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!
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.
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.
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.
Last night, we saw something new. Not new to the game or to this season, but to the Cubs. They drove in runs without the aid of the long ball. It was magical. More importantly, it was about damn time.
This season, the Cubs lead the NL in doubles, are 3rd in the NL in home runs, and 4th in slugging percentage. They are also 12th in on base percentage, 11th in batting average, and 11th in runs scored.
There is really only one thing to take away from these numbers…the Cubs either hammer the baseball or don’t get hits at all. There isn’t a middle ground for them at this point. And that is not how to win ballgames.
That’s what made last night so nice to see. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo each had two run singles in the fourth inning after Scott Feldman’s RBI single. Five runs, none driven in with the extra base hit or home run. When you add Alfonso Soriano’s RBI ground out in the first and Nate Schierhotz’s sacrifice fly in the sixth, that’s a nice night of offense. The Rizzo HR in the eighth inning served as a cherry on top of an atypically productive night of offense for the Cubs.
The early problems with the Cubs have been the bullpen, the defense (at times), and the offense. One night does not solve the problem, and some players are still trying to figure out which end of the bat to hold. (Here’s lookin’ at you, Darwin!) With that being said, it appears that Alfonso Soriano and Anthony Rizzo have figured out their early season struggles. Soriano isn’t freezing. Rizzo is using the entire field and looks like the Rizzo we met last season. Both are good things. The Cubs need that production in the middle of the line up.
As we await the inevitable trade deadline activity, there are a few things we can take for granted as fans…the subtractions will not be as deep as they were last year, and the meat and potatoes of the current line up is going to be left intact, for the most part. The only significant losses that are in the realm of possibility are Darwin Barney being flipped to a contender for prospects, and David DeJesus being flipped for small pieces. Aside from that, there is not a lot of likelihood for big changes. Nate Schierholtz could find himself on the way out, too, but he’s on a one year deal, anyway. He is a rental in every sense of the word, even if the Cubs don’t flip him.
What we’re seeing is probably what we’re going to get this season. And probably a big portion of next season. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler are not coming anytime soon. Watching the current cast of characters is the show we’re going to get for at least the foreseeable future. It would be nice if there were more nights like last night.
Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as they seem.
The 2013 Cubs are a pretty good example of that. They’ve had no offense to speak of. The back end of the bullpen was an unmitigated disaster for the first two weeks. The defense let the Cubs down on a number of occasions; yet the Cubs are 10-15, and have won five out of seven.
Record wise, the team isn’t far off of expectations. We knew this team was not going to compete with the Reds and Cardinals this season. We knew the offense was going to struggle at times. And we knew the early season was going to be a strong test because of the good teams the Cubs were going to play. The results of the test are in, and the Cubs passed. They may have only passed with a 65, but they passed. And they missed a lot of opportunities to really improve on that grade.
It isn’t all that difficult to understand why we, as fans, are so disappointed, though. The interaction in Twitter is a good indication of what most of us are feeling. It could be so much better. The Cubs played well enough to win three of the games with the Giants. They shouldn’t have been swept by the Braves. Or the Brewers in Miller Park. They’ve shot themselves in the foot more times that we should have expected, especially after the steps forward in fundamental baseball that the team took last season.
That’s what young teams do. I’ve said this a number of times to folks on Twitter. Winning is a learned behavior. There aren’t many players on this team who have a lot of experience with winning. There’s Alfonso Soriano from his days with the Yankees and first couple of years with the Cubs. Nate Schierholtz was with the Giants when they won the World Series in 2010. Scott Feldman was with the Rangers the last couple of years. Carlos Villanueva went to the playoffs with the Brewers in 2008. Edwin Jackson’s been on his share of winners. So, two position players, who play on a regular basis, and three starting pitchers. That’s not a whole lot.
Here’s my point. There is a time coming for winning. It’s not here, yet, but it’s coming. Teams like the Braves, Rangers, Brewers and Giants all know how to finish games at this point. There are veteran players on those teams who have tasted success at the major league level. They know how to take advantage of young, impressionable teams like the Cubs. And they take those advantages. In the end, the fans feel violated. But the team grows up, figures out how to avoid the killer mistake, and hangs on.
Nights like last night, where the bullpen is good and the defense makes some plays to hold on to the game, become more prevalent when a team is good. The value of last night’s game is huge. Because unlike the standard for the early season, the Cubs found a way to win. It was only 1/162 of the season, but that was the most valuable win of the season, thus far. This time, when the Cubs closed the door, they kept it closed. And that is a big step in the right direction.
We can’t hang onto games past. First, because our hearts can’t take the stress. But mostly, because with this team in its current form, everything is a day to day process. After every game, lets move on to the next one. That’s the great thing about baseball. All summer long, there’s always tomorrow to try again, regardless of today’s result.
Starting with the outfield in breaking down the season seems to be pretty easy. There are no spots up in the air at this point, as all three spots are filled. Actually, the only question in the outfield is who the fifth and final outfielder on the roster is going to be.
Right Field: Nate Schierholtz/ Scott Hairston
The most interesting spot in the outfield is the one with the platoon. Newcomers Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston offer a little bit more of what a corner outfielder should be in their ability to hit for power than David DeJesus did for much of last season, but neither of them is a long term solution to the side that has been most problematic since the departure of Sammy Sosa. They are mere placeholders for top prospect, Jorge Soler, who figures to be the long term solution to what has been a revolving door for eight seasons.
Nate Schierholtz was signed to a one year deal, and is finally getting the chance to be an everyday player (for the most part). As a former top prospect in the Giants’ system, he sports 24 career home runs, which is a season’s worth for a player you’d want starting in a corner outfield position. Nate’s defense has never been at issue. The biggest factor for him coming to Wrigley may be the most challenging RF corner in the game, where the summer sun can make routine fly balls a little more adventuresome than they should be.
Scott Hairston is another player who has not been the everyday player over the course of his nine years, but did show some pop in his bat, hitting 25 long balls last season. Brother of former Cub, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Scott has the bloodlines to be a good player, but hasn’t gotten the opportunity to be one on an everyday basis. Considering how long he’s been around, there is likely a reason for that. There is no reason to think he won’t be productive this year, but a 32 year old on a two year contract makes him a placeholder for Soler.
Center Field: David DeJesus
DeJesus is a little more suited to play center with the numbers he puts up and his defensive ability. His willingness to work counts and take a walk makes him a favorite of Dale Sveum and the front office, as his approach is the one the organization is working to install into all of its hitters. As a fan of the game, I admire what DDJ does for the team. He’s a veteran leader who will give the team four professional at-bats each day. As an objective (as much as possible) observer, I would prefer to see someone like DeJesus hitting seventh. The fact that this is the lead-off hitter speaks to how incomplete the rebuilding process is. David DeJesus could very well find himself on another roster at the deadline this year if Brett Jackson’s progress with his swing continues at the pace it seems to have been. He could end up being this season’s Bryan LaHair…displaced by one of the up and coming prospects, and my feeling is, if Jackson gets to Chicago this season (likely), he will be there to play, and he will be there to play everyday.
Left Field: Alfonso Soriano
If Fonsi can repeat what he did last season, he’s going to command a high price at the deadline. I do not see Soriano going anywhere. Either the coaching staff and front office mean what they say about him and his value to the team as a player and a leader for young players, and truly believe he is a valuable piece of the immediate process of building toward the future by teaching young players like Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler to be professionals and how to deal with being highly touted prospects, or their words are pricing any potential suitors for him out of the market. I think the team believes the former, but the latter is probably a bi-product of it. As such, I am pretty confident that Soriano is going to be the left fielder for the Chicago Cubs through the 2014 season. And I am confident that he will hit 20+ HRs and drive in 85+ runs each of the next two seasons. If he is able to play at the defensive level that he did last season, I don’t have any problem with it.
Reserves: Dave Sappelt
I am projecting Sappelt to win this last outfield spot. He can play all three positions and his bat is not a liability. He stands to be the front-runner to lock up the last spot in a crowded outfield.
Quantity and quality are not the same thing. The Cubs’ outfield is a prime example of that. Soriano is the best of them, and his numbers say he’s a solid player out there. David DeJesus is best suited as a fourth outfielder, given his versatility, defensive prowess, and his mediocre bat. Neither of the right fielders in the platoon sparks much confidence in big numbers, which is exactly why they are in a platoon to begin with. The outfield is very obviously waiting for the arrivals of Brett Jackson on a permanent basis, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora. Until that time, there are going to be stop gap players and guys playing above their ability. The production should improve in the outfield this season from right field, which is to say there should be some. The defense should be strong. But don’t bother buying any of their jerseys…they won’t be around long.
Ah, yes…we have reached the time of the year where bats start cracking and gloves start popping. Spring Training is upon us. While pitchers and catchers are on the cusp of having to report, there are a number of position players who have already descended on Arizona. It would not have been surprising to see players wait until the last possible day before reporting after last season’s 61 wins. Many will do that, anyway. It is good to see that there are players in camp and working, already. It is evidence of the players having some optimism for this season.
Optimism is admirable, considering the Cubs will not contend this season, either. Don’t get me wrong, here…they’re going to be much better than they were last season. I predicted last season’s version of the Cubs would finish with a record of 77-85. My prediction appeared to have some validity until the trade deadline. While it was anticipated the team would sell at the deadline, the degree to which they did, coupled with the losses of Matt Garza to injury and Jeff Samardzija to an innings limit pushed the Cubs to the wrong side of 100 losses for the first time since 1966. This season, even if they do end up trading some players (Matt Garza the most likely), they have some depth to keep the losses from piling up as quickly and as plentifully as they did in 2012.
A great many prognosticators are saying the Cubs are a lock for last place this year with the Astros leaving for the American League. As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS!” This season, it appears the Pirates walk the plank, right into the cellar…
Consider this the official prediction of the division in 2013, in both final standing and record for each of the now five NL Central ball clubs.
1. Cincinnati Reds (94-68)
With the top of the division, it’s the status quo. The Reds are still the most complete team in the division and have, arguably, the best bullpen in baseball. I say that knowing full well that Dusty Baker plans on slowly sucking the life out of Aroldis Chapman’s arm. For now, though, they are the best team, and with a healthy Joey Votto, there isn’t a good reason why they wouldn’t win the division this season. A team without major holes is a team that seems destined to win a division. That best explains the Reds, and the only thing I can see changing this is a rash of injuries. Even that seems unlikely to cause the Reds to falter, as the team without Joey Votto for a sizable piece of 2012 still won the division by a wide margin.
1. Shin-Soo Choo, CF
2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Jay Bruce, RF
5. Ryan Ludwick, LF
6. Todd Frazier, 3B
7. Zack Cozart, SS
8. Ryan Hanigan, C
1. Johnny Cueto
2. Mat Latos
3. Bronson Arroyo
4. Aroldis Chapman
5. Homer Bailey
Set-Up: Sean Marshall
Closer: Jonathon Broxton
2. St. Louis Cardinals (89-73)
As sick as it makes me, the Cardinals are chalk for a winning season and competing for a Wild Card…especially since there are two of them, now. Even with the loss of Chris Carpenter, there is a wealth of depth on this team and in this organization. They seem to heal wounds better than any team in baseball. That, in large part, comes from the best farm system in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law. Without any major changes to the way this team is constructed from last season and Adam Wainwright being a full season past Tommy John Surgery, there is no good reason why they would fail to meet their usual standards of being a complete pain in the neck. Even after losing Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa, and Chris Carpenter, they’re still pretty darn good. Which blows. Hard.
1. John Jay, CF
2. Rafael Furcal, SS
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Matt Holliday, LF
5. David Freese, 3B
6. Yadier Molina, C
7. Allen Craig, 1B
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller
Set-Up: Marc Rzepczynski
Closer: Jason Motte
3. Chicago Cubs (80-82)
Unlike the top two teams, everyone else has some question marks, starting with our beloved Cubs. The outfield looks to be a strength of the organization…but not at the big league level. Nate Schierholtz was looking for a one year deal to be an everyday player for a reason. He is very talented, but that hasn’t translated well at the major league level, yet. David DeJesus is a good on base player and can grind out an at-bat, but is not a prototypical lead off hitter. He actually projects nicely into the 7th spot in a contending line up. Third base looks like it will be held by Ian Stewart, if he’s healthy and shows some of the pop he had in Colorado. He had flashes of it last year, but his wrist just didn’t let it happen like it needed to. If he doesn’t get the job done, the hot corner will be ice cold for the Cubs again this season. Luis Valbuena is a nice player, but doesn’t have the punch a corner infielder should have, and Josh Vitters appears to need more minor league time. There is some question as to whether Wellington Castillo can be the everyday catcher. Dioner Navarro is a nice addition to help, but Wellington is the most talented and will need to play to his level. While the offense has some question marks, the rotation has been solidified by the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, and Edwin Jackson. Even if the Cubs do end up trading Matt Garza or have injuries, it will not leave the devastation that trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm and losing Garza to injury did last season. With seven legitimate options to start, not including Arodys Vizcaino, the Cubs figure to be in much better shape in the rotation. The bullpen looks better, too. Shawn Camp was retained, James Russell is another year in, the team signed Kyuji Fujikawa, and Carlos Marmol seemed to figure it out in the second half last season. If Marmol gets dealt, which is a real possibility, Fujikawa is an option to step into the closer’s role that was so uncertain for the first half of last season. Villanueva gives the Cubs a flexible option in the bullpen and as a spot starter, if needed. Long story short, a much improved pitching staff is going to be a catalyst to a much improved Cubs team in 2013.
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Ian Stewart, 3B
6. Wellington Castillo, C
7. Nate Schierholtz, RF
8. Darwin Barney, 2B
1. Matt Garza
2. Jeff Samardzija
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Travis Wood
5. Scott Feldman
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
Closer: Carlos Marmol
4. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)
Looking at the Brewers, they will score runs. A lot of runs. I did not include Corey Hart in the projected line-up because he is going to be sidelined for the beginning of the season. When he comes back, and likely occupies first base, it is going to be full steam ahead at Miller Park. If they can get some stability out of their starting pitching, if their bullpen improves to be average (or settles for better than worst in the NL), if Corey Hart comes back healthy sooner rather than later, if Aramis Ramirez doesn’t go on a six week slump out of the starting block, and if Ryan Braun emerges clear of PED links again, this team has the potential to have a record just the opposite of what I predicted, and could peak into the playoff window. There is a lot of if with this team, though. Generally, some of the ifs work out, but not all of them. The pitching is suspect. Mike Fiers was outstanding last season, but with a year to adjust to a guy most teams had never seen and with a season’s worth of tape on him, hitters may be able to get a better read on his less than overwhelming stuff. I love the kid as a 4th or 5th starter…not as a 2. The bullpen could be better, but they added nothing to instill confidence in it to anyone but the homeriest of homers up here in Wisconsin. Too many questions, too many uncertainties, no way to give them the benefit of all of the doubts at their chances of being competitive.
1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Rickie Weeks, 2B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Matt Gamel, 1B
6. Jonathon Lucroy, C
7. Carlos Gomez, CF
8. Jean Segura, SS
1. Yovani Gallardo
2. Mike Fiers
3. Chris Narveson
4. Marco Estrada
5. Tom Gorzelanny
Set-Up: Mike Gonzalez
Closer: John Axford
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)
I’ll admit, my projected line-up here seems amiss. I look at the parts they have, and they don’t seem to fit together that well. I like a number of their offensive players individually, and I think they will score some runs, led by Andrew McCutchen, who is an absolute stud of the highest order. Like the Brewers, I have major concerns about their pitching staff. A.J. Burnett is getting older. Wandy Rodriguez is a good pitcher, but he doesn’t match up well with other number two pitchers in good rotations. He’s a good middle of the rotation guy. James McDonald faded down the stretch last season, and will need to figure it out again. The bullpen, once a strength, loses much of its force by losing its strongest asset in Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. That move alone makes the bullpen average, at best. With Jason Grilli becoming the closer, it appears to have sent the bullpen just over its head. Everybody in it is elevated one spot, which to me, seems to be one spot too big for each player. If Hanrahan were still a Pirate, I could make a good case for the team’s bullpen being the strength of the team. Without him, it just doesn’t look the same, which is to say it does not look right. Like the Brewers, too many ifs and concerns to see them being anything more than a team winning in the mid 70s. For Pirates fans after the last couple of seasons, that may not be desirable, but they’re still much better than the Pirates of the last 20 years have been on average.
1. Neil Walker, 2B
2. Starling Marte, LF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones, 1B
5. Travis Snider, RF
6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
7. Russell Martin, C
8. Clint Barmes, SS
1. A.J. Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. James McDonald
4. Jeff Locke
5. Jeff Karstens
Set-Up: Mark Melancon
Closer: Jason Grilli