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!
That seems remarkably hard on Junior Lake. It was meant to be. Because sometimes, the truth is really, really harsh.
Today was a growing pain for the kid, who had three hits and drove in the lone run for the offensively challenged Cubs. And while
maybe he didn’t deserve the benching that Starlin Castro got yesterday from Dale Sveum, he does deserve a meeting with both Sveum, and outfield instructor Dave McKay.
From where I sit, after watching the replay over and over (because I could not watch the play live), Junior Lake simply got complacent and dropped the ball. He got to the spot in plenty of time. He did not appear to be fighting the sun. I could be wrong. I really hope I am. It just didn’t look that way. And it led to the Cardinals’ second and third runs.
If my suspicion is correct, it shows that Lake is guilty of an effort mistake, which in my estimation is worse than any other kind, to include the one that Starlin Castro gets tagged with, the mental mistake. Yesterday is a prime comparison. Starlin went all out, made a tough play, and spaced on the runners, allowing a run to score. Junior Lake, today, didn’t have to go all out, got to the routine fly ball, and let it fall harmlessly to the Wrigley turf because he didn’t use two hands when he looked to have ample opportunity to do so. That is an effort mistake, from a player who has limited experience in the outfield. There is no excuse for that. Effort should be the last thing you’d have to worry about from Junior Lake right now as an outfielder. To have the play he had today should raise the maturity concerns that have been raised about Starlin Castro.
Effort mistakes are inexcusable. Junior Lake’s today is the first that I can recall from him in his time with the major league club. David DeJesus had a similar one on June 13th, dropping a routine fly, allowing a run to score against the Reds, albeit in a game the Cubs eventually won in extras (where it was Starlin who got tagged for dogging it admiring his near walk-off in the ninth). The Cubs are not good enough to not play hard all the time. When they don’t, especially against the Cardinals or like two months ago against the Reds, they won’t win. Young players like Junior Lake, who are in auditions with the team have no excuse for not busting it 100% of the time. Veterans like DeJesus, who’s had his share of mental and effort blunders this season are also in auditions. What makes it worse for a player like DeJesus is that players like Lake are watching him and what he does on and off the field every single day.
Maybe the veteran leadership is what the Cubs are missing. Say what you want about Alfonso Soriano and, going back further, Marlon Byrd, effort was not an issue from those veteran players. That might be where they’re missed the most.
Almost immediately after the game yesterday, Julio Borbon was designated for assignment. In the ninth inning, Borbon made a Grade A Stupid Play, bringing TOOTBLAN to a whole new level.
“That, obviously, was an unfortunate thing that happened. It is a point that we just can’t keep having those things go on, and he’s had a few of them himself. So it was time to make an adjustment to the roster and see if somebody else can do the job. Those are things that are controllable. You don’t have control over swinging at a slider in the dirt. Nobody’s wanting to do that. Those are physical things. Things you have complete control over is knowing the game and thinking ahead, understanding the ramifications. In that situation, you mean absolutely nothing at that point. You can literally stand on second base and not do anything, and everything will be perfectly fine.”
When I read that, I have to admit, my BS detector went nuts. While Dale is correct when he points out that there have been multiple instances of Borbon running himself off the bases, he would also be correct if he said that about every Cub this season. If he wanted to send a message about poor play, why does David DeJesus have a job? He was completely brutal yesterday, and he’s had a number of concentration lapses that have directly led to runs scoring as an outfielder.
The answer is simple…Borbon was the 25th man. He was probably on his way out the door soon, even if he would have hit a walk-off grand slam yesterday. At some point in the near future, Ryan Sweeney and Brian Bogusevic are going to be coming back. The Cubs have also been mighty left-handed this season. At least for the time being, Donnie Murphy, who was added to the roster today, is a right handed hitter who has hit pretty well at AAA Iowa.
My guess is, he’ll be on the first bus back to Des Moines when either Sweeney or Bogusevic return. And newcomer Cole Gillespie will likely get the boot, also. Dale and the front office just happened to fall bass-ackwards into an opportune time to send a message to Junior Lake (who’s run into his share of stupid outs in just a couple of weeks), and the other youngsters who are watching the big league club from the minor leagues. And he was right to do it. It just doesn’t mean that what he said was the whole truth.
The Cubs and Yankees finalized the trade sending Alfonso Soriano to the Bronx today. It breaks down as follows:
Yankees Get: OF/DH Alfonso Soriano, Cash
Cubs Get: RHP Corey Black
Corey Black pitched for the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League. He throws in the mid to upper 90s, and has touched 100, according to some reports. He’s had some issues with walks, but has the big fastball to go with an above average change up. John Arguello from Cubs Den had the following to say about Black:
“Of all the names mentioned, he’s the one that intrigues me the most. He’s undersized, but has similar athleticism and build as Travis Wood. He can also bring it, able to pitch last year at 95-98 with sinking movement. Some reports have him touching 100 mph in the instructional league. His changeup is solid and his secondaries lag behind, though the slider is further along than the curve. He has struck out 9.58 batters per 9 innings and although he has walked 4.90 per 9 IP, he does have the kind of athleticism to repeat his delivery and develop better command.”
Soriano being moved means the Cubs no longer have a player with a no trade clause, which gives the front office free reign to deal at their heart’s desire. Ultimately, that’s probably the best thing for the organization. Theo Epstein
had some comments about the Soriano deal, via Carrie Muskat:
“I don’t look at this as a watershed moment, or a transformative moment at all. It was simply the right time for Sori to move on and open up some at-bats for Junior Lake and when [Ryan] Sweeney and [Brian] Bogusevic come back from injury, now that [David] DeJesus is back from injury, we have a chance to find out about left-handed bats and some on-base skills and see who might be in the mix for next year. It was just the right time for this particular move.”
Dale Sveum also had some strong words about Alfonso Soriano (via Paul Sullivan and the Tribune)…
“It’s emotional for all of us. You don’t usually gather teams together that often when people get traded to say your goodbyes. That just shows what kind of person he is.”
And from Carrie Muskat…
“You say you’re prepared for it, but I don’t think you’re really prepared to lose somebody of that nature. All the things he brings to a team, the fourth hole, the character, the clubhouse, the leadership and everything. You just don’t replace that.”
With Soriano being traded, Jeff Samardzija is the longest tenured Cub, and the only one remaining from the 2008 season. It also leaves a gaping hole in the “veteran leader” spot. David DeJesus is the first, best candidate to fill that role, and with the team getting younger and younger, he really doesn’t have an alternative, as long as he himself is still a Cub. It also means that the youngster Soriano mentored on being a professional, Starlin Castro, is going to be thrust into the position of being one of the veteran leaders, at just 23 years old. Such is life when you’re the longest tenured position player on the roster.
The line-up is another issue altogether. It appears there is some solution to left field and to the clean-up slot…
That is a perfectly good solution for the time being. Realistically, Junior Lake is going to regress. He’s a talented player, but his obscene start is going to cool off and his numbers are going to come back to earth. Nate Schierholtz manning the clean-up spot (as long as he is also still a Cub) isn’t really a good solution, either. Realistically, the best option in the fourth spot in the line up is Anthony Rizzo. Ultimately, there will likely be a number of different line-up combinations that we see through the end of the season, as Dale Sveum gets new players and returning players to move in and out of the line up.
The one certainty this trade brings the Cubs for the remainder of the season is uncertainty. While it will likely not get as ugly as last season dd, it does mean that Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney need to start performing at the level shown on the back of their baseball cards. With difficulty comes opportunity. It will be difficult to replace Soriano’s bat in the line-up, and there will be a number of players who get ample opportunity to prove they can do it.
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.
The injury news seems to finally be good for the Cubs today (unless your name is Junior Lake), which is a welcome change from the first four weeks of Spring Training.
- Scott Baker is primed to make a Cactus League start this weekend after pitching a couple of innings in a minor league game on Tuesday. His recovery seems to be right on schedule, which is terrific news.
- Dale Sveum may have confirmed my hypothesis on Matt Garza today. He said Garza needs to throw off of a mound and start throwing live BP, and his Spring Training will essentially begin in a week. If they put Garza through a full spring schedule starting next week, he will likely be back at the end of April or beginning of May. That said, Garza thinks he will be back in the middle of April. So there’s some optimism on his part. Which is nice.
- Starlin Castro played three innings today. He went 1-1 with a single and walk. After he finished, he said he felt good. Hopefully, he was knocking on wood as he said it.
- Ian Stewart is going to play soon. If not tomorrow, I would guess Friday. Stewart talked to ESPN Chicago today and said he felt good. After ten months, It’ll be nice to see him on a field, and at as close to 100% as he’s been in quite some time.
- Junior Lake stress fractured his rib. This isn’t an uncommon injury in baseball players, but it is one to take seriously. Stress fractures are no joke, and Lake will likely be sidelined the full 4-6 weeks that was reported today before he does anything. Since he was a long shot to make the roster (at best), and was going to spend the season in Iowa, there is no sense in rushing him.
Tom Ricketts said that April is still a deadline for getting a deal done in order to start renovations at Wrigley in October. It seems as though we’re at the point where both sides have planted their heels and aren’t willing to concede much anymore. Then again, I’m not sure the Cubs have anything left to concede. The beat goes on…
Brennan Boesch was released today. The book on him is that a change of scenery would probably do him some good. Bruce Levine wrote today that he makes sense for the Cubs (and Sox…but who gives a crap?). As a left handed bat with some power, he’d be nice to have, but the Cubs already have a pretty well packed outfield. Unless the Cubs were able to move Alfonso Soriano, I can’t think there’s anywhere to put him.
Lastly, Opening Day is in 2 1/2 weeks. So smile. Real baseball is right around the corner.
The positional previews continue with the infielders tonight, and will be capped off over the course of the weekend with the rotation, the bullpen, and the coaching staff.
The infield probably offers the most stable portion of the roster, with a wealth of young talent and players who have staked claims on positions as pieces to build around. Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney all appear to be locked into their positions, at least for a few more years. Wellington Castillo is a talent who could make his claim to the catcher position, and there are some intriguing prospects who could lay claim to the hot corner.
Catcher: Wellington Castillo, Dioner Navarro
I list both Castillo and Navarro because no catcher plays everyday. The most physically demanding position on the diamond requires two players who can handle the job effectively. This season, Wellington Castillo has the opportunity to stake his claim to the job as the primary back stop. Being guided by veteran, and 2008 All-Star, Dioner Navarro was one of the better moves the front office made this off-season. Navarro has history with Matt Garza and has been around long enough to be a calming and guiding influence on the young, talented Castillo. The talent aspect is what jumps out about Castillo. Bruce Levine posted a great article for ESPNChicago today about Castillo, and quoted one NL scout saying, “As a hitter he makes hard contact and has plenty of power. The only thing you aren’t sure of when you watch him is how he calls a game. Last fall they had so many below par starters that I could not evaluate his game calling skills.” Without spoiling the rest of the article, it goes on to talk about how it’s tough to judge Castillo’s ability to call a game because of the pitchers he was working with last year as the season came to a close. I tend to disagree with that a little, because he got reps with those pitchers in Iowa, but there is something to be said about major league experience. Either way, Castillo is mighty talented, and has a chance to solidify himself as the catcher of the future this season.
First Base: Anthony Rizzo
Two things jumped out at me about Anthony Rizzo since his call-up. The first was that he is a terrific defender at first. The second actually happened at the Cubs Convention this year when I really got to see him up close, and that is how big he is. He looks about as well put together as any baseball player I can think of. His hitting is tremendous, but he was known for that when he came over from the Padres. This season is going to be a challenge for Rizzo. How will he fare in Wrigley when the wind is blowing in and it’s cold? How will he adjust to the adjustments being made for him? I can speculate that he’ll be fine, and it is my guess that he will be. If he prepares and plays hard, his at-bats should continue to be positive. I am not sold that he will double his numbers from last season and become a 30 HR/ 100 RBI guy this season. I do think he will hit between 25 and 30 home runs, though, and probably drive in 80-90 runs. Those are Derek Lee type numbers, and he has a Derek Lee type glove, so we’ll take it…all while trying to remember he turns 24 this August.
Second Base: Darwin Barney
I’m not even going to hide it…I love Darwin Barney. I love that he hustles. I love that he takes pride in his defense. I love that he thinks the team can go to the playoffs this season. I love it all. I don’t even mind his career .305 on-base percentage. I’m not saying I would mind seeing that come up some, but I don’t even see it as that big of a problem for a guy who will likely be hitting in the lower third of the order. I do believe some of his on-base issues are with hitting so low in the order. A guy hitting in front of the pitcher with an offense like the Cubs had last season wasn’t going to get any free passes, and was going to get attacked. That shows in his numbers from last season against his numbers from his previous work in the bigs. If his offense rebounds at all, and he defends his Gold Glove, he will be the same steady player you’re used to seeing.
Third Base: Ian Stewart
I’m still going with Stewart here because it’s been a week and nobody is grabbing the bull by the horns and taking the job this spring. Brent Lillibridge is not going to be the every day third baseman. Luis Valbuena had a great winter and has started off well this spring, but I think everyone who has a say in the matter knows that he is a utility player. Josh Vitters has the same problems he had last season and seems ticketed for Iowa to work on his hitting and defense. Junior Lake is built like a third baseman, but hasn’t done anything to prove he deserves to be in Chicago, yet. It may be Ian Stewart’s job to win, but it’s not like anyone else has grabbed the bull by the horns and taken the spot. My feeling is, when Stewart gets back into action this spring, if he shows anything at the plate, and shows he is still the good athlete that Dale Sveum liked at third last season, he will be there on Opening Day. And he should be. The Cubs gave up a lot to bring him in. The sample size he showed last season is not anywhere close to enough to determine is he is a bust.
Shortstop: Starlin Castro
Entering his fourth big league season, the veteran of the group is the nearly 23 year old Starlin Castro. He hit .283 last year, and seems genuinely upset about it. That is a scary good thought. If he can be the .300 hitter he was in his first two seasons, increase his power to the extent that everyone seems to think he can, and keep the steady improvement of his defense going, he is going to be a lock for the All-Star team he’s already made twice. Don’t be fooled by his error totals, either. A number of those were early last season. And after the San Francisco debacle, his attentiveness improved dramatically throughout the season. As the only player to go all 162 last season, I would expect nothing less than continued improvement*.
*If you’re on the “he’s a bum and it’s time to trade him” wagon, you’re an idiot. Starlin Castro might be the best young shortstop in the game, and he’s 22. He’s not anywhere close to his prime, so I will repeat myself…when that kid grows up, he’s going to be really, really, really good.*
Bench: Luis Valbuena, Brent Lillibridge
Both of these guys offer quite a bit of versatility, but neither is an attractive option at first base. Lillibridge is a super-utility player, who can play all over the infield and can give you some innings in the corner outfield, also. Dale Sveum loves his versatility, so I expect him to break camp with the major league team. Valbuena is similar in that he can play second, short, and third. He’s another nice piece off the bench who is capable of giving a regular a day off. First base is likely to be backed up by Castillo and Navarro because there really is nobody else. Lillibridge can do it, but being 5’11” makes him a bit short for the job.
Theo Epstein was on WEEI Boston today, where he spoke about a number of topics. He spoke about the signing of Edwin Jackson and him having years left in his prime, Anthony Rizzo, and draft pick compensation being at a premium when considering signing free agents that would cost a draft pick, in addition to a number of other topics related to the Cubs and Red Sox. The interview is lengthy, but it’s worth a listen if you’re so inclined to do those types of things. Hear Theo Epstein’s interview with WEEI here.
Bruce Levine had a chat today, which covered a number of topics. Some of the highlights, with some of my own commentary are as follows…
- He was asked about the potential of a Soriano trade to the Phillies, and he said that was a “tremendously old rumor.” That doesn’t say good things about the potential about it actually happening, but Soriano might be a better alternative to the Phillies with the free agent market for Michael Bourn. With the Cubs willing to eat a significant portion of Soriano’s deal, he could be a cheaper alternative for a team looking to acquire an outfielder, without wanting to give up a valuable draft pick. The Cubs will look to see if they can move Fonsi, but I would be a little surprised if he were moved before Opening Day.
- When asked if Jeff Samardzija had a chance at 200 strike outs, 15 wins, and a sub 3.2 ERA and said that he had spoken to scouts who said Samardzija was the most improved pitcher last season between April and September. He also said there is no reason to think those numbers can’t be approached. I would be inclined to agree to a certain extent, but I would caution against expectation. Samardzija is a young pitcher and any growth would be a good thing from him in 2013. Since the team does not figure to contend, it would be wise not to burden a good young player with big expectations too early.
- Bruce was also asked about the leaks, to which he said that the Cubs are pretty accessible, but they don’t let information get out that they don’t want out. He also pointed out that agents are a factor in free agency. I’m inclined to agree. It seems like the Cubs have had leaks happen to them, but haven’t been the source. The Dempster leak came from the Braves, the Marmol leak from Marmol himself, and the Sanchez leak was from an agent trying to leverage a team. Really…there’s nothing that could be done there from the Cubs’ side of things.
- He outright dismissed the idea of trading for Justin Upton and Giancarlo Stanton. Amen.
- Matt Garza trade rumors to the Rangers came up for a heavy package, and he said it was possible. I agree that the Rangers could use the statement addition of Garza after missing on Greinke, and that could drive up the return value for him, but with Garza having been injured, I would be surprised if he were traded before the season. It would be a risk for any team to send the Cubs a package of prospects without seeing the guy pitch after last July. His elbow is the reason he didn’t get moved at the deadline last year, so I have a tough time seeing him getting moved before he pitches. That’s just my feeling. A desperate Rangers team (or someone else) could change that, though.
- The speculation about political bitterness between the Ricketts and Mayor Emanuel made an appearance. Honestly, get over it and do what’s best for the ball club. I know Wrigley is a historical landmark, but it is still a functioning ballpark and will need renovations, so the gamesmanship and BS need to stop. A successful Cubs team is good for the Ricketts and the city of Chicago, and a modernized Wrigley is a key to that.
- Conversation about prospects came about with Bruce saying he thought Brett Jackson was the most likely to come up to the majors this season. Javier Baez will play short where ever he is in the minors this year, and Josh Vitters and Junior Lake could see themselves moved to the outfield, or at least it is time to consider it. I think Vitters could be a good left fielder. Hide his defense, and continue to develop his bat in that spot. If Soriano is traded, I think he would be a good choice to get a crack at the position first.
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.