By Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune reporter
8:52 PM EST, March 2, 2013
MESA, Ariz. — There are 62 players in Cubs camp this spring, and every one of them has a story.
But as in almost every camp in Arizona and Florida, a few players fit into the same basic profile: the unknown prospect trying to open some eyes, the aging veteran near the end of his contract and the faded star hanging on in a last-ditch comeback attempt.
Here's the story of the three Cubs:
Christian Villanueva: The prospect
The 21-year-old third baseman grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, a city known for its love of soccer.
"It was hard to grow up as a baseball player because there are four professional soccer teams," Villanueva said. "No baseball in that city."
But Villanueva persevered and was signed by the Rangers as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He was ranked the 100th-best prospect by Baseball America in 2012 but was blocked by third-base prospect Mike Olt at the upper levels and slugger Adrian Beltre in the majors.
Meanwhile, Cubs starter Ryan Dempster desperately wanted to go to the Dodgers, despite the Dodgers' lack of interest. Minutes before the trade deadline, the Cubs sent Dempster to the Rangers for Villanueva and pitching prospect Kyle Hendricks.
Villanueva was ecstatic to get an opportunity in an organization he watched on TV as a kid.
"I used to watch the Cubs a lot, with Sammy Sosa and Alfonso Soriano," he said. "I knew it was a long time since they've played in a World Series."
Villanueva debuted at Class A Daytona on Aug. 2, hitting home runs in his first two at-bats. He received an invitation to spring training and homered Tuesday against the Rockies. Though he won't make the club, Villanueva might be the Cubs' top third-base prospect.
"It takes time, step by step," he said. "Hopefully I'll get on a good level and see what happens."
Alfonso Soriano: The veteran
Coming off one of his best seasons as a Cub, Soriano, 37, enters 2013 knowing it might be his swan song in Chicago. The Cubs have made no secret about their willingness to deal him, and he said he would consider waiving his no-trade clause if the Cubs fall out of contention early.
But for now, he's willing to be the old man in a clubhouse filled with kids. Informed that Villanueva said he had watched Soriano on TV while growing up, Soriano laughed.
"I'm getting old, babe," he said. "This is my 13th year, and he's not the first one who has said that. I've talked to a couple other players who told me they watched me play with the Yankees. Now I have a third-base coach (David Bell) who I used to play against."
Soriano came up with players he enjoyed watching, such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Fernandez, but said he never played with anyone he idolized as a youngster.
"It's good for (Villanueva), but it makes me feel old," he said. "Never in my mind did I ever think of myself becoming the veteran, the old guy playing baseball. But this is the truth. It's no mistake."
Soriano has no wrinkles yet and said he has only a few gray hairs.
"It's magic," he said.
Dontrelle Willis: The comeback
While Willis, 31, is not technically in camp, he signed a minor league deal this winter, ending a brief retirement. Willis appeared in a game against the Dodgers on Monday but had to leave after seven pitches because of shoulder tightness — the story of his life.
Willis, nicknamed "D-Train," is now back throwing in the minor league camp, where it all began.
"It's good to come full circle and be on the same field I got drafted on 13 years ago," he said.
Willis came up in the Cubs organization as an eighth-round pick in 2000 and fondly recalled having Carlos Marmol as his catcher in Rookie League. He went to the Marlins in 2002 in the multiplayer trade that netted the Cubs Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement, a move that sent Willis on a wild ride.
Willis went 14-6 and won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2003, helping pitch the Marlins to a World Series championship and denying the Cubs their first World Series appearance since 1945.
"I know people are still a little mad at me for beating the Cubs," he said. "But hopefully we can bring a ring to the North Side soon."
Injuries curtailed a promising career, and his latest comeback might be his last chance. If Willis is healthy, he could be sent to Triple-A Iowa and be on call in case of emergency. It might be the end of a star-crossed career, but he's not looking at it that way.
"I'm not too proud," he said. "I'm going to go down there and work my butt off. I really am counting my blessings. I know the talent level around here, and I know I can help."