Tom Ricketts offers up details on Wrigley Field renovations and new Wrigleyville hotel


Tom Ricketts offers up details on Wrigley Field renovations and new Wrigleyville hotel

Historic Wrigley Field looks less and less “historic” by the day.

Anyone who has frequented Wrigleyville this winter has seen the Friendly Confines further thrown into construction-fueled chaos, and the sparing shots inside the ballpark show a scene that looks nothing like the familiar green grass of gameday.

But it sounds like there are finally some improvements coming for the historically cramped visitors clubhouse.

“Obviously the home-team clubhouse has gotten very substantial improvements. With the visitors clubhouse, we kind of say, ‘Hey, well Lou Gehrig got dressed in there. Is that not good enough for you guys?’ So we’re actually going to put in hot water this year,” chairman Tom Ricketts said to a ballroom full of laughter on Saturday morning. “There will be some improvements to the visitors clubhouse, but it’s largely going to be the same place, relatively space-constrained.”

While visiting players might not see a large improvement in the quality of gamedays, the gussying up of Wrigley Field has been well received by Cubs fans, with The Park at Wrigley a huge hit last season and even during offseason activities this winter. The transformation of the more-than-century-old stadium continues this offseason, and the most notable addition to the corner of Clark and Addison will be the brand-new hotel, which Ricketts said will be open right around Opening Day.

The hotel is a hotel, obviously, and will provide lodging for out-of-town visitors to Wrigley and Wrigleyville, but local attendees will perhaps be more interested in another influx of dining options outside the gates of the park.

“This year when we come back, you’ll see that we’re opening a hotel that will be available I think April 9 or April 1,” Ricketts said during the owners’ panel at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “And then in the hotel, there’ll be a bunch of food options. McDonald’s will be back, which I appreciate, I’m a McDonald’s eater. So that’ll be back if people want to get something quick before the game. Then we have a taco bar, Big Star taco bar, which is like a highly regarded place to go get a taco. … And then we have Smoke Daddy, which is a very popular, Chicago-based ribs and chicken kind of smokehouse. And a couple more interesting concepts, a bakery, and then we’ll have a restaurant on the corner we’ll announce later. But you’ve got more options before and after the game.”

President of business operations Crane Kenney added at his own panel later Saturday that the McDonald's will be open by St. Patrick's Day so folks can get their hands on Shamrock Shakes.

That big building has already made for a dramatically different look at the famous North Side intersection. More apparent to Cubs fans watching on TV, though, will be some of the changes inside the stadium.

Chiefly, the dugouts are being moves a couple dozen feet down the first- and third-base lines, another surprisingly popular conversation topic Saturday morning, with both the owners and the baseball operations folks who preceded them asked about it.

“The dugouts are sliding down about 25 to 30 feet,” Ricketts said. “The fact is, we had to redo the dugouts to make them nicer. If you’ve been in there, done a tour, they’re pretty old school. And so we slid them down. It gives the players more room, and I’ll be honest, it gives us another section of seats to put fans closer to the action. And it also allows us to build camera wells for the gameday production.

“So it just worked out that we can improve it for the players because it kind of comes right off of their clubhouse, and it’s bigger. We can improve it for the fans because we can create more space near home plate. And then we improved the TV production, too, because we just don’t have all the great camera angles that a lot of other teams have so we built them a better camera well. It’s just kind of win-win-win for everyone, just something that we thought we should do.”

Additionally, Ricketts touched on ballpark-related topics like accessibility, saying the number of elevators in the stadium will triple by the time the renovations are complete. He also mentioned that the team would like the ability to have more night games on weekends, if possible.

Kenney, diverting from Ricketts' earlier jokes about the state of the visitors clubhouse, mentioned that area will be updated with a batting tunnel, a weight room, a video room and a meeting space. He also said that Wrigley Field will have improved cell phone service in 2018.

It seems that Wrigley turning into an offseason construction zone is becoming a tradition as reliable as “W” flags and the hand-operated scoreboard. But the end of the major renovations is in sight, per Ricketts, and by Opening Day 2019, fans could see the fruits of all this labor.

“We have this offseason and next offseason, and by the end of that, our initial plan is complete,” Ricketts said. “Now that doesn’t mean we’re done because it’s a 100-year-old ballpark, so there’ll be something else we have to fix the year after that. But it’ll be great to have the major construction done a year from now. And then, particularly at the end of next year, because of the way we have to stage everything, we get all the great upper-deck renovation done after the 2018 season, which will really help the ballpark a lot.”

Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes


Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

Chris Gimenez, come on down.

The 35-year-old catcher isn't exactly a household name, but he's been signed by the Cubs to add backstop depth, according to Chris Cotillo and Ken Rosenthal:

The Cubs didn't have much depth in the catching department beyond Willson Contreras and inexperienced rookie Victor Caratini and while Gimenez doesn't light up the stat column, he's a link to Yu Darvish that could give the Cubs a unique advantage in that domain:

Darvish and Gimenez played together with the Texas Rangers in 2014-15 (though Darvish was hurt in 2015) and Gimenez has been shedding some light on what the free-agent pitcher may be thinking this winter. Is this Part II of a David Ross-Jon Lester personal catcher situation?

That may be reading a bit too much into things, as the Cubs were always going to sign a veteran catcher to provide depth beyond the unproven Caratini. They saw how important that was in 2017 when Alex Avila spent roughly a month as the starter when Contreras was hurt.

The link between Gimenez and Darvish is real, but the frontline starter has also made 48 starts over the last two seasons while throwing to a catcher not named Gimenez. And the free agent catching market is pretty thin beyond Avila and Jonathan Lucroy, both of whom should earn starter's money or close to it.

Gimenez has played 361 games in the big leagues over the last nine seasons as a journeyman, with stops in Cleveland, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Texas, Cleveland (again), Texas (again), Cleveland (again) and then Minnesota last year. He played for Cubs manager Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey while in Tampa Bay.

Gimenez turned in a career season in 2017 with the Twins, notching new highs in games played (74), at-bats (186), runs (28), hits (41), homers (7), RBI (16) and walks (33).

He has a career .218 batting average with a .309 on-base percentage, .345 slugging and .654 OPS. 

But Gimenez isn't just a catcher. He's made nine appearances as a pitcher over the last few years, including six in 2017, where he allowed four runs on seven hits in five innings.

Gimenez will probably compete with Caratini for the backup catcher role in Chicago and can lend a veteran presence. He's also the best bet to take for first position player to pitch in a game in 2018.

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers


The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

The Milwaukee Brewers are making sure nobody forgets about them in the National League Central.

While the St. Louis Cardinals continue to make trades and the Cubs remain linked to the top starting pitchers on the market even after signing three pitchers, the Brewers have been rather quiet. All winter, the only noteworthy moves from Milwaukee came in the form of under-the-radar pitcher signings — starters Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo plus reliever Boone Logan.

Beyond that, the Brewers have added a bunch of other low-leverage players — catcher Christian Bethancourt and relievers J.J. Hoover, Ernesto Frieri, Michael Brady and Erik Davis. (Nobody would blame you if you haven't heard of any of those players before.)

But maybe the Brewers have just been saving their cash for one of the big guys, with Ken Rosenthal confirming a report Sunday night Milwaukee is not only one of the teams in on Yu Darvish, but they've even made a formal offer:

The Brewers securing Darvish or one of the other top pitchers — Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb — would be a huge development in their effort to keep pace with the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.

Milwaukee was a surprise contender in 2017 before they faded down the stretch. The main reason they hung around the top of the NL Central all year was a shockingly-effective pitching staff.

However, the Brewers have some serious pitching questions long-term that need to be addressed. Beyond Chase Anderson and Zach Davies in the rotation, there are no sure things. 

Jimmy Nelson underwent shoulder surgery last fall and it's currently unknown when he can be counted on again, though things are progressing ahead of schedule. Junior Guerra — the 33-year-old right-hander formerly of the White Sox — went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts in 2016 but followed that up with some serious struggles in 2017 (5.12 ERA, 1.48 WHIP).

Chacin, 30, was good in 2017 (13-10, 3.89 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but struggled with health and inconsistent performance in the five seasons prior. Gallardo, 31, has a 5.57 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over the last two seasons. 

All that adds up to a staff that doesn't inspire much confidence behind a high-powered offense led by Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Eric Thames plus up-and-comers Lewis Brinson and Orlando Arcia.

Adding Arrieta or Darvish would certainly go quite far in improving the Brewers' biggest weakness and even Cobb could be a serious game-changer in Milwaukee.

As an interesting footnote to the whole Darvish rumor, the minute after Rosenthal confirmed the report, the Brewers official Twitter account took a shot at the Cubs:

Cubs Twitter — never one to back down from a good-natured social media spat — responded Monday morning with a sick comeback: