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.
Some tidbits for the day…
- Yesterday, Dale Sveum called Starlin Castro a 6th or 7th spot hitter in a good offense. He has a point…for now. The 22 year old Castro doesn’t take a lot of walks, does not stretch out many at bats, and is very aggressive at the plate. That being said, Starlin has all of the makings of a very good number 2 hitter, as he can make good contact, runs well, and has shown he can drive the ball a little bit more. Remember, Starlin is still developing. As he does, he will hit for more power, and if he gains the patience to be more selective and drive his pitch, he could be the answer in a number of spots in the line-up. Sveum’s comments probably
were not meant to be as critical as they may have been taken, as much as they were meant to be a reflection on where Starlin Castro is in his development.
- I saw an interesting stat yesterday, which basically explains the subjectivity of some advanced metrics. The WAR ( Wins Above Replacement) of 2B Darwin Barney is a very strong 4.6. That of Brewers’ LF Ryan Braun: 4.5. This is not to suggest that Darwin is a better player than the reigning NL MVP. That is a silly statement in nearly every respect. The only area where Darwin Barney is a clear upgrade over Braun is in his infield defense, where Braun was a disaster in his rookie year. It does, however, go to show that when comparing players, some metrics are better left to compare players at the same position. If Theo Epstein called Milwaukee and said, “Straight up, Darwin Barney for Ryan Braun,” the answer would be a clear “click” of the phone being put down followed by the dial tone. All of this was spurred by ESPN’s Keith Law’s belief that Darwin Barney is not an everyday second baseman. While I very much respect Keith Law and his opinion, I disagree with him on the prospect that Darwin Barney is not an everyday second baseman. Among National League 2B, he is comparable to other everyday players in offensive categories, and is outstanding on defense. He leads MLB in fielding percentage among 2B, is 4th in range factor and tied for 3rd in double plays turned. His errorless streak of 100 games is a franchise record, and is within reach of the 113 game National League record. Darwin is in his second full season as a second baseman and in the majors. He is also only 26. He has shown a tremendous amount of growth in this season. It seems far too soon to write off Barney as, not only an everyday, but All-Star caliber 2B in the coming years.
- Chris Volstad starts for the Cubs tonight against the Astros. He comes into the game with an 0-8 win-loss record and a 6.94 ERA. He has not won in over a year. But, tonight could be the night. First, the Astros are horrible, especially on the road. Second, the 6’8″ right hander has been much better since coming back from Iowa after the flurry of trade activity at the deadline. He is 0-1 with a 3.46 ERA this month, with his loss to the Dodgers being a 7 inning, 2 earned performance in which the Cubs failed to bring their bats. If Chris Volstad has a night similar to his last two outings, and the Cubs have any sort of offensive showing tonight, Chris Volstad has a good chance of ending a painfully long winless streak.
- The Cubs face Lucas Harrell tonight. Collectively, the starting line-up is 1-1…an Alfonso Soriano single. Of all of the position players, the Cubs are 1-2, adding a Luis Valbuena strike out. This proves to be one of the oddities of two teams in a complete rebuild…a large number of young players who have no experience against each other at the major league level.
- Today, Dale Sveum said on Cubs Corner that he “would be surprised of Garza pitched again this season.” The cramp turned discomfort turned stress reaction seems like it is worse than anyone led on, or the team is being overly cautious about Matt Garza’s right arm. Considering the team is completely out of it, the caution is warranted. There is no sense in exposing his arm to significant injury.
- First round pick Albert Almora was promoted to short season Boise, of the Northwest League. He had started his professional career in the Arizona Rookie League, hitting .347 with 1 HR and 13 RBI in 18 games for Mesa.
You think that it’s safe to go on vacation after the trade deadline because there would be a period of relative quiet afterward, and then all hell breaks loose. Just some of that has been…
- Jeff Baker being traded to the Tigers for two players to be named later was not a surprise at all. I was kind of surprised he was not dealt before the deadline.
- Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters both being called up was somewhat of a shock, especially since they were called up at the same time. Jackson has struggled, going 2-17 with 11 strikeouts in his first week as a big leaguer. Vitters is 2-15 with 2 RBI, so all in all, not much better than Jackson. The last couple of months of the season will be a great opportunity for both to get some good at bats and playing time in the majors in preparation for 2013, which is pretty much all that is happening for the duration of this season. This is another step in the development process for two of the cornerstone prospects in the system. They are the most major league ready players in the system, so it makes sense to get them to Chicago and allow them to play in games that have significance down the stretch, as the Cubs will see some teams with a lot left to fight for. To make room for Vitters and Jackson, the aforementioned Baker trade was consummated and Tony Campana was sent back to Iowa.
- Jorge Soler went 1-4 with an RBI last night in his Peoria Chiefs debut after being promoted on Thursday from Mesa. Tonight, he hit a grand slam in his first career at bat with the bases loaded… seen here:
- With the loss today, the Cubs are back at their low water mark for the season, 24 games under .500.
- Former Padres Scouting Director Jaron Madison is coming to the Cubs to take the same job. That moves Tim Wilken to a role as “Special Assistant” to Theo Epstein. Really, these moves are only adding more talented front office men to the baseball operations staff. Wilken is well respected around baseball, having been the man to draft Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Michael Young, and Vernon Wells when he was with the Blue Jays, and having all four of his first round picks with the Cubs from 2006-2009 making it to the majors with the Cubs. (Tyler Colvin, Josh Vitters, Andrew Cashner, Brett Jackson) Madison is a rising star in baseball, and having worked with Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod during their time together in San Diego, this move makes a lot of sense.
- Speaking of the front office, GM Jed Hoyer said he expects Matt Garza to be in the Cubs’ rotation in 2013. That could mean that he anticipates resigning the pitcher this off-season to a contract extension or he is posturing potential trade partners for leverage to deal him over the winter. Hoyer was quoted by Paul Sullivan, saying, “He’s likely to be a member of the Cubs in 2013,” [Hoyer] said. “And we’re excited to have him. (Trading him) is the last thing we’re thinking of. We’re just trying to get this guy healthy.” With Garza being sidelined at the moment with a “stress reaction” in his elbow, it might be smart to keep Garza around, especially if he is unable to pitch again in 2012.
- Alfonso Soriano got on Starlin Castro’s case about his lapse in Friday’s game. As the senior most veteran on the roster, that is absolutely Sori’s place, and it probably softened the blow in the meeting Castro had with Manager Dale Sveum. Starlin has been much better with his concentration of late, but losing track of the ball, down five runs, is another exhibit of how far the young short stop still has to go in his maturation process. He is still a developing player, and often times, that fact gets lost in the fact that he has been so good over the course of his first three seasons in the majors.