Two years, in sports, is an eternity. In the last two years, the Cubs went from being among the bottom of the farm system rankings to among the top, if not the very top. Over the last two summers, we have swooned over the bat speed of Javier Baez, gushed at Albert Almora’s defensive ability in center, looked wide eyed at Kris Bryant’s power, and Soler-gasmed at one of the biggest signings of the Epstein/ Hoyer era. Two of the cornerstone prospects, two years ago, were Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. Now, in some circles, those guys are busts.
In every respect, it is completely unfair to call either Jackson or Vitters a bust. Neither has had an extended look at the major league level. And both have performed in the minor leagues. The “bust” conversations are had among those who have expected to see them in the majors at this point. It doesn’t help that the only thing we heard about either of them was Brett Jackson being demoted to AA Tennessee while he continued to try to control the strike out problems that have plagued him. We didn’t actually hear anything at all about Josh Vitters. Mostly because it’s pretty hard to talk about a guy who didn’t play a whole lot because of persistent injury issues in 2013.
Josh Vitters is making is overdue transition to being a full time outfielder, which can help mitigate his defensive struggles. After only 100 plate appearances at Iowa last season, and 88 at-bats, Vitters needs to bounce back from a shortened and injury plagued 2013. Thing of it is, when he played, he was fine. his .295/.380/.511 triple slash line in an age 23 season in AAA isn’t anything to gloss over, even if it wasn’t very much. The kid can hit. He’s performed every step of the way in the minors, albeit with an adjustment period after arriving. A broader view of his numbers shows us that in 552 plate appearances in AAA have him at .302/.361/.513. The biggest knock on Vitters is that he was selected so long ago that people forget that he will not turn 25 until the end of August next season. If he can get and stay healthy and come to spring training ready, Vitters has to have as realistic a shot as anyone at making the roster, for two reasons. First, the Cubs are not going to be competitive next season and it would make sense to get a look at him. And second, because on a team full of fourth and fifth outfielders, there are not clear runaways for roster spots, outside of Junior Lake, Nate Schierholtz, and Ryan Sweeney. Even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day 25 man roster, it would be a surprise not to see him get an extended look in the majors next season, if for no other reason than to see what he can do there. His 2012 call-up was the very definition of a small sample size. 109 plate appearances were unspectacular (.121/.193/.202), but it’s ridiculous to give up on a kid who was 22 and playing in mop up duty in a lost season.
Brett Jackson is just over a year older than Vitters, but is similarly forgotten. He will be turning 26 in early August. Also, like Vitters, his 2013 was hampered by injuries. Starting in Spring Training with shoulder inflammation and then having toe and calf problems as the season wore on, Jackson never really got it going. He was limited to 367 plate appearances between Arizona, Tennessee, and Iowa, and his strike out problems persisted through a reworked swing after spending last winter with former manager, Dale Sveum. When Jackson has made contact, he’s been fine, with BABIPs generally hanging between .350 and .400 through his full minor league seasons. It’s the hole in his swing that drives down his average. One thing Jackson does have going for him is his walk rate, which has been at or above 10% for most of his career, including his brief stint in the majors in 2012. Between his speed and power, he too has ability that can’t be simply discarded because of an arbitrary timeline for success. Also, like Vitters, it would be a surprise if he didn’t see some time at the major league level this season, assuming he stays healthy.
Vitters and Jackson are both obviously talented. They would not have been selected in the first round of their respective drafts if that were not true. Both would have likely seen time in Chicago last season if it weren’t for injuries. This season is important for both, to stay healthy and to take the next step. With Almora, Soler, and potentially Kris Bryant coming behind them in the outfield, their opportunities may be limited by the surge of the newer prospects. Still, it is far too early to write off either one. We still don’t know what they are or what they can be, whether that be solid regulars or AAAA players like Bryan LaHair. And as evidenced by both of these players, the value (real or perceived) of a prospect can change quickly, so it is still in the best interest of the organization to try to get everything they can from these two assets.
With the Christmas Day news that Masahiro Tanaka will indeed be posted by his team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, we’ve all started fawning (more than before we knew for sure he was coming) over a guy who could become one of the pieces the Cubs can use to get to the next level in the rebuild. In fact, Theo Epstein was talking about just this kind of player when he said that he wishes there was free agency for 25 year olds. There is something we should all consider when we start talking about Tanaka, though, and it is that he is going to cost a lot of money. And he’s Japanese.
Being Japanese matters. In Japan, running up high pitch counts is a badge of honor. Unlike in the United States, where arms are nurtured and cared for, they are worn out and used up until exhaustion over there. And unlike the US, where athletes merely hide injuries, but eventually relent and tell someone they have an injury, pitchers in Japan work until it is no longer physically possible. All of those things matter. His potential for being injured is higher because his arm wasn’t cared for like that of a college pitcher in the US. That’s not to say he will get hurt, but it happens to pitchers more so than it does to just about any other athlete imaginable. His previous environment only heightens that risk. It’s the extent of the heightening risk that is unknown.
None of this is to say that he will bust. There is no way to know for sure that Tanaka will get hurt, and even with advanced imaging and scans on his elbow, there’s no way to know for sure that he will get hurt or won’t get hurt. I am quite positive that he will be X-Ray’d, MRI’d, CT’d, poked, prodded, and tickled like an Elmo doll before any team actually signs him between now and the end of January.
Injury risk has to be part of the equation. Theo was burned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing when he was with Boston, though. I am sure he remembers. And I am sure there will be a calculated gamble when it comes to signing Tanaka, whoever lands him. His age helps. Being young means his soft tissue is a little more elastic than it would be if he were in his late 20s or early 30s, as most of the other Japanese pitchers were when they came to the US.
EDIT: To clarify, I used fatigue interchangeably with overexertion, which I should not have. Having an exertion that is normal with a normal recovery period can make muscle stronger while relieving stress on tendons and ligaments. That is consistent with the way every team “stretches out” their starting pitchers during Spring Training. Overexertion is working until the point of physical exhaustion. Remarkable weakness to the point of significantly reduced velocity is an overexertion, and doing it as repeatedly as Tanaka has can (but not necessarily will) increase the risk of injury. There is no guarantee that he will get hurt, but since he has been exerting himself at this level for so long, and is just now reaching his physical “prime,” there is some risk to signing him. Whether that risk is the same as signing a pitcher who is older, like a Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez or if it is similar to signing Mark Prior just before he was injured can’t be known. The key confounding variable to all of this is: Everyone is different.
What is unsaid about Tanaka is that he does pose an injury risk that is likely greater than an American pitcher at 25 because of the strain that Japanese baseball puts on its pitchers. The recency bias tells us that Yu Darvish looks sensational and like he was worth every penny the Rangers paid for him. That bias excludes the fact that there have been a lot of Japanese pitchers who have come to the United States as highly touted players who have just flamed out because of injuries or because the competition here is greater than it is over there.
Jeff Sullivan wrote about Tanaka at Fangraphs, in which he said that Tanaka is the market’s best starter, which is true, and that international free agents “represent limitless possibilities, and people naturally shift their attention toward the positive extreme.” That is also true. Sullivan dives deeper into the scouting report of Tanaka, which is tremendous, and his numbers back the limitless talent. But like any player, especially pitcher, Tanaka has an injury risk that cannot be ignored. It will not be by the front office, and it shouldn’t be by fans. After all, we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?
Right, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior?
Now that the World Series is over and the Cardinals lost (HOORAY!), we can get to the task at hand. The off-season. The Cubs are chocked full of needs this winter. Those will have to be addressed going into 2014 to keep the rebuilding plan on schedule.
These are the most pressing…
1. Find a new manager
After the firing of Dale Sveum, the next guy to lead the Cubs on-field is the first concern. With the playoffs having ended, the obstacle of candidates still playing is over. To be honest, I don’t care who they hire, as long as he fits the mold of what the front office is looking for. That Dale was the guy for a while, then suddenly became not the guy doesn’t matter. Great organizations are stable. And since 2010, this will be the fourth manager. That’s not stable. Find the guy. The right guy. So we’re not going through this mess again in two years.
2. Find some outfield depth
After losing Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and Scott Hairston to midseason trades, it is going to be important for the Cubs to replace that lost depth at the major league level. The preference would be to sign veterans on short (1-2 years) deals while the youngsters get ready. With Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, and Junior Lake, there is a need for two more outfielders. Preferably one who can play center and one who hits right handed. To be clear, I do not see Shin Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury as viable options. I have no visions of the Cubs spending on either of those players with the talent that is coming behind them. I do see players like Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore, Corey Hart, and Tyler Colvin as options. Colvin is the standard “buy low flier” that this front office has taken in the past, and with his talent and familiarity with the Cubs, and the admission that the Stewart – Colvin trade may have been a mistake, he could be back. The others are veterans who have had some success, but have also had injury issues. Any resurgence could make them trade bait in July, and they all likely come relatively cheap. David DeJesus is also an option if the Rays decide not to pick up his option for next season
3. Trade Darwin Barney
The popular defensive wizard is not part of the core. He’s a below average hitter. And he’s getting a bit older. There is a market for him, though. His value, however, is at its highest point right now. He’s just now entering arbitration. Teams who have a need at second base can use him. The Cubs do not have that need. They are stocked full of middle infielders, from Starlin Castro to Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, Logan Watkins, and Luis Valbuena, the Cubs have no shortage of middle infield options. All of whom are younger than Barney. And all of whom possess greater offensive upside and the potential to continue good defense at second base in the future. The return for Barney won’t be ground breaking, but it should be a decent prospect, or maybe two if Epstein and Hoyer break out the mask and gun. Now, though, is the best and most logical time to move him.
4. Address the rotation
The rotation was surprisingly good last season, throughout the year. There was a lot of depth that withstood trades, and some players emerged as legitimate long term options. Travis Wood showed that he is a solid mid to back of the rotation starter. Jake Arrieta showed that he is still talented and should get a shot going forward. Edwin Jackson had a rough first year, but with his contract and history, he will be back in the rotation next season, and I would venture to guess he has a better second year with the Cubs. It is the very top of the rotation and the very bottom that should be addressed. Jeff Samardzija walked more, stuck out fewer, and allowed more runners to score in 2013 than 2012. The differences aren’t startling, but they exist. Could it have been fatigue from the most innings in a season he’s thrown? Frustration from another near 100 losses? Displeasure over his contract situation? A combination of all three? I don’t have the answer. What I do have the answer to is Samardzija getting rocked a number of times. And it happening a number of times at home. That’s not an ace. That’s a third in the rotation type pitcher, at best. I am not sold on Japanese stud Masahiro Tanaka being an answer at the top of the rotation, either. Too many Japanese pitchers have flamed out because of arm issues. I understand his stuff is excellent, and he’s still young. That may make him a nice investment, but not for the $100+ million it’s going to cost. If the Cubs get him, I’ll hope for the best, but I won’t be at all surprised with the worst. As far as the back end of the rotation is concerned, bringing back Scott Baker, giving Chris Rusin a shot at a full season, and low cost free agents are all options.
5. Back-up catcher
I have a tough time with the idea of signing a Brian McCann (because of age and injury every bit as much as his high douche factor). All things being equal, I would hope the starting catcher market doesn’t treat Dioner Navarro as he would like, and he comes back. He had a nice year, seemed to have a good relationship with Wellington Castillo, and is a reliable backstop. Whoever comes in should take a back seat to Castillo, though. Big money free agent catchers shouldn’t (and probably won’t) be a priority. If the Cubs can land a guy like Jarrod Saltalamacchia for a decent price, great. if not, a LH hitting backup will work just fine.
One of the great parts about baseball is how this is going to play out throughout the off-season. The Cubs are not going to compete for a World Series next season, most likely. It could, though, bring the first wave of prospects to Wrigley Field. Javier Baez and Kris Bryant very well could debut with the big league club at some point next summer. In addition, could be up after being acquired in trades. It appears that the worst is behind the Cubs in the rebuild. Much of the “acquire talent at all costs” is over because of the amount of talent in the organization. The time now is for the build up. While the Cubs will continue to add pieces and make the team better and organization healthier, this off-season is the beginning of the build up of a contender. Whether it be adding placeholders for a prospect, adding leadership to help those prospects grow, or the eventual hiring of a new manager, the fruits of two years of painful big league play are beginning to ripen.
Look no further than what’s been going on in Arizona. Let the off-season begin!
Michael Bowden, Alex Burnett, Shawn Camp, Rafael Dolis, Kyuji Fujikawa, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier, Kameron Loe, Carlos Marmol, Blake Parker, Zach Putnam, Brooks Raley, Henry Rodriguez, Hector Rondon, James Russell, Eduardo Sanchez, Pedro Strop, Hisanori Takahashi, and Carlos Villanueva.
That is the list of everybody who’s appeared in a game for the Cubs out of the bullpen thus far. And that pen has been much maligned. For a lot of reasons. The 24 blown saves advance that perception, even though many of those “saves” were blown in the 7th and 8th innings, and not the 9th. In all actuality, the 9th inning hasn’t gone all that bad for the Cubs. When the Cubs get to the 9th inning with a lead, they are 45-4. For comparison sake, they are 1-58 when they enter the 9th trailing. And overall, the bullpen has been much better of late. Since the additions of Strop, Guerrier, and Parker, the pen has been solid, and it has not regressed since Guerrier was lost. With Russell, Parker, and Strop, the Cubs finally have a bridge to Kevin Gregg in the 9th, who has gotten the job done in spite of how interesting it may be.
Looking forward, the Cubs figure to have James Russell, Blake Parker, Pedro Strop, and Carlos Villanueva back in the bullpen next season. Villanueva may be in the rotation for periods, but it seems like he is best suited to be in the pen, and fill in as a spot starter. That leaves three openings for next season’s bullpen. Matt Guerrier may be invited back after rehabbing from forearm surgery. The Cubs also have some players who can fit nicely into relief roles in the system already. Brian Schlitter has been dominant at AAA Iowa this season, racking up 17 saves without blowing one. And Arodys Vizcaino should be back from his elbow issues the last couple of years. The plan is, tentatively, to send him to play in fall and/ or winter leagues, to get him back on the mound, which would serve him well in rehabbing this off-season. And he may end up as a starter at some point, but a cautious approach with him, and letting him get innings in a bullpen role would be a way to bring him back at the major league level without running up 150-175 innings in his first year back. Filling the last slot with Hector Rondon, who has a good arm and a year of experience could make the Cubs pen much better, assuming everyone stays healthy and pitches similarly to how they are now.
Projected 2014 Opening Day Bullpen (assuming no outside moves are made):
While this exercise is highly speculative, the point is simple: the Cubs have the arms to improve the bullpen within the organization. And every one of the players in my projection has been in the major leagues, including Schlitter, who appeared in seven games all the way back in 2010. They have some depth, too. If the Cubs can figure out what is wrong with Henry Rodriguez and get him to throw strikes, he’s a viable option. Matt Guerrier has already expressed interest in returning on a minor league deal, and at this point, there is no harm in that. Eduardo Sanchez was a once promising reliever with the Cardinals, and is young enough to recapture his form. Kyuji Fujikawa will return at some point next season from Tommy John Surgery. And most importantly, maybe, Carlos Marmol, who couldn’t finish games at the end of his Cubs’ career, and Shawn Camp, who got beat up a lot this season will not be returning.
The pen is already better right now than it was for most of the summer. And there is talent in the organization to improve it further next season. With any offense at all, the Cubs might actually flirt with a winning season, which would be a positive step in the rebuilding effort.