Now that the World Series is over and the Cardinals lost (HOORAY!), we can get to the task at hand. The off-season. The Cubs are chocked full of needs this winter. Those will have to be addressed going into 2014 to keep the rebuilding plan on schedule.
These are the most pressing…
1. Find a new manager
After the firing of Dale Sveum, the next guy to lead the Cubs on-field is the first concern. With the playoffs having ended, the obstacle of candidates still playing is over. To be honest, I don’t care who they hire, as long as he fits the mold of what the front office is looking for. That Dale was the guy for a while, then suddenly became not the guy doesn’t matter. Great organizations are stable. And since 2010, this will be the fourth manager. That’s not stable. Find the guy. The right guy. So we’re not going through this mess again in two years.
2. Find some outfield depth
After losing Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and Scott Hairston to midseason trades, it is going to be important for the Cubs to replace that lost depth at the major league level. The preference would be to sign veterans on short (1-2 years) deals while the youngsters get ready. With Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, and Junior Lake, there is a need for two more outfielders. Preferably one who can play center and one who hits right handed. To be clear, I do not see Shin Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury as viable options. I have no visions of the Cubs spending on either of those players with the talent that is coming behind them. I do see players like Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore, Corey Hart, and Tyler Colvin as options. Colvin is the standard “buy low flier” that this front office has taken in the past, and with his talent and familiarity with the Cubs, and the admission that the Stewart – Colvin trade may have been a mistake, he could be back. The others are veterans who have had some success, but have also had injury issues. Any resurgence could make them trade bait in July, and they all likely come relatively cheap. David DeJesus is also an option if the Rays decide not to pick up his option for next season
3. Trade Darwin Barney
The popular defensive wizard is not part of the core. He’s a below average hitter. And he’s getting a bit older. There is a market for him, though. His value, however, is at its highest point right now. He’s just now entering arbitration. Teams who have a need at second base can use him. The Cubs do not have that need. They are stocked full of middle infielders, from Starlin Castro to Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, Logan Watkins, and Luis Valbuena, the Cubs have no shortage of middle infield options. All of whom are younger than Barney. And all of whom possess greater offensive upside and the potential to continue good defense at second base in the future. The return for Barney won’t be ground breaking, but it should be a decent prospect, or maybe two if Epstein and Hoyer break out the mask and gun. Now, though, is the best and most logical time to move him.
4. Address the rotation
The rotation was surprisingly good last season, throughout the year. There was a lot of depth that withstood trades, and some players emerged as legitimate long term options. Travis Wood showed that he is a solid mid to back of the rotation starter. Jake Arrieta showed that he is still talented and should get a shot going forward. Edwin Jackson had a rough first year, but with his contract and history, he will be back in the rotation next season, and I would venture to guess he has a better second year with the Cubs. It is the very top of the rotation and the very bottom that should be addressed. Jeff Samardzija walked more, stuck out fewer, and allowed more runners to score in 2013 than 2012. The differences aren’t startling, but they exist. Could it have been fatigue from the most innings in a season he’s thrown? Frustration from another near 100 losses? Displeasure over his contract situation? A combination of all three? I don’t have the answer. What I do have the answer to is Samardzija getting rocked a number of times. And it happening a number of times at home. That’s not an ace. That’s a third in the rotation type pitcher, at best. I am not sold on Japanese stud Masahiro Tanaka being an answer at the top of the rotation, either. Too many Japanese pitchers have flamed out because of arm issues. I understand his stuff is excellent, and he’s still young. That may make him a nice investment, but not for the $100+ million it’s going to cost. If the Cubs get him, I’ll hope for the best, but I won’t be at all surprised with the worst. As far as the back end of the rotation is concerned, bringing back Scott Baker, giving Chris Rusin a shot at a full season, and low cost free agents are all options.
5. Back-up catcher
I have a tough time with the idea of signing a Brian McCann (because of age and injury every bit as much as his high douche factor). All things being equal, I would hope the starting catcher market doesn’t treat Dioner Navarro as he would like, and he comes back. He had a nice year, seemed to have a good relationship with Wellington Castillo, and is a reliable backstop. Whoever comes in should take a back seat to Castillo, though. Big money free agent catchers shouldn’t (and probably won’t) be a priority. If the Cubs can land a guy like Jarrod Saltalamacchia for a decent price, great. if not, a LH hitting backup will work just fine.
One of the great parts about baseball is how this is going to play out throughout the off-season. The Cubs are not going to compete for a World Series next season, most likely. It could, though, bring the first wave of prospects to Wrigley Field. Javier Baez and Kris Bryant very well could debut with the big league club at some point next summer. In addition, could be up after being acquired in trades. It appears that the worst is behind the Cubs in the rebuild. Much of the “acquire talent at all costs” is over because of the amount of talent in the organization. The time now is for the build up. While the Cubs will continue to add pieces and make the team better and organization healthier, this off-season is the beginning of the build up of a contender. Whether it be adding placeholders for a prospect, adding leadership to help those prospects grow, or the eventual hiring of a new manager, the fruits of two years of painful big league play are beginning to ripen.
Look no further than what’s been going on in Arizona. Let the off-season begin!
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.
After Dale Sveum talked about how the team is not taking “winning at-bats,” which was evident with the 37 strikeouts this week at Milwaukee and David DeJesus basically defended Brett Jackson from making a catch on the first play of the game yesterday, the thought arose in my mind whether it matters if the Cubs win games this season or if the development of youth is the most important thing that can come out of the last month and change of the season.
Growing up near Green Bay has given me a unique opportunity to hear the same quote over and over again…
“Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi
That leaves Cubs’ fans in an interesting situation this season. Especially me. I am all about winning and am definitely the most competitive person I know. It’s not close. However, with the remainder of this season for the 2012 Cubs, winning isn’t going to be frequent. At this point, player development is what is important for winning down the line. With the additions of Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Chris Rusin, Brooks Raley, and others, the time to learn is upon us. The Cubs have had 16 players make major league debuts this season. That’s a lot. And they need time to learn.
Going to Miller Park the last two nights has shown me two distinct traits about the Cubs:
1. They are painfully young.
2. The coaching staff and front office know it.
I got to the park Tuesday in time to catch the tail end of batting practice and yesterday to catch all of Cubs batting practice. Tuesday showed me nothing other than Anthony Rizzo and Bryan LaHair can hit the ball really far. Yesterday showed me a ton. Every single player practiced their bunting when they got up for their first go around of swings in BP. All of them. Not just the ones that are most likely to bunt. All of them. Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Bryan LaHair all put down bunts when they stepped in. As players were taking their swings, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, and Josh Vitters were taking ground balls from Chris Bosio. When the infielders were taking their swings, Brett Jackson was catching fly balls from Jamie Quirk. Not just catching them, but getting under them while moving forward and throwing them in quickly. It looked like a spring training environment.
Before people start the “every team does that” mess in their heads, I know. I know every team practices those things. What made me look differently at the Cubs is that every coach was on the field working with someone or a group of someones. And young players, like Vitters, who was not in the line up Wednesday, were out there working on improving their defense and fundamentals. For all of the grief Starlin Castro gets for his defense, he was taking ground balls, focusing on his footwork, and throwing to first base. As was Darwin Barney, and his defense has been impeccable all season long. The work on fundamentals and on improving is what is being emphasized.
For those of us that like to watch quality, polished baseball, the Cubs are going to be hard to watch for the rest of the season. They’re learning. And while I believe my assertion that the team would improve throughout the season was accurate, I did not believe that there would be so many players from the original roster removed (including all of the top three pitchers) that they would regress to this point. I believe that they will improve over the course of the next 39 games. The at bats will get better. The communication and defense is still pretty good, even though there have been a lot of “rookie mistakes.” The true measure of how productive these last two months of the season are going to be will come next spring, on Opening Day. A lot of these players will likely be on the field when 2013 starts, and if the Cubs start out…say, 10-31…then it may be time to be concerned. Even next season is going to be a struggle, and will probably be one mired in mediocrity. Typically, the last thing to develop with a young team is a good win/ loss record.
That’s why nobody expects the Cubs to be a truly competitive team until 2014, at the earliest.