The final player installment of the positional previews is the group who will see the most change throughout this season. In reality, that’s the case for just about every team, every season.
This season figures to be extra interesting for the Cubs in the bullpen. The addition of Kyuji Fujikawa from Japan as a potential (and likely) closer when Carlos Marmol departs the organization, either via trade or the expiration of his contract after the season lends some stability to the the back end, and the addition of Carlos Villanueva gives the Cubs the long reliever they’ve been without since Tom Gorzelanny packed his bags. Indeed, this will be the group with the most turnover of any on the team.
Closer: Carlos Marmol
For now. In spite of being only 30 and coming off of an impressive rebound in the second half of last season, Marmol is the most talked about trade piece this side of Alfonso Soriano. The fact that he did have a strong second half, is 30, and is in the last year of a deal with Cubs would be willing to pay almost all of make him a valuable piece for any contending team (*cough cough* Tigers) that needs a proven back end. I am of the opinion that Brian Wilson makes more sense for the Tigers than Marmol because he will be inexpensive and won’t cost prospects, but it seems as though Detroit is looking at all available options, including Marmol. That said, however long he’s around, he should be fine. Sure, he’s an adventure. He’ll put some on and he’ll make it interesting. But he slammed the door quite a bit last year. Another year of Chris Bosio would probably do him some good, but I don’t see Marmol being back under any circumstances next season if he finishes this season in Chicago. I see him becoming “controllable assets” before too long. This spot is definitely one that is not set…
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
This is the guy who will likely be the closer if/ when Marmol is sent out. The 32 year old “rookie” from Japan is coming over on a two year deal and was an excellent closer before coming over the states. The thing that worries me about “KJ” is that Japanese closers haven’t exactly been common…or good. In Japan, though, Fujikawa was uncommonly good. His ERA broke 2.00 only one time, a 2.01 ERA in 2010, and his 202 career saves lend him some credibility to finish games. He’s entering a new level of competition, and he very well could struggle like many of the Japanese pitchers before him. If he can be the exception to what has been the norm, however, everything should be fine for the short term.
Middle Relief: Shawn Camp, James Russell, Hector Rondon , Jaye Chapman, Michael Bowden (and a host of others throughout the season)
The two major pieces to this puzzle are Camp and Russell. Both of those guys were fixtures just about every day last season. And they were each pretty good. Russell appeared in 77 games with a strong 3.25 ERA. After being used in a variety of situations in 2011 and struggling before settling into the bullpen, 2012 was spent entirely in the bullpen, and Russell showed that he is an effective lefty, and can pitch effectively to both left and right handed hitters. He’s shown his value and as everyday asset much like Shawn Camp, who might be the oldest guy in the organization. At 37, Camp was another everyday fixture in the bullpen and led the league with 80 appearances. He was surprisingly effective in a set-up role with Russell, but struggled when he became the closer in Marmol’s absence. For a guy who signed a minor league deal during camp last season, Shawn Camp turned into one of the most valuable players on the roster. This season, he will probably not get the same use, and may improve the effectiveness of his aging arm. The last player of note is Rule 5 selection, Hector Rondon, who needs to be on the active roster for 90 days. The difference between Lendy Castillo from last season and Rondon is that Rondon has pitched at AAA, which is something Castillo had never done. Rondon has had arm issues, and if he’s past them, he could turn into a pleasant surprise, and may not spend months and months on the DL with Rule-5itis.
Long Relief: Carlos Villanueva
Even though, Villanueva will start the season in the rotation, this is going to be his role going forward. He’s well suited for it, too. Coming over from Toronto, he was looking for a chance to start, but it will probably not come
to fruition for him without some injury and trade subtractions from the rotation. And that’s alright. His numbers won’t blow anyone away, but he can make a start in a pinch and go 5-6 innings, or come in early in a game and save the bullpen from being spent. This is an often overlooked role and an unglamorous position for just about any pitcher to be in. He doesn’t get his name on the scroll on ESPN as the probable starter, nor does he get his name on it for the save. But this is a vital role because it allows the other players in the ‘pen to stay in their roles. As far as long relief pitching goes, there aren’t many who are better than Villanueva, even if he does look himself in the mirror and call himself a starting pitcher.
Other Names to Watch: Arodys Vizcaino, Trey McNutt, Robert Whitenack, Barret Loux, Hisanori Takahashi, Nick Struck
Vizcaino is probably the most well-known of these players, coming over from the Braves at the deadline last season. He could find his way into the bullpen to pick up some major league innings this season to get experience, especially if the Cubs fall out of it. McNutt seems to be throwing as well as he has in a few years, but now seems destined to have a bullpen role, and may make his way to Chicago this season. Loux is who ultimately came for Geovany Soto after Jacob Brigham was found to have had arm issues, and is in camp as a non-roster player. He seems to be a better prospect than Brigham, and is closer to the majors, so it seems like the Cubs won in the end on that deal. Takahashi and Struck are both in camp as non-roster players, as well, and could wind up in the bullpen at some point this season as well. As I mentioned at the outset, this is where there is the most flux during a season. This season should be no different.
Tomorrow is the deadline to set the 40 man roster for the Rule 5 Draft. I could post an exhaustive list of players the Cubs have who are eligible, but instead, I have chosen to go the lazy route and link it here to Chicago Cubs Online. I would expect at least one of those guys to be taken. We’ll see…and we’ll see if the Cubs actually select anyone this season. They did pick RHP Lendy Castillo last year, and they lost Ryan Flaherty and Marwin Gonzalez.
I am amused by Bruce Levine’s vague report that a “big trade” involving “young players” is in the works. That is not to say I doubt the report, because Bruce Levine has proven to be nothing, if not reliable, in his reporting from my perspective. It’s just so vague that it boarders on “not worth mentioning until something actually happens” or actual names come about. If/ when the deal is brokered, I’m sure I’ll have comments on what went each way. Until then…
The Cubs did agree to sign Shawn Camp today for another year. The question is whether he’ll actually sign before the Rule 5 deadline, or if the parties agreed to hold off on putting ink on paper until after this mess is cleaned up so the team can keep an open slot on the 40 man roster for someone they’d prefer not to lose. All of the official reports say they’ve “agreed.” I think that might mean something. I could also be wrong. If he indeed signs, the 40 man inflates to 39.
I am still completely behind the idea of the Cubs signing OF Jason Bay. He is a guy who could probably be had cheap, play a corner OF spot, and be flipped if he performs well. That is exactly the kind of guy the team is looking for at this point. I’m not exactly sure about whether or not Theo Epstein (who acquired Bay when he was in Boston) or Jed Hoyer have had the same idea. I’m just throwing it out there.
After the last post, the Cubs announced they signed Dioner Navarro to catch, likely in a back-up role to Wellington Castillo. He spent last season with the Reds. Statistically, he’s nothing special. Career, he’s a .245/.306/.357 guy. He did manage to be selected to the 2008 AL All-Star team with the Rays. His value is probably to help Wellington Castillo as a major league catcher, and allows Steve Clevenger to go back to Iowa and work on his craft for another season. Clevenger is still new to the position. Time in the minors to fine tune will serve him will in the long run.
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.
Some notes/ observations from the first week of the season…
The Cubs are much, much more aggressive than they have been in years past. We saw that with pinch runner Joe Mather running on contact with one out in the bottom of the ninth on Opening Day, and we have seen that in the stolen base attempts (6 through four games, 4 successful, all by Starlin Castro) and base running especially after the first four games. The aggressiveness is taking hold at the plate, too, with a lot of shallow counts to hitters. I understand seeing your pitch and swinging away, but at some point, the team is going to have to be more selective to increase the run production.
The starting pitching has been very good thus far, which, after a minutely small sample size is the reason the team has had a lead in each of the first four games. Last night’s five innings from Chris Volstad have to improve, but
to this point, there isn’t much to complain about with the starters. The only starter that didn’t get a fate he didn’t deserve was Sunday’s winning pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, who is continuing to tear through hitters as he did during Spring Training.
The bullpen is another story. Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol have each struggled…mightily. Shawn Camp had some problems last night, as well. Lendy Castillo is a Rule 5 pick, and is just getting his feet wet, but he’ll need to improve on a 2/3 IP outing to be an effective contributor to the ‘pen.
Aramis Ramirez heard some unnecessary boos last night when he took his first at bat. While I understand that he is a rival player now, it was a little much to hear any booing at all. I cannot be sure how he was received before the game when line-ups were announced, but I can only hope it was similar to the very warm reception that Mark DeRosa got when he was announced on Opening Day with the Washington Nationals.
More importantly than anything else, this team fights. They did not quit last night, down four, against a strong Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen, and put together some good at bats before falling short. Ian Stewart’s triple with one out put the tying run at third base on Opening Day, which was wiped out by aggressive base running, but happened moments after falling behind in the ninth inning. The 2012 Chicago Cubs are going to struggle. They’re going to lose some games. Probably more than they manage to win. It will be a tribute to Dale Sveum if he is able to do what Mike Quade failed to do last season, and that is keep the team interested as the losses pile up. If he does that, the team will continue to improve. I am going to predict that Sveum has a better chance than his predecessor, as this is a young team with players trying to establish themselves in the majors, or trying to stay in the majors. There is, predictably, going to be more urgency with this year’s team than with a team full of established veterans with expiring contracts. Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, and Kosuke Fukudome (before he was traded to Cleveland) were among the players that knew they would almost certainly not be back after 2011. This year, the roster has incentive to work hard all season, regardless of the team’s record…and that is to stay at the big league level, and hold off guys from Iowa.
4/10 Numbers:1-3, 6th in NL Central
BA Leader: Alfonso Soriano, .308
ERA Leader: Jeff Samardzija, 1.04
HR Leader: Darwin Barney (this will not last long); Bryan LaHair, 1
RBI Leader: Reed Johnson; Marlon Byrd; Alfonso Soriano, 2
The Cubs have finished signing every player on their 40 man roster with 0-3 years of service time, according to ESPN.com’s Doug Padilla. The list of players is as follows:
Right-handed pitchers: Alberto Cabrera, Lendy Castillo, Casey Coleman, Rafael Dolis, Marcos Mateo, Samardzija and Casey Weathers.
Left-handed pitchers: Jeff Beliveau, John Gaub, Scott Maine, Russell and T. Wood.
Catchers: Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger.
Infielders: Barney, Adrian Cardenas, Castro, Bryan LaHair, Junior Lake, Anthony Rizzo and Josh Vitters.
Outfielders: Tony Campana, Dave Sappelt and Matt Szczur.
Dale Sveum seems to think that the Cubs can compete for a World Series Championship. I would tend to agree with him. As I predicted earlier in the season preview, I did not anticipate that it would be this season. Then again, who knows? The 2010 San Diego Padres made it really interesting down the stretch of the regular season, only to be beaten out by the eventual champion, San Francisco Giants. Both of those teams did it with pitching, and substandard offensive outputs. The Cubs are in a similar situation with a core of young offensive players and pitchers that are preparing for the season. One thing is certain, however; if the Cubs are going to play when the leaves are falling, here is the projected pitching staff that is going to do it:
1. RHP Matt Garza – Matt was the victim of some terrible luck last season, losing seven leads (one more than I earlier stated in the 2012 preview, but realized was an error with the aid of cubs.com). This season, he will most likely take the ball on Opening Day, and try to pick up where he left off after an excellent second half of the season.
2. RHP Ryan Dempster – Dempster goes into a contract year looking to rebound from a tough 2011, where he posted a 4.80 ERA, which was an improving statistic throughout the season after a disastrous April, where his ERA was north of 9.00. If the Cubs have any shot, he’s going to be a key reason why.
3. LHP Paul Maholm – The Pittsburgh castoff is the newest Cub starting pitcher, coming off a season where wins and losses did not tell the story of how well he pitched. He had an ugly 6-14 record with a strong 3.66 ERA. He is good at keeping the ball down, and doesn’t walk many, giving free passes to 50 in 162.1 innings last season. If he can keep the ball down at Wrigley, he may not replicate his complete game shut out from May 28 last season, but he will have success in his new home.
4. RHP Randy Wells – Randy needs to stay healthy. Then, Randy needs to get out of the first inning. Last season was the health. 2010 was the first inning. If he figures out his 2009 form this season, it could be a resurgent year for Wells, who figures to fall into the fourth slot in the rotation by near default.
5. RHP Chris Volstad – Chris is another new acquisition, coming from Miami for Carlos Zambrano. He is a classic innings eater, and but is more of a fly ball pitcher. This slot is very much up for grabs, with LHP Travis Wood seeking a spot in the rotation as well. My nod goes to Volstad because of his experience and durability.
Closer: RHP Carlos Marmol – Ditch the cutter. Bring the blown saves down. Relocate the release point on the slider. Problem solved.
Set Up: RHP Kerry Wood, RHP Jeff Samardzija – Samardzija is going to compete for a rotation slot, but he figures to wind up in the role where he excelled last season, especially in the second half. Kerry Wood is a veteran stabilizer in the ‘pen that could find himself closing if Marmol needs a day or falters.
Middle Relief: LHP James Russell, LHP Scott Maine, RHP Lendy Castillo – Castillo was selected in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft and will likely be on the 25 man roster all season, unless of course he is “injured” at some point. Russell and Maine both figure to make the team as lefty specialists, with Russell having the ability to set up from the left side. One thing is for sure, James Russell is not a starting pitcher, even though he was admirable in stepping in and eating innings when called on. He didn’t fair well, but he did the rest of the bullpen a needed service.
Long Relief: LHP Andy Sonnanstine – Andy’s got the ability to go long relief and spot start. It is a stretch to think the Cubs will carry three left handed relievers out of camp, but without much viable alternative for a long reliever, Sonny is probably going to be the guy by default. Look for Marcos Mateo to make the team in middle relief if Dale Sveum wants another righty in middle relief, and Maine to start in Iowa.
Other Expected Contributors
LHP Travis Wood – Spot starts/ long relief
LHP John Gaub – Could be in the bullpen out of Spring Training, but will pitch with the major league team regardless. He is a strong arm that can supplement a tired bullpen
RHP Rafael Dolis – Rafael is a young pitcher that is competing for a roster spot, but is a long shot. He should be in Chicago at some point this season, but it figures to come if there is an injury to a starting pitcher
RHP Casey Coleman – Casey could pick up some spot starts and long relief duty. He figures to be another player that will pitch in injury situations. If he can keep his composure as he showed at times last season, he may make a case to stay around a while.
RHP Justin Berg, RHP Marcos Mateo – Both Berg and Mateo seem to be at the same point in their development. Berg offers a change of pace out of the bullpen that the Cubs do not have, so I expect him to be with the 25 man roster consistently over the course of the season, and Mateo is another arm that can provide relief during long trips, when injuries require an arm, or if another of the youngsters is ineffective.
When the Cubs were competitive in the last decade, their pitching was the catalyst with timely hitting. The Cubs failed to produce either of those things last season. If there is any shot that they are competitive this season, it is going to take the gentlemen on this projection, along with others making the trip from Des Moines to supplement the staff. New Pitching Coach Chris Bosio has his work cut out for him, repairing the unmitigated disaster that was Cubs’ pitching last season. The good news is, there is more depth than there was when the team broke camp for 2011. The bad news is that regardless of who the Cubs break with, the majority of the pitchers are going to be talented, but unproven or under-performing major league pitchers.
Unfortunately, there are too many ifs in this group to expect the great things that will be needed for the Cubs to make a deep run. The pitching needs to catch lightning in a bottle to be better than middle of the road this season. The bright side is, there is not a lot of age in the group, with Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, and Ryan Dempster being the most veteran of the entire staff. Here’s to hoping that I’m way off…