Now that the World Series is over and the Cardinals lost (HOORAY!), we can get to the task at hand. The off-season. The Cubs are chocked full of needs this winter. Those will have to be addressed going into 2014 to keep the rebuilding plan on schedule.
These are the most pressing…
1. Find a new manager
After the firing of Dale Sveum, the next guy to lead the Cubs on-field is the first concern. With the playoffs having ended, the obstacle of candidates still playing is over. To be honest, I don’t care who they hire, as long as he fits the mold of what the front office is looking for. That Dale was the guy for a while, then suddenly became not the guy doesn’t matter. Great organizations are stable. And since 2010, this will be the fourth manager. That’s not stable. Find the guy. The right guy. So we’re not going through this mess again in two years.
2. Find some outfield depth
After losing Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and Scott Hairston to midseason trades, it is going to be important for the Cubs to replace that lost depth at the major league level. The preference would be to sign veterans on short (1-2 years) deals while the youngsters get ready. With Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, and Junior Lake, there is a need for two more outfielders. Preferably one who can play center and one who hits right handed. To be clear, I do not see Shin Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury as viable options. I have no visions of the Cubs spending on either of those players with the talent that is coming behind them. I do see players like Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore, Corey Hart, and Tyler Colvin as options. Colvin is the standard “buy low flier” that this front office has taken in the past, and with his talent and familiarity with the Cubs, and the admission that the Stewart – Colvin trade may have been a mistake, he could be back. The others are veterans who have had some success, but have also had injury issues. Any resurgence could make them trade bait in July, and they all likely come relatively cheap. David DeJesus is also an option if the Rays decide not to pick up his option for next season
3. Trade Darwin Barney
The popular defensive wizard is not part of the core. He’s a below average hitter. And he’s getting a bit older. There is a market for him, though. His value, however, is at its highest point right now. He’s just now entering arbitration. Teams who have a need at second base can use him. The Cubs do not have that need. They are stocked full of middle infielders, from Starlin Castro to Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, Logan Watkins, and Luis Valbuena, the Cubs have no shortage of middle infield options. All of whom are younger than Barney. And all of whom possess greater offensive upside and the potential to continue good defense at second base in the future. The return for Barney won’t be ground breaking, but it should be a decent prospect, or maybe two if Epstein and Hoyer break out the mask and gun. Now, though, is the best and most logical time to move him.
4. Address the rotation
The rotation was surprisingly good last season, throughout the year. There was a lot of depth that withstood trades, and some players emerged as legitimate long term options. Travis Wood showed that he is a solid mid to back of the rotation starter. Jake Arrieta showed that he is still talented and should get a shot going forward. Edwin Jackson had a rough first year, but with his contract and history, he will be back in the rotation next season, and I would venture to guess he has a better second year with the Cubs. It is the very top of the rotation and the very bottom that should be addressed. Jeff Samardzija walked more, stuck out fewer, and allowed more runners to score in 2013 than 2012. The differences aren’t startling, but they exist. Could it have been fatigue from the most innings in a season he’s thrown? Frustration from another near 100 losses? Displeasure over his contract situation? A combination of all three? I don’t have the answer. What I do have the answer to is Samardzija getting rocked a number of times. And it happening a number of times at home. That’s not an ace. That’s a third in the rotation type pitcher, at best. I am not sold on Japanese stud Masahiro Tanaka being an answer at the top of the rotation, either. Too many Japanese pitchers have flamed out because of arm issues. I understand his stuff is excellent, and he’s still young. That may make him a nice investment, but not for the $100+ million it’s going to cost. If the Cubs get him, I’ll hope for the best, but I won’t be at all surprised with the worst. As far as the back end of the rotation is concerned, bringing back Scott Baker, giving Chris Rusin a shot at a full season, and low cost free agents are all options.
5. Back-up catcher
I have a tough time with the idea of signing a Brian McCann (because of age and injury every bit as much as his high douche factor). All things being equal, I would hope the starting catcher market doesn’t treat Dioner Navarro as he would like, and he comes back. He had a nice year, seemed to have a good relationship with Wellington Castillo, and is a reliable backstop. Whoever comes in should take a back seat to Castillo, though. Big money free agent catchers shouldn’t (and probably won’t) be a priority. If the Cubs can land a guy like Jarrod Saltalamacchia for a decent price, great. if not, a LH hitting backup will work just fine.
One of the great parts about baseball is how this is going to play out throughout the off-season. The Cubs are not going to compete for a World Series next season, most likely. It could, though, bring the first wave of prospects to Wrigley Field. Javier Baez and Kris Bryant very well could debut with the big league club at some point next summer. In addition, could be up after being acquired in trades. It appears that the worst is behind the Cubs in the rebuild. Much of the “acquire talent at all costs” is over because of the amount of talent in the organization. The time now is for the build up. While the Cubs will continue to add pieces and make the team better and organization healthier, this off-season is the beginning of the build up of a contender. Whether it be adding placeholders for a prospect, adding leadership to help those prospects grow, or the eventual hiring of a new manager, the fruits of two years of painful big league play are beginning to ripen.
Look no further than what’s been going on in Arizona. Let the off-season begin!
Javier Baez is good. He’s really, really good. And based on the looks of things, he has very little interest in remaining in the minor leagues for all that much longer.
Currently with AA Tennessee, Baez hasn’t had any drop-off in production since being promoted from High A Daytona. In fact, looking at the numbers, they’re remarkably similar in a lot of respects. With Daytona this season, Baez was a .274/.338/.535 hitter. With Tennessee, the pace has been .273/.329/.580. Last night, he hit his 12th home run with the Smokies and 29th for the season. What makes these numbers more impressive is that both the Florida State League and the Southern League are considered pitcher friendly. He is sitting at 14th in the league in home runs in just 34 games. If he had the at-bats to qualify, he would also lead the Southern League in OPS.
Clearly, when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said that a prospect will get promoted if he dominates his competition Javier Baez took it to heart. That is the exact kind of thing you want from your top prospect, too. He’s not by any means a finished product, but he is making leaps and bounds at the plate. He still strikes out more than his fair share (about 28% of the time), and his walk rate isn’t what you want in a middle of the order bat. The walks part of the equation is coming around, though. He’s taken 33 of his 47 professional walks this season. While some of the lack of walks before this season is probably due to inferior competition at lower levels of the minors, the numbers bear out that he’s not walking up to the plate hacking quite as much as he used to.
The area of concern that remains about Baez, and the thing that can hold him back is his defense. He has 40 errors for the season, and a .929 fielding percentage, which isn’t going to cut it at any level. To his credit, his fielding percentage has come up with Tennessee, from .922 in Daytona to .946, which can probably be attributed to, in part, better field conditions in AA than were seen in the Florida State League and a smaller sample size. This also shows how little fielding percentage should be used to judge defense. Baez has all of the tools to play three infield positions, and could end up supplanting the platoon at third or Darwin Barney at second. His range and arm work well at both positions, in addition to short stop. Jed Hoyer said earlier this summer that he thinks Baez can stick and play short in the majors.
It would be a surprise to see Javier Baez to go to Spring Training and win a spot on the 25 man roster when camp breaks. With the way this front office develops players, there is, while non-zero, a very slim chance of it happening. It is entirely possible that Javier Baez breaks with AAA Iowa, however. Considering how he’s played at AA Tennessee, it is possible he’s doing what he’s been asked: forcing the organization to move him up. There is still some time to play in 2013, but nothing that has happened to this point should suggest a slowdown in Baez’s production.
AA is a phone call away from the major leagues. Ask Starlin Castro. When Baez gets to Iowa, he will actually be a mere phone call away from the majors. If he plays as well in Iowa as he is in Tennessee and did in Daytona, there is no reason to believe that the offensively starved Cubs would not call Baez, especially if they find that they are one more bat away from being a competitive team. Ultimately, it’s up to Baez. If he dominates his level, he moves up, until he gets to Chicago. At that point, we all hope he dominates at that level for a long time.
All of the deadline talk, and justifiably so, has been centered around Matt Garza to this point. There are also some other players who have been talked about as candidates to move on as the deadline approaches. David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Alfonso Soriano, and Kevin Gregg have all been spoken of as players who could very likely be traded as the deadline nears, or at least wouldn’t cause anybody any surprise if they were moved. There is also a list of attractive players that the Cubs could move who are not talked about prominently as the deadline inches closer. They fit the needs and holes of teams in contention and are low cost options to upgrade a roster, and it would make perfect sense if the Cubs were fielding calls about these players…
2B Darwin Barney:
The Cubs are stacked in the middle infield in the minor leagues at just about every level. With Logan Watkins at AAA Iowa, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez at AA Tennessee, and even Gioskar Amaya at Low-A Kane County, middle infielders are of no shortage in the Cubs’ organization. Darwin Barney has done everything he can to become a member of the core group of players that the Cubs use to make their eventual run, but his limitations with the bat seem to make him less attractive than other options. With a Gold Glove in his pocket and over a year before he even gets to arbitration, he could make a team looking for a low cost second baseman, without a need for a highly productive bat, very happy. The need doesn’t even have to be strictly second base. Barney came up as a short stop, and played third base when he first came up to the majors. He could be quite the defensive addition for any team looking to shore up its infield defense. Darwin actually fits into a line-up like Detroit’s perfectly. Incumbent Ramon Santiago plays both offensively and defensively at about replacement level. Replacing him with Darwin Barney doesn’t hurt their prolific offense at all, and very much shores up their middle infield. With the rumor that Detroit was interested last year, it makes sense that they would be interested again this year, given how close they came to winning a championship last year. Darwin Barney won’t net any team’s top prospect, but he should net a solid prospect or retread a la Scott Feldman. And with the depth already mentioned in the system, Darwin is expendable.
IF Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom:
Luis Valbuena is another player who could see himself on the move as the deadline approaches. Because he is an everyday player with the Cubs, he has displayed what he can do with the bat from the left side of the plate, and has shown to be more than capable as a defender. A team looking for a left handed hitting platoon infielder would love to have a player like Luis Valbuena for his ability to work counts, take walks, hit for power and field three infield positions well. A team like the Yankees, who have had a hard time keeping players on the field may take a long look at a Luis Valbuena. He would fit into the gaping holes left by repeated injuries and days off because of the advanced age of regular players, and his bat would play well with the short porch and right field power allies at Yankee Stadium. The Rays could also have interest in a player with his skill set. He wouldn’t net much of a return, but if there is a low level player in a system that catches Jed or Theo’s eye, don’t doubt for a second that the original “low risk waiver flyer” could be flipped for a lottery ticket at the deadline. Cody Ransom is in pretty much the same situation as Valbuena, except he’s right handed, comes with less control, and more age.
P Carlos Villanueva:
Maybe the least surprising player on this list, and quite possibly the most likely to be traded, Villanueva is a player who has been talked about as a trade candidate. He was merely overshadowed by the talk of Garza and Feldman, among the pitchers. Villanueva is particularly valuable because of his versatility as both a starter and reliever. While specific locations for him may be tough to pin point, it is reasonable to say that any team looking for a ‘pen arm with the ability to give you a solid swing start from time to time would be interested…which boils down to pretty much everybody. Again, it would be a surprise if Villanueva netted anything of note, but a middling prospect in somebody’s system who hasn’t progressed or a retread could be an expected return.
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.
I think we’re all sure that there is going to be a sell off at the deadline this season again. The extent of that sell off is yet to be determined, but in comparison to last year, it will likely be pretty minor. The reason for that is simple…there is less there for the Cubs to sell. That’s not to say this team is less talented than last year’s team. Actually, the opposite is true by a wide margin. Looking at “the plan,” though, and what the Cubs have on their roster, who is likely to go is pretty limited.
NOT GOING ANYWHERE:
Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood
The only player in this group who has any chance of being dealt is Travis Wood. Jeff Samardzija is a stud who is under team control through 2016. That type of pitcher is someone you don’t let go of if you’re lacking impact pitching talent in the first place. Travis Wood has an outside shot of being traded because of his hot start to the season, with nine quality starts in his first ten outings. He, too, is under team control for a long time. He won’t hit free agency until 2017. He is exactly the type of young, cost controlled asset the regime has said to want to keep around. Dealing him at the deadline would be a huge shock to me, and I don’t see it happening without some type of high end prospect coming back in return. And because Travis Wood is still only a good 4-5th starter, I can’t see a team willing to cough up that much for him. Edwin Jackson’s not going anywhere. He was signed to be a piece for when the Cubs compete. And he will get ample opportunity to figure out what troubles him.
MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:
He’s only been back for a week, so I think it is entirely too early to tell whether or not he is fully back from his arm/ lat injuries. And it is too early to tell what kind of value he has. I know that the Cubs are looking to get back impact prospects for Garza, and if they get the right package of them, he’ll be packing his bags and headed to another city. It is just too early to tell if any team is going to be willing to ship the Cubs the right package of prospects for a pure rental player, who is due to become a free agent at season’s end. It would figure to be just as likely that Garza stays in Chicago all season and the Cubs slap a qualifying offer on him. If that happens, it would be entirely possible that Garza would return to the Cubs after watching Kyle Lohse wait until just before the season to be signed. There is an outside shot that the Cubs extend him for a contract similar to the one they offered Anibal Sanchez. He is worth that kind of money when healthy, and if he shows that he is, he’d be worth the investment.
DON’T GET COMFORTABLE:
Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva
Both of these guys are attractive pieces at the deadline. Neither makes all that much money. Both can come out of the pen. Both can give you a good start every five days. That makes them the two best candidates to be out the door this July. Feldman was asked about being flipped at his introductory conference call, so none of this should come as news to him. Villanueva, however, signed a two year deal, so he would likely net a bit more than
Feldman in a trade, simply for the extra year of inexpensive control.
NOT GOING ANYWHERE:
Hector Rondon, Shawn Camp, Kyuji Fujikawa, Carlos Marmol
I know you’re all upset that Marmol is on this list. I am, too. He’s not worth a day old hotdog, though. At the deadline he’ll be due about $5M, and his numbers aren’t going to make that a good investment for a team looking for a quality reliever. The only way he comes off this list is if he has a turn around like last year and the Cubs eat most (…or all) of his remaining contract. And he won’t bring back very much in return. The most likely scenario with him is finishing the season and walking away in free agency. Shawn Camp is much more likely to be released than traded. Kyuji Fujikawa has been injured too early to have any chance at being dealt, and Hector Rondon is a Rule 5 player who the front office likes. That makes all of them mostly untradeable.
MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:
James Russell, Kevin Gregg
James Russell has proven to be a valuable commodity in the bullpen the last couple of years, which increases his value immensely, but since he is under team control through 2016, it stands to reason that the team would like to keep a controllable asset like him. There are good teams looking for left handed relievers who can get guys out on both sides of the plate, though. And if one of them offers up a good package for James Russell, it would not be outside of the realm of possibility that he gets shipped off for multiple pieces. Kevin Gregg is having a bit of a resurgence with the Cubs, which makes him attractive. He’s a cheap piece who could fit into a bullpen and occasionally close for a team looking for that type of player. He probably wouldn’t net a whole lot, but considering the Cubs were just throwing a line in the water to see what he had, any return would be a nice profit on their low risk investment.
NOT GOING ANYWHERE:
Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Wellington Castillo
Rizzo and Castro both signed long term extensions. Those are obvious. Castillo is a talented young catcher who is going to get every opportunity to win this spot long term.
MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:
Darwin Barney, Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom, Dioner Navarro
The most attractive piece in this group is obviously Darwin Barney. His glove makes him an attractive trade piece for someone looking for a really good utility infielder. Remember, he came up as a short stop and played some third base when he was initially called up. If his bat keeps coming along, he could be a really good long term starter at second base for a contending team with a shortage in that spot. He’s 27, so the Cubs may not see him as a long term piece of the core group of players. He is under team control until 2017, though. And if he continues to make progress with the bat, he is every bit the kind of player you want at 2B on a contending Cubs team. Luis Valbuena and Cody Ransom both offer the same kind of value for a team that Jeff Baker added last year. They are both utility players who can swing the bat some. They may not bring a lot in return, but that probably wouldn’t stop the front office from sending them away for some intriguing young players.
MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:
Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Scott Hairston, Ryan Sweeney
The safest bet for any of the outfielders to go anywhere is David DeJesus. A veteran, left handed hitter who can take pitches and work counts while offering solid defense at all three outfield positions is always in demand. If the price is right, DDJ is out the door. It’s just not clear what his value is. It can’t be too much higher than it was last year, and he wasn’t traded then. I sense that he would have been traded last year if there was a market for him, which gives me some reason to think he’s not the slam dunk to be traded that some are calling him. Soriano is going to be shopped aggressively, and if the Cubs find a team willing to package some good pieces together and Soriano is willing to waive his no trade rights, he likely goes at the deadline. There is too much uncertainty with Soriano, though. He’s picky. And he has that right. If the Cubs get a call about the other three players, I am sure they will listen, and if they can get a prospect of two that they like, there is almost no chance they refuse.
None of this is to say that the Cubs will stand pat at the deadline. It just isn’t clear who will or will not be going anywhere. There are not the sure things this season, like Ryan Dempster last season. There are attractive pieces on this team for others to look at, but none of them are necessarily special. Matt Garza would net the most in return, theoretically, but if Jed and Theo don’t get a package they like, it is hard to believe they will trade him for the sake of trading him. That actually applies to pretty much everybody on the roster short of Feldman. He is a true rental, even for the Cubs, so if they can squeeze a prospect out for him, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to do so. They may be a little more choosey with Villanueva only because they have him next season, too, and if they plan on being in the hunt next year, he’s a nice piece to have. Or, if we’re looking at another cold assessment that leads to selling, he has value then, too.
Expect some movement from the Cubs. Just don’t expect them to send away everything not nailed down like last year. This is year two. It’s time to start hanging on to some of the talent.
I’ll never cease to be amazed by the amount of discontent that occurs during a losing streak. And, at the same time, how quickly it disappears when the team wins four out of five.
As we were reminded this week, however, the roster is not complete, and will not be that way for quite some time.
- Matt Garza had a “setback,” in that his arm got tired. I wasn’t terribly concerned at the time because “dead arm” is something a lot of pitchers go through in Spring Training (which is pretty much where Garza is now). While it makes the news, and subsequently makes fans fall all over themselves about the guy being fragile and not worth the trouble, it’s really nothing. Until it has a reason to be something. Garza is now scheduled to pitch on May 1, so while his rehab from the lat strain may not have been as quick as we, as fans, would have liked, it does seem like the progress is good. When it comes to strains like that one, it is better to get it completely healed, and from everything we’ve been told, that seems to be the case. Now, it’s just a matter of getting him stretched out sufficiently to start at the major league level.
- Ian Stewart had a real setback the other night when he got hit on the elbow. He missed last night’s game, and is playing tonight. I get it. Most of you out there think Ian is a bum, and he’s not worth the peanuts the Cubs are paying him this season, you want Tyler Colvin back, etc. I’m going to continue to defend him, and the front office for bringing him back. At least until he’s had time to finish a cup of coffee with the major league team. His numbers aren’t good at Iowa, but he’s in the same boat as Garza. He’s getting his timing back and working through the Spring Training process. Unlike everyone in these games he’s playing, he’s still working the bugs out from not playing in about 11 months. Let’s see him healthy and for a while in the bigs before we write him off. We, as Cubs fans, should know that if he hits the streets before he gets all the way back, he’s going to go somewhere else, and be the third baseman we want him to be at Wrigley.
Neither of these players is going to be the savior to what is sure to be an uncompetitive season. They do, however, make the Cubs deeper (in spite of your feelings for Stewart). Getting Garza back will likely push Scott Feldman (because Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva have earned the right to be in the rotation thus far) to the bullpen, as a long reliever. Since he’s been good for three or four inning stretches this season, maybe being the long man will add to his value. The same with Luis Valbuena. If Ian Stewart can come back and take hold of the third base job, the Cubs will have two versatile infielders who can play all over in Valbuena and Cody Ransom, who hit from each side of the plate. With Scott Hairston, Julio Borbon, and Dioner Navarro rounding out the bench, suddenly the Cubs don’t look quite so sad.
There are a lot of ifs in those statements. I’m sure not all of it will come true. Ian Stewart could come back, lay an egg, and be designated for assignment within a few weeks. We don’t know. But that is what the 2013 season is for. Finding out who’s got value and who’s not going to be with the team moving forward is what the plan was for this season.
In the mean time, just enjoy the winning streak.
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.