Tagged: Ian Stewart

Cubs Have Holes to Fill This Winter

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!

 

Cubs Roster Still Short a Couple of Pieces

I’ll never cease to be amazed by the amount of discontent that occurs during a losing streak.  And, at the same time, how quickly it disappears when the team wins four out of five.

As we were reminded this week, however, the roster is not complete, and will not be that way for quite some time.

  • Matt Garza had a “setback,” in that his arm got tired.  I wasn’t terribly concerned at the time because “dead arm” is something a lot of pitchers go through in Spring Training (which is pretty much where Garza is now).  While it makes the news, and subsequently makes fans fall all over themselves about the guy being fragile and not worth the trouble, it’s really nothing.  Until it has a reason to be something.  Garza is now scheduled to pitch on May 1, so while his rehab from the lat strain may not have been as quick as we, as fans, would have liked, it does seem like the progress is good.  When it comes to strains like that one, it is better to get it completely healed, and from everything we’ve been told, that seems to be the case.  Now, it’s just a matter of getting him stretched out sufficiently to start at the major league level.
  • Ian Stewart had a real setback the other night when he got hit on the elbow.  He missed last night’s game, and is playing tonight.  I get it.  Most of you out there think Ian is a bum, and he’s not worth the peanuts the Cubs are paying him this season, you want Tyler Colvin back, etc.  I’m going to continue to defend him, and the front office for bringing him back.  At least until he’s had time to finish a cup of coffee with the major league team.  His numbers aren’t good at Iowa, but he’s in the same boat as Garza.  He’s getting his timing back and working through the Spring Training process.  Unlike everyone in these games he’s playing, he’s still working the bugs out from not playing in about 11 months.  Let’s see him healthy and for a while in the bigs before we write him off.  We, as Cubs fans, should know that if he hits the streets before he gets all the way back, he’s going to go somewhere else, and be the third baseman we want him to be at Wrigley.

Neither of these players is going to be the savior to what is sure to be an uncompetitive season.  They do, however, make the Cubs deeper (in spite of your feelings for Stewart).  Getting Garza back will likely push Scott Feldman (because Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva have earned the right to be in the rotation thus far) to the bullpen, as a long reliever.  Since he’s been good for three or four inning stretches this season, maybe being the long man will add to his value.  The same with Luis Valbuena.  If Ian Stewart can come back and take hold of the third base job, the Cubs will have two versatile infielders who can play all over in Valbuena and Cody Ransom, who hit from each side of the plate.  With Scott Hairston, Julio Borbon, and Dioner Navarro rounding out the bench, suddenly the Cubs don’t look quite so sad.

There are a lot of ifs in those statements.  I’m sure not all of it will come true.  Ian Stewart could come back, lay an egg, and be designated for assignment within a few weeks.  We don’t know.  But that is what the 2013 season is for.  Finding out who’s got value and who’s not going to be with the team moving forward is what the plan was for this season.

In the mean time, just enjoy the winning streak.

The 2013 Spring Wind Down

This is going to be short and sweet because Spring Training is like “Who’s Line Is It, Anyway.”  The stats, scores, and results don’t actually mean anything.

This year’s version of Spring Training turned out to be more interesting than it needed to be because of the injuries and the whole 101 losses last season thing lingering around the fan base.  Which is stupid.  This is a different team.  A better team.  And last season’s 101 losses were stipulated to when anything of value was sold for parts at the end of July.

On to the recap:

  • Ian Stewart tapped out of the only actual battle for camp by straining his groin.  That really only pushes it back into the regular season when he returns from the DL and rehab stint.  Like the front office, I remain sold on it being too early to give up on him.  Not after what it cost to get him to Chicago.
  • Matt Garza’s lat is a pesky bugger, and lingered around, too.  I am all for the cautious approach the team is taking with him, though.  However, this injury seems to put the nail in the “trade Garza” coffin.  I would be somewhat surprised at anything but an extension somewhere in the same ballpark as Edwin Jackson’s contract.
  • Keith Law (@keithlaw) had the following to say about Brett Jackson’s make up on Twitter this evening: “Never heard a bad word about him, going back to college/Cape.”  Brett Jackson seems genuinely possessed with not being a Felix Pie reincarnate.  I think we all appreciate that.
  • David DeJesus won the bunt tournament.
  • Jorge Soler and Javier Baez were fun to watch.  They both look like they will be in the big leagues someday.  Neither of them is ready…not even close.  But it was fun to watch some of the power displays they put on.

Again, this is short and sweet.  There isn’t a lot to say about Spring Training because nothing of real consequence happens there.  Last year, Ryan Dempster got beat up a little bit in spring.  He was just fine come April.  The point is, every body relax.  The stuff that counts is on Monday.

EVERYBODY PANIC! Albert Almora’s Career Might Be Over (But Probably Isn’t)

We’ve all seen it already:

“Not a good day! Broke my Hamate bone!” – @albertalmora

Immediately (after the “What the hell is a hamate bone?” comments) the comparisons to Derrek Lee started.  And the comparisons to Ian Stewart started.  And Theo Epstein suddenly doesn’t know what he’s doing because he drafted a guy and nine months later he got hurt.  And the Chicago Fire of 1871 had nothing on what is happening with the Cubs.  And on and on and on…

The hamate is a bone in the wrist under the fifth metacarpal.  *DUDE…PRESS 1 FOR ENGLISH!*  It’s the bone in the wrist that is under the bone in the hand that is under the pinky finger.  Actually, fracturing this is quite common in baseball players because of the force put on it, either when pitchers pitch or hitters hit.

Comparing Almora to D-Lee is a horrible idea.  Derrek Lee had two fractures in his FOREARM, the distal radius and distal ulna.  Again, in English, he broke the two bones in his FOREARM very close to his wrist, which is why when you hear someone on ESPN say “broken wrist” or read someone in the paper say “broken wrist,” it should be taken with a grain (or shaker full) of salt.  Lee broke both bones in his FOREARM, which cost him a lot of the strength and stability his swing.  Almora’s injury is so common among baseball players that it boarders on being a non-story.

Ian Stewart is also a bad comparison to Almora.  Stewart had a bone pieces removed from his wrist because they were pressing on a nerve.  Without seeing his x-rays (which I am assuming didn’t show much since it took so long for him to have the problem found), or the MRI which revealed the problem last summer, I am not sure if he had fragments or a bone spur that was pressing on the nerve.  It seems like Stewart is fully healed, now, though, since he reported coming out of his minor league game yesterday with no pain.

Long story short, Almora has an injury, and it is significant.  I can’t sit here and write, in good faith, that a fractured bone is not a significant injury.  It’ll keep him off the field for about a month.  That’s significant.  However, his injury is known, was likely found early, and is common enough that treating it is pretty straight forward.  My own hamate fracture was: put in a cast for four weeks, rebuild the strength.  And that was it.  Such it will be for Almora.  And I am sure the Cubs will take it slow with their highly touted prospect.  Just to make sure.

OTHER STUFF FOR THE DAY:

  • The Diamondbacks quit on Sterling Peralta and sent him back to the Cubs today.  Peralta was selected in the Rule 5 Draft, and since he was released from the major league roster, he was offered back to the Cubs for $25,000.  He has a great arm, but never pitched about Class A.  Nice to see him back.
  • Brett Jackson has some mild shoulder soreness.  He’s currently on life support, and family has been notified.  Or, he’s going to sit out today and give it some rest.  On second thought, rest is probably more accurate.  But since we’re all over-reacting to injuries, I thought I’d give it a whirl with B-Jax.
  • The Cubs have split squads going today.  The regulars mixed with some top prospects play the Japanese National Team today, and the other squad takes on the Sox on WGNA at about 2, local time.

Rehab, Renovation, and Release

The injury news seems to finally be good for the Cubs today (unless your name is Junior Lake), which is a welcome change from the first four weeks of Spring Training.

  • Scott Baker is primed to make a Cactus League start this weekend after pitching a couple of innings in a minor league game on Tuesday.  His recovery seems to be right on schedule, which is terrific news.
  • Dale Sveum may have confirmed my hypothesis on Matt Garza today.  He said Garza needs to throw off of a mound and start throwing live BP, and his Spring Training will essentially begin in a week.  If they put Garza through a full spring schedule starting next week, he will likely be back at the end of April or beginning of May.  That said, Garza thinks he will be back in the middle of April.  So there’s some optimism on his part.  Which is nice.

    Photo: David Kohl, AP

    Photo: David Kohl, AP

  • Starlin Castro played three innings today.  He went 1-1 with a single and walk.  After he finished, he said he felt good.  Hopefully, he was knocking on wood as he said it.
  • Ian Stewart is going to play soon.  If not tomorrow, I would guess Friday.  Stewart talked to ESPN Chicago today and said he felt good.  After ten months, It’ll be nice to see him on a field, and at as close to 100% as he’s been in quite some time.
  • Junior Lake stress fractured his rib.  This isn’t an uncommon injury in baseball players, but it is one to take seriously.  Stress fractures are no joke, and Lake will likely be sidelined the full 4-6 weeks that was reported today before he does anything.  Since he was a long shot to make the roster (at best), and was going to spend the season in Iowa, there is no sense in rushing him.

Tom Ricketts said that April is still a deadline for getting a deal done in order to start renovations at Wrigley in October.  It seems as though we’re at the point where both sides have planted their heels and aren’t willing to concede much anymore.  Then again, I’m not sure the Cubs have anything left to concede.  The beat goes on…

Brennan Boesch was released today.  The book on him is that a change of scenery would probably do him some good.  Bruce Levine wrote today that he makes sense for the Cubs (and Sox…but who gives a crap?).  As a left handed bat with some power, he’d be nice to have, but the Cubs already have a pretty well packed outfield.  Unless the Cubs were able to move Alfonso Soriano, I can’t think there’s anywhere to put him.

Lastly, Opening Day is in 2 1/2 weeks.  So smile.  Real baseball is right around the corner.

2013 Positional Preview: The Infield

The positional previews continue with the infielders tonight, and will be capped off over the course of the weekend with the rotation, the bullpen, and the coaching staff.

The infield probably offers the most stable portion of the roster, with a wealth of young talent and players who have staked claims on positions as pieces to build around.  Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney all appear to be locked into their positions, at least for a few more years.  Wellington Castillo is a talent who could make his claim to the catcher position, and there are some intriguing prospects who could lay claim to the hot corner.

Catcher: Wellington Castillo, Dioner Navarro

I list both Castillo and Navarro because no catcher plays everyday.  The most physically demanding position on the diamond requires two players who can handle the job effectively.  This season, Wellington Castillo has the opportunity to stake his claim to the job as the primary back stop.  Being guided by veteran, and 2008 All-Star, Dioner Navarro was one of the better moves the front office made this off-season.  Navarro has history with Matt Garza and has been around long enough to be a calming and guiding influence on the young, talented Castillo.  The talent aspect is what jumps out about Castillo.  Bruce Levine posted a great article for ESPNChicago today about Castillo, and quoted one NL scout saying, “As a hitter he makes hard contact and has plenty of power. The only thing you aren’t sure of when you watch him is how he calls a game. Last fall they had so many below par starters that I could not evaluate his game calling skills.”  Without spoiling the rest of the article, it goes on to talk about how it’s tough to judge Castillo’s ability to call a game because of the pitchers he was working with last year as the season came to a close.  I tend to disagree with that a little, because he got reps with those pitchers in Iowa, but there is something to be said about major league experience.  Either way, Castillo is mighty talented, and has a chance to solidify himself as the catcher of the future this season.

First Base: Anthony Rizzo

Two things jumped out at me  about Anthony Rizzo since his call-up.  The first was that he is a terrific defender at first.  The second actually happened at the Cubs Convention this year when I really got to see him up close, and that is how big he is.  He looks about as well put together as any baseball player I can think of.  His hitting is tremendous, but he was known for that when he came over from the Padres.  This season is going to be a challenge for Rizzo.  How will he fare in Wrigley when the wind is blowing in and it’s cold?  How will he adjust to the adjustments being made for him?  I can speculate that he’ll be fine, and it is my guess that he will be.  If he prepares and plays hard, his at-bats should continue to be positive.  I am not sold that he will double his numbers from last season and become a 30 HR/ 100 RBI guy this season.  I do think he will hit between 25 and 30 home runs, though, and probably drive in 80-90 runs.  Those are Derek Lee type numbers, and he has a Derek Lee type glove, so we’ll take it…all while trying to remember he turns 24 this August.

Second Base: Darwin Barney

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

I’m not even going to hide it…I love Darwin Barney.  I love that he hustles.  I love that he takes pride in his defense.  I love that he thinks the team can go to the playoffs this season.  I love it all.  I don’t even mind his career .305 on-base percentage.  I’m not saying I would mind seeing that come up some, but I don’t even see it as that big of a problem for a guy who will likely be hitting in the lower third of the order.  I do believe some of his on-base issues are with hitting so low in the order.  A guy hitting in front of the pitcher with an offense like the Cubs had last season wasn’t going to get any free passes, and was going to get attacked.  That shows in his numbers from last season against his numbers from his previous work in the bigs.  If his offense rebounds at all, and he defends his Gold Glove, he will be the same steady player you’re used to seeing.

Third Base: Ian Stewart

I’m still going with Stewart here because it’s been a week and nobody is grabbing the bull by the horns and taking the job this spring.  Brent Lillibridge is not going to be the every day third baseman.  Luis Valbuena had a great winter and has started off well this spring, but I think everyone who has a say in the matter knows that he is a utility player.  Josh Vitters has the same problems he had last season and seems ticketed for Iowa to work on his hitting and defense.  Junior Lake is built like a third baseman, but hasn’t done anything to prove he deserves to be in Chicago, yet.  It may be Ian Stewart’s job to win, but it’s not like anyone else has grabbed the bull by the horns and taken the spot.  My feeling is, when Stewart gets back into action this spring, if he shows anything at the plate, and shows he is still the good athlete that Dale Sveum liked at third last season, he will be there on Opening Day.  And he should be.  The Cubs gave up a lot to bring him in.  The sample size he showed last season is not anywhere close to enough to determine is he is a bust.

Photo: Jim Mone/ AP

Photo: Jim Mone/ AP

Shortstop: Starlin Castro

Entering his fourth big league season, the veteran of the group is the nearly 23 year old Starlin Castro.  He hit .283 last year, and seems genuinely upset about it.  That is a scary good thought.  If he can be the .300 hitter he was in his first two seasons, increase his power to the extent that everyone seems to think he can, and keep the steady improvement of his defense going, he is going to be a lock for the All-Star team he’s already made twice.  Don’t be fooled by his error totals, either.  A number of those were early last season.  And after the San Francisco debacle, his attentiveness improved dramatically throughout the season.  As the only player to go all 162 last season, I would expect nothing less than continued improvement*.
*If you’re on the “he’s a bum and it’s time to trade him” wagon, you’re an idiot.  Starlin Castro might be the best young shortstop in the game, and he’s 22.  He’s not anywhere close to his prime, so I will repeat myself…when that kid grows up, he’s going to be really, really, really good.*

Bench: Luis Valbuena, Brent Lillibridge

Both of these guys offer quite a bit of versatility, but neither is an attractive option at first base.  Lillibridge is a super-utility player, who can play all over the infield and can give you some innings in the corner outfield, also.  Dale Sveum loves his versatility, so I expect him to break camp with the major league team.  Valbuena is similar in that he can play second, short, and third.  He’s another nice piece off the bench who is capable of giving a regular a day off.  First base is likely to be backed up by Castillo and Navarro because there really is nobody else.  Lillibridge can do it, but being 5’11” makes him a bit short for the job.

Early Spring Notes

While we all sit and laugh as Ryan Braun tries to continue convincing people outside of Wisconsin (because people here are delusional and still think he’s innocent) that he didn’t use synthetic testosterone, some Cubs Spring Training bullets…

  • Today, on Twitter, I discovered Meghan Montemurro, Cubs (and Sox…but who cares) beat writer for the Northwestern Herald, is all over it.  She’s been dropping knowledge from Cubs’ Camp all day.  Follow her @M_Montemurro.  You won’t be disappointed.
  • Among her topics covered are Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, and how they will be used this spring.  She says that they will likely play together during spring games.  That should make for an interesting opportunity to see the two biggest names in the Cubs’ system on the field at the same time.  Soler is expected to play in both corner outfield slots.
  • Soler says he’s going to be in the majors next year.  That’s a lofty goal, and some serious talk out of a guy who hasn’t played much in the last couple of years and is likely going to Kane County to open 2013…but I love the fire and confidence.  Based on the show that everyone in Mesa is reporting he put on today in batting practice, it’s an exciting thought.  With him working in left and right field, he could be a legitimate option to replace Alfonso Soriano when his contract expires after 2014, should Soriano be on the roster that long.  Dale Sveum says Soler is not on a fast track to Chicago, though.  That seems to fit the “they’ll be up when they’re ready” approach the organization is taking with its prospects.
  • Carlos Villanueva thinks he can throw 200 innings this season…which is a lot more than he ever has.  For what it’s worth, Dale Sveum says he’s in better shape and has a more mature attitude than he did in Milwaukee.  I can see the conditioning part of it.  Beer and cheese curds tend to hurt the physique (speaking from experience more than my knowledge of his diet), but it’s great news on attitude.  I think we all know he’s going to be a key guy out of the ‘pen.  Travis Wood throwing well seems to work to his favor.  Wood would be the only lefty in the rotation.
  • Dale Sveum acknowledged 3B Ian Stewart was away from the team after surgery (which anyone who follows Stewart on Twitter already knew a long time ago), but didn’t think it was a big deal.  Sveum did say he told Stewart that he could have been around a bit more.  As far as rehab goes, a lot of players stay (like Garza) and a lot of players like to go off on their own (like Stewart).  I don’t think it’s anything to be worried about from a character standpoint.  Some players go away because it bothers them to be around and not be able to contribute.  It really boils down to “to each their own” when it comes to rehabbing injuries.  Sveum also said he thinks Stewart can hit 15-25 HRs and drive in between 75 and 100 runs.  That would be in the Aramis Ramirez zone of production…so we would all take it.  Gladly.
  • Some of the people who have seen Brett Jackson’s reworked swing are saying his hands are lower, especially his back hand, and his bat speed seems to be just as good as it’s always been.  That’s good news for his power.  It’ll take live pitching to see how well he’s done with reworking his swing, but early reports seem to be positive.  Bleacher Nation has video of the swing posted, here.
  • Dale Sveum said Matt Garza looked better today than he did the other day.  Hopefully, his elbow issue is behind him.  I am still in the corner of extending him for a reasonable (Anibal Sanchez like) contract.  He’s a great teammate and he’s a pretty good pitcher, too.  Plus, if you listened to him at the Cubs Convention at all, the man is hilarious and loves to have fun. At the moment, the Cubs need to have enough a veteran or two on the roster that help keep a young team loose.

There is a lot of info circulating about position players at Cubs camp…which is great news, since they’re not due in camp until tomorrow.

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

Alfonso Soriano, Arbitration, Minor Moves and Cubs Convention

Some of the news surrounding our beloved Cubs…

  • Theo Epstein made it clear that he wants an actual piece in a trade for Alfonso Soriano.  He cited Sori’s 2012 season and his willingness to help young players, making him a valuable clubhouse presence, as the reasons for why he wants an actual player, especially since the Cubs are going to eat a large chunk of the $36M remaining on Soriano’s deal.  I don’t mind this approach, because the money for Soriano is already spent, so holding out to get something of value is not a terrible move.  Soriano can help young players, his work with helping Starlin Castro become a better professional is of special note in this regard, and a young team can use a good veteran clubhouse player.  If Soriano can replicate his season last year with a duplicate this year, he’d actually be worth the $18M he’s getting paid with his leadership and his production.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve defended Soriano for a few years, although I have been in favor of trading him.  The guy has struggled with injuries since he got to Chicago, and could have missed far more games than he actually did.  And, for what it’s worth, if last year really is the first time he had gotten any outfield instruction, it is partially the fault of the Piniella and Quade regimes for his defensive incompetence.  To boil it down, I wouldn’t mind him getting traded, but the Cubs should get more than a bag of balls for him.

    Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

  • Luis Valbuena agreed to a deal with the Cubs, allowing them to avoid going to a hearing with him.  He’s going to get $930K this season, where he figures to be on the bench, but will likely serve as a back-up at 2B, SS, and 3B, all of which he can play competently.  As a left handed bat, who took 36 walks in 303 plate appearances, he is the type of  versatile player that has some value on a bench, even on a good team.  It’s good to see him back, and hopefully be in a role he’s better suited to, after seeing him start a number of games at 3B when Ian Stewart was shut down with a wrist injury.  With Valbuena being taken care of, that leaves Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and James Russell as the remaining arbitration players this off-season.
  • The Cubs signed Brett Lillibridge and Darnell McDonald last week to minor league deals.  I have not seen whether or not they’ve gotten invitations to Spring Training, but I would assume, with the team looking for competition and depth among potential players on the roster, that they have.  As Spring Training draws closer, I’ll post a complete list of Bunting Tournament participants.
  • Cubs Convention is this weekend.  I will be there.  It is my first opportunity to actually attend, so I am very excited about the chance to be a big kid this weekend.  The information put out on the team’s website is here.  It looks like it’s going to be a great weekend for fans, and with proceeds going to charity, it benefits a good cause.  Classic win-win, so if you haven’t bought tickets and can attend, I would urge any of my few loyal readers and any passing readers to take the opportunity to head out this weekend.

 

Catching Up on the Off-Season

There has been some news surrounding the Cubs lately, so now seems to be as good a time as any to update it.

  • First, the best news of the off-season is that Matt Garza can return to his normal off-season routine, which the team announced today.  Garza last pitched in July, before the trade deadline, which effectively killed his trade value at the deadline last year.  This is the last off-season in which Garza is eligible for arbitration, so there shouldn’t be any surprise about trade rumors involving Garza to surface again.  For his part…Garza seems to be mildly pleased about his clean bill of health…  “I’m cleared for takeoff!! Strap it on tight cause we are going on one helluva ride… #getitdone#freedom#2013”  Matt Garza, via Twitter, @Gdeuceswild
  • The Cubs did manage to sign starting pitcher Scott Baker this week, too.  Not to blow my own horn too much, but I did speculate in August that he would make some sense for the Cubs. I also speculated Ryan Dempster would make some sense, and the possibility of his return hasn’t been ruled out, yet.  Just saying…  Anyway, Baker is 31, missed last season after having Tommy John Surgery, and got a $5.5M deal for this season, with some incentives. The short and sweet on Baker is that over the course of his career, he’s been steady, if not good, with the Minnesota Twins.
  • The team has been in contact with 3B Ian Stewart, which could mean a decision on his return could be forthcoming in the next few days.  Stewart may still be non-tendered, but if all really is well with his wrist (Stewart, for his part, has insisted that it is), he could find his way back to third base to start 2013, especially with the limited options available within the organization and free agency.  Speaking of Ian Stewart, he just had a baby girl.  So, Congratulations Ian and now bigger family.
  • Theo Epstein suggested the Cubs may open the pocket book a little for a starting pitcher.  Obvious speculation is Anibal Sanchez with a very outside chance of talks with Zack Greinke.  I would be surprised if either were a Cub on Opening Day, which is only a mere 136 days from today.
  • For what it’s worth, Bud Selig said at the owners’ meetings today if he were running an organization, he would do it the same way Theo Epstein is going about it with the Cubs.  If I recall, he did run a franchise (Brewers).  And they sucked.  A lot.  Until he left. And for a long time afterwards.  Until his family completely ceded control.  Just food for thought.

The Winter Meetings will probably bring about more of a flurry of activity.  They typically do.  I would not be surprised, however, if the Cubs make a number of moves before that time.  It is nice to have a quiet off-season, to this point.  Last year was very chaotic with the changes in the front office, the managerial search, and the volatile changes in the roster.  This year, it seems like it will be much more “normal.”