Learning the Ropes

MESA, Ariz. -- Every year in Spring Training, there is always a small to moderate contingent of the organization's top minor league talent who make their way into big league camp for an indefinite period of time -- days, weeks, occasionally even all the way through the entire month of March. Third base prospect Casey McGehee is in that contingent this spring, and he believes you can learn a lot just by the simple art of observation.

The 23-year-old received his first career invitation to big league camp in January. Sure, he garnered some at-bats there both last year and in 2004, but this spring McGehee has been active with the major league squad since arriving in Mesa for the start of spring camp. He's getting by while learning a lot of things just by using his eyes and ears.

"Any time you can be around somebody that is the best at what they do, you can't help but pick up on some things along the way," said McGehee, a 2005 Southern League All-Star at Double-A West Tenn.

McGehee, who hit .297 with eight home runs and 72 RBIs in 127 games at Double-A last year, points to Cubs leadoff man and starting center fielder Juan Pierre as an example of just who to follow for insight.

"Watching him go about his business," McGehee said of Pierre, "I think you learn a lot about how to become a professional baseball player. When it's time to go to work, you can see he's definitely ready. It's good to see somebody who's been in the league a number of years that's still relatively secure in their position and still putting the time and effort into proving himself."

In his first 10 games in the Cactus League this spring, McGehee is off to a slow start. He's 3-for-17 with a walk and three runs scored, but some might argue that he could hardly be faulted for his sluggish beginning.

With a full year at West Tenn last season, and then Winter League activity beginning in October, McGehee hasn't had much time for rest in the past year. He first reported to minor league camp last year in February. The Mexican League schedule didn't wrap up officially until December 30. Estimated time off from the end of winter action until preparing for Spring Training? "About two weeks," he said.

McGehee still took a lot out of the experience in Méjico this past fall despite longing for more success there.

"It's tough to look at the numbers that I had there and feel good about it," McGehee said. "But at the same time, I feel like I ran into a pretty big string of bad luck in terms of hitting the ball right at some guys."

All the same, McGehee says if you're ever going to be in a slump, better the Winter Leagues than the summer months. In 32 games with the Mazatlan Venados in the Mexican Pacific League, he batted .227 with eight extra base hits and 14 RBIs. He played on the same team as familiar names Trenidad Hubbard, and former Cub minor leaguer Ray Sadler, who made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2005.

The most genuine part of the experience south of the border was the contrast in lifestyles between some Mexican League players and those in the U.S.

"A lot of the guys playing there aren't making the kind of money that big league players make," McGehee said. "They're playing to feed their families, so there's no screwing around. It's very serious and as far as the minor leagues go, of course you want to do everything you can to win because there's an importance on it. But those guys, it's not only their livelihood; it affects the way their families live."

As for what the Winter Leagues taught him on the field, McGehee is taking that knowledge and applying it to his approach with the Cubs this spring. "I've been working on letting the ball travel and not jumping out at it and getting so excited that I miss pitches I should be hitting hard. I'm trying to work on driving the ball."

As far as defense goes, McGehee is always looking to improve on footwork around the third base bag.

"For whatever reason, it always takes me a couple of days in Spring Training to get my feet back under me [when it comes to] fielding ground balls," he said. "It's always different getting the ball off the bat than it is taking it off of fungo bats in the off-season. The biggest thing for me on defense is seeing more balls off the bat and getting good jumps on them."

With an all-star season under his belt, McGehee is expected to move up to at least Triple-A once Spring Training wraps up. While Iowa might be the most logical choice for the Fresno State alumnus (coming off his best year in the Cub farm system at the previous level), McGehee isn't looking ahead. And he warns others not to, either.

"The best way to go into Spring Training is to not look at where you'll be placed [once rosters are finalized], because there are a lot of things that can happen both on and off the field," he recognizes.

"If you go in with the expectation of being sent somewhere, I think it can take awhile for the effects to wear off. The best way to go about it is to go in with no expectations of where you'll be sent. You have to be careful, because if you do have that expectation of being sent somewhere, it can be real easy to trip up your confidence if something happens."

That's one reason why McGehee is taking things one day at a time in Mesa, ready to accept whatever assignment the Cubs hand him. He says his current mindset may not translate into reality, but it's worth a try nonetheless.

"I'm trying to make the big league club," McGehee said, remindful of the big league stars he has as both teammates and adversaries at the moment. "Maybe my mindset right now isn't necessarily realistic, because they have a perennial all-star playing third base in the big leagues. But if you're in big league camp, you might as well give it a shot."


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