In 2011, the Cubs and Cardinals shared something in common. Both dreamed of 2012 with Albert Pujols in the line-up. Jerseys,
shirsies, and Cubs’ gear with the signature 5 on the back started appearing. And then Jim Hendry gave him a hug. And we all leaned forward. And then Hendry got fired and Theo Epstein got the job to lead the front office after spending mega-dollars in Boston. We all thought it was a sure thing that the Cubs would sign Pujols or former Brewer, Prince Fielder. And then the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo. And the dreaming was over.
The start of a rebuild was upon us. None of us thought it was 101 losses bad. We didn’t think we would be waiting until 2015 to be realistic contenders. That is, however, where we are. And it is exactly where we should be.
My favorite conversations are with the people who talk about “winning now.” We should buy free agents to win now while prospects develop so that we have a good major league product while we develop a minor league product. The reality, though, is that logic is flawed. Because the evidence suggests that it fails just about 100% of the time.
The New York Yankees are the poster-children for throwing money at flaws. In fact, the Yankees have spent, since 2001, roughly $2.375 BILLION on payroll. They have appeared in the World Series only three times (2001, 2003, and 2009), and have only won once (2009). They spent about $792 million per World Series appearance. Meanwhile, the Cubs have spent about $1.294 billion on payroll for three PLAYOFF appearances, and no World Series berths in the same time frame. Every year, the Cubs are in the top half (even now) in total payroll and have had among the highest in the National League over the last 13 years.
The teams who are winning are those who draft their players, develop them, bring them up, and learn to win at the MLB level. There is a reason the Rays are one of the most stable franchises in baseball now, in spite of having to let players like Matt Garza, Carl Crawford, James Shields, and likely soon will let David Price walk out the door. They do their work on the draft and turn their talent into contending quality major league teams. The Giants have done the same thing with home grown Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Buster Posey, et al winning two of the last three championships. The Cardinals refused to pay Albert Pujols more than he was worth. They set a number and a length for him, and refused to budge. He went to the Angels, and his legs stayed in St. Louis. Meanwhile, he has eight years left on his contract. He’ll be a player who can’t run, can’t be traded, and has to be paid until 2021. Sound familiar? A certain left fielder has drawn the ire of Cubs fans for failing to live up to his deal, and Pujols has an even worse contract.
Like it did with the Rays, the Phillies when they won with a core of Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins (all home grown), and the Giants, it will take time for the Cubs to roll the snowball of building talent into a top down organizational juggernaut like the current Cardinals (who have the best record in baseball and one of the best farm systems to pair with it), but it is the right direction.
In the coming free agent class, there are no game changers to make the Cubs instant contenders. That is just another flaw in a completely unsustainable plan. Robinson Cano is the only potential free agent who could make an impact on a line up, and it is highly unlikely that he leaves New York. Shin Soo Choo is a nice piece, but he isn’t pushing the Cubs into the category of making a deep October run. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player who may finally be healthy, but he is nearing the wrong side of 30, and has an injury history that makes him a salary liability. And if/ when the Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Brett Jackson, Kris Bryant group gets to Chicago, they have an old player with a big contract blocking them. The pitching isn’t much better in the coming off-season. The most accomplished free agent pitcher to be is already on the Cubs’ roster in Matt Garza.
Losing games isn’t any fun. It’s easy to understand the frustration of watching the team lose games they could win, sink to the bottom of the division in May, and sell off veteran pieces for players who may turn into nothing. But throwing money at free agents and trading every nice piece in the farm for a chance at one year is how the Cubs got to this point in the first place. They are much better served developing their players, bringing them to the big league level, and trading prospects only when the return is a player who can be useful for sustained success. Money is best spent in the manner the front office has shown that it is going to spend it…on its own core pieces. Keeping young talent in-house for mutually beneficial deals is a very good way to spend money, and the Cubs’ position as a big market team should be able to allow them to hang on to their players, and not have to purge them when they have out-performed their contracts.
An unfortunate side effect to doing it the right way is that it takes time. And it will. Anything worth doing, though, is worth doing right. Doing it right takes time, and good things come to those who wait, and all those other things we were told when we were kids. They’re all true.
There is no denying that it’s been tough to watch at times in the early going. The errors, the lack of hitting with runners in scoring position, the lack of patience at the plate, the base running blunders…it’s all been quite frustrating. There is a bright side, though. It can’t get any worse.
In my Central Division Preview, I called the Cubs an 80 win team. I made my predictions, intentionally early, based on the on-paper roster. It actually looks pretty good right now. *Hold on, meatball…before you call me a moron and tell me to watch the games, you’re right.* But hear me out. The Cubs are losing games, which is to say they are not being beaten by the other teams, but by themselves. We can agree they played well enough to win one against the Braves, two more than they did against the Giants, and probably the first two of this series against the Brewers without the mistakes which have cost them early. There are five wins in there the Cubs don’t have, that they could have. And really, if they win two or three of those five games, nobody’s saying anything about the errors or struggles with runners in scoring position because an 8-8 or a 7-9 record would be acceptable based on what we were expecting this season.
More silver lining: the mistakes are inexcusable. They are not, however, uncorrectable. Change can happen with the defense, especially when the vast majority are effort mistakes. Anthony Rizzo is a very good defensive first baseman, and has made two uncharacteristic plays in the last two nights. Both of them were because he was trying to rush. Friday, on a play against a speedy Nori Aoki, and last night trying to get an out and throw home on a play he wasn’t going to make. Ultimately, the play last night didn’t matter. Sure, he bobbled the ball, but they still got the out at first base, and he wasn’t going to hold Logan Schafer at third anyway. That’s a “no harm, no foul” play. The misplay was not relevant to the outcome of the play. Starlin Castro is our favorite whipping boy, and it probably has a lot to do with his off the charts talent. His issues have not been concentration related, either as much as they’re publicized as. Say what you will about an error with the pitcher running, but that was a physical mistake, not taking his time and making the play. Stop with the garbage “you have to be aware of who’s running” stuff. Last night was no different. Actually, it was the same play. Two outs, and making the play ends the innings and ends the scoring threat.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be disappointed or frustrated or cover our eyes while we watch yet another defeat being snatched out of the jaws of victory. At the end of the day, though, who cares? The front office, and Theo Epstein, in particular make no qualms about “playoffs or protected pick.” He said that they’re going to take the “cold assessment” in the middle of the season. There is no valor in winning 78 vs 73. He’s absolutely right, too. Hell, I’ll take it a step further. When you watch the game today, look across the field at the other dugout. They won 83 last season. Our guys got 61. Everybody finished on the same day. Their fans get to talk about the magical “winning season” and we get mocked for “101 losses.” But in June, the Cubs get a prize. They get Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray. They get a chance at a college arm who can be teamed with Jeff Samardzija for years to come. The Brewers coughed up a first round pick for three years of Kyle Lohse, and with it, stay stuck in mediocrity. They can have their 75-84 wins each year. If the Cubs go down with another 100+ losses this season, that’s alright. *Cue Meatball fan throwing closing the browser window…NOW* It’s not like tthe Cubs have had a difficult time attracting free agents. Edwin Jackson was one of the prizes of last winter’s class, and he came.
The Cubs are in the midst of culture change. A welcome one. Look across the field at the Brewers, again. Now think back to 2011 and what the Cubs were. In 2011, the Cubs didn’t have anybody but Starlin Castro who would actually be improving over the course of the next 4-5 years. Everyone on the roster was either in or past their prime. They won 71 games. It was miserable. It was worse than we have now because it was hopeless. We wanted to think adding Carlos Pena and trading the farm for Matt Garza would be enough to have another magical winning season. We hoped Carlos Zambrano wouldn’t be a complete headcase, and with him, Garza, and Ryan Dempster, there would be a rotation worth running out each day. We had Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall setting up for Carlos Marmol, which turned out to be a decent pen when the Cubs actually led. Aramis Ramirez was still at third and it didn’t look like an endless abyss of suck. The reality of that team, though, is that the only player who played any considerable amount of time with any potential to grow was Starlin Castro. *Meatball, if you’re still with me, I’m talking to you again…yes, Starlin is getting better. No, we shouldn’t trade him unless we get a lot in return, and yes, his defense is above league average.* Now, look at the Brewers. Lucroy is pretty good, but at 26 is probably not going to get much better, if at all. Ryan Braun is in the twilight of his 20s, and is in his prime. Jean Segura is a young and talented player who will improve. But apart from that, who else is there? Their minor league organization is bare, and Aramis Ramirez is two years older than the past his prime Rami we saw a couple of years ago. Corey Hart can’t stay healthy, and is starting to get to the point of decline. Rickie Weeks is a laughable shell of his former self. It all looks very familiar to our situation a couple of years ago.
The point of all of this is that, like Wrigley Field, the product on the field was a real mess a couple of years ago. That’s why Jim Hendry was fired, that’s why Theo Epstein was given the reigns, and that’s why we are where we are. It needed to be done. Like any massive renovation, some things are going to be broken down, some things are going to be ugly and tough to handle, but in the end, the foundation will be stronger and the finished product will look better. If you take anything from this series, take it as progress. Two short years ago, the Cubs may have won some games because a less talented team made some silly mistakes against a team of aging veterans who weren’t going to be better than 71 wins, but wouldn’t beat themselves as often. Honestly, I would rather the Cubs throw the ball around the diamond and beat themselves than get run day after day. That’s not happening. What is happening is a young team learning to play together, and learning to win together. It’s hard to watch. It may result in being swept out of Milwaukee.
We knew what 2013 was coming in. It still is. A bridge to next year.
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.
In the depths of a farm system is the Arizona Rookie League. The AZL Cubs feature the bulk of the future of the Chicago Cubs, as designed by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Led by Manager Bobby Mitchell, the lowest level of the minor leagues features some names we have heard quite prominently since last winter. Cuban defector and prize international free agent Jorge Soler, 2012 draft picks Albert Almora, Paul Blackburn, and Duane Underwood, 2011 14th round pick Dillon Maples, Rule 5 pick, Lendy Castillo (rehabbing a case of “Rule5itis”), Shawon Dunston, Jr., and others are all getting their professional baseball orientations in the deserts of Arizona. And, if the early returns are any indication of their potential, the Cubs appear to be in capable hands.
OF Jorge Soler has played in eight games to this point for the Arizona League Cubs, and has played as advertised. He has hit .296 in the early going, fueled by his dominance over left-handed pitching, going 5-7 with 1 HR and 3 RBI. Overall, his 2 HR, 6 RBI and 2 SB stand as a strong showing for a young player that comes with the pressure of a $30M contract. Defensively, he’s also been solid. Again, it’s eight games. There hasn’t been a large sample size, but he has gotten off on the right foot, and that is good news for everybody hoping to see him hitting long home runs onto Waveland Ave in a few years.
OF Albert Almora took a while to sign after being selected 6th overall last month, but he, too, has started his professional career. While hitting .190, he does have a home run and 4 RBI in his first five games manning center field in Arizona. In spite of an error, his defense has been as advertised, with a 2.00 range factor in the early going.
RHP Paul Blackburn has pitched in 4 games, making 2 starts, totaling 6.1 innings. His numbers boil down to basically one start, and are pretty strong. He’s given up 2 earned runs on 7 hits, with 1 walk. Not too bad for the beginning of a professional career.
RHP Dillon Maples finally made his debut and gave up a run in one inning of work. Maples is one of the more highly regarded prospects in the organization, and could go down as former GM Jim Hendry’s final good deed for the Cubs. Selecting Maples in the 14th round and convincing Tom Ricketts to back up the money truck for a pitcher with first round talent but thought to be impossible to sign may be one of the better moves in Hendry’s tenure, even though by the time he made the move, he new he would be moving on.
There are a number of good players in Arizona, starting their road to Wrigley. It may take a few years before we see any of these players in Chicago, but players like Soler and Almora could be everyday names for Cubs fans as Epstein and Hoyer continue to build an organization from the bottom up.
In my last post, on what I project to be the pitching staff this season, I referred to the Cubs’ pitching last season as “an unmitigated disaster.” I have no qualms about that statement because, in short, it was. It was not over- stated. It was not even putting a microscope on a weak spot from a team that struggled for a good portion of the season. It just was what it was. With all of that said, the guys behind the pitching last season contributed to it mightily. Last season, the Cubs were 29th in defensive efficiency with a .680 rating. That narrowly edged out the Minnesota Twins, who finished with a .679 DER. To contrast, the Tampa Bay Rays were first in MLB with a .724 DER. Nobody in the majors topped the 134 errors by the Cubs last season, which led to an expected last place finish in fielding percentage. The pitching was bad. The fielding was worse. If the Cubs have a snowball’s chance in Mesa, AZ of making the playoffs, those numbers need to improve dramatically.
The offense was very middle of the road, and the numbers bear that out. They finished between 10th and 20th in the majors in just about all offensive categories, except for stolen bases, where they were down toward the bottom of the league. Don’t expect that to get much better this season. With the losses of 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B Carlos Pena, and OF Kosuke Fukudome, a significant portion of the output from last season is gone. The biggest bats left in the line up are C Geovany Soto, LF Alfonso Soriano, and SS Starlin Castro. The only one of those guys that is consistent is Castro, so the offense figures to be a work in progress all season long.
The position players are going to be a fluid group for all 162 games, in spite of what Dale Sveum said about sticking to one line up earlier this week. As such, take this projection with the smallest of grains of salt…
Line- Up and Batting Order
1. RF David DeJesus – The free agent from Oakland figures to be the first of the lead off hitters this season, although that may change as the season wears on. He’s never played more than 144 games in a season, and hit .240 last season with the A’s. That figures to be an aberration, though, because his career average of .284 is significantly better. If he can be who he was before 2011, hitting in the neighborhood of .300 and getting on base around .350, he figures to hang on to the job for a while.
2. 2B Darwin Barney – Darwin wore down as the season wore on last season after a red hot start. He added some muscle this off-season, which may help him. Aside from the offensive struggles late, Darwin was a nice surprise for a bad team last season. His defense was average and he figures to continue to be an opportunistic base stealer, having nine and being caught twice last year. As he grows at the major league level, his numbers could rise. Or, he could be in for the dreaded sophomore slump. With the way his teammates and coaches have raved about his work ethic, I would bet on the former before the latter.
3. SS Starlin Castro– Starlin figures to settle into the third slot in the line-up this season, although Dale Sveum has said he will consult Starlin about where he wants to hit. The free swinging short stop doesn’t walk too much, but still managed to hit over .300 again last season, and led the NL in hits with 207 at age 21. He did have 29 errors in 158 games, which was actually an improvement in his defense from the 210 campaign, where he had 27 in
123 games. Those numbers are a bit misleading, though, because Starlin makes errors on plays that would be hits with others short stops because he has such great range. He also makes throws that a number of other short stops would not dream of making because of his sensational arm. Expect former major league short stop and new Cubs’ Skipper to work with Castro. And expect the errors to come down.
4. 1B Bryan LaHair – The reigning PCL MVP gets the opportunity to start, and will probably hit fourth in the line- up on the heels of his 38 HRs in AAA last season. He is not going to replace the production from Aramis Ramirez, but he did have a good showing after he was called up last season. He hit .288 with 2 HRs and 10 RBI in 59 at bats last season. If he can contribute at that pace, with about 500 at bats this season, he will be just fine. There will be a drop off in production in the clean up slot, but it will be manageable.
5. CF Marlon Byrd – Marlon had a tough year last season. His veteran presence in CF and in the middle of the line- up are important to a young team. He comes in slimmed down and expecting to improve on his .276 average and 9 HRs from last season. Considering he lost six weeks with the facial fracture suffered in Boston, it wasn’t nearly as bad, statistically, as it looks. If he can rebound and hit around .290 and give the team the 12-15 HRs and 60 or so RBIs that he typically gives, it will be a nice rebound for Marlon this year.
6. LF Alfonso Soriano – ‘Fonsi is the guy that epitomizes why Cubs’ fans hated Jim Hendry. Even though there is wide spread information available that says he was a product of the Tribune Co. ownership group, Hendry takes the fall for a guy that has hit no fewer than 20 HRs in this five seasons in Chicago. He is the last known threat in the line- up, too. His 26 HRs and 88 RBIs last season were a strong number for an aging outfielder. He is not the guy that everybody thought the Cubs were getting before the 2007 season, but he is still a legit power threat, and the streaky hitter can carry the team for weeks at a time when he gets hot. He will likely continue to be a defensive liability that is replaced by either Reed Johnson or Tony Campana late in games when the team is leading, but I would expect, barring injury, another 25 HRs and 80 RBIs from Soriano in a status quo season for the veteran.
7. C Geovany Soto – The bad news about Geo is that he goes up and down in his production from year to year. The good news is that last year was a down year, so he is due a good year. After slimming down again, Soto thinks that he can keep the weight off this time. He will likely give the Cubs the 20 HRs and 60 RBIs that he has been in the ballpark of giving, but if he brings his average back to around .280 and starts taking the walks he took in 2010, it should be a resurgent year for Soto. He called last season a “confidence problem.” If he can manage to focus on each at- bat, many of his issues might correct themselves, and we could see a much better Soto in 2012.
8. 3B Ian Stewart – Remember 2010…when Tyler Colvin had a good bat, and made Cubs’ fans think about him being the first real fixture in RF since Sammy Sosa? I introduce the you the Colorado Rockies’ version of Colvin. In 2009 and 2010, Stewart was a legit hitter with the Rockies with 25 and 18 HRs, respectively. His average has never blown anybody away, but when he was able to put the ball in play, it was generally going to be with some authority. Now, he’s a Cub after being traded for the aforementioned Colvin, along with infielder, DJ LeMahieu in the ultimate “change of scenery” swap. If he can recapture any of the offense he had in 2009 and 2010 under Hitting Coach Rudy Jaramillo, he might be able to fend off slowly progressing Josh Vitters this season.
IF Jeff Baker – Super utility player, Baker, can play First, Second, Third, and the corner outfield with some effectiveness, and hits well against left handed pitching. He will play a lot this season, in pinch hitting and platoon roles in multiple positions.
OF Reed Johnson – “Web Gem” is going to back up all three outfield spots this season, and will be the “go to” defensive replacement for Soriano late in games this year. Reed is a strong veteran that seems to deliver in the biggest moments with either a defensive play that saves runs or with a huge hit. I wouldn’t expect anything different than what Reed did last season in the 2012 campaign.
OF Tony Campana – Tony’s game changing speed is the reason he will likely break camp with the big league team, being the Cubs’ lone serious stolen base threat. He is going to be a pinch runner and defensive replacement when he gets into the game, with the occasional start in any of the three outfield slots. This is the first person that will head back to Iowa if and when any of Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, or Dave Sappelt join the big league team.
IF Adrian Cardenas – The 24 year old middle infielder stole the roster spot held by Blake DeWitt, and figures to make the team as a back up at both middle infield positions after being claimed off of waivers from the Oakland A’s. He’s a left handed hitter, who had strong numbers in AAA last season, hitting .314, and runs better than Dewitt.
C Wellington Castillo – With the departure of Koyie Hill, the opportunity to make the major league team on a permanent basis opens up for Castillo, after seeing some time last year with Soto injured. Castillo is a good hitter and a strong defensive catcher. If he proves that he can handle the young pitching staff, he is the favorite over Steve Clevenger and Jason Jaramillo to win the back up role out of camp.
Other Expected Contributors
CF Brett Jackson – Brett Watch 2012 is on in full force, as this could be the year where the Cubs’ top prospect makes his debut in front of the ivy at Wrigley. I would anticipate that to be the case at some point. That means Marlon Byrd either moves over to one of the corners (left field if someone can be found to take Soriano) or Byrd himself gets traded.
IF Blake DeWitt – Blake probably will not make the roster out of camp, but he will most likely be with the team at some point over the course of the season. He is the first guy up if there is an injury to any infielder because he can play second, third, short, and the corner outfield. He may be released out of camp or a trade could be sought if he fails to make the 25 man roster out of camp.
1B Anthony Rizzo– The 1B of the future, Rizzo will start the season in Iowa, but I would be stunned if he isn’t with the major league team before July. If Ian Stewart or Bryan LaHair struggle or get hurt, this is the guy that will
probably get called up. While he probably will not start over veteran Jeff Baker, he would likely be with the major league team to get some spot starts as a left handed hitter.
OF Dave Sappelt – Dave was acquired from the Reds in the Sean Marshall trade and has plus speed and plays good defense. He got some light duty with the Reds last season, and figures to be with the Cubs at some point of the season, as the first man up if there is an injury.
OF Matt Szczur – Matt is the “other” outfield prospect that figures to make is MLB debut. He also figures to be the RF of the future, playing next to Brett Jackson when he gets to Chicago. Matt is a Five Tool prospect and could find his way to Chicago this season if there are injuries or if the team falls back early.
3B Josh Vitters – Josh will probably be an injury or September call up this season. His slow development has been hidden by the fact that Aramis Ramirez has been at third for the last eight years. He seemingly figured it out last season in the minors. If Ian Stewart struggles this season, he is going to get his opportunity. At 22, he is young enough, but after four years of minor league baseball behind him, his leash to figure it out is shortening.
The youth of this team is the first thing that should be noticed. There will be some offensive and defensive growing pains with the core youth with this team. Like I declared in my preview post, I do not expect the Cubs to be a viable playoff threat this season, and will struggle to get to .500 if they manage to. What cannot be understated is the talent of the collection of players being led by Dale Sveum. His devotion to fundamentals and playing hard should suit this roster perfectly. If the can grow, this core group will be a viable threat in 2013 and beyond. This season, though, is for “building.” And it is going to start with this foundation of players gaining invaluable experience at the major league level this season.
When Theo Epstein was introduced as the new Vice President of Baseball Operations with the Chicago Cubs in October, there were some startling changes around Clark and Addison. He brought a new attitude to the organization and promptly called it “The Cubs’ Way.” Heck, it was even published and distributed throughout the organization. Even the kitchen staff is new. From my perspective, the change is refreshing; an opportunity to change the culture of a big spending and small achieving team.
Under GM Jim Hendry, the Cubs spent money that they had on players they didn’t need. And did it while sacrificing prospects and the future for a “win now at any cost” approach. It worked in 2007 and 2008, with Division Championships and playoff births. It failed in the “playoff wins” department. This is not a look back to bash Jim Hendry. To his credit, he did produce a team that was in contention more than it was out of it during his tenure. And there were the persistent leaks that players like Alfonso Soriano were signed from the Tribune Co. to win and boost the value of the team for sale. Huge contracts were handed out like Old Style in the past. Carlos Zambrano was probably a good signing. He is only 30, and was a young pitcher, entering his prime when he signed his contract. Everyone knew he was a basket case, but with Lou Pinella around, there seemed to be a big personality to keep Big Z in check.
Celebrity managers were also common. Don Baylor, Dusty Baker, and Lou Piniella were all hires under Hendry. All of them had ups and downs. Piniella was by far the best, with three winning seasons, but with no playoff wins to show for it, none of them had the success they were hired for. Ultimately, all were unceremoniously run out of Wrigleyville, just as Mike Quade was. Mike Quade was far from a celebrity manager, but he was one heck of a smart baseball man. You could hear it in him. I feel bad for Quade. He got dealt a deck full of threes. He had an aging team beyond its prime, with some young players not yet in their prime sprinkled on top of it. Not a recipe for success. Actually, considering the team had a decent run in the second half of the season, it was to his credit that he kept them interested.
Moving to the present, there should be some optimism with the Cubs, and the direction that the organization is taking. First and foremost, Tom Ricketts wants to win. He is as much a Cubs’ fan as the rest of us. And he has the money and desire to do it at all costs while making his investment pay off. Hiring Theo Epstein was a step in the right direction. Theo hiring Jed Hoyer as General Manager was another step in the right direction. Trading Carlos Zambrano was a step in the right direction. Working on trading Alfonso Soriano for whatever they can get is a step in the right direction. There are more steps to take, but each step is a step toward the future of what can be a long, sustained run of success.
With Ricketts’ willingness to eat bad contracts to unload old players, and Epstein’s “long term asset” approach to player acquisition, there is some promise for the future. Dale Sveum was the perfect hire for this ball club at this point in time. He’s not a sexy hire. He’s wasn’t a sexy player. He’s a grinder. He was a grinder as a player. He is, by any account, a tremendous teacher, and preaches fundamentals and accountability. All of those things are traits the Cubs need to have in the near future. There isn’t a talent gap at the moment. There is an experience and performance gap. Dale is the kind of guy that can work to bridge that gap.
Long term assets is a phrase that has become common amongst the new brass. It’s a good one. Sean Marshall probably wasn’t going to be back after this season. Trading him for two of the Reds’ major league ready prospects was a strong move that looked beyond this season. Sean wasn’t going to be a cheap re-signing and his age was starting to increase to a level not consistent with handing out a big contract. The players that the Cubs got in return are inexpensive players that will be around for a few years. Likewise with Carlos Zambrano. Matt Garza spoke today about Big Z being a Cy Young contender in Miami. If that’s true, and it very well could be, he wasn’t going to be cheap to bring back, either. Garza is right, though. And he knows it could mean he gets sent out of town. There is talk of a contract extension, which Dale Sveum endorses, that could turn him into an asset for the future, as well.
The changing of the guard has come to the Cubs. Every step has to be made in the direction of sustaining success. Assembling a team that wins this season and then drops to the bottom of the division in another two or three isn’t the right approach. Just ask the 1997 Marlins. Or the 2003 Marlins. Or the 2001 Diamondbacks. Or the Yankees of every season except for 2009 since the turn of the 21st Century.
Ricketts. Theo. Hoyer. Zambrano. Marshall. Garza. Soriano. One step at a time.