Tagged: Bryan LaHair

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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2013 Positional Preview: The Outfield

Starting with the outfield in breaking down the season seems to be pretty easy.  There are no spots up in the air at this point, as all three spots are filled.  Actually, the only question in the outfield is who the fifth and final outfielder on the roster is going to be.

Right Field:  Nate Schierholtz/ Scott Hairston
The most interesting spot in the outfield is the one with the platoon.  Newcomers Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston offer a little bit more of what a corner outfielder should be in their ability to hit for power than David DeJesus did for much of last season, but neither of them is a long term solution to the side that has been most problematic since the departure of Sammy Sosa.  They are mere placeholders for top prospect, Jorge Soler, who figures to be the long term solution to what has been a revolving door for eight seasons.
Nate Schierholtz was signed to a one year deal, and is finally getting the chance to be an everyday player (for the most part).  As a former top prospect in the Giants’ system, he sports 24 career home runs, which is a season’s worth for a player you’d want starting in a corner outfield position.  Nate’s defense has never been at issue.  The biggest factor for him coming to Wrigley may be the most challenging RF corner in the game, where the summer sun can make routine fly balls a little more adventuresome than they should be.
Scott Hairston is another player who has not been the everyday player over the course of his nine years, but did show some pop in his bat, hitting 25 long balls last season.  Brother of former Cub, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Scott has the bloodlines to be a good player, but hasn’t gotten the opportunity to be one on an everyday basis.  Considering how long he’s been around, there is likely a reason for that.  There is no reason to think he won’t be productive this year, but a 32 year old on a two year contract makes him a placeholder for Soler.

Center Field: David DeJesus

DeJesus is a little more suited to play center with the numbers he puts up and his defensive ability.  His willingness to work counts and take a walk makes him a favorite of Dale Sveum and the front office, as his approach is the one the organization is working to install into all of its hitters.  As a fan of the game, I admire what DDJ does for the team.  He’s a veteran leader who will give the team four professional at-bats each day.  As an objective (as much as possible) observer, I would prefer to see someone like DeJesus hitting seventh.  The fact that this is the lead-off hitter speaks to how incomplete the rebuilding process is.  David DeJesus could very well find himself on another roster at the deadline this year if Brett Jackson’s progress with his swing continues at the pace it seems to have been.  He could end up being this season’s Bryan LaHair…displaced by one of the up and coming prospects, and my feeling is, if Jackson gets to Chicago this season (likely), he will be there to play, and he will be there to play everyday.

Left Field: Alfonso Soriano

If Fonsi can repeat what he did last season, he’s going to command a high price at the deadline.  I do not see Soriano going anywhere.  Either the coaching staff and front office mean what they say about him and his value to the team as a player and a leader for young players, and truly believe he is a valuable piece of the immediate process of building toward the future by teaching young players like Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler to be professionals and how to deal with being highly touted prospects, or their words are pricing any potential suitors for him out of the market.  I think the team believes the former, but the latter is probably a bi-product of it.  As such, I am pretty confident that Soriano is going to be the left fielder for the Chicago Cubs through the 2014 season.  And I am confident that he will hit 20+ HRs and drive in 85+ runs each of the next two seasons.  If he is able to play at the defensive level that he did last season, I don’t have any problem with it.

Reserves: Dave Sappelt

I am projecting Sappelt to win this last outfield spot.  He can play all three positions and his bat is not a liability.  He stands to be the front-runner to lock up the last spot in a crowded outfield.

Final Analysis:

Quantity and quality are not the same thing.  The Cubs’ outfield is a prime example of that.  Soriano is the best of them, and his numbers say he’s a solid player out there.  David DeJesus is best suited as a fourth outfielder, given his versatility, defensive prowess, and his mediocre bat.  Neither of the right fielders in the platoon sparks much confidence in big numbers, which is exactly why they are in a platoon to begin with.  The outfield is very obviously waiting for the arrivals of Brett Jackson on a permanent basis, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora.  Until that time, there are going to be stop gap players and guys playing above their ability.  The production should improve in the outfield this season from right field, which is to say there should be some.  The defense should be strong.  But don’t bother buying any of their jerseys…they won’t be around long.

Resetting the Farm System

The Epstein Administration is off to a very honest start, to say the least.  When Theo came, he made no mistake that the intention was to build an organization, from the bottom up, in order to sustain success for the long term.  To this point, he has kept his word.  The Cubs’ system now features five of the top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com’s updated, post season rankings.  Half of the organization’s top ten prospects have been acquired since Epstein and Co. have arrived, and that does not include First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, who would be the undisputed #1 prospect in the system if he met MLB.com’s criteria for what makes a prospect.  The fact that he has had a rookie season in the majors, from my view, does not make him any less of a prospect.  He is by no means a finished product…which is a scary good thought after his 2012 season.

With all of that, here is a positional look at the system:

  • PITCHING: Pitching is still the weakness of the system.  Theo knows it.  Jed knows it.  Even the guy in the bleachers drunkenly screaming to fire Dale Sveum because we could have won the World Series this year knows it.  That is why the focus has been on acquiring pitching.  The new regime spent almost the entire draft on infusing the system with new arms.  They made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire Randall Delgado for Ryan Dempster.  They made a successful deal with the Braves to acquire Arodys Vizcaino, who is the best pitching prospect in the system, according to MLB’s new rankings.  Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn are also top 20 prospects in the system, who were drafted in the slots gained from the departures of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena.  Nine of the top 20 are pitchers, none of whom is Hayden Simpson, the 2010 first round pick.  We are very close to reaching bust status with him.  The front office knows that there is still a shortage of arms in the system, so look for a continued focus on acquiring them, either through trades or in the draft.  Alfonso Soriano and Matt Garza could each become prospect pitching, if there is a deal to be made.
  • CATCHERS: With Wellington Castillo looking primed to crouch behind the dish on a full time basis, with Steve Clevenger being a capable back up, and Geovany Soto being a Texas Ranger, it would seem the system is lacking in catching depth.  That’s mostly true.  The only catcher of note who will be in the minor leagues next season is Anthony Recker, who finished the season in the majors because of a September call-up.  The bright side to the catching situation is that both of the big league backstops are young players, who, like Anthony Rizzo, I would still consider prospects, who are developing at the big league level.  That’s some good news.  The bad news is, catchers tend to be injured more than other positions, and there is not a lot behind them.
  • INFIELD: There is some talent in the infield in the organization, but it’s nothing to jump out of your chair for.  Javier Baez is a notable exception to that, as the system’s number one prospect, again, according to MLB.com.  Christian Villanueva and Junior Lake are also both in the top ten in the organization, but neither seem to be all that close to cracking the major league line-up anytime soon.  Lake is probably the closest prospect, but he projects to be a utility player, who can play all over because of his arm and athleticism.  He has good power, but lacks plate discipline and still needs some polish in the field.  He could be a call-up in the mold of Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson in 2013, to get some experience at the major league level before going back to the minors to work on deficiencies he may not get to know without a call-up.  As for Baez and Villanueva, both finished the season at Daytona.  They may go to AA, Tennessee together next season, but a more sure bet is that they open at Daytona next year.  Josh Vitters, the most major league ready prospect in the infield, showed that he still needs some time to grow.  I could see him being moved to a corner outfield spot if his glove does not improve significantly.  An interesting prospect on the infield is Dan Vogelbach, whose bat will probably propel him up the system.  He hit for a combined 1.051 OPS between Mesa and Boise.  Being a 1B, though, is going to hurt him with the Cubs.  He is blocked by Anthony Rizzo.  If he could become a 3B, he could be a Pablo Sandoval type player in the future, although Keith Law says he has “no shot.”  My guess is, his lack of athleticism is going to be a significant issue with him being anything more than a first baseman or a designated hitter…which the Cubs have no use for.
  • OUTFIELD: The outfield is where the most depth is within the system.  After getting a sight of Brett Jackson, it appears that he has the ability to man CF at Wrigley for a long time, with improvements to his swing and approach at the plate.  The additions of Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, both of whom played well in their first taste of American pro baseball, make them, with Jackson, three of the top five prospects in the system.   With other interesting prospects, like Dave Sappelt and Shawon Dunston Jr, there is some serious talent, much of which is still saturating the low levels of the system.  For the time being, it is interesting to wonder about what an Almora, Jackson, Soler outfield will look like…because it won’t be a reality for a few years.  For now, we’ll get to watch a Soriano, DeJesus, LaHair (or whoever else they can manage to throw out there).

There is a lot more talent in the minors now than there was 12 months ago.  That is something that has to be attributed to building the organization, as opposed to trading any and all talent we can to get veteran players to win right now.  There has been a lot of that over the years, leaving the cupboards pretty bare.  Building it back up will take as much time and effort as it will to build the big league team into one that can consistently win.  It is a good thing to have talent saturation in the minors, and at this point in time, there is much more of it than there was when Jim Hendry left the club.  It is exciting, however, to watch the build-up.  Seeing lower level clubs compete, like the Boise Hawks did in 2012 is a sign of talent infusion.  Hopefully, the Cubs are able to build a system that can compete at all levels.  No organization can have too much talent.  At this point,though, it is still a work in progress.

News, Notes, And NEVER FORGOTTEN

Even though this is admittedly only a hobby of mine, I still feel as though I have let down those that actually read this, to an extent, so here goes some of the new information regarding the Chicago Cubs…

Photo: Ted Warren, AP

First, the team is looking to finalize minor league affiliations this week, including extending the agreement by two years with the Northwest League Runners- Up, the Boise Hawks.  The big decision is expected to be swapping low A affiliation from the Peoria Chiefs to the Kane County Cougars.  Kane County is only about 30 miles west of Chicago, so the logistics of the matter seem to be the biggest reason why.

Brett Jackson could be available tonight for the Cubs in Houston, but he is not in the starting line up, unless a late change happens.  David DeJesus is tabbed to lead off, and play in center, flanked by Bryan LaHair in right and Alfonso Soriano in left.

Speaking of Alfonso Soriano, he has a very real chance at hitting 30 HR and driving in 100 runs for a terrible offense.  He stands at 28 HR and 94 RBI, the RBIs being his best mark since joining the team in 2007.  Equally as important, Sori has been excellent in left field all season long, and is worthy of at least a consideration of a Gold Glove.  His reputation precedes him enough that there is almost no shot he gets that award, but his defense has been as good as his offense.  And his leadership brings a ton of value to a young team, learning how to be a professional.  Dale Sveum seems to go out of his way just about every day to compliment Soriano on everything he does.  Like him or not, he has earned his contract this season.  This off-season could bring some suitors for Soriano, as long as the Cubs are willing to eat much of the $36 million he will be owed over the last two years of his deal.  With the improved defense and strong numbers, the Cubs could get a strong return on Soriano from a team looking to add a right handed bat that can play the outfield.  He still figures to have the most value as a DH for a deficient AL team.

Photo: Doug Mills, AP

Sahadev Sharma wrote a great piece for ESPNChicago.com on Jorge Soler, and his comparisons to Sammy Sosa, linked here.

Lastly, with today being 9/11, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what happened 11 years ago.  That was obviously a senseless act of death and destruction that never needed to happen.  The way Americans all over the country, though, rallied around each other was the most inspirational thing I have seen in my 27 years.  There are a lot of acts of courage, bravery, heroism, and selflessness associated with that day, and those days immediately afterward.  It remains my hope that those times return to this country, sooner rather than later.  Baseball played a huge role in the healing process.  I remember very fondly, Sammy Sosa flying the Stars and Stripes after a home run during the first game at Wrigley after the attacks.  Even though the Cubs were not a part of the World Series that season, it remains one of the premiere sports memories of my life, as the Yankees and Diamondbacks fought in an epic seven game battle, with President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium before game three to chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A!”, and culminated by Bob Brenly’s D-Backs getting a walk-off hit from former Cub, Luis Gonzalez.  Baseball was a major contributor to the return to “normalcy” after what happened on this day, 11 years ago.  Ballparks filled, the flag flew resolute, and versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” were belted out as passionately as they had ever before.  On this day, I hope that we take the time to remember the men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, that lost their lives on that day…and PLAY BALL! 

How Greinke Going to the Angels Helps the Cubs

When I saw that Zack Greinke was headed to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, I could not have been happier.  First, because he was not going to Atlanta or to the Dodgers.  Second, because he was in the AL West for the rest of the season, and potentially longer if he is signed in free agency by his new team, or their rival, the Rangers.

The market for Ryan Dempster is unchanged by this trade.  The Angels were not in the number of rumored suitors for him, and he can still wind up in either Atlanta or with the Dodgers, and since it is becoming more and more clear that the Cubs have no alternative but to trade Dempster before the deadline, Greinke not taking away a possible landing spot is about the best possible news.  Also, with the Angels getting a pitcher of Greinke’s quality, the Rangers may pony up for Matt Garza (unlikely with him not being available until after the deadline) or Paul Maholm.

As far as Dempster is concerned, not a lot has changed in the last day.  He could go to LA, but has apparently said that he is open to other potential destinations.  (That leaves my wondering why in the world he didn’t approve the deal to the Braves on Monday.) Rumors have floated about the inclusion of Alfonso Soriano and Bryan LaHair, about a deal centered around Dempster for reliever Josh Lindblom, and a number of other scenarios.  Regardless, it is a mess that looks to last until the very last minute.

The Cubs’ Bizzare Stove Is Making One Hell of a Mess

With the Brewers imploding faster than the roof of the Metrodome a couple of years ago, it seems more and more apparent that the Brewers are going to sell.  And with Zack Greinke pitching out of his mind tonight, it would seem that teams looking to acquire him (quite a few based on tonight’s scout count) would probably try to do so sooner rather than later.  That little nugget of information, coupled with the Marlins, Rays possibly joining a seller’s market with the likes of Josh Johnson and James Shields, and Astros trading Wandy Rodriguez to the Pirates tonight, the market for starting pitching could shrink on the Cubs, who are looking to deal Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, and Paul Maholm.

Photo: Rob Grabowski /US Presswire

As it stands with Dempster, he appears to be holding out to join former Cub and friend, Ted Lilly in Los Angeles.  Exercising his 10/5 rights to veto a trade could be a detriment to the Cubs because now that it is public knowledge that the Bravos are willing to part with Randall Delgado for a rental player, other teams might try to sweeten the pot for them or try to swoop in a get Delgado for a player of similar stature to Dempster.  Meanwhile, the Dodgers are still refusing to part with Zach Lee in a deal for Dempster, which would make losing out on the 22 year old Delgado a tough pill to swallow for the Cubs.

Matt Garza will not pitch until Monday, at the earliest, it appears.  From my perspective, that makes it more unlikely that he gets moved before non-waiver deadline at 3:00 PM central time on Tuesday afternoon.  As it stood before, it was widely reported that it was about 50/50 that Garza got moved anyway.  With his “arm discomfort” and delayed start until after the weekend, the price might come down on him to a point where the Cubs are more interested in trying to extend Garza than using him as a pawn to add young arms to the minor league system.  Rumors floated that the Cubs were looking for two major league ready pitching prospects for Garza, similar to what the Rockies got for Ubaldo Jimenez, which may be too steep a price.  Reports today were that the Rangers were looking for an ace type pitcher, and that they don’t see Garza that way.  That again, shrinks his market, and I predict he is a Cub for the duration of 2012, if not longer.

Paul Maholm was never going to net a big name prospect.  With the Pirates getting Wandy Rodriguez, it seems less and less likely that Maholm gets moved at all, since they were said to be his biggest suitor.  It is still possible that he gets moved in the week between now and the deadline, but it doesn’t seem likely that he will during the season.  He could be a trade chip for this winter, with a modest $6.5M option for next season.  Teams looking to add a back of the rotation lefty might be willing to part with a decent prospect in January for a player like Maholm after the bulk of free agency has concluded.  As it stands now, it is hard to envision him going anywhere with so many new names being added to a market that has so few suitors.

The Cubs do have some nice bats on the market, led by Alfonso Soriano, who hit his 19th HR of the season in tonight’s win at Pittsburgh.  Calling Mr. Friedman, Mr. Andrew Friedman…we have something Joe Maddon might like to plug into his line-up, ranked 27th in slugging.  The Rays sorely need a right handed bat, and Soriano could be had if they’re willing to part with some solid prospects and pay about $4M over the next two years.  He clearly has some pop in his bat and when he was a DH earlier this season, he was pure magic at the plate, highlighted by some of the bombs he launched at Target Field.  Others include Bryan LaHair, who would make a nice platoon player at either a corner infield or outfield position, or DH in the American League.  He probably won’t net more than a middle of the pack prospect, which wouldn’t be all that bad for a 29 year old minor league reclamation project.  Reed Johnson is said to have a number of suitors as the guy he is for the Cubs; a veteran bat and solid defender off the bench that can pinch hit, play defense, and give you four good at bats when asked to start.

The most unfortunate part of all of this seems to be the foiling of the plan to get better for future years by sacrificing some on field production this year.  Being 16 under .500 and 16 back in the division means it’s over in 2012.  While they could conceivably fight for 4th in the division, being four behind the Brewers, that does nothing but make the holidays a little more palatable for me this winter.  If the last few days are any indication of things to come, there will be a lot more movement before the deadline.  The Cubs will likely make some moves and the team will not look the same next Wednesday when the Cubs square off with the Pirates as they do tomorrow when they square off with the Pirates.  As is the case every year at this time, stay tuned…

Cubs Midseason Grades

For a team with less than stellar expectations, it is awfully difficult to grade the Cubs’ first half performance.  If I were to judge by record alone, it would almost certainly be a D, or lower.  However, since the Cubs weren’t expected to be very good this season as they rebuild and since the team hasn’t been as consistently bad as it appears, this grade is going to be issued on a curve.  The criteria are offensive output, defensive output, improvement, consistency, and overall performance.  Whether those criteria are fair or not is for you to decide…

Pitching: C

Starting Pitching: B-
The starting pitching has actually been better than expected, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having strong seasons.  Both pitchers have lived up to their billing as the top two starters in the rotation, and that has made them both viable candidates to be traded before the trade deadline three weeks from today.  Jeff Samardzija has been up and down, having both very good and very bad outings in his first seasons as a starter.  Paul Maholm has been in the same boat, being both good and bad in the first half of the season.  Chris Volstad and Randy Wells have been atrocious and have earned their demotions to Iowa.  Travis Wood, however, has been strong since his arrival, earning the fifth starting role.  This grade would be much higher if not for Wells and Volstad’s inability to throw good strikes, and the overall team record would be likely to have followed suit.

Photo: Bleed Cubbies Blue blog

Bullpen: D
This was going to be an F, until the recent surge of Carlos Marmol, with Shawn Camp and James Russell falling into more comfortable roles.  The absolute incompetence of the bullpen to throw quality strikes and the number of walks has led to a huge number of blown saves, missed opportunities to win games, and crumbling in late situations has made this season one of the most dismal in the history of the organization.  While all of the blame cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of the bullpen, and the retirement of Kerry Wood was certainly unexpected, the bullpen has been a major contributor to the 33-52 record.

Position Play: C-

Catching: D+
Ultimately, this grade is based much on injuries to all three of the top three catchers in the organization.  It could have been far worse without the reacquisition of Koyie Hill, but the lack of offense out of the position is disappointing, since all three of the expected contributors at catcher for the major league team were injured and on the disabled list at one time.  Throwing out base-stealers has also not been a strength, which makes it much more difficult on the pitchers, although those same pitchers have been partly to blame.  Defensively, there have been some positives to keep an eye on as passed balls have been few and far between.  Overall, however, the catchers have to give more at the plate, and must continue to improve on their first half performance.

First Base: B
We learned something about Bryan LaHair this spring.  He can hit in the majors.  And he was better than serviceable at first base.  He went through a long drought, though, which prompted a long losing streak.  It It is not fair to place all of the blame of Bryan’s shoulders, and that is why the position garners a B, overall.  He was very good in his time there.  Anthony Rizzo has been excellent in his 12 games at first base, and he could be a catalyst to see the end of season mark improve.  He just has not been around long enough to cause great change in the grade.  Jeff Baker has started more games at first than Rizzo, which is another reason this is only a B.  Between LaHair and Baker, there has been absolutely no production against left handed pitching at this position, which doesn’t help the sorry record against left handed pitching, and that hurts the overall mark.

Second Base: B-
My man crush on Darwin Barney is based almost solely on his defense, which has been nothing short of outstanding.  He is having a Gold Glove worthy season at second, with only two errors on the season thus far.  Offensively, he has been Darwin Barney.  He is a slap hitter that can find a gap, get a solid single, and he will do the right things on the bases.  You know what to expect everyday from Darwin Barney, which is a good smart game that will not cost the team with mental errors and a full out physical effort.

Photo: Rob Letterly, “Goat Riders of the Apocalypse”

Third Base: C
The hot corner has lost its pop with the departure of Aramis Ramirez.  The addition of Ian Stewart was supposed to protect from a total collapse of that production, but a wrist injury which was operated on today ended his season without the production to ease the loss of Ramirez.  Luis Valbuena gives very good at bats and hits the ball hard, but is not the defender that Stewart is.  Both played very hard, but only Stewart excelled in any one area, and that was defensively.  There has been too much inconsistency offensively to mark this position any higher than a C.  At this point, there is uncertainty in that position because neither Stewart or Valbuena instill confidence at this point.  Maybe Stewart will be able to regain his hitting stroke when he returns, likely next season, if at all.  However, for the time being, the hot corner has been nothing more than luke warm.

Short Stop: B+
It probably isn’t fair to not give the only player to play in every game, starting all but one, less than an A when he was expected to carry this 2012 team and has done his best to do so.  However, a slow start on defense, and a slump at the plate to end the first half bring Starlin Castro into the B+ range of the spectrum.  2012 has shown us nothing but more positive in the still only 22 year old Castro, who, while making mental errors common from only young players, has shown an ability to work hard and improve each day, both at the dish and in the field.  His defense is much better under the guidance of Dale Sveum and since Rudy Jaramillo was replaced as the hitting coach, the walks have started to come a little less infrequently.  Castro stands to get a 4.o GPA as a baseball player as he matures and reaches his prime.  Now, however, he is “only” a B+…with a lot more improvement that can be made in his game.

Outfield: C+
Even though Alfonso Soriano has been on a tear since May 15, the rest of the outfield has been pretty quiet.  It is very difficult to grade this group with the additions and subtractions of players all season.  Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Marlon Byrd, Reed Johnson, Bryan LaHair, and Jeff Baker have all been in and out of the line up with Soriano and David DeJesus, which has hurt the consistent play of the group, and brought the grade down.  The defense has been much less of an adventure out there, with Soriano showing major improvement at the behest of Dave McKay.  The defense has been nothing better than average, though, and the offense has not been anything to perk up over.  Soriano brings this group to above average with his offensive numbers over the last two months, but just barely.

Bench: C
Reed Johnson has been an excellent pinch hitter, leading the league in pinch hits over the first half of the season.  It is not, however, a cure all for what has been a hit and miss bench.  Tony Campana, Joe Mather, and Jeff Baker have all been up and down.  This group does not provide any punch off the bench, which makes it very difficult to come back or extend leads late in games.  What this group does bring, though, is defense.  They are all average, or above average, defenders at multiple positions.

Managing/ Coaching: B
It has been a rough season, and much of the coaching is done behind the scenes.  For a team that has been around 20 games under .500 since the end of May, though, to compete and hustle everyday is a sign of strong coaching and leadership from the guys that aren’t playing everyday.  Dale Sveum has assembled a good staff of teachers that are not resting on the laurels of a lost season.  That makes them a good staff.  There have been growing pains that come with any new manager and coaching staff, though, and that keeps them from being excellent.  The potential of this group is very high because they all appear to be good, knowledgeable baseball men.  If they stay together, there could be some grade A work in their future.

Team Grade: D+
You can’t go on a 9-4 run to end the first half of the season to get to only 19 games under .500 and expect to be better than a D+.  It just cannot happen.  If there were any expectations for this team at all, the first half would have been a clear failure, but in their absence, this team gets the benefit of the doubt.  There have been bright spots, without question, with two All-Stars, each elected by the players, for the first time since 2008.  As players like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija continue to grow, there is some reason for optimism, but at the moment, this is a team that is tough to watch day in and day out.  The Cubs get a D+ so far in 2012, and if they finish with a mark that has fewer than three figures in the loss column, that grade probably rises to a C at season’s end.