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.
This probably means Brad Zapenas is headed back to Kane County…
When this season started, I thought there was some chance that one of or both of Javier Baez and Jorge Soler could start at AA Tennessee. That isn’t to say I was surprised when both were sent to Daytona. That actually affirmed the notion that the Cubs, led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer with Jason McLeod leading player development, are really committed to letting these players develop and “master the level” before moving them up. Granted, I thought it was more likely that Soler would beat Baez to Tennessee when the season started, mostly due to Baez’s defensive shortfalls and his lack of plate discipline, but a five game suspension and an injury have changed the equation for Soler.
This season, Baez took a step forward for the D-Cubs. After finishing down there last season with a .188/.244/.400, he came back strong this season after getting some time in spring with the major league club. This season’s .274/.336/.537 is a vast improvement, especially in a pitcher’s league. In 98 games between 2012 and 2013, Baez delivered 21 HR, 70 RBI, went 14/18 stealing bases, and walked at a rate of about 6%. In June, however, his walk rate improved to over 10%, which is a major step forward for the 20 year old 2011 first round pick.
Timing wise, this is about as good a time as any. John Arguello over at Cubs Den sniffed this out when Ronald Torreyes was sent to the Astros, so I am all about giving credit where it’s due (and he deserves a TON of credit. He’s the Gold Standard on prospect/ draft stuff). But, it’s not like it was a leap to send him to Tennessee right now. Baez is obviously comfortable in Daytona, and that is the time to move a player up. Moving Torreyes was probably a justified by Baez being ready to move up. And at this point, Baez gets to dip his feet in the water before the AA All-Star break, and finish with a touch over 50 games with the Smokies this summer. He gets a half season to see where he stacks up at the level that saw Starlin Castro complete his minor league career. He will very likely be headed right back to AA as next season opens up. Again, he is going to have to master the level before going to Iowa. He will be given every opportunity to do that, though. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was a struggle or there is some inconsistency at the outset. This is his biggest jump in competition level to date.
What does this mean for Baez’s possible timeline to Wrigley? Well, it definitely brings him closer. I would be stunned if he were in Iowa any sooner than this time next year. In reality, there’s a good chance he spends all of 2014 in Tennessee, and doesn’t see Iowa before 2015. If he succeeds, though, it’s not impossible to see an aggressive promotion, although that does not fit the MO of this front office. I suspect the timeline is similar for both Baez and Soler to get to Chicago. There is an outside chance that they make brief September cameos in 2014, if they come up next year at all. More likely, they come up at some point in 2015. The truth is, though, their promotions and eventual arrivals in Chicago are up to them and how quickly they work on they things they need to improve to make them worthy of a call-up.
Unlike my usual overblown headlines on injuries, this one is actually accurate. Jorge Soler actually does have a broken leg. To be specific, he has a stress fracture of the tibia.
His injury is actually somewhat of a surprise. He is said to have gotten this injury when he fouled a ball off of his leg. I suspect, however, that this was an injury that was developing before the foul ball and was found when the pain of that singular event didn’t go away and he was examined further. That is because acute stress fractures are not exactly common. The term “stress fracture” is exactly what it sounds like. Repetitive stress causing a small fracture to a bone. Tibial stress fractures are common in runners. For a player like Soler, who has not played in a lot of games the last few years, the news of a stress fracture isn’t all that surprising. The overload of playing every day can have the effect of a stress injury on players who are used to it. For a guy who hasn’t played this much recently, it’s even more likely that a stress or overuse injury develops.
Here’s the good news…this is actually a pretty minor injury. It’s really the next worst thing after shin splints. All the stress fracture requires is rest. While that’s a tough way to end June, and likely the season because of when the minor league schedule closes, this is not an injury that should produce any complications long term. The injury was discovered quickly and is being treated with a walking boot. The bone will probably not fracture completely, it will probably heal in the four to six week time frame, and Jorge Soler will be good as new.
Long story short…feel bad for Jorge now. Don’t worry about his future because of this setback. Because that’s all it is.
Through the beginning of their tenure, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have done nothing short of a masterful job of adding quality talent to the Cubs’ minor league system. Between the inherited talent and the added talent, the Cubs now have what is a consensus top ten system in the game, and it is likely to get better with the addition of second overall pick Kris Bryant, international signings, and the trade deadline.
Not all of the positions in the organization are overflowing with talent, however. With the international signing and the trade deadline looming, there are some clear areas of need. To build the caliber of organization that the team needs to have and the front office wants to grow, weaknesses need to be addressed.
The focus needs to be on positions with glaring deficiencies. There are positions that are strong at the lower levels of the minor leagues without much talent at the top end, while some are stronger throughout the system or aren’t strong at all. The focus needs to be on picking up pieces to build a strong pipeline to the majors sooner than 2015-2016 and strengthen areas without much talent to speak of at all.
This is a no-brainer. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have acknowledged that the Cubs will use the international pool and trade deadline to strengthen this piece of the puzzle. There are some nice pieces at just about every level of the organization, but not nearly enough. The best prospect in the organization is Arodys Vizcaino, who was acquired last July in the Paul Maholm trade. When he gets healthy, he has front of the rotation stuff, but his arm trouble might limit him to a relief role. Pierce Johnson just got his long overdue promotion to Daytona, and he appears to be on his way. Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood are nice young pieces at the ML level. The focus has been on arms in the draft, but none of them appear to be impact arms, with the Cubs grabbing position players with their last two top ten picks. The clear lack of high end, projectable pitching talent makes it job one for the Cubs this July. They could start out by signing Cuban prospect Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. He’s 26, and could realistically start in the upper levels of the minor leagues this season, if not at the major league level…and all he costs is money. Which the Cubs don’t seem opposed to spending on international free agents.
Beyond Wellington Castillo and Steve Clevenger, there isn’t a lot of strength to one of the keystone positions. While Castillo is a young player who is looking more and more like an everyday backstop, organizational depth is paramount at a position where injuries mount and nobody can catch everyday. Dioner Navarro is a stop gap at the major league level. While the Cubs can be active in signing veteran catchers for a year or two at a time, there is a ton of value in bringing catchers through the system who have a history with the pitchers coming up through the system.
3. Corner Infielders
Count me among the guys who really likes Christian Villanueva. And Jeimer Candelario. And Anthony Rizzo. Beyond that, there are a ton of question marks. Josh Vitters may never figure it out defensively. I am not sold on the idea that Kris Bryant can stick at third base. Dan Vogelbach appears to best project as a designated hitter. Junior Lake is looking more and more like a super utility player. Luis Valbuena is a utility player who is having a nice season as a starter for a rebuilding team, but in no way should or would be a starter on a playoff caliber team. It really boils down to defense with this group. While first base at the major league level appears to be filled for the foreseeable future, third base is a bit of a black hole and there is almost no depth in the system at first. One thing that helps this group along is the potential for Javier Baez or Starlin Castro to slide over to third and fill the slot whenever Baez makes his way up to the majors.
4. Center Field
The cupboard at the major league level is bare. David DeJesus, Dave Sappelt, and Ryan Sweeney are really nice filler material during the rebuild, but they are similar to Luis Valbuena. All three are reserves on playoff teams, and none of them figure to be around for the long haul. Albert Almora looks fantastic at Kane County thus far. He’s a few years away from being an option, though. It is up in the air if Brett Jackson makes use of his incredible talent because he is endlessly afflicted by the strike out. Jae-Hoon Ha and Matt Szczur both look like the DeJesus/ Sweeney type, as in they could be spare outfielders who can play all over as defensive replacements. For those reasons, it wouldn’t hurt to add a center fielder with upside if the opportunity presents itself.
5. Corner Outfielders
There isn’t much for depth here in Iowa, but there is a lot to like about the potential for corner outfielders in the Cubs organization. Jorge Soler is obviously the crown jewel of these guys at any level, but he won’t be in Chicago until September of 2014 at the absolute earliest. The better bet is 2015 at some point. Kris Bryant, to me, is probably going to end up in the corner not occupied by Soler, should everything go right. This is a group that could also include Junior Lake, Josh Vitters if his defense stays as shaky at third as it has been. Reggie Golden is at Kane County and is a sleeper to me. Overall, I like the group of players the Cubs have stocked up on that could be turned into corner outfielder, where hitting is most important, and where defensive liabilities like Vitters can be hidden. Again, it wouldn’t hurt to add to it if the opportunity arises, but there are definitely better places to add pieces.
6. Middle Infield
Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Logan Watkins, Arismendy Alcantara, Ronald Torreyes, Javier Baez…need I say more? There is a legit prospect at just about every level of the minor leagues in the middle infield. And the major league level has a two time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner in the line-up everyday, neither of whom is old by any stretch of the imagination. The middle infield is the strength of the organization, and unless you’re getting Jurickson Profar in a deal, this area isn’t a priority in the least.
There is no argument to be made that the Cubs wouldn’t be best served to get the best players they can, regardless of the positions they play. Weaknesses cannot be ignored, however, and the goal when moving players like Matt Garza should be to find high level talent in areas of need, which would make the trade good for both sides. Again, if the Rangers are parting with Profar (for example), you have to pull the trigger. Talent like that doesn’t come around very often. At the end of the day though, the focus has to be on adding impact arms that can make a difference in the near future and catchers to work with them coming up through system.
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.
The recap comes a day late, as I was at Wrigley yesterday, and driving from Madison for a day game requires an early departure…
(* NOTE ON SCOUTING REPORTS- I am not a scout. My reports are collaborations of Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, and MLB.com scouting reports. Typically, I take information common to at least 2/3 of the reports. My thinking is, if more than one scout is seeing something, there is more likelihood that it’s a solid piece of information.)
As I noted on Thursday night, the Cubs selected big time power hitting 3B/ OF Kris Bryant with the second overall pick. This was a mild surprise because the Cubs were tied to one of the two big name pitchers, Mark Appel from Stanford and Jonathan Gray from Oklahoma. It isn’t a big surprise that the Cubs are going to start with Bryant at 3B, according to Jason McLeod, who leads the player development staff. I suspect, though, his size is going to push him into one of the outfield corners, where he projects to be an average or above fielder (At this point, I will allow you to drool over an outfield of Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler…). He was drafted for his bat, though. His 31 HRs outpaced roughly 3/4 of division one college teams. Bryant, himself, says he could step in and play in the majors now. The earliest I would expect him to suit up in the big league uniform is as a potential September call up in 2014. Assuming he gets signed and he shows some advanced skills, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see him start at AA Tennessee, as early as this season.
Second Round pick, LHP Rob Zastryzny has been tagged by everyone outside of the Cubs organization as a “finesse” pitcher. That’s not a totally unfair assessment of him, with a fastball that ranges from mid-80s to mid-90s, but being able to crank it up to the mid-90s shows some good ability to change speeds. Overall, he has a three pitch array of Fastball-Change Up- Slider, which he commands fairly well, and all have the chance to be roughly league average. The consensus is that he has a ceiling of a middle of the rotation starter, but his higher floor makes him a safe second round pick.
As the draft progressed, the Cubs continued to select college pitching prospects. The 4th-8th round picks were all pitchers out of college or community college, which was entirely expected heading into the draft. The 3rd round pick, CF Jacob Hannemann was fascinating because of his inexperience at the collegiate level, but the token comparison to Jacoby Ellsbury has made a lot of fans excited about him. While he is behind the progression curve for his age because he went on his Mormon mission after high school (should be around AA), his upside makes him a strong pick at that point in the draft. The pitching selections seemed to echo the comments by Jed Hoyer before the draft, that the best relief pitchers are failed starters. It would stand to reason, assuming they sign, that Tyler Skulina, Trey Masek, Scott Frazier, David Garner, and Sam Wilson will all get the opportunity to start in the minor leagues, and moved to the ‘pen if required.
Overall, I disagree with the notion that this draft was a signal that the rebuild is being pushed back, as was a popular comment shortly after Bryant was selected. It seems to me that the Cubs took the player they thought would have had the most impact. While it may have stunted the growth of the organizations young pitching by not having one of the big arms from this draft in the system, it does not set back the rebuild. The system is packed pretty tightly with some solid prospects in both the infield and outfield, so there is some chance that turns itself into young pitching…not to mention the existence of this year’s trade deadline. Also, Steve Stone said on CSN Chicago’s Sportsnet Central that the selection of Bryant means that Starlin Castro is going to get traded. That’s absurd. Tying the selection of Bryant and a potential trade of Castro is like saying that tripping on a curb is going to cause food poisoning. No wonder the Cubs and ESPN canned Stone.
Apparently, the Cubs have a disconnect between the baseball side of the house and the business side of the house. Getting a new video board to hit with baseballs seems like a financial liability and sending baseballs flying across
Waveland and Sheffield to bounce off the rooftop buildings is not how to go about making nice with the neighbors.
In what is at least a mild surprise, the Cubs went with Kris Bryant with the second pick in this year’s amateur draft. Bryant is a third baseman (for now) with big time power, hitting 31 home runs this season for the University of San Diego. In a conference call tonight, Bryant said, “I’m open to playing anywhere in the field as long as I’m in middle of the lineup.” That’s music to my ears, because with players like Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Darwin Barney already in the organization, he may find himself in the corner outfield. He projects positively as a right or left fielder. The organization is going to start him at third, however, according to Jason McLeod.
While Bryant bolts up the Cubs organizational prospect rankings, I still see him as the fifth best prospect. While I love his power and plate discipline, there is a better than average chance he moves off of the hot corner and he is not likely to hit for a very high average. Many of the scouting reports I’ve read say he is a .270-.280 average type, while ESPN’s Keith Law says he is in the .260-.270 range. As far as positional players go, he does not overtake any of the three players who have been in the system this season that we all know of. Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez are all better prospects, in my opinion. Soler and Almora have higher average ceilings, and Almora plays a premium defensive position in center field. Baez projects to be the same type of hitter as Bryant in many respects, but is better suited defensively at third base. None of this is to knock Bryant. He’s got game changing power, and that’s hard to find. To say that a player selected second overall (and deservedly so) is only the fourth best position prospect in the system is a feather in the cap of the front office. Jed Hoyer, Theo Epstein, and Jason McLeod have built a strong organization at the lower levels. This selection only helps that.