run double down the left-field line off right-hander Robert Coello in the eighth inning, and Baez followed by crushing an opposite-field single. Lake added a ninth-inning cherry on top, hitting a homer onto the top of the left-field berm off Steven Geltz.
"You know what impressed me the most with those guys?'' Scioscia asked. "Their baserunning. Just looking at the way they got their secondary leads, the way they're aggressive. That was impressive. You like what they have been taught, and that they look like guys who can be taught … and they have really different bat speed.''
Scioscia's not Sparky Anderson. He does not gush, especially not about guys on other teams. But he was saying what a lot of other managers and general managers are going to be saying as the Cubs' 39-game match to opening day in Pittsburgh plays out.
Factor in Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and the currently out-of-sight Albert Almora and Dan Vogelbach and the Cubs have one of the most impressive groups of 25-and-under hitters in baseball. The last time you could say that about them, they still had Rafael Palmeiro alongside Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, Damon Berryhill and Davey Martinez.
Lake, who is 22, could emerge as a pleasant surprise in the current group. After a solid year as a Double-A shortstop and an even better winter in which he played lots of left field, he is moving to third base. He has developed slowly but demonstrated an all-around game at Tennessee, hitting .279 with 10 home runs, 21 stolen bases and a .773 OPS.
Ian Stewart's strained quad will give him a chance to play a lot the next three weeks, and it's not out of the question that he comes from nowhere to grab a job that was expected to go to a veteran, Stewart or Luis Valbuena (who also homered Saturday). Sveum said the solidly built Lake (6 feet 3, 215 pounds) is "a work in progress'' defensively but he has made all the plays thus far in game situations, including a hard grounder to his left for the final out Saturday.
The failures of Corey Patterson, Felix Pie and — fill in the blank — shouldn't stop Epstein and Hoyer from being aggressive in their thinking with this class of prospects, especially if they show the fundamentals and instincts that Scioscia was talking about.
Baez, 20, was known to swing for the fences when James Rowson and other coaches worked with him in extended spring a year ago. But with nobody out and Soler on second base, he took a high fastball from Coello to right field Saturday. That's progress.
It's going to fun to watch these guys this spring. They come with no money-back guarantees but there's something different about them, as Scioscia points out.
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