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.
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!
Javier Baez is good. He’s really, really good. And based on the looks of things, he has very little interest in remaining in the minor leagues for all that much longer.
Currently with AA Tennessee, Baez hasn’t had any drop-off in production since being promoted from High A Daytona. In fact, looking at the numbers, they’re remarkably similar in a lot of respects. With Daytona this season, Baez was a .274/.338/.535 hitter. With Tennessee, the pace has been .273/.329/.580. Last night, he hit his 12th home run with the Smokies and 29th for the season. What makes these numbers more impressive is that both the Florida State League and the Southern League are considered pitcher friendly. He is sitting at 14th in the league in home runs in just 34 games. If he had the at-bats to qualify, he would also lead the Southern League in OPS.
Clearly, when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said that a prospect will get promoted if he dominates his competition Javier Baez took it to heart. That is the exact kind of thing you want from your top prospect, too. He’s not by any means a finished product, but he is making leaps and bounds at the plate. He still strikes out more than his fair share (about 28% of the time), and his walk rate isn’t what you want in a middle of the order bat. The walks part of the equation is coming around, though. He’s taken 33 of his 47 professional walks this season. While some of the lack of walks before this season is probably due to inferior competition at lower levels of the minors, the numbers bear out that he’s not walking up to the plate hacking quite as much as he used to.
The area of concern that remains about Baez, and the thing that can hold him back is his defense. He has 40 errors for the season, and a .929 fielding percentage, which isn’t going to cut it at any level. To his credit, his fielding percentage has come up with Tennessee, from .922 in Daytona to .946, which can probably be attributed to, in part, better field conditions in AA than were seen in the Florida State League and a smaller sample size. This also shows how little fielding percentage should be used to judge defense. Baez has all of the tools to play three infield positions, and could end up supplanting the platoon at third or Darwin Barney at second. His range and arm work well at both positions, in addition to short stop. Jed Hoyer said earlier this summer that he thinks Baez can stick and play short in the majors.
It would be a surprise to see Javier Baez to go to Spring Training and win a spot on the 25 man roster when camp breaks. With the way this front office develops players, there is, while non-zero, a very slim chance of it happening. It is entirely possible that Javier Baez breaks with AAA Iowa, however. Considering how he’s played at AA Tennessee, it is possible he’s doing what he’s been asked: forcing the organization to move him up. There is still some time to play in 2013, but nothing that has happened to this point should suggest a slowdown in Baez’s production.
AA is a phone call away from the major leagues. Ask Starlin Castro. When Baez gets to Iowa, he will actually be a mere phone call away from the majors. If he plays as well in Iowa as he is in Tennessee and did in Daytona, there is no reason to believe that the offensively starved Cubs would not call Baez, especially if they find that they are one more bat away from being a competitive team. Ultimately, it’s up to Baez. If he dominates his level, he moves up, until he gets to Chicago. At that point, we all hope he dominates at that level for a long time.
In just about two days time, the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go. The Cubs, who have been more active than any team in the month of July, will see a considerable slow down in activity with the passing of the draft, the initial international free agent signing period, and the trade deadline. That leaves them with an ample opportunity to take care of what may be the most vital piece of business they have left before next season: Extend the contract of Manager, Dale Sveum.
As Theo Epstein’s hand picked successor to Mike Quade, Dale Sveum has done everything the Cubs could have imagined…and more. He deserves to go into next season with some job security, and the Cubs should go into this off-season, where they will surely try to add players who can help the major league team take the next step toward respectability, with stability in the manager’s office.
Although his 109-156 record isn’t outstanding, it is also not his fault. He walked into a complete overhaul of a roster of albatross contracts, aging veterans, and young players who really weren’t major league players. To make matters worse, the front office either traded or shut down major portions of his starting rotation…in both 2012 and 2013. The bullpens he’s had to work with have been largely unproven young players or veteran retreads (*cough cough* Shawn Camp *cough*), and it has shown in the win-loss column.
Dale Sveum was hired to do two main things: Keep the clubhouse together and develop young talent. He’s done exceedingly well on both fronts in his first two seasons.
On the player development front, the biggest feather in his cap is the coaching staff he’s put together. While he may have had Rudy Jaramillo and Pat Listach as hold overs for either part or all of last season, the additions of Dave McKay, David Bell, and Chris Bosio have all been successful. Dave McKay helped turn Alfonso Soriano into a serviceable left fielder. After years of being afraid of the wall and hopping around like a wounded bunny rabbit, Soriano had the highest UZR among NL left fielders last season. It’s amazing what a little coaching will do after Soriano admitted that he hadn’t gotten any outfield instruction before last season, from either Quade’s staff or Lou Piniella before him. Anthony Rizzo is another success, as Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach, brought his hands down, shortening his swing, and making him better than the .141/.281.242 hitter he was with the Padres in 2011. The anecdotes serve as evidence of a whole: the Cubs are a vastly improved defensive team from the years before Sveum. And the approach at the plate is starting to get better, too. Nothing happens over night, but the results are starting to show up. In spite of all of the player movement, trades, and lost veterans in the clubhouse, the Cubs have a winning record since May 26 (30-25). While the sample is small, the results matter. Even with major bullpen issues and a complete inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are playing competitively. The steps in the right direction are adding up.
The clubhouse is the other place Sveum was asked to thrive. As a former top prospect, he can relate to the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and soon Javier Baez, et al. He can also relate to the 25th man on the roster because that’s where his career ended after a devastating leg injury. He knows the weight of expectations and he knows the plight of the role player who is tasked to sit and wait for his name to be called, and the need to be ready. He relates to his players because he’s been there and done that. And while he took some undeserved criticism for his loyalty to Shawn Camp from fans, it was not his job to get rid of Camp. It was the front office’s. Having his player’s back, especially one who he’s had history with, was the only move he could make that doesn’t send the alienating “as soon as I see trouble, I’m going to turn my back on you.” message. That’s a terrible image to portray to the rest of the team. The fact that Dale said it was tough to see Camp go may have made fans cringe, but it probably made the team smile a little bit. When veterans like Matt Garza hang around after being shut down with 2 1/2 months left in a 100 loss season, it says as much as there is to say about a clubhouse…especially when Garza admitted if it had been Quade’s clubhouse, he would have gone home. And being able to sign quality free agents like Edwin Jackson after a 100 loss season doesn’t happen if the player thinks the manager is a bum who can’t manage a clubhouse. Think about it. Has anything obscenely negative come out of the clubhouse during Sveum’s tenure? For a team with the win-loss record the Cubs have had, you’d think there would be something. Especially in a media market like Chicago. But it’s been remarkably quiet. Which means the bad stuff is being handled where it should…in house.
Dale has been charged with over-seeing a complete rebuild, which couldn’t have been fun, couldn’t have been easy, and couldn’t have happened in any worse a place than Wrigley Field, where every year is “THE YEAR” to a group of people who only watch the game and read the box score in the paper each morning. The reality is, last year, this year, and probably next year are not “THE YEAR.” But the team is heading in the right direction in spite of the instability among the player personnel. That is a credit to Sveum, and the right thing to do is ensure that he never gets to “lame duck” status in the last year of a contract with a team, who next year may be able to win consistently for the first time in his tenure.
Besides. He got shot in the face and laughed it off. How cool is it to have a manager like that?
Over the past day or so, the latest name to pop up in Cubs trade rumors is that of Jeff Samardzija. Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said the Cubs were “listening” to other teams as they call about Samardzija, which is essentially what really set off the entire conversation.
The reality about Samardzija trade speculation, as others have said, is that of course the Cubs are willing to listen to what other teams are offering. That does not mean Shark is on the block in the same manner Ryan Dempster was last season or Matt Garza was this season. That does mean that it would be irresponsible of the front office to not listen to what other teams have to offer for Jeff Samardzija, who is not a free agent until after 2015 and, although he is 28 years old, is relatively low mileage at this point in his career. He’s only thrown 481.1 major league innings, which isn’t a whole lot for someone of Jeff’s age or his physical stature.
It would be a massive surprise if Samardzija was traded for all of those reasons…the price would be astronomical. While the D-Backs, Red Sox, Pirates, Braves, and others may have interest, it is going to take an awful lot to acquire him. The price tag takes him out of reach for most teams because they simply don’t have the prospects. And he probably costs too much to part with for the teams with the prospect currency to actually get him. It is not totally out of the question that somebody gets desperate for a starter with so few good ones on the market, though, so it is worth the front office’s time to listen to whoever calls. The price is reportedly a top pitching prospect (or prospects), as it should be.
Theo and Jed aren’t stupid. They know they have a huge piece to build a competitive Cubs team with (if the price is right), either as a front of the rotation starter or a player who can fetch a front of the rotation starter in a trade. While Samardzija may not be “on the block,” he isn’t unavailable. And since none of the Cubs have a no trade clause anymore, that’s the way it should be. Everyone can be had if the price is right. For Samardzija, the price is going to be high. Really high.
All of the deadline talk, and justifiably so, has been centered around Matt Garza to this point. There are also some other players who have been talked about as candidates to move on as the deadline approaches. David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Alfonso Soriano, and Kevin Gregg have all been spoken of as players who could very likely be traded as the deadline nears, or at least wouldn’t cause anybody any surprise if they were moved. There is also a list of attractive players that the Cubs could move who are not talked about prominently as the deadline inches closer. They fit the needs and holes of teams in contention and are low cost options to upgrade a roster, and it would make perfect sense if the Cubs were fielding calls about these players…
2B Darwin Barney:
The Cubs are stacked in the middle infield in the minor leagues at just about every level. With Logan Watkins at AAA Iowa, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez at AA Tennessee, and even Gioskar Amaya at Low-A Kane County, middle infielders are of no shortage in the Cubs’ organization. Darwin Barney has done everything he can to become a member of the core group of players that the Cubs use to make their eventual run, but his limitations with the bat seem to make him less attractive than other options. With a Gold Glove in his pocket and over a year before he even gets to arbitration, he could make a team looking for a low cost second baseman, without a need for a highly productive bat, very happy. The need doesn’t even have to be strictly second base. Barney came up as a short stop, and played third base when he first came up to the majors. He could be quite the defensive addition for any team looking to shore up its infield defense. Darwin actually fits into a line-up like Detroit’s perfectly. Incumbent Ramon Santiago plays both offensively and defensively at about replacement level. Replacing him with Darwin Barney doesn’t hurt their prolific offense at all, and very much shores up their middle infield. With the rumor that Detroit was interested last year, it makes sense that they would be interested again this year, given how close they came to winning a championship last year. Darwin Barney won’t net any team’s top prospect, but he should net a solid prospect or retread a la Scott Feldman. And with the depth already mentioned in the system, Darwin is expendable.
IF Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom:
Luis Valbuena is another player who could see himself on the move as the deadline approaches. Because he is an everyday player with the Cubs, he has displayed what he can do with the bat from the left side of the plate, and has shown to be more than capable as a defender. A team looking for a left handed hitting platoon infielder would love to have a player like Luis Valbuena for his ability to work counts, take walks, hit for power and field three infield positions well. A team like the Yankees, who have had a hard time keeping players on the field may take a long look at a Luis Valbuena. He would fit into the gaping holes left by repeated injuries and days off because of the advanced age of regular players, and his bat would play well with the short porch and right field power allies at Yankee Stadium. The Rays could also have interest in a player with his skill set. He wouldn’t net much of a return, but if there is a low level player in a system that catches Jed or Theo’s eye, don’t doubt for a second that the original “low risk waiver flyer” could be flipped for a lottery ticket at the deadline. Cody Ransom is in pretty much the same situation as Valbuena, except he’s right handed, comes with less control, and more age.
P Carlos Villanueva:
Maybe the least surprising player on this list, and quite possibly the most likely to be traded, Villanueva is a player who has been talked about as a trade candidate. He was merely overshadowed by the talk of Garza and Feldman, among the pitchers. Villanueva is particularly valuable because of his versatility as both a starter and reliever. While specific locations for him may be tough to pin point, it is reasonable to say that any team looking for a ‘pen arm with the ability to give you a solid swing start from time to time would be interested…which boils down to pretty much everybody. Again, it would be a surprise if Villanueva netted anything of note, but a middling prospect in somebody’s system who hasn’t progressed or a retread could be an expected return.
Because I have been traveling, I have not had the opportunity to get in on the Matt Garza trade posts, but I have an opportunity to now, and it seems, just in time…
The madness starts with David Kaplan, via Bob Nightengale, saying that Jurickson Profar is in play…
Let me first say, Garza for Profar won’t happen because that deal would have already been made. I could see Profar being in play if the Cubs add to the deal with good prospects that are less developed. Garza, Arismendy Alcantara, Dan Vogelbach for Profar and some other lesser pieces has a VERY outside shot of happening. Maybe not that exact deal, but something along those lines.
Another report about a trade with the Rangers has the Cubs looking to acquire Neftali Feliz. Again, that would be a great move for the Cubs, in spite of Feliz recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has the stuff to be a really good starter, but if injuries were to prevent that, he is definitely the kind of guy you put on the mound in the ninth to end games. Again, I am not sure it is likely that he comes to the Cubs in any deal. Jon Heyman reports that Martin Perez isn’t going anywhere in a Garza deal, so it would seem that door is closed. It makes sense. The Rangers need pitching, so it wouldn’t be a great move to deal a young pitcher producing in the rotation right now.
The most likely acquisition for Matt Garza from the Rangers is Mike Olt, who seems to be the most realistic of the players being discussed. The big concern about Olt is that he was struggling with vision problems early this season. That problem was, apparently, an inability to make tears, causing things to be blurry. Once discovered, Olt was given special drops, and for his part, seems to be past the injury, saying “I definitely noticed a huge difference the first day I used them.” Being past his vision issues would make him a still excellent prospect, and a nice “buy low” piece.
A lot of teams, including the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers are also being connected to Garza, among others. The most talked about, though, with actual players in return being discussed is Texas. It would be a significant upset, in my mind, if Garza went anywhere but Texas. Unless a team swoops in late with a package that wows Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer (which the Red Sox can if Clay Bucholtz doesn’t return healthy), the Rangers are the team to watch, especially if it is to be believed that Matt Garza has pitched his last inning as a Cub.