Cubs’ minicamp opens as MLB labor talks make slow progress

Minor-league camp is embracing normalcy, while the lockout pushes back major-league spring training.

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Cubs prospects James Triantos, Reginald Preciado and Pete Crow-Armstrong walk from the clubhouse to the practice fields on the first day of minicamp in Mesa, Arizona.

Cubs prospects James Triantos, Reginald Preciado and Pete Crow-Armstrong walk from the clubhouse to the practice fields on the first day of minicamp in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer chatted with third-base coach Willie Harris up the foul line. Shifting his feet, Harris tossed the ball back to quality-assurance coach Mike Napoli, the rhythm of their game of catch matching the laid-back air surrounding the first day of minicamp Tuesday.

Between the lines, prospects took turns hitting off a pitching machine and shagging balls in the field.

“I’ve been smiling ear to ear all day,” Cubs vice president of player development Jared Banner said. “Just being out here with all these guys, seeing them and just the joy they’ve had on the field, it’s pretty amazing.”

For the first time in two years, minor-league camp is shaping up to be normal. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 season, and health and safety concerns pushed back spring training for Double-A and Single-A players last year.

On the major-league side, however, this spring is anything but normal. Big-league players were conspicuously absent from the Cubs’ Mesa facilities, and members of the 40-man roster will remain barred from spring training until the league ends the lockout it imposed Dec. 2, when its collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union expired.

MLB announced last week that spring-training games would be postponed until at least March 5. But the start date hinges on a series of meetings in Jupiter, Florida, this week. Tuesday was the second consecutive day of bargaining sessions between MLB and the players’ union.

The meetings have produced only marginal movement toward an agreement. According to multiple reports, the league raised its pre-arbitration bonus pool offer by $5 million and increased its amateur draft lottery proposal to include four clubs Monday.

The players had been proposing that eight clubs enter the draft lottery. On Tuesday, they reportedly lowered the number to seven. The union also lowered its proposal for early arbitration from 80% of players to 75%, while making some increases to its minimum-salary offer. The sides agreed to meet Wednesday in an attempt to reach a deal that would salvage Opening Day on March 31. In the meantime, minor-league camp carries on.

“Right now, we’re just focused on the guys that are here,” Banner said. “And we’re excited to help them get a little bit better every day, give them all the resources they need, prepare them for the season. . . . Can’t control the things that we can’t control.”

While some of that is by necessity — MLB has instructed team personnel not to contact or discuss 40-man-roster players — for the Cubs, there is plenty to get excited about. Along with prospect additions from the amateur draft and international signing periods, trades over the last year have swapped established players for young talent.

About 70 prospects are at Cubs minicamp, not including the expected big-league non-roster invitees, who can mix into workouts, as well. The players broke out into groups across the complex, working with coaches from the major- and minor-league sides.

Shortstop Ed Howard, the Cubs’ 2020 first-round pick, could be spotted among infielders taking ground balls off a machine. Later, Cristian Hernandez, a top international signee last year, and Owen Caissie, one of the prospects the Cubs acquired in the Yu Darvish trade a year ago, drew eyes to their hitting group.

To finish up, players gathered in the bleachers to watch part of a simulated game. Outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, whom the Cubs acquired at the deadline in the Javy Baez trade, was among those who stepped in the batter’s box against live pitching.

Those are only a few of the Cubs’ top 10 prospects, as ranked by mlb.com, to start minicamp.

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