By STEVE KRAH
South Bend is about to begin its third season as a Chicago Cubs affiliate.
Jimmy Gonzalez was the manager for the first two and he’s back for 2017.
The skipper has plenty of nice things to say about the community and the fans (the Cubs drew 350,803 during the 2016 Class-A Midwest League season and owner Andrew Berlin has set a goal of 400,000 for 2017).
“It’s a great town,” says Gonzalez. “There are things to do around here and good restaurants. It’s great to have a minor league affiliate called the Cubs and be so close to Chicago. The support is through the roof.”
Gonzalez leads the ’17 team (Notre Dame visits for a seven-inning exhibition at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 5 at Four Winds Field before plays two road games Thursday and Friday and the home opener at 7:05 p.m. Saturday, April 8) with a few returnees to South Bend and several who played for short-season Northwest League champion Eugene (Ore.).
The Emeralds, managed by former South Bend coach Jesus Feliciano, went 54-22 during the 2016 regular season.
While there was no pennant (that went to the Lansing Lugnuts), the ’16 campaign saw South Bend go 84-55 during the regular season, make the playoffs and Gonzalez earn MWL Manager of the Year honors.
“There’s a bunch of exciting guys,” says Gonzalez. “They’re coming off a great season last year in Eugene, guys that have won.”
Gonzalez surveys his ’17 South Bend roster and sees fleetness and versatility.
“Speed is going to be a huge factor with this club,” says Gonzalez. “Those speed guys create spark and excitement and a lot of good things happen.”
The swiftest of the Cubs are outfielders D.J. Wilson (21 stolen bases in 2016), Kevonte Mitchell (15) and Chris Pieters (20) and infielder Yeiler Peguero.
Wilson expects to be in center field.
“I have first-step quickness,” says Wilson. “My angles are pretty good.”
Wilson is glad to be back with a group of friends that he played plenty of winning baseball with last summer.
“We had great chemistry last year with the Emeralds and it’s only gotten stronger throughout the spring,” says Wilson, who also looks forward to playing in South Bend since it is closer to his hometown of Canton, Ohio, which should allow friends and family to see him play in 2017.
Mitchell says he could see time in right and left and, possibly, center.
“My base running and my speed (are strengths),” says Mitchell. “I also have a nice arm from the outfield.
“I bring energy to the team.”
All the way up the big league team, the ability to play multiple positions is valued in the Cubs organization. South Bend reflects this philosophy.
“I love having that as an option,” says Gonzalez. “It gives rest to a bunch of guys. (Versatility is) also great for their development.”
The manager says it is likely that Peguero will see time at second base and shortstop with Wladimir Galindo at third base and first base, Isaac Parades at shortstop and third base and Zack Short at shortstop, second base and third base.
Including time in instructional league and spring training, Vimael Machin has played all four infield positions and has been used at catcher.
“That’s a good thing about Vimael,” says Gonzalez. “He is willing and able to do a lot of things.”
Machin, Paredes, catcher Alberto Mineo and right-handed pitchers Jared Cheek and Dakota Mekkes appeared with South Bend in 2016.
“I consider those guys leaders,” says Gonzalez. “Yes, they probably didn’t want to come back here (but move up in the Cubs system). That’s just part of the game. You can mope about it or you can just go out there and play.”
Machin models that team-oriented attitude.
“I’ll do whatever (Gonzalez) tells me to do,” says Machin. “Even if we’re not playing, we’re helping and supporting each other. That’s what it’s all about.”
With the grind of a long season, baseball is a game where slumps and bad days are inevitable.
“It’s important that (the players) know that adversity is going to come,” says Gonzalez. “How are they going to handle it? Are they going to get down and just not perform moving forward and understand that’s going to happen.
“Whether you’re 5-for-5 or 0-for-5, that sixth at-bat is another at-bat. You can’t change what you just did. It’s written down. You always have that moment to do something.”
Because it translates in games, Gonzalez says the concept of staying in the moment was an emphasis of the Cubs mental skills program during spring training.
Flame-throwing right-hander Dylan Cease has embraced the mentality and does not dwell on the future.
“It’s the process over the result,” says Cease. “I just expect to stay in my process and do as good as a I can.
“I feel really good about my mechanics. It just comes down to executing … I’m just focused on being the best ballplayer I can be and getting better.”
South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence has watched Cease progress well since having Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in June 2015, but there will be a learning curve in 2017.
“He’s never thrown meaningful pitches in April before,” says Lawrence. “He’s going to have to get through his first full season. He has to learn what he has. What he’s shown from last year through spring training is tremendous. He has command of all his pitches.”
Cease is part of a starting rotation that right-handers Duncan Robinson, Kyle Miller, Tyson Miller, Erling Moreno and Matt Swarmer and left-hander Manuel Rondon. Lawrence says there will be a few “piggyback” situations where one pitcher will start and another starter will take over. Left-handers Bryan Hudson and Jose Paulino may join the team from extended spring training in the coming weeks.
“This is going to be a fun team to play with,” says Tyson Miller. “I’ve just got to execute pitches. I want to throw the most innings I can with the least amount of pitches.
“I just need to get better with my pitching I.Q. and knowing how to set up hitters.”
Lawrence says starters will be limited to 80 pitches to start the season.
The bullpen features 6-foot-7 righty Dakota Mekkes and 5-8 lefty Wyatt Short and several other arms who will get work.
“We won’t go back-to-back (days) for quite awhile (with relievers),” says Lawrence. “We do have a lot of guys who can pitch at the end of the game. We have a lot of options.”