TEMPE, Ariz. - The two diving catches outfielder Matt Szczur made this week were a testament to his relentless effort to become a better defender after spending most of his athletic days as a wide receiver/center fielder at Villanova and a high school catcher and shortstop at Lower Cape May Regional High School.
And if Szczur can apply some of the changes he made this winter, the Cubs will feel more encouraged about their future outfield options.
"There's always room for improvement in every aspect of the game until someone hits 1.000," Szczur said Friday with a smile. "I had an OK (2013). My steals could have been up, and I could have hit a little better. I could have been better in every aspect. But everyone is going to say that. I'm excited for this year."
Unlike the previous offseason when he played in the Arizona Fall League, Szczur, 24, retreated to his offseason home in Cape May, N.J. Instead of making the long drive to Philadelphia to work with hitting guru Kevin Wilson, Szczur convinced his father, Marc, to allocate vacant space from his construction company for a batting cage.
"It was a two-hour drive (to Philadelphia), and I could only manage it once a week," Szczur said. "I'd hit for two hours, then make the two-hour drive back home.
"My dad was all on board. He wants me to succeed, so he'll do anything for me. And it helped. I got a lot of reps, which helped because I'm living in the Northeast with all the snow."
The biggest priority for Szczur is improving his swing and driving the ball with more authority. He had a .350 on-base percentage at Double-A Tennessee while batting .281 with 22 stolen bases but didn't show much power.
"I worked on a lot of things (over the winter)," the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder said. "I feel comfortable and confident in my swing. I just have to put it together."
There will be more pressure on Szczur to produce, particularly because highly touted outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler aren't too far behind him.
"They're great guys," said Szczur, whose locker is next to Almora's. "Where we fit in, it's up to the guys in the front office. But we want to win. That's all we ask for."
When he's not trying to polish his swing, Szczur is working on his defense during batting practice by "power shagging" as much as possible in the outfield to simulate a live game situation.
"Even my first year here (in 2010), I was a little shaky," said Szczur, who can play all three outfield positions. "My big-time (improvement) probably was this year, and it's all because of power shagging in BP."
Szczur's life has become busier in recent months. He became engaged last winter to Natalie Cooper. And as a bone marrow donor four years ago, he has tried to keep up with the health of the recipient - a young girl who lives in unstable Ukraine.
"I just sent an email to try to get in touch with her and the family," Szczur said. "I don't want to bother them. And I haven't heard anything yet. I'm sure they'll come through. I'm sure it's difficult with the translation, but I'm sure they'll come back."