Don’t Say Mid-Market Like It’s A Bad Thing

Theo Epstein spoke today, and like all times when Theo has something to say, it’s generated some buzz.

“A million here, a million there, that’s what we can afford.  We’re not in position to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency. But if we can do it in that (international free agency) market, we might as well try to monopolize it as best we can.”

That line from Theo has started the “mid-market” talk among fans and media, alike.  Patrick Mooney put out a great piece which explicitly called the Cubs just that.  Then again, knowing the Cubs’ history of flushing money down the crapper and how the landscape of baseball is changing with the new labor agreement, is that such a bad thing?

At the risk of repeating myself, the way the Cubs are going about their business is the best way to do it.  Free agency is not going to produce a team that goes from the bottom of the division to the top after just one winter, like the Cubs managed to do between the 2006 and 2007 seasons.  There are no quick fixes.  So spending “a million here, a million there” on international free agents and by acquiring a load of talent to retool from within is the last best option.  Minor league talent is currency.  Teams can develop and field that talent when it reaches the point major league ready (unlike the Cubs have…see Patterson, Corey; Pie, Felix) , or they can use it to acquire established players…which is the “new free agency.”  Teams who are selling off veterans like the Cubs have the last couple of seasons are essentially teams of free agents who can be had if the price is right.

Drafting and development hasn’t been a strength of the Cubs in the past.  Bleacher Nation had a piece yesterday that should make the former front office want to huddle in a corner and cry.  You think the team we’re watching is bad?  Take a look at that roster.  It makes me cringe.  The good news is, the article BN referenced is linked, showing all 30 teams…including the Red Sox, which was led by Theo Epstein.  In a weird, mid-market sort of way, a number of the major pieces of what made the Red Sox good over the second half of his tenure were homegrown…like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholtz, and Jonathan Papelbon while players like Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez were used as currency to obtain other useful parts.

The era of big market supremacy has passed.  In all reality, it never really existed.  Even the Yankees in the ’90s were mostly homegrown with some complimentary free agents sprinkled in.  It is time to embrace the “mid-market” philosophy of spending wisely and developing players…because it works.

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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.

Borbon Designated…For Stupidity?

Almost immediately after the game yesterday, Julio Borbon was designated for assignment.  In the ninth inning, Borbon made a Grade A Stupid Play, bringing TOOTBLAN to a whole new level.

If you ask Dale Sveum, he would have you believe the two events are closely related, via Bruce Miles:

“That, obviously, was an unfortunate thing that happened.  It is a point that we just can’t keep having those things go on, and he’s had a few of them himself. So it was time to make an adjustment to the roster and see if somebody else can do the job.  Those are things that are controllable. You don’t have control over swinging at a slider in the dirt. Nobody’s wanting to do that. Those are physical things. Things you have complete control over is knowing the game and thinking ahead, understanding the ramifications. In that situation, you mean absolutely nothing at that point. You can literally stand on second base and not do anything, and everything will be perfectly fine.”

When I read that, I have to admit, my BS detector went nuts.  While Dale is correct when he points out that there have been multiple instances of Borbon running himself off the bases, he would also be correct if he said that about every Cub this season.  If he wanted to send a message about poor play, why does David DeJesus have a job?  He was completely brutal yesterday, and he’s had a number of concentration lapses that have directly led to runs scoring as an outfielder.

The answer is simple…Borbon was the 25th man.  He was probably on his way out the door soon, even if he would have hit a walk-off grand slam yesterday.  At some point in the near future, Ryan Sweeney and Brian Bogusevic are going to be coming back.  The Cubs have also been mighty left-handed this season.  At least for the time being, Donnie Murphy, who was added to the roster today, is a right handed hitter who has hit pretty well at AAA Iowa.

My guess is, he’ll be on the first bus back to Des Moines when either Sweeney or Bogusevic return.  And newcomer Cole Gillespie will likely get the boot, also.  Dale and the front office just happened to fall bass-ackwards into an opportune time to send a message to Junior Lake (who’s run into his share of stupid outs in just a couple of weeks), and the other youngsters who are watching the big league club from the minor leagues.  And he was right to do it.  It just doesn’t mean that what he said was the whole truth.

As Deadline Passes, Cubs’ Priority Should Be Extending Dale Sveum

In just about two days time, the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go.  The Cubs, who have been more active than any team in the month of July, will see a considerable slow down in activity with the passing of the draft, the initial international free agent signing period, and the trade deadline.  That leaves them with an ample opportunity to take care of what may be the most vital piece of business they have left before next season: Extend the contract of Manager, Dale Sveum.

Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

As Theo Epstein’s hand picked successor to Mike Quade, Dale Sveum has done everything the Cubs could have imagined…and more.  He deserves to go into next season with some job security, and the Cubs should go into this off-season, where they will surely try to add players who can help the major league team take the next step toward respectability, with stability in the manager’s office.

Although his 109-156 record isn’t outstanding, it is also not his fault.  He walked into a complete overhaul of a roster of albatross contracts, aging veterans, and young players who really weren’t major league players.  To make matters worse, the front office either traded or shut down major portions of his starting rotation…in both 2012 and 2013.  The bullpens he’s had to work with have been largely unproven young players or veteran retreads (*cough cough* Shawn Camp *cough*), and it has shown in the win-loss column.

Dale Sveum was hired to do two main things: Keep the clubhouse together and develop young talent.  He’s done exceedingly well on both fronts in his first two seasons.

On the player development front, the biggest feather in his cap is the coaching staff he’s put together.  While he may have had Rudy Jaramillo and Pat Listach as hold overs for either part or all of last season, the additions of Dave McKay, David Bell, and Chris Bosio have all been successful.  Dave McKay helped turn Alfonso Soriano into a serviceable left fielder.  After years of being afraid of the wall and hopping around like a wounded bunny rabbit, Soriano had the highest UZR among NL left fielders last season.  It’s amazing what a little coaching will do after Soriano admitted that he hadn’t gotten any outfield instruction before last season, from either Quade’s staff or Lou Piniella before him.  Anthony Rizzo is another success, as Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach, brought his hands down, shortening his swing, and making him better than the .141/.281.242 hitter he was with the Padres in 2011.  The anecdotes serve as evidence of a whole: the Cubs are a vastly improved defensive team from the years before Sveum.  And the approach at the plate is starting to get better, too.  Nothing happens over night, but the results are starting to show up.  In spite of all of the player movement, trades, and lost veterans in the clubhouse, the Cubs have a winning record since May 26 (30-25).  While the sample is small, the results matter.  Even with major bullpen issues and a complete inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are playing competitively.  The steps in the right direction are adding up.

The clubhouse is the other place Sveum was asked to thrive.  As a former top prospect, he can relate to the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and soon Javier Baez, et al.  He can also relate to the 25th man on the roster because that’s where his career ended after a devastating leg injury.  He knows the weight of expectations and he knows the plight of the role player who is tasked to sit and wait for his name to be called, and the need to be ready.  He relates to his players because he’s been there and done that.  And while he took some undeserved criticism for his loyalty to Shawn Camp from fans, it was not his job to get rid of Camp.  It was the front office’s.  Having his player’s back, especially one who he’s had history with, was the only move he could make that doesn’t send the alienating “as soon as I see trouble, I’m going to turn my back on you.” message.  That’s a terrible image to portray to the rest of the team.  The fact that Dale said it was tough to see Camp go may have made fans cringe, but it probably made the team smile a little bit.  When veterans like Matt Garza hang around after being shut down with 2 1/2 months left in a 100 loss season, it says as much as there is to say about a clubhouse…especially when Garza admitted if it had been Quade’s clubhouse, he would have gone home.  And being able to sign quality free agents like Edwin Jackson after a 100 loss season doesn’t happen if the player thinks the manager is a bum who can’t manage a clubhouse.  Think about it.  Has anything obscenely negative come out of the clubhouse during Sveum’s tenure?  For a team with the win-loss record the Cubs have had, you’d think there would be something.  Especially in a media market like Chicago.  But it’s been remarkably quiet.  Which means the bad stuff is being handled where it should…in house.

Dale has been charged with over-seeing a complete rebuild, which couldn’t have been fun, couldn’t have been easy, and couldn’t have happened in any worse a place than Wrigley Field, where every year is “THE YEAR” to a group of people who only watch the game and read the box score in the paper each morning.  The reality is, last year, this year, and probably next year are not “THE YEAR.”  But the team is heading in the right direction in spite of the instability among the player personnel.  That is a credit to Sveum, and the right thing to do is ensure that he never gets to “lame duck” status in the last year of a contract with a team, who next year may be able to win consistently for the first time in his tenure.

Besides.  He got shot in the face and laughed it off.  How cool is it to have a manager like that?

TRADE DEADLINE: Is Samardzija The Next To Go?

Over the past day or so, the latest name to pop up in Cubs trade rumors is that of Jeff Samardzija.  Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said the Cubs were “listening” to other teams as they call about Samardzija, which is essentially what really set off the entire conversation.

The reality about Samardzija trade speculation, as others have said, is that of course the Cubs are willing to listen to what other teams are offering.  That does not mean Shark is on the block in the same manner Ryan Dempster was last season or Matt Garza was this season.  That does mean that it would be irresponsible of the front office to not listen to what other teams have to offer for Jeff Samardzija, who is not a free agent until after 2015 and, although he is 28 years old, is relatively low mileage at this point in his career.  He’s only thrown 481.1 major league innings, which isn’t a whole lot for someone of Jeff’s age or his physical stature.

It would be a massive surprise if Samardzija was traded for all of those reasons…the price would be astronomical.  While the D-Backs, Red Sox, Pirates, Braves, and others may have interest, it is going to take an awful lot to acquire him.  The price tag takes him out of reach for most teams because they simply don’t have the prospects.  And he probably costs too much to part with for the teams with the prospect currency to actually get him.  It is not totally out of the question that somebody gets desperate for a starter with so few good ones on the market, though, so it is worth the front office’s time to listen to whoever calls.  The price is reportedly a top pitching prospect (or prospects), as it should be.

Theo and Jed aren’t stupid.  They know they have a huge piece to build a competitive Cubs team with (if the price is right), either as a front of the rotation starter or a player who can fetch a front of the rotation starter in a trade.  While Samardzija may not be “on the block,” he isn’t unavailable.  And since none of the Cubs have a no trade clause anymore, that’s the way it should be.  Everyone can be had if the price is right.  For Samardzija, the price is going to be high.  Really high.

Alfonso Soriano Traded To Yankees; A Lot of Questions Need Answering In His Absense

The Cubs and Yankees finalized the trade sending Alfonso Soriano to the Bronx today.  It breaks down as follows:

Yankees Get:  OF/DH Alfonso Soriano, Cash

Cubs Get:  RHP Corey Black

Corey Black pitched for the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League.  He throws in the mid to upper 90s, and has touched 100, according to some reports.  He’s had some issues with walks, but has the big fastball to go with an above average change up.  John Arguello from Cubs Den had the following to say about Black:

“Of all the names mentioned, he’s the one that intrigues me the most.  He’s undersized, but has similar athleticism and build as Travis Wood.  He can also bring it, able to pitch last year at 95-98 with sinking movement. Some reports have him touching 100 mph in the instructional league.  His changeup is solid and his secondaries lag behind, though the slider is further along than the curve.  He has struck out 9.58 batters per 9 innings and although he has walked 4.90 per 9 IP, he does have the kind of athleticism to repeat his delivery and develop better command.”

Soriano being moved means the Cubs no longer have a player with a no trade clause, which gives the front office free reign to deal at their heart’s desire.  Ultimately, that’s probably the best thing for the organization.  Theo Epstein

had some comments about the Soriano deal, via Carrie Muskat:

“I don’t look at this as a watershed moment, or a transformative moment at all.  It was simply the right time for Sori to move on and open up some at-bats for Junior Lake and when [Ryan] Sweeney and [Brian] Bogusevic come back from injury, now that [David] DeJesus is back from injury, we have a chance to find out about left-handed bats and some on-base skills and see who might be in the mix for next year. It was just the right time for this particular move.”

Dale Sveum also had some strong words about Alfonso Soriano (via Paul Sullivan and the Tribune)

“It’s emotional for all of us.  You don’t usually gather teams together that often when people get traded to say your goodbyes. That just shows what kind of person he is.”

And from Carrie Muskat

“You say you’re prepared for it, but I don’t think you’re really prepared to lose somebody of that nature.  All the things he brings to a team, the fourth hole, the character, the clubhouse, the leadership and everything. You just don’t replace that.”

And lastly…

With Soriano being traded, Jeff Samardzija is the longest tenured Cub, and the only one remaining from the 2008 season.  It also leaves a gaping hole in the “veteran leader” spot.  David DeJesus is the first, best candidate to fill that role, and with the team getting younger and younger, he really doesn’t have an alternative, as long as he himself is still a Cub.  It also means that the youngster Soriano mentored on being a professional, Starlin Castro, is going to be thrust into the position of being one of the veteran leaders, at just 23 years old.  Such is life when you’re the longest tenured position player on the roster.

The line-up is another issue altogether.  It appears there is some solution to left field and to the clean-up slot…

That is a perfectly good solution for the time being.  Realistically, Junior Lake is going to regress.  He’s a talented player, but his obscene start is going to cool off and his numbers are going to come back to earth.  Nate Schierholtz manning the clean-up spot (as long as he is also still a Cub) isn’t really a good solution, either.  Realistically, the best option in the fourth spot in the line up is Anthony Rizzo.  Ultimately, there will likely be a number of different line-up combinations that we see through the end of the season, as Dale Sveum gets new players and returning players to move in and out of the line up.

The one certainty this trade brings the Cubs for the remainder of the season is uncertainty.  While it will likely not get as ugly as last season dd, it does mean that Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney need to start performing at the level shown on the back of their baseball cards.  With difficulty comes opportunity.  It will be difficult to replace Soriano’s bat in the line-up, and there will be a number of players who get ample opportunity to prove they can do it.

TRADE DEADLINE: Cubs Reportedly Discussing Alfonso Soriano to Yankees Deal

As we creep into the wee hours of the morning, a report has surfaced that the Cubs are getting close to sending Alfonso Soriano to his original team, the New York Yankees.  There were a number of reports that the offensively starved Yankees are looking for offensive help, and Soriano’s name has been mentioned as a possibility over the past number of days.  This spring, Soriano also said he would consider waiving his no-trade rights to go back to the Bronx.  Obviously, nothing is done until it is done, but this is as close to a trade as Soriano has been since he has been a Cub.

UPDATE: The New York media had this being a lot closer than it really is.  There is apparently “nothing imminent” on the Soriano trade front, although all sides are acknowledging that the discussions are taking place.  It stands to reason that it will take the Cubs paying a lot of Soriano’s remaining salary and the Yankees giving up more than the “mid-level prospect” that was thrown around last night.  Soriano discussions could very well last through the waiver deadline at the end of August because his contract makes him 100% unclaimable.