Category: Down on the Farm

Too Early To Quit On Vitters and Jackson

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.

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Cubs Bullpen Can Be Fixed…Without Looking Outside The Organization

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):

Hector Rondon
Brian Schlitter
Carlos Villanueva
Arodys Vizcaino
James Russell
Blake Parker
Pedro Strop

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.

 

Javier Baez May Be Forcing His Way Into Cubs’ 2014 Plans

Javier Baez is good.  He’s really, really good.  And based on the looks of things, he has very little interest in remaining in the minor leagues for all that much longer.

Currently with AA Tennessee, Baez hasn’t had any drop-off in production since being promoted from High A Daytona.  In fact, looking at the numbers, they’re remarkably similar in a lot of respects.  With Daytona this season, Baez was a .274/.338/.535 hitter.  With Tennessee, the pace has been .273/.329/.580.  Last night, he hit his 12th home run with the Smokies and 29th for the season.  What makes these numbers more impressive is that both the Florida State League and the Southern League are considered pitcher friendly.  He is sitting at 14th in the league in home runs in just 34 games.  If he had the at-bats to qualify, he would also lead the Southern League in OPS.

Photo: Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies

Photo: Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies

Clearly, when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said that a prospect will get promoted if he dominates his competition Javier Baez took it to heart.  That is the exact kind of thing you want from your top prospect, too.  He’s not by any means a finished product, but he is making leaps and bounds at the plate.  He still strikes out more than his fair share (about 28% of the time), and his walk rate isn’t what you want in a middle of the order bat.  The walks part of the equation is coming around, though.  He’s taken 33 of his 47 professional walks this season.  While some of the lack of walks before this season is probably due to inferior competition at lower levels of the minors, the numbers bear out that he’s not walking up to the plate hacking quite as much as he used to.

The area of concern that remains about Baez, and the thing that can hold him back is his defense.  He has 40 errors for the season, and a .929 fielding percentage, which isn’t going to cut it at any level.  To his credit, his fielding percentage has come up with Tennessee, from .922 in Daytona to .946, which can probably be attributed to, in part, better field conditions in AA than were seen in the Florida State League and a smaller sample size.  This also shows how little fielding percentage should be used to judge defense.  Baez has all of the tools to play three infield positions, and could end up supplanting the platoon at third or Darwin Barney at second.  His range and arm work well at both positions, in addition to short stop.   Jed Hoyer said earlier this summer that he thinks Baez can stick and play short in the majors.

It would be a surprise to see Javier Baez to go to Spring Training and win a spot on the 25 man roster when camp breaks.  With the way this front office develops players, there is, while non-zero, a very slim chance of it happening.  It is entirely possible that Javier Baez breaks with AAA Iowa, however.  Considering how he’s played at AA Tennessee, it is possible he’s doing what he’s been asked: forcing the organization to move him up.  There is still some time to play in 2013, but nothing that has happened to this point should suggest a slowdown in Baez’s production.

AA is a phone call away from the major leagues.  Ask Starlin Castro.  When Baez gets to Iowa, he will actually be a mere phone call away from the majors.  If he plays as well in Iowa as he is in Tennessee and did in Daytona, there is no reason to believe that the offensively starved Cubs would not call Baez, especially if they find that they are one more bat away from being a competitive team.  Ultimately, it’s up to Baez.  If he dominates his level, he moves up, until he gets to Chicago.  At that point, we all hope he dominates at that level for a long time.

Under The Radar Deadline Deal Candidates

All of the deadline talk, and justifiably so, has been centered around Matt Garza to this point.  There are also some other players who have been talked about as candidates to move on as the deadline approaches.  David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Alfonso Soriano, and Kevin Gregg have all been spoken of as players who could very likely be traded as the deadline nears, or at least wouldn’t cause anybody any surprise if they were moved.  There is also a list of attractive players that the Cubs could move who are not talked about prominently as the deadline inches closer.  They fit the needs and holes of teams in contention and are low cost options to upgrade a roster, and it would make perfect sense if the Cubs were fielding calls about these players…

2B Darwin Barney:  

The Cubs are stacked in the middle infield in the minor leagues at just about every level.  With Logan  Watkins at AAA Iowa, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez at AA Tennessee, and even Gioskar Amaya at Low-A Kane County, middle infielders are of no shortage in the Cubs’ organization.  Darwin Barney has done everything he can to become a member of the core group of players that the Cubs use to make their eventual run, but his limitations with the bat seem to make him less attractive than other options.  With a Gold Glove in his pocket and over a year before he even gets to arbitration, he could make a team looking for a low cost second baseman, without a need for a highly productive bat, very happy.  The need doesn’t even have to be strictly second base.  Barney came up as a short stop, and played third base when he first came up to the majors.  He could be quite the defensive addition for any team looking to shore up its infield defense.  Darwin actually fits into a line-up like Detroit’s perfectly.  Incumbent Ramon Santiago plays both offensively and defensively at about replacement level.  Replacing him with Darwin Barney doesn’t hurt their prolific offense at all, and very much shores up their middle infield.  With the rumor that Detroit was interested last year, it makes sense that they would be interested again this year, given how close they came to winning a championship last year.  Darwin Barney won’t net any team’s top prospect, but he should net a solid prospect or retread a la Scott Feldman.  And with the depth already mentioned in the system, Darwin is expendable.

IF Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom:

Luis Valbuena is another player who could see himself on the move as the deadline approaches.  Because he is an everyday player with the Cubs, he has displayed what he can do with the bat from the left side of the plate, and has shown to be more than capable as  a defender.  A team looking for a left handed hitting platoon infielder would love to have a player like Luis Valbuena for his ability to work counts, take walks, hit for power and field three infield positions well.  A team like the Yankees, who have had a hard time keeping players on the field may take a long look at a Luis Valbuena.  He would fit into the gaping holes left by repeated injuries and days off because of the advanced age of regular players, and his bat would play well with the short porch and right field power allies at Yankee Stadium.  The Rays could also have interest in a player with his skill set.  He wouldn’t net much of a return, but if there is a low level player in a system that catches Jed or Theo’s eye, don’t doubt for a second that the original “low risk waiver flyer” could be flipped for a lottery ticket at the deadline.  Cody Ransom is in pretty much the same situation as Valbuena, except he’s right handed, comes with less control, and more age.

P Carlos Villanueva:

Maybe the least surprising player on this list, and quite possibly the most likely to be traded, Villanueva is a player who has been talked about as a trade candidate.  He was merely overshadowed by the talk of Garza and Feldman, among the pitchers.  Villanueva is particularly valuable because of his versatility as both a starter and reliever.  While specific locations for him may be tough to pin point, it is reasonable to say that any team looking for a ‘pen arm with the ability to give you a solid swing start from time to time would be interested…which boils down to pretty much everybody.  Again, it would be a surprise if Villanueva netted anything of note, but a middling prospect in somebody’s system who hasn’t progressed or a retread could be an expected return.

 

DOWN ON THE FARM: Cubs Promote Javier Baez To AA

This probably means Brad Zapenas is headed back to Kane County…

When this season started, I thought there was some chance that one of or both of Javier Baez and Jorge Soler could start at AA Tennessee.  That isn’t to say I was surprised when both were sent to Daytona.  That actually affirmed the notion that the Cubs, led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer with Jason McLeod leading player development, are really committed to letting these players develop and “master the level” before moving them up.  Granted, I thought it was more likely that Soler would beat Baez to Tennessee when the season started, mostly due to Baez’s defensive shortfalls and his lack of plate discipline, but a five game suspension and an injury have changed the equation for Soler.

Photo: USA Today Sports

Photo: USA Today Sports

This season, Baez took a step forward for the D-Cubs.  After finishing down there last season with a .188/.244/.400, he came back strong this season after getting some time in spring with the major league club.  This season’s .274/.336/.537 is a vast improvement, especially in a pitcher’s league.  In 98 games between 2012 and 2013, Baez delivered 21 HR, 70 RBI, went 14/18 stealing bases, and walked at a rate of about 6%.  In June, however, his walk rate improved to over 10%, which is a major step forward for the 20 year old 2011 first round pick.

Timing wise, this is about as good a time as any.  John Arguello over at Cubs Den sniffed this out when Ronald Torreyes was sent to the Astros, so I am all about giving credit where it’s due (and he deserves a TON of credit.  He’s the Gold Standard on prospect/ draft stuff).  But, it’s not like it was a leap to send him to Tennessee right now.  Baez is obviously comfortable in Daytona, and that is the time to move a player up.  Moving Torreyes was probably a justified by Baez being ready to move up.  And at this point, Baez gets to dip his feet in the water before the AA All-Star break, and finish with a touch over 50 games with the Smokies this summer.   He gets a half season to see where he stacks up at the level that saw Starlin Castro complete his minor league career.  He will very likely be headed right back to AA as next season opens up.  Again, he is going to have to master the level before going to Iowa.  He will be given every opportunity to do that, though.  And it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was a struggle or there is some inconsistency at the outset.  This is his biggest jump in competition level to date.

What does this mean for Baez’s possible timeline to Wrigley?  Well, it definitely brings him closer.  I would be stunned if he were in Iowa any sooner than this time next year.  In reality, there’s a good chance he spends all of 2014 in Tennessee, and doesn’t see Iowa before 2015.  If he succeeds, though, it’s not impossible to see an aggressive promotion, although that does not fit the MO of this front office.  I suspect the timeline is similar for both Baez and Soler to get to Chicago.  There is an outside chance that they make brief September cameos in 2014, if they come up next year at all.  More likely, they come up at some point in 2015.  The truth is, though, their promotions and eventual arrivals in Chicago are up to them and how quickly they work on they things they need to improve to make them worthy of a call-up.

 

EVERYBODY PANIC! Jorge Soler Broke His Freakin’ Leg

Unlike my usual overblown headlines on injuries, this one is actually accurate.  Jorge Soler actually does have a broken leg.  To be specific, he has a stress fracture of the tibia.

His injury is actually somewhat of a surprise. He is said to have gotten this injury when he fouled a ball off of his leg.  I suspect, however, that this was an injury that was developing before the foul ball and was found when the pain of that singular event didn’t go away and he was examined further.  That is because acute stress fractures are not exactly common.  The term “stress fracture” is exactly what it sounds like.  Repetitive stress causing a small fracture to a bone.  Tibial stress fractures are common in runners.  For a player like Soler, who has not played in a lot of games the last few years, the news of a stress fracture isn’t all that surprising.  The overload of playing every day can have the effect of a stress injury on players who are used to it.  For a guy who hasn’t played this much recently, it’s even more likely that a stress or overuse injury develops.

Here’s the good news…this is actually a pretty minor injury.  It’s really the next worst thing after shin splints.  All the stress fracture requires is rest.  While that’s a tough way to end June, and likely the season because of when the minor league schedule closes, this is not an injury that should produce any complications long term.  The injury was discovered quickly and is being treated with a walking boot.  The bone will probably not fracture completely, it will probably heal in the four to six week time frame, and Jorge Soler will be good as new.

Long story short…feel bad for Jorge now.  Don’t worry about his future because of this setback.  Because that’s all it is.

Jorge Soler’s Bat Crap Crazy Night

All of us who are on Twitter probably reacted the same way when we saw that Cubs prized international prospect Jorge Soler went nuts with a bat in Daytona last night.  I think my reaction was, “Say wha na…huh?”  I think we all had nothing but negative thoughts when we read that he assaulted an innocent dugout.  And I think we all wondered what it meant for his future.

Of course, given time, we find out that no dugouts were harmed in the making of a national news story from the Florida State League.  We found out that Soler himself feels terrible about what happened.  And we found out that (reportedly) Clearwater’s second baseman, Carlos Alonso, said something about Soler’s family.  Whether that’s true or not, I have no idea.  But when everyone who spent time with Soler this spring seems genuinely surprised it happened, I would bet there was more than “just normal back and forth at second base,” which is what Clearwater Manager, Chris Truby said about what led up to the incident.

My take is simple: I don’t have a problem with what Soler did.  That’s not to say he can charge opposing players and dugouts with a bat and beat the stuffing out of people.  He is a human being, though, and I know I’m not a mistake free member of society.  He made a mistake, and according to Theo, “Jorge is tremendously remorseful about what happened.”  That’s good enough for me.

As fans, we have an easy view on this.  I’m sure he was told by the organization that he would accept any punishment handed down.  He’s going to sit out five games.  He made A MISTAKE.  He didn’t come out of the game and complain to the media, no Gatorade coolers died last night, and no catcher is on his way out because the organization is picking sides.  He’s not Carlos Zambrano.  Heck, Big Z had to be poised and pitch well in the WBC to get a job this spring…and failed.  Jorge Soler is not Carlos Zambrano.  And questions about “make up” are premature, as well.  Keith Law tweeted it best, and I paraphrase, one incident does not change someone’s make up.

From our perspective, as far as big stories go, this should be pretty much a non-story.