Tagged: Astros

Cubs Transactions Galore!

There was a flurry of roster activity of all kinds: trades, signings, call-ups, and DL stints.  Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer didn’t waste any time starting their sell-off, firing the first shot of the deadline season.

We can only gather that there will be even more roster moves in the next day or two with the new additions to the bullpen and over the course of the month as the Cubs continue to move pieces.  This figures to be just a start of things to come…

Dodgers Get: RHP Carlos Marmol, Cubs #4 International Signing Slot, Cash
Cubs Get: RHP Matt Guerrier

What It Means For Cubs:  Carlos Marmol is officially not a Cub, anymore.  Guerrier was in DFA limbo with the Dodgers.  He becomes yet another arm in the Cubs’ busy bullpen this season.  Marmol gets a fresh start.  Adding Guerrier could spell the end for Shawn Camp. *Fingers Crossed*  Jayson Stark, interestingly, tweeted that this is almost a no lose for the Dodgers.  If he doesn’t work out and is released, the Cubs are on the hook for more money if he signs elsewhere.

Orioles Get: RHP Scott Feldman, C Steve Clevenger
Cubs Get: RHP Jake Arrieta, RHP Pedro Strop, Number 3 International Signing Slot, #4 International Signing Slot

What It Means For The Cubs:  Clevenger being moved comes out of right field, since he and the Cubs apparently just within the last day had a difference of opinion on his injuries.  Feldman was expected to go as part of a sell-off, and the Cubs actually did quite well in this move.  Jake Arrieta is a talented 27 year old who hasn’t quite figured it out at the major league level just yet.  He will go to AAA Iowa for the time being.  He could be part of a trade to the Padres, who apparently like both him and Matt Garza.  Acquiring him could help sweeten the return if the Cubs send Garza and Arrieta to San Diego.  Strop is a good bullpen arm and should fill the void being left by Carlos Villanueva being stretched back into a starter.  He, too, has struggled some at the major league level.  Overall, I’d have liked this deal if it was Feldman for Strop OR Arrieta and the pool money.  To get both, while only losing Clevenger in addition to Feldman is a nice move for the Cubs, regardless of whether they view Arreita as a trade asset or as an arm to bring to Chicago.

Astros Get:  INF Ronald Torreyes
Cubs Get:  #2 and #3 International Signing Slots

What It Means For The Cubs:  More international spending money.  Torreyes is a good hitter, but with the logjam in the middle infield in the Cubs’ organization, they could afford to make this move to spend money on potential impact international free agents.  The move brings in $784K to add to the spending pool, which would presumably be used to target OF Eloy Jimenez.  After all of the moves today, the Cubs have $5,520,300 in total international spending money, which is one of the key means of stocking the system with talent.

Cubs Sign: SS Gleybar Torres ($1.7M). P Jefferson Mejia, Erling Moreno, C Johan Matos

What It Means For The Cubs:  The search for impact players continues, with Torres ranked the #2 International Free Agent.  He’s 16, so you can file his name away, but scouts love him and say he is quite polished for being so young.  Mejia is 18 and his contract is for 2013, so he is a name we might hear a bit sooner than Torres.

Cubs Call-Up: LHP Chris Rusin, OF Dave Sappelt

Cubs Place OF Ryan Sweeney on 60 Day Disabled List (Fractured Rib)

What It Means For The Cubs:  Rusin takes the roster spot vacated by Feldman, and he will start tonight at Oakland.  He has been very good at Iowa, being named to the PCL All-Star team.  This is an opportunity to try to stick in Chicago, either in the rotation or the bullpen, as more moves are likely as the deadline approaches.  Sappelt adds a right handed bat to the outfield mix after Sweeney fractured a rib in Seattle.  Sweeney could have been a trade chip, but going on the 60 Day DL kills that opportunity, and is now not eligible to come back until the end of August.

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Cubs Will Have Competition When Selling Off Pieces

With the news that the Cubs are now “Open For Business,” it is apparent that the “cold assessment” of where the Cubs are is complete, and the plug is being pulled.  In reality, it isn’t any big secret that the Cubs were going to sell off pieces this summer, as the rebuild continues.

The timing couldn’t be better.  While other teams are deciding whether or not to get into the market and start moving anything that isn’t bolted down, the Cubs should start making moves now.  The reason is simple: they have a lot of pieces that can be had from other teams if and when they get into the fray.

Starting pitching is going to be heavily available this summer.  The Phillies have denied that Cliff Lee is going to be available, but that is far from definite.  The Phillies could cure a lot of ailments with that arm, and if they decide to move players, Lee is the biggest and best chip they have to push into the center of the table.  His presence would put a major damper on the market for Matt Garza.  If a team like the Giants or the Rangers is looking for an arm to push them back into the Fall Classic, Lee is going to be sought before Garza.  He comes with more control and he’s a better pitcher.  His price will be bigger, but his reward will match.

Trading Garza will also be met by the resistance of the potential for the Brewers to put Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse on the market, the Blue Jays to seek to move Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, or the White Sox trying to trade Jake Peavy.  All would be nice acquisitions that could be thrown into the middle of someone’s rotation for a run to October.  At this early stage, it would appear to be a buyers’ market for mid-rotation starting pitching as the deadline draws closer.

The same can be said about a player like Scott Feldman, who can start at the back of a rotation until the playoffs and become a contributor out of the bullpen in October.  The Twins can move Kevin Correia, the Marlins will likely move Ricky Nolasco, and the Astros are going to try to unload Bud Norris, so the market for a piece to add to the back of a rotation could also get to be a little crowded.

Yet another problem the Cubs face is the marked improvement of their farm system.  The Cubs are not in a position where they have to take on as much talent as they can get because the system is so depleted that it needs as many good bodies as it can take on.  The major area of weakness for the Cubs is in the pitching department.  The front office acknowledged that the pitching is going to come from international signings and from the trade deadline.  The problem with that strategy is simple: the teams who are going to look at adding pieces aren’t rich in pitching prospects.  The Giants and Rangers don’t have a lot of pitching depth in their systems.  Kyle Crick and Clayton Blackburn are the Giants’ top two prospects, and both are in the bottom quarter of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects this season.

What has been said repeatedly still holds true.  If the Cubs can find a team who needs multiple pieces that the Cubs can provide, they have their best opportunity to maximize their return.  What has not been said, though, is that the Cubs face a lot of competition for the players they have to offer, especially the pitching.  It would be doubtful to see the extensive sell-off this season for that reason.  There will be more teams offering similar pieces, and the other teams offering their veteran players need a lot more for their depleted farm systems, which make it much easier to make a deal.

 

Dale and Theo Both Said Starlin Sucks Today

Alright, they didn’t say exactly that, but they did say he has “regressed.”  On ESPN 1000’s “Waddle and Silvy”, Theo said (via Doug Padilla from ESPNChicago.com),

“Failure is innate in baseball; it’s inevitable.  It’s actually an important part in the development of the development process. Starlin is someone who went very quickly through the upper minor leagues. If you look at the number of at-bats he had at the Double-A and Triple-A level, there are not very many and he was in the big leagues instantly and had success.”

Actually, Starlin Castro didn’t have any at-bats at Iowa because he was called up from the Smokies in 2010, skipping right over Triple A.   Theo also talked about the value of such a slump.

“Because he never failed, he never had to make adjustments as an offensive player and he’s going through that now; he’s struggling.  He’s well below the high standards he has set for himself. That means it’s failure, it’s a slump and it’s incumbent on him to work his way out of it and for us to help put him in a position where he can get out of it and I think that he will, and he will be a better player in the long run because of it.”

Dale Sveum was asked about Theo’s comments and agreed with the assessment.  From Paul Sullivan in the Chicago Tribune…

“By numbers alone he’s regressed, there’s no question about it.  He’s getting way, way down as far as all the other shortstops in baseball right now, as far as the offensive part. He’s under a .600 OPS. So that would go without saying that he’s regressed.”

While neither talked glowingly about Castro’s present, they didn’t say anything that should worry anyone about his future.  The major takeaway is that Starlin is struggling and in the long run, he should be better for it.

The current ramifications of his struggles are tied to the team’s success.  Since Starlin Castro is such an integral part of the offense, no matter where he hits in the line-up, his success or failure is going to be directly tied to the team’s success or failure, and it will remain that way for at least the next year.  In some ways, it would seem that the Cubs’ early failures offensively can be tied to Castro’s struggles and at the same time his struggles can be tied to the early offensive failures.  He isn’t hitting well, so the offense looks weak, but because the offense is weak and Starlin knows his value in the line-up every day, he pushes himself harder to perform and doesn’t stay within himself to perform at the level he is accustomed to.

At this point, Starlin Castro is the least of the Cubs’ problems.  There is no reason to think he won’t be the hitter he is capable of.  Even if he stays at a .290/.340/.430 level for the rest of his career, which is on par with the numbers he put up through his first three seasons, he’ll be one of the most productive short stops in the game and be a bargain at the contract extension he signed last season.  Eventually, he’ll come out of the slump.  Hopefully, it’ll happen soon.  The Astros are in this weekend and the Cubs are in Milwaukee next week…and those are some slump busting pitching staffs.

Divisional Failure Skewing an Otherwise Decent Season

There have been times where this season’s Cubs have looked respectable.  There have been times, especially against the White Sox, where this team looked downright good.  None of those times have come against the division.  In a season where there was some optimism from the team about being a sleeper to compete, and the fans expected a step forward, the early results against the division have been anything but promising.

Against all teams not in the NL Central, the Cubs have been interesting.  Their 18-17 record against non-divisional opponents reeks of respectability.  The offense and pitching come together and play solid baseball.  The 7-21 mark against the division is where the disconnect lies.  They have only won one series in the division, the first series of the year at Pittsburgh.  They have not won a single series against the division at home.  And the only team they don’t have a losing record against in the division is St. Louis, who they’ve split two games with.  The Cubs haven’t won a home game against the Reds all season, and today stretched that mark to 12 straight losses, which is the most an opponent has won at Wrigley consecutively since the 1956-57 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Why the terrible performances against the division?  The bullpen is a culprit, because they have blown some leads against division teams in the same ways they’ve blown some against non-division teams.  The biggest contributor to the problems has been the offense, though.  The Cubs cannot find any way at all to push runs across the plate against the division.  Only three times have they managed five or more runs in a single game, where their record is 2-1.  The Cubs have been shutout four times this season, all coming against the division.  They have scored two of fewer runs against the division 12 times, with a record of  1-11, including the four shutout losses.

One of the most common ailments that gets talked about with the Cubs is the inability to beat left handed starters.  The Cubs have had 22 such games this season.  They are, again, respectable against lefties outside of the division, with a solid 7-7 mark for this team.  The 2-6 mark against the division is where the struggles have been concentrated.  And it is not a situation where they’re losing to pitchers they’ve never seen.  The Cubs have seen a lot of Wandy Rodriguez over the years with the Astros, and now the Pirates.  Francisco Liriano has looked like Sandy Koufax in his starts against the Cubs this year…and he’s a guy with a career ERA of over four.

To me, the answer is simple.  There is no organizational urgency to perform against the division.  When you see four teams 19 times each, those games matter more because those games comprise just about half of the schedule.  At the current rate, the Cubs are staring a 19-57 divisional record in the face.  A .250 winning percentage against the division is pathetic by any standard.  While the pace of this season is not quite at 100 losses, it’s damn close, and the division is the reason why. 

Many fans unfairly criticize the manager, Dale Sveum.  If there is one place where he deserves some criticism, it is in this case.  Yes, it is up to the players to perform, but the manager must prepare the team, and this team is obviously in way over their heads against division foes.  And it isn’t like Dale isn’t familiar with the other teams in the division.  He was with the Brewers before coming to Chicago.  And coaches Jamie Quirk, Chris Bosio, and Dave McKay have all been in the division, too.  There is familiarity with the opponents.  So even though the team may have a lot of young and new pieces without that experience against the common opponents, the coaches should all have full books on each and every one of the four division rivals.

I can’t believe, in spite of everything I’ve seen, that the Cubs will finish 19-57 against the division.  It can’t be that bad.  Even though all of the pronounced losing streaks through have been at the hands of the division, including a current 1-5 home stand against the Pirates and Reds, there has to be some positive regression.  There are 48 divisional match-ups remaining.  The hope should be a clean split, which would be consistent with the way they’ve played everyone else.  Unfortunately, with the loss of the Astros to the AL West and the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates all playing well, that could be just a touch optimistic. 

And in no way should hoping for a 31-45 record for any 76 game block be what we have to hope for.

2013 Cubs Draft Preview

There are two major things to know in this draft:

  1. It is not a deep draft at all.
  2. The Cubs are guaranteed to get one of the two big prizes in this draft, if they so choose.

The two prizes I speak of are Stanford pitcher, Mark Appel and Oklahoma pitcher Jonathan Gray.  San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant also has some potential to go at this slot because the Epstein/ Hoyer regime views pitching as an “anytime in the draft” possibility, while hitters are top of the draft players.  That remains an interesting thought as the draft approaches next week.

Photo: Larry Goren, Four Seam Images/ AP Images

Photo: Larry Goren, Four Seam Images/ AP Images

Who the Cubs Take at Number Two:  P Mark Appel, Stanford

Obviously, this will change if the Astros shock the world and select him first.  The consensus is that the Astros will select a player who they can sign at below the slotted value of the number one pick, however.   Unlike the Cubs’ approach, the Astros are taking the “quantity over quality” approach to rebuilding.  That’s not to say the Cubs don’t want a lot of good players, but the Astros are willing to forsake big time impact for good players at this point in time.  This means the Cubs will likely be able to select Appel with number two.  A number of prognosticators have the Astros selecting North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran number one, which gives the Cubs their pick of Gray and Appel.  While I think Gray has the higher ceiling, Appel isn’t too far below him, and his floor is higher.  The front office knows they can’t miss with this pick, and Appel is as “can’t miss” as there is in this draft.

Appel, himself has a great fastball and nice secondary stuff.  After turning down the Pirates last season, the over-whelming likelihood is that he does sign this year.  Because he is a senior this year, he is not bound to the same signing deadline as he was as a junior.  He has until the 2014 draft to sign.  I don’t see it taking that long.  I think he signs, and he’ll get every penny of the Cubs’ #2 draft slot money.  His polish and ability could have him pitching in MLB today, so he is exactly the type of guy the Cubs could add to their system, and he would be the undisputed #1 pitching prospect in the organization, and in my opinion, the #1 prospect in the organization.

In the interest of being thorough, Jonathan Gray would be a sweet consolation prize.  His ceiling is higher than that of Appel, and there have been low murmurs that Theo Epstein favors his 80 grade heater (according to Keith Law).  His fastball has been clocked at 100 and the he has a wipe out slider.  He needs to develop his change up, and is not as major league ready as Appel, but he would not be long to the major leagues when he is selected.

How the Rest of it Shakes Out:

Pitching, pitching, and more pitching.  This front office has made it crystal clear to anyone who’s listened that they are going to bulk select pitchers because they can be had from all over the draft.  With the organization being deficient in quality arms in the minor league system, this year will almost invariably shake out just like last season, when the Cubs took pitcher after pitcher.  Even with the probable selection of either Appel or Gray, that will not change the strategy for the rest of the draft.  They are going to go heavy on pitchers.

What it Means Going Forward:

Adding Appel or Gray would be adding the impact piece that the Cubs need to speed the rebuild.  Both would be top 4 prospects in the organization, with Appel claiming the top slot if he’s the guy.  With some depth in the infield and outfield in the organization, adding pitching to it would greatly improve an already greatly improved farm system going forward.

Organizational Top 5 Projections:

If Mark Appel is selected –

  1. P Mark Appel
  2. SS Javier Baez
  3. OF Jorge Soler
  4. OF Albert Almora
  5. P Arodys Vizcaino

If Jonathan Gray is selected –

  1. SS Javier Baez
  2. OF Jorge Soler
  3. OF Albert Almora
  4. P Jonathan Gray
  5. P Arodys Vizcaino

If Kris Bryant is selected –

  1. SS Javier Baez
  2. OF Jorge Soler
  3. OF Albert Almora
  4. P Arodys Vizcaino
  5. 3B Kris Bryant

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

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.