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.
Very little, if ever, do you hear about the guys in the low levels of the minors. Especially the guys in Single A. However, that is where the foundation of a team is started. With the multiple levels of Single A, getting to “High A” is the first real step on the road to Wrigley.
The Daytona Cubs are the home to 2010 1st Round pick, Hayden Simpson, who has not had a prestigious start to his professional career. This season, Simpson has gone 1-3 in his 12 games, including 4 starts with Daytona. His 7.32 ERA is also not much to brag about at this early stage of his career. Clearly, it’s been a struggle for Hayden to transition from Division II to professional baseball, but the 23 year old righty has good stuff. If he can figure out where it is going, he still has promise to be a major league pitcher.
Minor League Pitcher of the Month for May is P.J. Francescon, earned his promotion from Peoria to Daytona last month. He is 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA with the D-Cubs after going 5-1 with a 1.86 with Peoria. He did settle into the Florida State league nicely in his first start, going 6, giving up 2 runs (1 earned) before getting roughed up a little bit in his second. P.J. is another 23 year old righty, selected in the 40th round of the 2010 amateur draft.
One player I was wrong about was CF Matt Szczur, who I thought would start in AA Tennessee after a solid showing in 2011. After some time with Peoria this season, Szczur has gone to the D-Cubs with some mixed results, leading to a .260 average in 43 games. The 5th round pick in 2010 has a good strong bat, though, and will hit for average and get on base. He makes good contact, has good speed, and is a good overall athlete, as he played football and baseball at Villanova. He found himself in the Midwest League All-Star Game, and MLB Futures Game in 2011, and Cubs’ fans can expect to see him make it through the Cubs’ system. It may not be too many years before we see Szczur and Brett Jackson standing side by side in the outfield at Wrigley, as both figure to be major league players.
It is tough to outline each player at a lower level, mostly because I don’t see them on any type of regular basis, but it is important to keep an eye on these levels of the system. It takes an entire organization to build consistent routines, winning attitudes, and develop the style of play that the big league team is going to use. While the 23-30 D-Cubs aren’t blowing anyone away in the standings, there are some talented players down there to keep an eye on. Soon enough, we could be watching them from the bleachers in Chicago.
Here is the reality of the 2012 Chicago Cubs…we’re going to be sellers at the trade deadline. That leaves us in an interesting place. With the new regime looking for “long term assets,” the decision is going to have to be made in the not too distant future as to who should stay and be a long term asset, and who should be turned into additional long term assets.
Who Should Stay:
- SS Starlin Castro: I’ve read some comments over the last few days where people have been saying that since Starlin has been in the majors for two years and his defense is still not great at the short stop position, maybe the Cubs should turn Starlin into additional prospects. Stop it. Trading Castro at 22 would be a colossal mistake. Castro is the definition of a long term asset, being 22 with terrific range and, oh yeah, the 6th fastest player in MLB history to 400 hits. His defense is improving and his bat will only get better as he continues to develop into a better hitter. He’ll take more walks and hit more home runs as he gets better, bigger, and older. Starlin is still 3-4 years away from being in his prime. Give him time.
- 1B/ OF Bryan LaHair: This is a tough one. With LaHair being one of the best hitters in baseball in the early going, his stock is at its highest point. With that said, power hitting left handed bats that can team up with another power hitting left handed bat (Anthony Rizzo) are hard to find. Defense does not need to be a strength for LaHair, as he will displace a corner outfield position (likely left field) when Rizzo arrives. He’s proving to be a middle of the order hitter at the major league level. That value can bring in some good mid to upper level prospects, but that is because it is hard to find. 5-6 more years of LaHair hitting around 30 HRs and driving in 90 or so runs would be worth hanging on to as a compliment to Rizzo and Castro as middle of the order type hitters.
- SP Matt Garza: Matt has proven his value as a starter on the Cubs’ roster, and is probably the ace of the staff. In 28.1 innings at Wrigley this season, Garza has a 1.91 ERA, and has given up a single home run this season. In 17 career starts at Wrigley, he has a 2.46 ERA and a .225 batting average allowed. He is very effective at Wrigley, and has proven to be an excellent pitcher in the National League since coming over from the Rays. This season against the 3-4-5 spots in the line up, he is sporting a .156 BAA. He gets hitters out, especially the big bats in the line up. And he is dominant at the place where he will make roughly half his starts. At 28, there is still a lot left in Garza’s arm and he wants to be even better than he is. Getting much better could make him a Cy Young candidate, and that’s something to have around. For their part, the Cubs’ brass has seen him for what he is, and they are working on an extension for Garza. For good reason.
Who Should Go:
- SP Ryan Dempster (Retains 10-5 Rights, and can veto a trade): This is difficult to swallow because Dempster has been so consistent for the team for so long. However, with a shortage of starting pitching around baseball and Dempster having a career year, his value for a team in the hunt at the deadline is going to be high. The Cubs will have to eat some of his remaining salary, but could get some decent prospects in return for a 35 year old pitcher in the final year of his contract, and does not figure to be back next season. Dempster would like to be back, but it is unclear whether he would take a discount to return to the Cubs next season. If the Cubs can trade him for some value, they should do it and get what they can.
- OF Alfonso Soriano (Retains 10-5 Rights, and can veto a trade): Duh. That may be a little harsh because Soriano is a veteran and is a leader in the clubhouse. However, he is not the player he used to be. And at 36, father time has caught up with Soriano. He can have some value for teams in the AL needing a DH, and if there should be an injury for one of the contenders, Soriano could be had for a half empty can of Old Style and some stale peanuts. Trading Soriano would require the Cubs to eat much of his contract…all but about $1.25 of it, most likely. However, it will open a slot for LaHair to move when Rizzo arrives. And the team does have some outfield depth in the minors with Brett Jackson, Dave Sappelt, and Matt Szczur. Jackson is going to be in the majors in the about the next year. Sappelt is a likely call up candidate if there are injuries. Szczur has some time left at the minor league level, but is a speedy outfielder that has a Ron Gant type projection. Two more years of Soriano after this year just do not work…trading him now is definitely the best option.
- C Geovany Soto: Hitting catchers come at a premium. The Cubs have 3 at the moment, in Soto, Steve Clevenger, and Wellington Castillo. Clevenger and Castillo appear to be a capable platoon of backstops that are young enough to grow and get better. Geo, on the other hand, is in his 5th season, and has been very up and down. He could bring back some prospects from say…Tampa Bay…who is always in contention and never has had a catcher that can hit in the middle or bottom half of the line up. Soto is a good player. He is solid defensively and is good with a pitching staff. He is going to hit between 15 and 25 home runs and drive in between 70 and 85 runs each year and will take a walk. There are not many like him that can be had, so he would probably fetch a decent haul of prospects before his salary gets too high.
The Cubs have some pieces that they can build around. They need relief pitching more than anything else. Names not on the “Who Should Go” list include Carlos Marmol and Chris Volstad because they have limited value at the moment. Marmol has had issues with the strike zone for a couple of years, so would not fetch anything near what he could still be. Marmol is also still 29, and I won’t give up on him finding the strike zone again. When he’s on, he’s very good. Volstad has good stuff and his only significant issue is keeping the ball down. That might be tough for someone that stands 6’8″ and has to push the ball down from the top of a pitcher’s mound. Volstad has been prone to the big inning this season, and is still only 25. He, too, has some upside, as he is not yet in his prime. I think it is too early to give up on either Marmol or Volstad. Finding a new closer could be what the doctor ordered for Marmol, allowing him to slide into a set up role he thrived in. Volstad can be a good 4th or 5th starter down the road.
With all of that said, the next 2+ months are going to be interesting…and eventful…around the front office for the Cubs.
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.
In my last post, on what I project to be the pitching staff this season, I referred to the Cubs’ pitching last season as “an unmitigated disaster.” I have no qualms about that statement because, in short, it was. It was not over- stated. It was not even putting a microscope on a weak spot from a team that struggled for a good portion of the season. It just was what it was. With all of that said, the guys behind the pitching last season contributed to it mightily. Last season, the Cubs were 29th in defensive efficiency with a .680 rating. That narrowly edged out the Minnesota Twins, who finished with a .679 DER. To contrast, the Tampa Bay Rays were first in MLB with a .724 DER. Nobody in the majors topped the 134 errors by the Cubs last season, which led to an expected last place finish in fielding percentage. The pitching was bad. The fielding was worse. If the Cubs have a snowball’s chance in Mesa, AZ of making the playoffs, those numbers need to improve dramatically.
The offense was very middle of the road, and the numbers bear that out. They finished between 10th and 20th in the majors in just about all offensive categories, except for stolen bases, where they were down toward the bottom of the league. Don’t expect that to get much better this season. With the losses of 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B Carlos Pena, and OF Kosuke Fukudome, a significant portion of the output from last season is gone. The biggest bats left in the line up are C Geovany Soto, LF Alfonso Soriano, and SS Starlin Castro. The only one of those guys that is consistent is Castro, so the offense figures to be a work in progress all season long.
The position players are going to be a fluid group for all 162 games, in spite of what Dale Sveum said about sticking to one line up earlier this week. As such, take this projection with the smallest of grains of salt…
Line- Up and Batting Order
1. RF David DeJesus – The free agent from Oakland figures to be the first of the lead off hitters this season, although that may change as the season wears on. He’s never played more than 144 games in a season, and hit .240 last season with the A’s. That figures to be an aberration, though, because his career average of .284 is significantly better. If he can be who he was before 2011, hitting in the neighborhood of .300 and getting on base around .350, he figures to hang on to the job for a while.
2. 2B Darwin Barney – Darwin wore down as the season wore on last season after a red hot start. He added some muscle this off-season, which may help him. Aside from the offensive struggles late, Darwin was a nice surprise for a bad team last season. His defense was average and he figures to continue to be an opportunistic base stealer, having nine and being caught twice last year. As he grows at the major league level, his numbers could rise. Or, he could be in for the dreaded sophomore slump. With the way his teammates and coaches have raved about his work ethic, I would bet on the former before the latter.
3. SS Starlin Castro– Starlin figures to settle into the third slot in the line-up this season, although Dale Sveum has said he will consult Starlin about where he wants to hit. The free swinging short stop doesn’t walk too much, but still managed to hit over .300 again last season, and led the NL in hits with 207 at age 21. He did have 29 errors in 158 games, which was actually an improvement in his defense from the 210 campaign, where he had 27 in
123 games. Those numbers are a bit misleading, though, because Starlin makes errors on plays that would be hits with others short stops because he has such great range. He also makes throws that a number of other short stops would not dream of making because of his sensational arm. Expect former major league short stop and new Cubs’ Skipper to work with Castro. And expect the errors to come down.
4. 1B Bryan LaHair – The reigning PCL MVP gets the opportunity to start, and will probably hit fourth in the line- up on the heels of his 38 HRs in AAA last season. He is not going to replace the production from Aramis Ramirez, but he did have a good showing after he was called up last season. He hit .288 with 2 HRs and 10 RBI in 59 at bats last season. If he can contribute at that pace, with about 500 at bats this season, he will be just fine. There will be a drop off in production in the clean up slot, but it will be manageable.
5. CF Marlon Byrd – Marlon had a tough year last season. His veteran presence in CF and in the middle of the line- up are important to a young team. He comes in slimmed down and expecting to improve on his .276 average and 9 HRs from last season. Considering he lost six weeks with the facial fracture suffered in Boston, it wasn’t nearly as bad, statistically, as it looks. If he can rebound and hit around .290 and give the team the 12-15 HRs and 60 or so RBIs that he typically gives, it will be a nice rebound for Marlon this year.
6. LF Alfonso Soriano – ‘Fonsi is the guy that epitomizes why Cubs’ fans hated Jim Hendry. Even though there is wide spread information available that says he was a product of the Tribune Co. ownership group, Hendry takes the fall for a guy that has hit no fewer than 20 HRs in this five seasons in Chicago. He is the last known threat in the line- up, too. His 26 HRs and 88 RBIs last season were a strong number for an aging outfielder. He is not the guy that everybody thought the Cubs were getting before the 2007 season, but he is still a legit power threat, and the streaky hitter can carry the team for weeks at a time when he gets hot. He will likely continue to be a defensive liability that is replaced by either Reed Johnson or Tony Campana late in games when the team is leading, but I would expect, barring injury, another 25 HRs and 80 RBIs from Soriano in a status quo season for the veteran.
7. C Geovany Soto – The bad news about Geo is that he goes up and down in his production from year to year. The good news is that last year was a down year, so he is due a good year. After slimming down again, Soto thinks that he can keep the weight off this time. He will likely give the Cubs the 20 HRs and 60 RBIs that he has been in the ballpark of giving, but if he brings his average back to around .280 and starts taking the walks he took in 2010, it should be a resurgent year for Soto. He called last season a “confidence problem.” If he can manage to focus on each at- bat, many of his issues might correct themselves, and we could see a much better Soto in 2012.
8. 3B Ian Stewart – Remember 2010…when Tyler Colvin had a good bat, and made Cubs’ fans think about him being the first real fixture in RF since Sammy Sosa? I introduce the you the Colorado Rockies’ version of Colvin. In 2009 and 2010, Stewart was a legit hitter with the Rockies with 25 and 18 HRs, respectively. His average has never blown anybody away, but when he was able to put the ball in play, it was generally going to be with some authority. Now, he’s a Cub after being traded for the aforementioned Colvin, along with infielder, DJ LeMahieu in the ultimate “change of scenery” swap. If he can recapture any of the offense he had in 2009 and 2010 under Hitting Coach Rudy Jaramillo, he might be able to fend off slowly progressing Josh Vitters this season.
IF Jeff Baker – Super utility player, Baker, can play First, Second, Third, and the corner outfield with some effectiveness, and hits well against left handed pitching. He will play a lot this season, in pinch hitting and platoon roles in multiple positions.
OF Reed Johnson – “Web Gem” is going to back up all three outfield spots this season, and will be the “go to” defensive replacement for Soriano late in games this year. Reed is a strong veteran that seems to deliver in the biggest moments with either a defensive play that saves runs or with a huge hit. I wouldn’t expect anything different than what Reed did last season in the 2012 campaign.
OF Tony Campana – Tony’s game changing speed is the reason he will likely break camp with the big league team, being the Cubs’ lone serious stolen base threat. He is going to be a pinch runner and defensive replacement when he gets into the game, with the occasional start in any of the three outfield slots. This is the first person that will head back to Iowa if and when any of Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, or Dave Sappelt join the big league team.
IF Adrian Cardenas – The 24 year old middle infielder stole the roster spot held by Blake DeWitt, and figures to make the team as a back up at both middle infield positions after being claimed off of waivers from the Oakland A’s. He’s a left handed hitter, who had strong numbers in AAA last season, hitting .314, and runs better than Dewitt.
C Wellington Castillo – With the departure of Koyie Hill, the opportunity to make the major league team on a permanent basis opens up for Castillo, after seeing some time last year with Soto injured. Castillo is a good hitter and a strong defensive catcher. If he proves that he can handle the young pitching staff, he is the favorite over Steve Clevenger and Jason Jaramillo to win the back up role out of camp.
Other Expected Contributors
CF Brett Jackson – Brett Watch 2012 is on in full force, as this could be the year where the Cubs’ top prospect makes his debut in front of the ivy at Wrigley. I would anticipate that to be the case at some point. That means Marlon Byrd either moves over to one of the corners (left field if someone can be found to take Soriano) or Byrd himself gets traded.
IF Blake DeWitt – Blake probably will not make the roster out of camp, but he will most likely be with the team at some point over the course of the season. He is the first guy up if there is an injury to any infielder because he can play second, third, short, and the corner outfield. He may be released out of camp or a trade could be sought if he fails to make the 25 man roster out of camp.
1B Anthony Rizzo– The 1B of the future, Rizzo will start the season in Iowa, but I would be stunned if he isn’t with the major league team before July. If Ian Stewart or Bryan LaHair struggle or get hurt, this is the guy that will
probably get called up. While he probably will not start over veteran Jeff Baker, he would likely be with the major league team to get some spot starts as a left handed hitter.
OF Dave Sappelt – Dave was acquired from the Reds in the Sean Marshall trade and has plus speed and plays good defense. He got some light duty with the Reds last season, and figures to be with the Cubs at some point of the season, as the first man up if there is an injury.
OF Matt Szczur – Matt is the “other” outfield prospect that figures to make is MLB debut. He also figures to be the RF of the future, playing next to Brett Jackson when he gets to Chicago. Matt is a Five Tool prospect and could find his way to Chicago this season if there are injuries or if the team falls back early.
3B Josh Vitters – Josh will probably be an injury or September call up this season. His slow development has been hidden by the fact that Aramis Ramirez has been at third for the last eight years. He seemingly figured it out last season in the minors. If Ian Stewart struggles this season, he is going to get his opportunity. At 22, he is young enough, but after four years of minor league baseball behind him, his leash to figure it out is shortening.
The youth of this team is the first thing that should be noticed. There will be some offensive and defensive growing pains with the core youth with this team. Like I declared in my preview post, I do not expect the Cubs to be a viable playoff threat this season, and will struggle to get to .500 if they manage to. What cannot be understated is the talent of the collection of players being led by Dale Sveum. His devotion to fundamentals and playing hard should suit this roster perfectly. If the can grow, this core group will be a viable threat in 2013 and beyond. This season, though, is for “building.” And it is going to start with this foundation of players gaining invaluable experience at the major league level this season.