New offseason camp gives Cubs’ top prospects a head start on 2022

The Cubs’ facilities remained a hub of activity through the offseason, offering instruction, athletic training, strength and conditioning, and room and board.

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Cubs Vice President of player development Jared Banner stands next to president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

Cubs Vice President of player development Jared Banner stands next to president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Living in the same apartment complex with your teammates. Access to high-performance technology and facilities. Athletic trainers, strength coaches and instructors working with you every day.

Premiere college baseball or Cubs offseason prospect camp?

“It was like the college we didn’t have,” said pitcher DJ Herz, whom the Cubs drafted out of high school in 2019.

The Cubs launched an offseason camp this winter, hosting about 30 prospects at their spring-training facilities in Mesa. It was a more robust program than anything the Cubs had typically held in the offseason, pushing the envelope on industry standards.

The timing made sense. Over the last year, the Cubs transitioned to an emphasis on the future. They bolstered their farm system with trades that sent out their ace and dismantled their 2016 championship core. So they had a lot of new, talented prospects.

They also had just experienced the effects of limited hands-on training opportunities when the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor-league season. Even those players who weren’t yet in the minors felt the effects, navigating lost or shortened high school and college seasons.

This offseason camp was a swing in the opposite direction.

“It was outstanding just to have the guys under our supervision with our strength coaches, with our positional coaches, working on their skills,” Cubs vice president of player development Jared Banner said. “The players getting to spend time together was also a pretty cool byproduct.

“And I have to thank Jed [Hoyer, Cubs president of baseball operations] and our ownership group for giving us the resources to house and feed those guys all offseason. It’s a pretty special commitment, but it’s one that we really wanted to make.”

The Cubs set up their camp participants in an apartment complex near their Sloan Park facilities. They held morning workouts five days a week.

“It’s nice having to get up at 7 a.m., get your stuff done and go back and do the rest of your day,” outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong said. “It taught me how to be a little bit more of an adult because that was something that I missed out on last year, not playing a full season.”

Crow-Armstrong, 19, tore his labrum in May, cutting his season short. So a big part of his offseason was continuing his rehab from surgery on his right shoulder. Crow-Armstrong entered minicamp this spring without restrictions.

“It was huge,” he said of the camp schedule. “I got to come here, and I had a lot of freedom, but I also had a lot of guidance.”

Even for the prospects who entered camp healthy, access to the athletic training and strength staff was a draw. Pitching development coordinator Casey Jacobson said he connected with trainers and strength coaches at the end of each day.

“Having the ability to track [the prospects’] strength numbers and do our assessments regularly to see how things are trending,” he said, “it just provides us such a good opportunity to maybe adjust a program slightly to get them towards the goal that we’ve set out.”

Sometimes that meant a tweak to a pitcher’s throwing program. Other times, they adjusted the lifting program. It was all interconnected.

Because of how young some of the Cubs’ top prospects are, putting on muscle will be a focus early in their careers. Those with lanky builds are expected to tap into more power in their swings, for example, as they add weight. Shortstop Reginald Preciado, 18, said he put on 10 pounds over the offseason.

Said outfielder Owen Caissie: “I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been, the best mental space I’ve ever been, my swing’s feeling great. So I’m ready to rock.”

Caissie, 19, credited the offseason program.

For all the physical gains over the winter, conversations about offseason camp kept turning to the interpersonal side.

“We’re all brothers,” outfielder Kevin -Alcantara said through team interpreter Will Nadal. “It’s the camaraderie, the brotherhood that we have here.”

That’s not always the case in the minor leagues among players who are competing for a finite number of roster spots at each level, trying to move up through the system. But the way the players tell it, the smack talk around offseason camp took on a lighthearted air.

Crow-Armstrong, for example, said he consistently posted top times in running drills early in camp.

“Then Kevin Alcantara decided to come back and be faster than me,” Crow-Armstrong said.

Alcantara smiled. He had joined camp in January.

“I’m always joking around with Pete,” he said. “If you would only know that it’s only by millimeters that we beat each other. So it’s really competitive, and what we really want to do is just challenge ourselves to get better all together.”

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