Fernando Perez (left), who went to Columbia, and Northeastern’s Carlos Pena are two wise Cubs. | AP
Updated: June 3, 2011 4:45AM
MESA, Ariz. — Have the Cubs gotten smarter over the last year or so?
The usual punch lines aside, it’s a serious question that could have a bearing on how well the team fares in the National League Central this season (if not the next few years).
The effort has been apparent in new ownership’s attention to player development. There have been upgrades to the team’s Dominican program and an increased awareness in the value of statistical analysis — resulting in the hiring of esteemed stats guy Ari Kaplan to join top-notch analyst Chuck Wassterstrom.
Another example arose when farm-system honchos seized on a unique conditioning program designed for Tyler Colvin. It worked so well for the 2010 breakout rookie that they turned it into a formal, annual player-development tool they call ‘‘Camp Colvin.’’
But the Cubs were getting smarter even before the Ricketts family bought the team in 2009. Former manager Lou Piniella weeded out a lot of the guys playing some of the dumber baseball in the league as soon as he assessed his first roster in 2007.
They might be the smartest bunch of Cubs since 2003 — at least as smart as any team could look coming off a 75-win, fifth-place season.
Manager Mike Quade is a business-school graduate with a minor in marketing who has exceptional communication skills. He’s so organized that he had his first three exhibition-game lineups posted two days before the first game. Quade is an avid reader, a CNBC junkie and a horse fan — but reluctant gambler — who has a knack for searching out a single 8-1 or 10-1 bet on a given afternoon at the track, and winning it.
‘‘[Quade is] a very intelligent guy,’’ general manager Jim Hendry says. ‘‘This guy’s more versatile than people realize.’’
Between that mental-skills set, a lifetime of applying it to baseball and a detailed focus this spring on fundamentals and smart baseball, Quade might be the ideal fit for this transitioning team — and vice-versa.
Just look around the clubhouse, and you don’t have to search long to put together a pretty formidable ‘‘Jeopardy!’’ team. You can start with Ivy League outfielder Fernando Perez from Columbia University, Northeastern engineering student/first baseman Carlos Pena and infielder Bobby Scales, who has a degree from Michigan and teaches high school classes in the offseason.
‘‘It’s about how you use your knowledge and apply it to this game,’’ Pena said. ‘‘We know how we can apply our work ethic, the same work ethic we applied when we were at school, the same discipline.’’
Nobody’s saying you have to be a genius to play baseball. As Hall of Famer Yogi Berra said, ‘‘How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?’’
‘‘You don’t need a college degree. You just need to at least have a baseball degree,’’ Quade said. ‘‘If you’re void of baseball intelligence, then there’s no telling how you’re going to get the most out of your ability.’’
How does formal education fit?
‘‘Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and being aware of things — I think those kinds of things factor into that,’’ said infielder Darwin Barney, who helped lead Oregon State to back-to-back College World Series titles. ‘‘It’s one of the things we talked about in our team meeting [with Quade as camp opened]. We want to try to win the battle before we get into it. That’s by preparing and being smart and thinking ahead and all those things.’’
So how do you measure the smart guys’ effect on winning?
Put it this way: If Perez helps the Cubs reach the playoffs this year, it’ll be the first time the Cubs get there since the last time they had an Ivy Leaguer on the team — former Cubs deity Mark DeRosa of Penn.
The last time they won a postseason series, they had two: Dartmouth’s Mike Remlinger and Penn’s Doug Glanville — not to mention smart-guy Northwestern catcher Joe Girardi.
And the 1908 champions? They had two Ivy Leaguers from Penn, along with a Vanderbilt guy, a 24-game winner from Notre Dame, an Opening Day starter from Cal and three more college players, from Syracuse, Illinois and Holy Cross.
‘‘In baseball, in so many ways, in so many instances, problems come up or situations come up, and adjustments need to be made, and problem-solving becomes very handy,’’ Pena said. ‘‘So, yes, I think it actually becomes a very helpful tool if you’ve been through that process of coming up with answers.’’
Get it? Smart team equals smart baseball equals winning.
‘‘You might not like what I say, but I don’t think it matters at all,’’ Perez said. ‘‘I mean, if it mattered, don’t you think you’d see more really smart people [playing]. Scouts aren’t exactly scouring the grounds of MIT for baseball prospects or anything like that.’’
Not since the Cubs signed Jason Szuminski anyway.
Well, maybe that Kaplan guy can get this thing turned around.