A few things Cubs can do to spark fan interest

Written By BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter Posted: 03/23/2014, 02:33am
Array Chicago Sun-Times baseball writer Gordon Wittenmyer, Thursday, March 10, 2011. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Forget the rooftops and JumboTron. If the Cubs want to jump-start their revenues to bolster their narrative about ‘‘synching up’’ their baseball and business plans, what they need is to give fans a reason to buy a ticket.

A decline of 380,000 fans over the last two seasons represents more than $28 million in lost revenue by the Cubs’ own estimates. And sources say officials are bracing for a decline of more than 300,000 fans this season alone.

Fueling the nose dive are four consecutive losing seasons, a do-nothing winter that promises a fifth and an uninteresting big-league roster heading into the final week of spring training.

But the Cubs have enough ingredients left in camp to spice up their prospects before they head to Pittsburgh for their regular-season opener March 31.

Here are a few things they could do (and what they probably will do instead):

1. Put top prospect Javy Baez in the Opening Day lineup.

Yes, the kid swings for the moon every time his bat leaves his shoulder, and he’ll strike out a lot. But he’s also the most exciting player left in camp, and he has the kind of power to challenge the April wind at Wrigley Field when he connects.

Even if it turned out to be a temporary promotion — a sneak preview for a couple of weeks while shortstop Starlin Castro takes more time with his hamstring rehab, say — the buzz created for the opening homestand would be significant and ticket-worthy.

And if he winds up being sent back down for a while, Baez — perhaps more than any other prospect in the system — has the brass to handle it.

‘‘Like every kid, he’s going to have his headaches, his roller coaster,’’ former spring teammate Matt Garza said. ‘‘And I think he’s one of the ones that will be able to get over it real easy.’’

(More likely, the Cubs will stick to their plan of sending Baez to Class AAA Iowa to start the season and, if necessary, use a combination of Emilio Bonifacio, Donnie Murphy and Darwin Barney to cover for Castro.)

2. Put Mike Olt at third base in the Opening Day lineup, batting cleanup behind Anthony Rizzo.

Olt has done nothing but hit, hit for power and get hotter as the weather has warmed and the pitching rosters have become more competitive. And that bum right shoulder apparently is back to good health, as evidenced by his spring debut at third Thursday.

Unless there’s a bigger issue in the shoulder than he or the Cubs are saying, Olt — who was ranked the 22nd-best prospect by Baseball America entering 2013 — can handle the position and offer a reason for watching at least some of the home halves of innings at Wrigley.

(Instead, look for a return engagement of the platoon of Murphy and Luis Valbuena at third when the season starts.)

3. Bring back Arodys Viz-caino. Make him an eighth-inning guy and make it clear he’s the closer-in-training.

The right-hander finally looks healthy after having Tommy John surgery and a subsequent minor surgery on the same elbow last season. He spent much of the spring burning up radar guns with his fastball and showing a hard slider.

A former touted prospect in the Atlanta Braves’ system, Vizcaino was cut from big-league camp last week as the Cubs continue to take a cautious approach to his comeback. But if he’s as healthy as he looks, his engaging personality, electric stuff and passion might make him a fan favorite, if not a rare reliever worth paying to see.

(Get used to Jose Veras in the ninth inning and Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and the best available lefty in the eighth until further notice.)

4. Finally, three words: bison-dog races.

(Eh, more likely is the Cubs putting some guy in a bear suit and having him walk around the park.)

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub

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