Category: 2012-2013 Off-Season

2013 NL Central Preview

Ah, yes…we have reached the time of the year where bats start cracking and gloves start popping.  Spring Training is upon us.  While pitchers and catchers are on the cusp of having to report, there are a number of position players who have already descended on Arizona.  It would not have been surprising to see players wait until the last possible day before reporting after last season’s 61 wins.  Many will do that, anyway.  It is good to see that there are players in camp and working, already.  It is evidence of the players having some optimism for this season.

Optimism is admirable, considering the Cubs will not contend this season, either.  Don’t get me wrong, here…they’re going to be much better than they were last season.  I predicted last season’s version of the Cubs would finish with a record of 77-85.  My prediction appeared to have some validity until the trade deadline.  While it was anticipated the team would sell at the deadline, the degree to which they did, coupled with the losses of Matt Garza to injury and Jeff Samardzija to an innings limit pushed the Cubs to the wrong side of 100 losses for the first time since 1966.  This season, even if they do end up trading some players (Matt Garza the most likely), they have some depth to keep the losses from piling up as quickly and as plentifully as they did in 2012.

A great many prognosticators are saying the Cubs are a lock for last place this year with the Astros leaving for the American League.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS!”  This season, it appears the Pirates walk the plank, right into the cellar…

Consider this the official prediction of the division in 2013, in both  final standing and record for each of the now five NL Central ball clubs.

1. Cincinnati Reds (94-68)

With the top of the division, it’s the status quo.  The Reds are still the most complete team in the division and have, arguably, the best bullpen in baseball.  I say that knowing full well that Dusty Baker plans on slowly sucking the life out of Aroldis Chapman’s arm.  For now, though, they are the best team, and with a healthy Joey Votto, there isn’t a good reason why they wouldn’t win the division this season.  A team without major holes is a team that seems destined to win a division.  That best explains the Reds, and the only thing I can see changing this is a rash of injuries.  Even that seems unlikely to cause the Reds to falter, as the team without Joey Votto for a sizable piece of 2012 still won the division by a wide margin.

Projected Line-Up
1. Shin-Soo Choo, CF
2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Jay Bruce, RF
5. Ryan Ludwick, LF
6. Todd Frazier, 3B
7. Zack Cozart, SS
8. Ryan Hanigan, C

Projected Rotation:
1. Johnny Cueto
2. Mat Latos
3. Bronson Arroyo
4. Aroldis Chapman
5. Homer Bailey

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Sean Marshall
Closer: Jonathon Broxton

2. St. Louis Cardinals (89-73)

As sick as it makes me, the Cardinals are chalk for a winning season and competing for a Wild Card…especially since there are two of them, now.  Even with the loss of Chris Carpenter, there is a wealth of depth on this team and in this organization.  They seem to heal wounds better than any team in baseball.  That, in large part, comes from the best farm system in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law.  Without any major changes to the way this team is constructed from last season and Adam Wainwright being a full season past Tommy John Surgery, there is no good reason why they would fail to meet their usual standards of being a complete pain in the neck.  Even after losing Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa, and Chris Carpenter, they’re still pretty darn good.  Which blows.  Hard.

Projected Line-Up
1. John Jay, CF
2. Rafael Furcal, SS
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Matt Holliday, LF
5. David Freese, 3B
6. Yadier Molina, C
7. Allen Craig, 1B
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Marc Rzepczynski
Closer: Jason Motte

3. Chicago Cubs (80-82)

Unlike the top two teams, everyone else has some question marks, starting with our beloved Cubs.  The outfield looks to be a strength of the organization…but not at the big league level.  Nate Schierholtz was looking for a one year deal to be an everyday player for a reason.  He is very talented, but that hasn’t translated well at the major league level, yet.  David DeJesus is a good on base player and can grind out an at-bat, but is not a prototypical lead off hitter.  He actually projects nicely into the 7th spot in a contending line up.  Third base looks like it will be held by Ian Stewart, if he’s healthy and shows some of the pop he had in Colorado.  He had flashes of it last year, but his wrist just didn’t let it happen like it needed to.  If he doesn’t get the job done, the hot corner will be ice cold for the Cubs again this season.  Luis Valbuena is a nice player, but doesn’t have the punch a corner infielder should have, and Josh Vitters appears to need more minor league time.  There is some question as to whether Wellington Castillo can be the everyday catcher.  Dioner Navarro is a nice addition to help, but Wellington is the most talented and will need to play to his level.  While the offense has some question marks, the rotation has been solidified by the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, and Edwin Jackson.  Even if the Cubs do end up trading Matt Garza or have injuries, it will not leave the devastation that trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm and losing Garza to injury did last season.  With seven legitimate options to start, not including Arodys Vizcaino,  the Cubs figure to be in much better shape in the rotation.  The bullpen looks better, too.  Shawn Camp was retained, James Russell is another year in, the team signed Kyuji Fujikawa, and Carlos Marmol seemed to figure it out in the second half last season.  If Marmol gets dealt, which is a real possibility, Fujikawa is an option to step into the closer’s role that was so uncertain for the first half of last season.  Villanueva gives the Cubs a flexible option in the bullpen and as a spot starter, if needed.  Long story short, a much improved pitching staff is going to be a catalyst to a much improved Cubs team in 2013.

Projected Line-Up
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Ian Stewart, 3B
6. Wellington Castillo, C
7. Nate Schierholtz, RF
8. Darwin Barney, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Matt Garza
2. Jeff Samardzija
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Travis Wood
5. Scott Feldman

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
Closer: Carlos Marmol

4. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)

Looking at the Brewers, they will score runs.  A lot of runs.  I did not include Corey Hart in the projected line-up because he is going to be sidelined for the beginning of the season.  When he comes back, and likely occupies first base, it is going to be full steam ahead at Miller Park.  If they can get some stability out of their starting pitching, if their bullpen improves to be average (or settles for better than worst in the NL), if Corey Hart comes back healthy sooner rather than later, if Aramis Ramirez doesn’t go on a six week slump out of the starting block, and if Ryan Braun emerges clear of PED links again, this team has the potential to have a record just the opposite of what I predicted, and could peak into the playoff window.  There is a lot of if with this team, though.  Generally, some of the ifs work out, but not all of them.  The pitching is suspect.  Mike Fiers was outstanding last season, but with a year to adjust to a guy most teams had never seen and with a season’s worth of tape on him, hitters may be able to get a better read on his less than overwhelming stuff.  I love the kid as a 4th or 5th starter…not as a 2.  The bullpen could be better, but they added nothing to instill confidence in it to anyone but the homeriest of homers up here in Wisconsin.  Too many questions, too many uncertainties, no way to give them the benefit of all of the doubts at their chances of being competitive.

Projected Line-Up
1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Rickie Weeks, 2B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Matt Gamel, 1B
6. Jonathon Lucroy, C
7. Carlos Gomez, CF
8. Jean Segura, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. Yovani Gallardo
2. Mike Fiers
3. Chris Narveson
4. Marco Estrada
5. Tom Gorzelanny

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mike Gonzalez
Closer: John Axford

5. Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)

I’ll admit, my projected line-up here seems amiss.  I look at the parts they have, and they don’t seem to fit together that well.  I like a number of their offensive players individually, and I think they will score some runs, led by Andrew McCutchen, who is an absolute stud of the highest order.  Like the Brewers, I have major concerns about their pitching staff.  A.J. Burnett is getting older.  Wandy Rodriguez is a good pitcher, but he doesn’t match up well with other number two pitchers in good rotations.  He’s a good middle of the rotation guy.  James McDonald faded down the stretch last season, and will need to figure it out again.  The bullpen, once a strength, loses much of its force by losing its strongest asset in Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox.  That move alone makes the bullpen average, at best.  With Jason Grilli becoming the closer, it appears to have sent the bullpen just over its head.  Everybody in it is elevated one spot, which to me, seems to be one spot too big for each player.  If Hanrahan were still a Pirate, I could make a good case for the team’s bullpen being the strength of the team.  Without him, it just doesn’t look the same, which is to say it does not look right.  Like the Brewers, too many ifs and concerns to see them being anything more than a team winning in the mid 70s.  For Pirates fans after the last couple of seasons, that may not be desirable, but they’re still much better than the Pirates of the last 20 years have been on average.

Projected Line-Up
1. Neil Walker, 2B
2. Starling Marte, LF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones, 1B
5. Travis Snider, RF
6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
7. Russell Martin, C
8. Clint Barmes, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. A.J. Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. James McDonald
4. Jeff Locke
5. Jeff Karstens

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mark Melancon
Closer: Jason Grilli

Alfonso Soriano, Arbitration, Minor Moves and Cubs Convention

Some of the news surrounding our beloved Cubs…

  • Theo Epstein made it clear that he wants an actual piece in a trade for Alfonso Soriano.  He cited Sori’s 2012 season and his willingness to help young players, making him a valuable clubhouse presence, as the reasons for why he wants an actual player, especially since the Cubs are going to eat a large chunk of the $36M remaining on Soriano’s deal.  I don’t mind this approach, because the money for Soriano is already spent, so holding out to get something of value is not a terrible move.  Soriano can help young players, his work with helping Starlin Castro become a better professional is of special note in this regard, and a young team can use a good veteran clubhouse player.  If Soriano can replicate his season last year with a duplicate this year, he’d actually be worth the $18M he’s getting paid with his leadership and his production.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve defended Soriano for a few years, although I have been in favor of trading him.  The guy has struggled with injuries since he got to Chicago, and could have missed far more games than he actually did.  And, for what it’s worth, if last year really is the first time he had gotten any outfield instruction, it is partially the fault of the Piniella and Quade regimes for his defensive incompetence.  To boil it down, I wouldn’t mind him getting traded, but the Cubs should get more than a bag of balls for him.

    Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

  • Luis Valbuena agreed to a deal with the Cubs, allowing them to avoid going to a hearing with him.  He’s going to get $930K this season, where he figures to be on the bench, but will likely serve as a back-up at 2B, SS, and 3B, all of which he can play competently.  As a left handed bat, who took 36 walks in 303 plate appearances, he is the type of  versatile player that has some value on a bench, even on a good team.  It’s good to see him back, and hopefully be in a role he’s better suited to, after seeing him start a number of games at 3B when Ian Stewart was shut down with a wrist injury.  With Valbuena being taken care of, that leaves Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and James Russell as the remaining arbitration players this off-season.
  • The Cubs signed Brett Lillibridge and Darnell McDonald last week to minor league deals.  I have not seen whether or not they’ve gotten invitations to Spring Training, but I would assume, with the team looking for competition and depth among potential players on the roster, that they have.  As Spring Training draws closer, I’ll post a complete list of Bunting Tournament participants.
  • Cubs Convention is this weekend.  I will be there.  It is my first opportunity to actually attend, so I am very excited about the chance to be a big kid this weekend.  The information put out on the team’s website is here.  It looks like it’s going to be a great weekend for fans, and with proceeds going to charity, it benefits a good cause.  Classic win-win, so if you haven’t bought tickets and can attend, I would urge any of my few loyal readers and any passing readers to take the opportunity to head out this weekend.

 

Cubs Sign Dontrelle Willis… No. It’s for real. Stop Laughing.

About seven years ago, this would have been the move to end all moves for the Chicago Cubs…bringing back Dontrelle Willis.  Now, the D-Train has been signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to minor league camp and the possibility of coming to major league camp if he’s throwing well.  Considering the Cubs’ pitching last season was very much like how Dontrelle has been pitching since  about

Photo: John Bazemore, AP

Photo: John Bazemore, AP

2007, this move makes a lot of sense.

Willis was originally drafted by the Cubs and sent to Florida in the trade that brought back Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement.  He was stunningly good with the Marlins, especially in 2005 when he went 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA in 34 starts, finishing 7 and throwing 5 shut outs.  He finished 2nd in the Cy Young voting to Chris Carpenter of those guys in St. Louis.  He won the Rookie of the Year in 2003.

He has not been the same since 2006, where he has been unable to post an ERA under 4.98 (2010, in 9 games with Detroit).  It appears innings and notoriously poor mechanics may have done in the once dominant starter.

There is no risk to this move at all.  After all, he will only be 31 next week.  He does not have a ton of wear and tear on his arm because nobody’s given him a shot in the last few years.  I am assuming they didn’t pay very much.  There is no harm.  And if the Cubs can somehow manage to fix this disaster, it could be one of the greatest moves in the history of the organization.  If they can turn him into a serviceable reliever/ spot starter, that might be the greatest thing Theo Epstein can do with the Cubs short of winning the World Series.

And now…I’ve given you 300 words on a guy who didn’t pitch last season, had a 1-6 record with a 5.00 ERA in 2011 with the Reds, last time he did pitch, and likely won’t see the inside of Wrigley Field in any way unless he watches on television.  I feel I’ve said enough.

Theo Epstein Talks to Boston Radio, Bruce Levine Chat Recap

Theo Epstein was on WEEI Boston today, where he spoke about a number of topics.  He spoke about the signing of Edwin Jackson and him having years left in his prime, Anthony Rizzo, and draft pick compensation being at a premium when considering signing free agents that would cost a draft pick, in addition to a number of other topics related to the Cubs and Red Sox.  The interview is lengthy, but it’s worth a listen if you’re so inclined to do those types of things.  Hear Theo Epstein’s interview with WEEI  here.

Bruce Levine had a chat today, which covered a number of topics.  Some of the highlights, with some of my own commentary are as follows…

  • He was asked about the potential of a Soriano trade to the Phillies, and he said that was a “tremendously old rumor.”  That doesn’t say good things about the potential about it actually happening, but Soriano might be a better alternative to the Phillies with the free agent market for Michael Bourn.  With the Cubs willing to eat a significant portion of Soriano’s deal, he could be a cheaper alternative for a team looking to acquire an outfielder, without wanting to give up a valuable draft pick.  The Cubs will look to see if they can move Fonsi, but I would be a little surprised if he were moved before Opening Day.
  • When asked if Jeff Samardzija had a chance at 200 strike outs, 15 wins, and a sub 3.2 ERA and said that he had spoken to scouts who said Samardzija was the most improved pitcher last season between April and September.  He also said there is no reason to think those numbers can’t be approached.  I would be inclined to agree to a certain extent, but I would caution against expectation.  Samardzija is a young pitcher and any growth would be a good thing from him in 2013.  Since the team does not figure to contend, it would be wise not to burden a good young player with big expectations too early.
  • Bruce was also asked about the leaks, to which he said that the Cubs are pretty accessible, but they don’t let information get out that they don’t want out.  He also pointed out that agents are a factor in free agency.  I’m inclined to agree.  It seems like the Cubs have had leaks happen to them, but haven’t been the source.  The Dempster leak came from the Braves, the Marmol leak from Marmol himself, and the Sanchez leak was from an agent trying to leverage a team.  Really…there’s nothing that could be done there from the Cubs’ side of things.
  • He outright dismissed the idea of trading for Justin Upton and Giancarlo Stanton.  Amen.
  • Matt Garza trade rumors to the Rangers came up for a heavy package, and he said it was possible.  I agree that the Rangers could use the statement addition of Garza after missing on Greinke, and that could drive up the return value for him, but with Garza having been injured, I would be surprised if he were traded before the season.  It would be a risk for any team to send the Cubs a package of prospects without seeing the guy pitch after last July.  His elbow is the reason he didn’t get moved at the deadline last year, so I have a tough time seeing him getting moved before he pitches.  That’s just my feeling.  A desperate Rangers team (or someone else) could change that, though.
  • The speculation about political bitterness between the Ricketts and Mayor Emanuel made an appearance.  Honestly, get over it and do what’s best for the ball club.  I know Wrigley is a historical landmark, but it is still a functioning ballpark and will need renovations, so the gamesmanship and BS need to stop.  A successful Cubs team is good for the Ricketts and the city of Chicago, and a modernized Wrigley is a key to that.
  • Conversation about prospects came about with Bruce saying he thought Brett Jackson was the most likely to come up to the majors this season.  Javier Baez will play short where ever he is in the minors this year, and Josh Vitters and Junior Lake could see themselves moved to the outfield, or at least it is time to consider it.  I think Vitters could be a good left fielder.  Hide his defense, and continue to develop his bat in that spot.  If Soriano is traded, I think he would be a good choice to get a crack at the position first.

 

 

 

The NL Central Arms Race

For those of us who treat this as more than a hobby, the coverage of the off-season has been significantly more extensive.  Since this is only a hobby for me (because of my other actual obligations…all to varying degrees less interesting and fun than following baseball), there have been few and far between since the end of the season.  With some time, though, now is a perfect time to talk about the thing that has dominated the Cubs’ off-season…PITCHING!

Photo: Charles Rex, Arbogast

Photo: Charles Rex, Arbogast

Today, Edwin Jackson was introduced at Wrigley Field.  With the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa, resigning Shawn Camp, and having Arodys Vizcaino coming off of surgery and being ready for 2013, it seems as though the Cubs will have a surplus of pitching talent to get them through this season.  That is something they did not have last season, especially after losing Matt Garza, who is progressing nicely though his rehab from a stress injury last July, and trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm at the deadline.  At the end of the season, LHP Travis Wood was the ace, after the team sat Jeff Samardzija in early September.  That wasn’t an ideal situation, and it was a key reason why the Cubs lost 101 games.

The flip side to the off-season is the stunning lack of movement in the rest of the division.  The Brewers have not done much with their staff, adding journeyman lefty and former Cub, Tom Gorzelanny, who I like as a solid reliever and spot starter, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking he is anything more than pitching depth for a team who had all kinds of trouble in the bullpen last season, and ended up losing Francisco Rodriguez this off-season.  They also added Burke Badenhop, who has had an up and down (as in between the majors and the minors) career with the Marlins and Rays.  No world beaters.  They seem to be enamored with Mike Fiers, who was very good after debuting with the club last season.  My own analysis of him is that he reminds me a lot of Randy Wells.

I wish I could say something bad about the Cardinals and their pitching.  I really do.  They haven’t done much (anything?..I haven’t seen any moves at all from them in the pitching department this off-season), but they seem to grow pitchers as well as anyone in the game.  With Chris Carpenter coming back, I’m sure they’ll be fine.  It makes me physically ill.  Seriously.

The Reds still have a lot of arms.  They still, in my estimation, have the best bullpen in the majors, even though they’re moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation.  They, too, have a nice strong staff that, in my opinion, keeps them the favorite to repeat as the division champions in 2013.  Again, it makes me sick…but not as sick as the Cardinals make me.  Nothing makes me that sick.

The Pirates confuse me.  I genuinely thought they were trying to compete…and then they went and traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox.  They also resigned Jason Grilli, who the Cubs were in on.  Without being too familiar with who the Pirates have coming up, they’re current rotation and bullpen screams average, and their back end looks shaky with the loss of Hanrahan.  I can only muse that this season they don’t want to disappoint their fans by playing well for the first four months before imploding with the uncanny appearance of controlled demolition for a third year in a row.

The Astros are gone…for those that forgot.  They’re off the the AL West to play for 110 losses at the hands of the Angels, Rangers, and A’s.  Good Luck, ‘Stros…you’re going to need it.  Desperately.

What it all means…

I can’t for the life of me see how the Cubs win this division next season.  I just can’t.  They do figure to be considerably better than their 101 losses last season.  They could make a strong push at third with the Pirates and Brewers regressing.  All of this is interesting in early January, but the off-season is by no means over, so something could cook up between now and the time pitchers and catchers report next month.  The Cubs have a much improved corps of pitchers.  That group would have been made much more potent had they actually signed Anibal Sanchez.  Theo Epstein and Tom Ricketts went to visit him personally, and the deal was reported, but like others for the Cubs, was prematurely reported and ended up not to be.  GM Jed Hoyer, today, revealed that he went to visit Edwin Jackson, who actually did sign.  At 29, he is on the side of 30 that the Cubs are looking for in players to add and build with,  and having pitched in the division with the Cardinals in 2011, there is familiarity with the NL Central, and he pitched well while with St. Louis.  Teaming him up with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, there is a solid top three, and there is a good group of Baker, Feldman, Wood, and Villanueva competing for two spots at the back end of the rotation.

The Cubs have to know they can’t lose like they did last season and expect fans to turn out.  The fans stopped coming last season because it was nearly pointless to go watch them give up runs in bunches.  This season figures to be different.  Even if they trade some of their pitching  (GARZA!), they’ll have some fall back pieces to lean on so they don’t fall off the side of the Earth.  The off-season has gone to plan to this point.  It remains to be seen if the offense will be potent enough to push this team to .500.  The Cubs are not a finished product by any stretch, but this off-season is the next step to contention.

 

Let the Roster Shuffle Begin

Tomorrow is the deadline to set the 40 man roster for the Rule 5 Draft.  I could post an exhaustive list of players the Cubs have who are eligible, but instead, I have chosen to go the lazy route and link it here to Chicago Cubs Online.  I would expect at least one of those guys to be taken.  We’ll see…and we’ll see if the Cubs actually select anyone this season.  They did pick RHP Lendy Castillo last year, and they lost Ryan Flaherty and Marwin Gonzalez.

I am amused by Bruce Levine’s vague report that a “big trade” involving “young players” is in the works.  That is not to say I doubt the report, because Bruce Levine has proven to be nothing, if not reliable, in his reporting from my perspective.  It’s just so vague that it boarders on “not worth mentioning until something actually happens” or actual names come about.  If/ when the deal is brokered, I’m sure I’ll have comments on what went each way.  Until then…

The Cubs did agree to sign Shawn Camp today for another year.  The question is whether he’ll actually sign before the Rule 5 deadline, or if the parties agreed to hold off on putting ink on paper until after this mess is cleaned up so the team can keep an open slot on the 40 man roster for someone they’d prefer not to lose.  All of the official reports say they’ve “agreed.” I think that might mean something.  I could also be wrong.  If he indeed signs, the 40 man inflates to 39.

I am still completely behind the idea of the Cubs signing OF Jason Bay.  He is a guy who could probably be had cheap, play a corner OF spot, and be flipped if he performs well.  That is exactly the kind of guy the team is looking for at this point.  I’m not exactly sure about whether or not Theo Epstein (who acquired Bay when he was in Boston) or Jed Hoyer have had the same idea.  I’m just throwing it out there.

After the last post, the Cubs announced they signed Dioner Navarro to catch, likely in a back-up role to Wellington Castillo.  He spent last season with the Reds.  Statistically, he’s nothing special.  Career, he’s a .245/.306/.357 guy.  He did manage to be selected to the 2008 AL All-Star team with the Rays.  His value is probably to help Wellington Castillo as a major league catcher, and allows Steve Clevenger to go back to Iowa and work on his craft for another season.  Clevenger is still new to the position.  Time in the minors to fine tune will serve him will in the long run.

 

 

Catching Up on the Off-Season

There has been some news surrounding the Cubs lately, so now seems to be as good a time as any to update it.

  • First, the best news of the off-season is that Matt Garza can return to his normal off-season routine, which the team announced today.  Garza last pitched in July, before the trade deadline, which effectively killed his trade value at the deadline last year.  This is the last off-season in which Garza is eligible for arbitration, so there shouldn’t be any surprise about trade rumors involving Garza to surface again.  For his part…Garza seems to be mildly pleased about his clean bill of health…  “I’m cleared for takeoff!! Strap it on tight cause we are going on one helluva ride… #getitdone#freedom#2013”  Matt Garza, via Twitter, @Gdeuceswild
  • The Cubs did manage to sign starting pitcher Scott Baker this week, too.  Not to blow my own horn too much, but I did speculate in August that he would make some sense for the Cubs. I also speculated Ryan Dempster would make some sense, and the possibility of his return hasn’t been ruled out, yet.  Just saying…  Anyway, Baker is 31, missed last season after having Tommy John Surgery, and got a $5.5M deal for this season, with some incentives. The short and sweet on Baker is that over the course of his career, he’s been steady, if not good, with the Minnesota Twins.
  • The team has been in contact with 3B Ian Stewart, which could mean a decision on his return could be forthcoming in the next few days.  Stewart may still be non-tendered, but if all really is well with his wrist (Stewart, for his part, has insisted that it is), he could find his way back to third base to start 2013, especially with the limited options available within the organization and free agency.  Speaking of Ian Stewart, he just had a baby girl.  So, Congratulations Ian and now bigger family.
  • Theo Epstein suggested the Cubs may open the pocket book a little for a starting pitcher.  Obvious speculation is Anibal Sanchez with a very outside chance of talks with Zack Greinke.  I would be surprised if either were a Cub on Opening Day, which is only a mere 136 days from today.
  • For what it’s worth, Bud Selig said at the owners’ meetings today if he were running an organization, he would do it the same way Theo Epstein is going about it with the Cubs.  If I recall, he did run a franchise (Brewers).  And they sucked.  A lot.  Until he left. And for a long time afterwards.  Until his family completely ceded control.  Just food for thought.

The Winter Meetings will probably bring about more of a flurry of activity.  They typically do.  I would not be surprised, however, if the Cubs make a number of moves before that time.  It is nice to have a quiet off-season, to this point.  Last year was very chaotic with the changes in the front office, the managerial search, and the volatile changes in the roster.  This year, it seems like it will be much more “normal.”

Marmol Traded to Angels

It appears as though Carlos Marmol has been dealt to the Angels for Dan Haren.  The particulars of the deal are not yet known, but there are a number of sources, including Marmol himself acknowledging the deal.

UPDATE: Carlos Marmol had a limited No Trade Clause, as part of his contract, which needed to be waived.  All indications are that has happened, with Marmol making statements that he looks forward to going to Anaheim and thanking Chicago for the opportunity (paraphrased).  Also, Alden Gonzalez, who is the Angels’ beat writer for MLB.com says the Angels are still in talks with more than one team…so there’s that.  If the Ryan Dempster trade last summer taught us anything, we need to wait until the deal is done for it to be done.

UPDATE 2: Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Deal is off…for now.  So to go with the #DempsterFire, we now have #RedHaren.  The Cubs apparently pulled the deal off the table, according to Ken Rosenthal.

So after all of the excitement of adding a solid third starter… we end up with another “nevermind” in the Cubs trade column.

Resetting the Farm System

The Epstein Administration is off to a very honest start, to say the least.  When Theo came, he made no mistake that the intention was to build an organization, from the bottom up, in order to sustain success for the long term.  To this point, he has kept his word.  The Cubs’ system now features five of the top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com’s updated, post season rankings.  Half of the organization’s top ten prospects have been acquired since Epstein and Co. have arrived, and that does not include First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, who would be the undisputed #1 prospect in the system if he met MLB.com’s criteria for what makes a prospect.  The fact that he has had a rookie season in the majors, from my view, does not make him any less of a prospect.  He is by no means a finished product…which is a scary good thought after his 2012 season.

With all of that, here is a positional look at the system:

  • PITCHING: Pitching is still the weakness of the system.  Theo knows it.  Jed knows it.  Even the guy in the bleachers drunkenly screaming to fire Dale Sveum because we could have won the World Series this year knows it.  That is why the focus has been on acquiring pitching.  The new regime spent almost the entire draft on infusing the system with new arms.  They made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire Randall Delgado for Ryan Dempster.  They made a successful deal with the Braves to acquire Arodys Vizcaino, who is the best pitching prospect in the system, according to MLB’s new rankings.  Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn are also top 20 prospects in the system, who were drafted in the slots gained from the departures of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena.  Nine of the top 20 are pitchers, none of whom is Hayden Simpson, the 2010 first round pick.  We are very close to reaching bust status with him.  The front office knows that there is still a shortage of arms in the system, so look for a continued focus on acquiring them, either through trades or in the draft.  Alfonso Soriano and Matt Garza could each become prospect pitching, if there is a deal to be made.
  • CATCHERS: With Wellington Castillo looking primed to crouch behind the dish on a full time basis, with Steve Clevenger being a capable back up, and Geovany Soto being a Texas Ranger, it would seem the system is lacking in catching depth.  That’s mostly true.  The only catcher of note who will be in the minor leagues next season is Anthony Recker, who finished the season in the majors because of a September call-up.  The bright side to the catching situation is that both of the big league backstops are young players, who, like Anthony Rizzo, I would still consider prospects, who are developing at the big league level.  That’s some good news.  The bad news is, catchers tend to be injured more than other positions, and there is not a lot behind them.
  • INFIELD: There is some talent in the infield in the organization, but it’s nothing to jump out of your chair for.  Javier Baez is a notable exception to that, as the system’s number one prospect, again, according to MLB.com.  Christian Villanueva and Junior Lake are also both in the top ten in the organization, but neither seem to be all that close to cracking the major league line-up anytime soon.  Lake is probably the closest prospect, but he projects to be a utility player, who can play all over because of his arm and athleticism.  He has good power, but lacks plate discipline and still needs some polish in the field.  He could be a call-up in the mold of Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson in 2013, to get some experience at the major league level before going back to the minors to work on deficiencies he may not get to know without a call-up.  As for Baez and Villanueva, both finished the season at Daytona.  They may go to AA, Tennessee together next season, but a more sure bet is that they open at Daytona next year.  Josh Vitters, the most major league ready prospect in the infield, showed that he still needs some time to grow.  I could see him being moved to a corner outfield spot if his glove does not improve significantly.  An interesting prospect on the infield is Dan Vogelbach, whose bat will probably propel him up the system.  He hit for a combined 1.051 OPS between Mesa and Boise.  Being a 1B, though, is going to hurt him with the Cubs.  He is blocked by Anthony Rizzo.  If he could become a 3B, he could be a Pablo Sandoval type player in the future, although Keith Law says he has “no shot.”  My guess is, his lack of athleticism is going to be a significant issue with him being anything more than a first baseman or a designated hitter…which the Cubs have no use for.
  • OUTFIELD: The outfield is where the most depth is within the system.  After getting a sight of Brett Jackson, it appears that he has the ability to man CF at Wrigley for a long time, with improvements to his swing and approach at the plate.  The additions of Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, both of whom played well in their first taste of American pro baseball, make them, with Jackson, three of the top five prospects in the system.   With other interesting prospects, like Dave Sappelt and Shawon Dunston Jr, there is some serious talent, much of which is still saturating the low levels of the system.  For the time being, it is interesting to wonder about what an Almora, Jackson, Soler outfield will look like…because it won’t be a reality for a few years.  For now, we’ll get to watch a Soriano, DeJesus, LaHair (or whoever else they can manage to throw out there).

There is a lot more talent in the minors now than there was 12 months ago.  That is something that has to be attributed to building the organization, as opposed to trading any and all talent we can to get veteran players to win right now.  There has been a lot of that over the years, leaving the cupboards pretty bare.  Building it back up will take as much time and effort as it will to build the big league team into one that can consistently win.  It is a good thing to have talent saturation in the minors, and at this point in time, there is much more of it than there was when Jim Hendry left the club.  It is exciting, however, to watch the build-up.  Seeing lower level clubs compete, like the Boise Hawks did in 2012 is a sign of talent infusion.  Hopefully, the Cubs are able to build a system that can compete at all levels.  No organization can have too much talent.  At this point,though, it is still a work in progress.

Bob Brenly Replacement Speculation

It was just announced that Bob Brenly will not be returning to the Cubs, as the color analyst on WGN broadcasts.  The Len and Bob (which will soon be renamed to Len and whoever fills the spot) Facebook page released the following statement from Brenly regarding the change:

“Working here in Chicago was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional career.  The Ricketts family, everyone associated with the Cubs and WGN and, most importantly, Cubs’ fans everywhere, will always be in our hearts, and Joan and I wish nothing but the best for the organization moving forward.  I was very blessed to have the best play-by-play man in the game as my partner for eight years and Cubs’ fans are very fortunate to have Len Kasper as the voice of the Cubs. I’ll miss working with him and we look fondly toward returning to Chicago in the future.”

So that’s that.  I know the ink on that statement isn’t even dry, yet…but this is a blog.  Not posting irresponsible speculation would be irresponsible of me.  (See what I did there?)  So…some potential candidates to fill the role left by Bob Brenly…

  • Mark Grace: I might get some flack for this one, since he hasn’t passed a field sobriety test since he left the Cubs to be the Diamondbacks’ first baseman.  However, Mark Grace is pretty much an all-time Cub.  He is the last Cub to hit for a cycle.  It would be fitting for him to try to resurrect his personal life in the booth.  Besides, Lenny and Gracey has a nice ring to it.  No?  Yeah…not so much.
  • Rick Sutcliffe: I know.  I’m reaching.  Sut’ legitimately sounds like he loves his ESPN gig every time I hear him on there.  But come on…how awesome would this be?
  • Doug Glanville:  He looks like he would be okay not having the “Doug” song from “The Hangover” sang to him from Mike Greenberg at 8:00am ever again.
  • Nomar Garciaparra: He’s another guy I think is a reach because he likes his ESPN gig.  However, he would be a good fit and seemed to be genuinely liked by Cubs fans when he was with the team.
  • Eric Karros: This is one guy that I could legitimately see joining Len Kasper.  And I like him, so it wouldn’t be as painful as listening to Steve Stone used to be.
  • Steve Berthiaume: I had to pick somebody who is not a former Cub, and since his name was thrown around with the D-Backs job, there at least seems to be some play in this idea of him leaving his really sweet ESPN gig.

Ultimately, this is all speculation.  Any of the names I have mentioned would be excellent additions, from my perspective.  There are some guys (Bobby Valentine) who I would cringe at the thought of, but it’s going to be a waiting game and we’ll find out how it plays when Spring Training starts/