For those of us who treat this as more than a hobby, the coverage of the off-season has been significantly more extensive. Since this is only a hobby for me (because of my other actual obligations…all to varying degrees less interesting and fun than following baseball), there have been few and far between since the end of the season. With some time, though, now is a perfect time to talk about the thing that has dominated the Cubs’ off-season…PITCHING!
Today, Edwin Jackson was introduced at Wrigley Field. With the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa, resigning Shawn Camp, and having Arodys Vizcaino coming off of surgery and being ready for 2013, it seems as though the Cubs will have a surplus of pitching talent to get them through this season. That is something they did not have last season, especially after losing Matt Garza, who is progressing nicely though his rehab from a stress injury last July, and trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm at the deadline. At the end of the season, LHP Travis Wood was the ace, after the team sat Jeff Samardzija in early September. That wasn’t an ideal situation, and it was a key reason why the Cubs lost 101 games.
The flip side to the off-season is the stunning lack of movement in the rest of the division. The Brewers have not done much with their staff, adding journeyman lefty and former Cub, Tom Gorzelanny, who I like as a solid reliever and spot starter, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking he is anything more than pitching depth for a team who had all kinds of trouble in the bullpen last season, and ended up losing Francisco Rodriguez this off-season. They also added Burke Badenhop, who has had an up and down (as in between the majors and the minors) career with the Marlins and Rays. No world beaters. They seem to be enamored with Mike Fiers, who was very good after debuting with the club last season. My own analysis of him is that he reminds me a lot of Randy Wells.
I wish I could say something bad about the Cardinals and their pitching. I really do. They haven’t done much (anything?..I haven’t seen any moves at all from them in the pitching department this off-season), but they seem to grow pitchers as well as anyone in the game. With Chris Carpenter coming back, I’m sure they’ll be fine. It makes me physically ill. Seriously.
The Reds still have a lot of arms. They still, in my estimation, have the best bullpen in the majors, even though they’re moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation. They, too, have a nice strong staff that, in my opinion, keeps them the favorite to repeat as the division champions in 2013. Again, it makes me sick…but not as sick as the Cardinals make me. Nothing makes me that sick.
The Pirates confuse me. I genuinely thought they were trying to compete…and then they went and traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. They also resigned Jason Grilli, who the Cubs were in on. Without being too familiar with who the Pirates have coming up, they’re current rotation and bullpen screams average, and their back end looks shaky with the loss of Hanrahan. I can only muse that this season they don’t want to disappoint their fans by playing well for the first four months before imploding with the uncanny appearance of controlled demolition for a third year in a row.
The Astros are gone…for those that forgot. They’re off the the AL West to play for 110 losses at the hands of the Angels, Rangers, and A’s. Good Luck, ‘Stros…you’re going to need it. Desperately.
What it all means…
I can’t for the life of me see how the Cubs win this division next season. I just can’t. They do figure to be considerably better than their 101 losses last season. They could make a strong push at third with the Pirates and Brewers regressing. All of this is interesting in early January, but the off-season is by no means over, so something could cook up between now and the time pitchers and catchers report next month. The Cubs have a much improved corps of pitchers. That group would have been made much more potent had they actually signed Anibal Sanchez. Theo Epstein and Tom Ricketts went to visit him personally, and the deal was reported, but like others for the Cubs, was prematurely reported and ended up not to be. GM Jed Hoyer, today, revealed that he went to visit Edwin Jackson, who actually did sign. At 29, he is on the side of 30 that the Cubs are looking for in players to add and build with, and having pitched in the division with the Cardinals in 2011, there is familiarity with the NL Central, and he pitched well while with St. Louis. Teaming him up with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, there is a solid top three, and there is a good group of Baker, Feldman, Wood, and Villanueva competing for two spots at the back end of the rotation.
The Cubs have to know they can’t lose like they did last season and expect fans to turn out. The fans stopped coming last season because it was nearly pointless to go watch them give up runs in bunches. This season figures to be different. Even if they trade some of their pitching (GARZA!), they’ll have some fall back pieces to lean on so they don’t fall off the side of the Earth. The off-season has gone to plan to this point. It remains to be seen if the offense will be potent enough to push this team to .500. The Cubs are not a finished product by any stretch, but this off-season is the next step to contention.
For a team with less than stellar expectations, it is awfully difficult to grade the Cubs’ first half performance. If I were to judge by record alone, it would almost certainly be a D, or lower. However, since the Cubs weren’t expected to be very good this season as they rebuild and since the team hasn’t been as consistently bad as it appears, this grade is going to be issued on a curve. The criteria are offensive output, defensive output, improvement, consistency, and overall performance. Whether those criteria are fair or not is for you to decide…
Starting Pitching: B-
The starting pitching has actually been better than expected, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having strong seasons. Both pitchers have lived up to their billing as the top two starters in the rotation, and that has made them both viable candidates to be traded before the trade deadline three weeks from today. Jeff Samardzija has been up and down, having both very good and very bad outings in his first seasons as a starter. Paul Maholm has been in the same boat, being both good and bad in the first half of the season. Chris Volstad and Randy Wells have been atrocious and have earned their demotions to Iowa. Travis Wood, however, has been strong since his arrival, earning the fifth starting role. This grade would be much higher if not for Wells and Volstad’s inability to throw good strikes, and the overall team record would be likely to have followed suit.
This was going to be an F, until the recent surge of Carlos Marmol, with Shawn Camp and James Russell falling into more comfortable roles. The absolute incompetence of the bullpen to throw quality strikes and the number of walks has led to a huge number of blown saves, missed opportunities to win games, and crumbling in late situations has made this season one of the most dismal in the history of the organization. While all of the blame cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of the bullpen, and the retirement of Kerry Wood was certainly unexpected, the bullpen has been a major contributor to the 33-52 record.
Position Play: C-
Ultimately, this grade is based much on injuries to all three of the top three catchers in the organization. It could have been far worse without the reacquisition of Koyie Hill, but the lack of offense out of the position is disappointing, since all three of the expected contributors at catcher for the major league team were injured and on the disabled list at one time. Throwing out base-stealers has also not been a strength, which makes it much more difficult on the pitchers, although those same pitchers have been partly to blame. Defensively, there have been some positives to keep an eye on as passed balls have been few and far between. Overall, however, the catchers have to give more at the plate, and must continue to improve on their first half performance.
First Base: B
We learned something about Bryan LaHair this spring. He can hit in the majors. And he was better than serviceable at first base. He went through a long drought, though, which prompted a long losing streak. It It is not fair to place all of the blame of Bryan’s shoulders, and that is why the position garners a B, overall. He was very good in his time there. Anthony Rizzo has been excellent in his 12 games at first base, and he could be a catalyst to see the end of season mark improve. He just has not been around long enough to cause great change in the grade. Jeff Baker has started more games at first than Rizzo, which is another reason this is only a B. Between LaHair and Baker, there has been absolutely no production against left handed pitching at this position, which doesn’t help the sorry record against left handed pitching, and that hurts the overall mark.
Second Base: B-
My man crush on Darwin Barney is based almost solely on his defense, which has been nothing short of outstanding. He is having a Gold Glove worthy season at second, with only two errors on the season thus far. Offensively, he has been Darwin Barney. He is a slap hitter that can find a gap, get a solid single, and he will do the right things on the bases. You know what to expect everyday from Darwin Barney, which is a good smart game that will not cost the team with mental errors and a full out physical effort.
Third Base: C
The hot corner has lost its pop with the departure of Aramis Ramirez. The addition of Ian Stewart was supposed to protect from a total collapse of that production, but a wrist injury which was operated on today ended his season without the production to ease the loss of Ramirez. Luis Valbuena gives very good at bats and hits the ball hard, but is not the defender that Stewart is. Both played very hard, but only Stewart excelled in any one area, and that was defensively. There has been too much inconsistency offensively to mark this position any higher than a C. At this point, there is uncertainty in that position because neither Stewart or Valbuena instill confidence at this point. Maybe Stewart will be able to regain his hitting stroke when he returns, likely next season, if at all. However, for the time being, the hot corner has been nothing more than luke warm.
Short Stop: B+
It probably isn’t fair to not give the only player to play in every game, starting all but one, less than an A when he was expected to carry this 2012 team and has done his best to do so. However, a slow start on defense, and a slump at the plate to end the first half bring Starlin Castro into the B+ range of the spectrum. 2012 has shown us nothing but more positive in the still only 22 year old Castro, who, while making mental errors common from only young players, has shown an ability to work hard and improve each day, both at the dish and in the field. His defense is much better under the guidance of Dale Sveum and since Rudy Jaramillo was replaced as the hitting coach, the walks have started to come a little less infrequently. Castro stands to get a 4.o GPA as a baseball player as he matures and reaches his prime. Now, however, he is “only” a B+…with a lot more improvement that can be made in his game.
Even though Alfonso Soriano has been on a tear since May 15, the rest of the outfield has been pretty quiet. It is very difficult to grade this group with the additions and subtractions of players all season. Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Marlon Byrd, Reed Johnson, Bryan LaHair, and Jeff Baker have all been in and out of the line up with Soriano and David DeJesus, which has hurt the consistent play of the group, and brought the grade down. The defense has been much less of an adventure out there, with Soriano showing major improvement at the behest of Dave McKay. The defense has been nothing better than average, though, and the offense has not been anything to perk up over. Soriano brings this group to above average with his offensive numbers over the last two months, but just barely.
Reed Johnson has been an excellent pinch hitter, leading the league in pinch hits over the first half of the season. It is not, however, a cure all for what has been a hit and miss bench. Tony Campana, Joe Mather, and Jeff Baker have all been up and down. This group does not provide any punch off the bench, which makes it very difficult to come back or extend leads late in games. What this group does bring, though, is defense. They are all average, or above average, defenders at multiple positions.
Managing/ Coaching: B
It has been a rough season, and much of the coaching is done behind the scenes. For a team that has been around 20 games under .500 since the end of May, though, to compete and hustle everyday is a sign of strong coaching and leadership from the guys that aren’t playing everyday. Dale Sveum has assembled a good staff of teachers that are not resting on the laurels of a lost season. That makes them a good staff. There have been growing pains that come with any new manager and coaching staff, though, and that keeps them from being excellent. The potential of this group is very high because they all appear to be good, knowledgeable baseball men. If they stay together, there could be some grade A work in their future.
Team Grade: D+
You can’t go on a 9-4 run to end the first half of the season to get to only 19 games under .500 and expect to be better than a D+. It just cannot happen. If there were any expectations for this team at all, the first half would have been a clear failure, but in their absence, this team gets the benefit of the doubt. There have been bright spots, without question, with two All-Stars, each elected by the players, for the first time since 2008. As players like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija continue to grow, there is some reason for optimism, but at the moment, this is a team that is tough to watch day in and day out. The Cubs get a D+ so far in 2012, and if they finish with a mark that has fewer than three figures in the loss column, that grade probably rises to a C at season’s end.
Some of the random happenings around the Cubs the last few days…
- The Cubs officially signed Jorge Soler, beating the deadline on restrictions for international free agent signings. All was as initially reported, 9 years, $30 Million with the option to opt out of the deal for arbitration. Soler has been added to the 40 man roster in place of Randy Wells, who was designated for assignment after his most recent less than stellar start. Wells accepted his outright assignment to Iowa, where he will again try to figure it out.
- The Braves are 0-10 on Mondays this season. Hopefully, in about 4 hours, it’s 0-11.
- The Cubs signed Dominican short stop Frandy de la Rosa to a $700K contract today. He is a 16 year old switch hitter, who was the 19th rated international prospect. Being 6’1″, 180 pounds, he already has an adult frame and could grow to be one of the bigger short stops like Alex Rodriguez or Starlin Castro.
- Nothing new to report on Albert Almora. Jed Hoyer says that dialogue continues with the first round pick, but the common wisdom is that he’ll be signed.
- Ian Stewart is not recovering from his wrist injury, and will need to have surgery on it. He is expected to miss the rest of the season.
- Last, but not least, the Cubs had two All-Stars, neither named Ryan Dempster, which is a travesty. His 2.11 ERA and 1.02 WHIP are definitely worthy of a selection, even if he would need to be replaced because of injury. His 22 innings straight without allowing a run is impressive, to say the least. While the Brewers and Reds may have a beef with the selections of former Cardinals Manager, Tony LaRussa, I think the Cubs have a legit cause to be upset, as well. Dempster has the second lowest ERA amongst NL starting pitchers (Brandon Beachy) and comparable or better than the All-Star pitching staff. Starlin Castro and Bryan LaHair were selected by the players, and will represent the Cubs. This season is the first since 2008 that the team will have multiple representatives at the Mid-Summer Classic.
There are a lot of players with the Cubs getting a lot of attention lately, most of it because they are the names surfacing in trade speculation. Of all of those players, the one that has gotten the most press is Matt Garza, hands
down. What makes him so interesting, and so valuable, is his age, his experience, and his pure stuff. The last pitcher the Cubs have had that has as much talent as Garza is Mark Prior.
Weight: 215 lbs
Drafted: 2005 First Round by the Minnesota Twins
Debut: August 11, 2006 vs Toronto Blue Jays (2.2 IP, 8 hits, 7 runs, 7 ER, 2 K, 2 BB)
Cubs’ Statistical Analysis:
In 39 starts with the Cubs, Garza is an even 12-12. He has pitched much better than his numbers indicate, with a 3.72 ERA this season. That includes his seven run debacle on Monday night in Houston. Before that, his ER A was in the 2.50 range. He had been down right dominant until his last start, with his worst starts coming immediately after returning from illness. For the season, he has given up 2 or fewer earned runs in six of his eight starts. He averages 3.0 BB/ 9 IP during his time with the Cubs, which is strong in comparison to the rest of the staff. His 14 home runs allowed last season were the lowest of any full season in the majors for Garza, who acclimated himself well to the National League. After a stint on the disabled list last season, Matt Garza was arguably one of the best pitchers in the National League during the second half of last season, when he gave up only 50 earned runs in his last 22 starts, spanning 139.1 innings, and anchored a resurgent Cubs’ pitching staff after the injuries to himself, Randy Wells, and Andrew Cashner, and the late season suspension of Carlos Zambrano. The important things to note about Garza’s numbers are that he leaves the Cubs in position to win just about every time he takes the mound. His record is far less indicative of how good he’s been than the way he leaves the game, which is typically with a lead or very close to it.
My player comparison for Matt Garza is the other big name pitcher that came to our division last winter…Brewers’ pitcher Zack Greinke. I do this because they are basically the same age and made the same transition from the American League to the National League’s Central Division a little over a year ago. In his 37 starts, Greinke is 21-7, which goes to show what being on a significantly better team will do for a win-loss record. Garza has pitched 18 more innings in his two extra starts, given up one fewer home run, and his ERA since the start of 2011 is 0.15 less than Greinke, which is a statistical push. In 2011, Garza’s ERA was about one half of a run lower than Greinke and he gave up 5 fewer home runs in 28 more innings, and his home and road record and statistics have less variation than Greinke. Aside from those numbers, Greinke and Garza have been nearly identical, which makes this comparison fair. The other thing that makes this fair is that Greinke is also rumored to be trade bait this summer. My very amateur analysis is that Garza will be more valuable. He has another full season of control after the season, and the road numbers for Greinke cannot be ignored. He is simply not the same pitcher outside of Miller Park since the beginning of 2011. (A different measure of fairness would be comparing Garza to Shaun Marcum, who came from the AL East with Garza last winter. While Garza has been overall better than Marcum, Marcum has been outstanding away from Miller Park and is another pitcher that could be on the block this summer.)
The BIG Question:
Will the Chicago Cubs trade Matt Garza and begin to restock a less than over-whelming farm system or extend the contract that is due to run out after the 2014 season?
To Be Determined. Sorry. That’s all you get. Actually, that’s the answer for basically everyone, but for different reasons. What we have learned about Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein to this point is that nobody is off limits, especially if Starlin Castro’s name is being floated in trade rumors. For Garza, I would expect the Cubs to keep him around and build a rotation around him with guys like Jeff Samardzija, who is another power righty, and some left handed starters like (but not necessarily, beyond this season and next) Paul Maholm, who can capably fill the back end of a rotation, and other free agent additions in the coming years. Garza is set to become the undisputed ace of the staff with the likely departure of Ryan Dempster, either via trade or free agency at season’s end. At 28, Epstein has said he is the kind of pitcher to build a staff around. That can mean one of two things…either Epstein was being totally honest, or he was trying to inflate Garza’s price tag for potential trade suitors. With the speculation that extension talks have started, I would guess the former holds some weight. It’s just too soon to rule out the latter.
Dale Sveum debuted the Opening Day line in today’s 6-3 loss to the Dodgers. It consisted of:
RF David DeJesus
2B Darwin Barney
SS Starlin Castro
LF Alfonso Soriano
3B Ian Stewart
CF Marlon Byrd
C Geovany Soto
P Ryan Dempster
While it is no great surprise to me that Ryan Dempster is getting the Opening Day nod, I had assumed that Matt Garza would be the Opening Day Starter since the beginning of Spring Training because of his leadership, skill, and his excellent second half last season. That is not meant to slight Dempster, who has been an effective, if not excellent pitcher in Chicago for nine years. I merely felt that Garza had earned the right. Dale Sveum thought differently than I did, and his opinion counts more than mine.
The Epstein Compensation Issue Just Won’t Die
Chris Carpenter’s elbow injury is apparently causing the Red Sox to explore their options in the deal sending Theo Epstein to the Cubs. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted that it probably will not go very far because the Red Sox were given Carpenter’s medical records and a physical when he was sent to Boston…and he passed. Cubs’ GM Jed Hoyer was asked today if the deal would be restructured saying, “No.”
The Cubs sent RHP Aaron Kurcz to the Sox and, yesterday, received 19 year old 1B Jair Bogaerts to complete the deal…one could only hope.
The Roster is Taking Shape, But is By No Means Set
There are very few slots remaining on the Opening Day roster, with the back-up catcher slot being given to the left handed Steve Clevenger, Jeff Samardzija being the third starter, and Randy Wells being sent to Iowa. However, with names being discussed in trade rumors, there are some potential openings on the roster. Marlon Byrd being moved (Atlanta or Washington) would open a spot for, most
likely, Reed Johnson to start, and another position player to make the roster.
What has become clear in the past five months is the willingness of the new front office staff to make any move that will benefit the roster, both now and in the future. While it would be in the team’s best interest to keep Marlon Byrd right now, the chances of him being a Cub when we are looking at final roster cuts in 2013 is slimmer than the new waist line he sports. Randy Wells could also be on the black as the Cubs look to improve their bullpen, although it would be hard to imagine getting anything better than a low level prospect for Wells since he failed to make the Cubs out of camp this year…even with their weaknesses in middle and long relief.
Dale Sveum seems to think that the Cubs can compete for a World Series Championship. I would tend to agree with him. As I predicted earlier in the season preview, I did not anticipate that it would be this season. Then again, who knows? The 2010 San Diego Padres made it really interesting down the stretch of the regular season, only to be beaten out by the eventual champion, San Francisco Giants. Both of those teams did it with pitching, and substandard offensive outputs. The Cubs are in a similar situation with a core of young offensive players and pitchers that are preparing for the season. One thing is certain, however; if the Cubs are going to play when the leaves are falling, here is the projected pitching staff that is going to do it:
1. RHP Matt Garza – Matt was the victim of some terrible luck last season, losing seven leads (one more than I earlier stated in the 2012 preview, but realized was an error with the aid of cubs.com). This season, he will most likely take the ball on Opening Day, and try to pick up where he left off after an excellent second half of the season.
2. RHP Ryan Dempster – Dempster goes into a contract year looking to rebound from a tough 2011, where he posted a 4.80 ERA, which was an improving statistic throughout the season after a disastrous April, where his ERA was north of 9.00. If the Cubs have any shot, he’s going to be a key reason why.
3. LHP Paul Maholm – The Pittsburgh castoff is the newest Cub starting pitcher, coming off a season where wins and losses did not tell the story of how well he pitched. He had an ugly 6-14 record with a strong 3.66 ERA. He is good at keeping the ball down, and doesn’t walk many, giving free passes to 50 in 162.1 innings last season. If he can keep the ball down at Wrigley, he may not replicate his complete game shut out from May 28 last season, but he will have success in his new home.
4. RHP Randy Wells – Randy needs to stay healthy. Then, Randy needs to get out of the first inning. Last season was the health. 2010 was the first inning. If he figures out his 2009 form this season, it could be a resurgent year for Wells, who figures to fall into the fourth slot in the rotation by near default.
5. RHP Chris Volstad – Chris is another new acquisition, coming from Miami for Carlos Zambrano. He is a classic innings eater, and but is more of a fly ball pitcher. This slot is very much up for grabs, with LHP Travis Wood seeking a spot in the rotation as well. My nod goes to Volstad because of his experience and durability.
Closer: RHP Carlos Marmol – Ditch the cutter. Bring the blown saves down. Relocate the release point on the slider. Problem solved.
Set Up: RHP Kerry Wood, RHP Jeff Samardzija – Samardzija is going to compete for a rotation slot, but he figures to wind up in the role where he excelled last season, especially in the second half. Kerry Wood is a veteran stabilizer in the ‘pen that could find himself closing if Marmol needs a day or falters.
Middle Relief: LHP James Russell, LHP Scott Maine, RHP Lendy Castillo – Castillo was selected in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft and will likely be on the 25 man roster all season, unless of course he is “injured” at some point. Russell and Maine both figure to make the team as lefty specialists, with Russell having the ability to set up from the left side. One thing is for sure, James Russell is not a starting pitcher, even though he was admirable in stepping in and eating innings when called on. He didn’t fair well, but he did the rest of the bullpen a needed service.
Long Relief: LHP Andy Sonnanstine – Andy’s got the ability to go long relief and spot start. It is a stretch to think the Cubs will carry three left handed relievers out of camp, but without much viable alternative for a long reliever, Sonny is probably going to be the guy by default. Look for Marcos Mateo to make the team in middle relief if Dale Sveum wants another righty in middle relief, and Maine to start in Iowa.
Other Expected Contributors
LHP Travis Wood – Spot starts/ long relief
LHP John Gaub – Could be in the bullpen out of Spring Training, but will pitch with the major league team regardless. He is a strong arm that can supplement a tired bullpen
RHP Rafael Dolis – Rafael is a young pitcher that is competing for a roster spot, but is a long shot. He should be in Chicago at some point this season, but it figures to come if there is an injury to a starting pitcher
RHP Casey Coleman – Casey could pick up some spot starts and long relief duty. He figures to be another player that will pitch in injury situations. If he can keep his composure as he showed at times last season, he may make a case to stay around a while.
RHP Justin Berg, RHP Marcos Mateo – Both Berg and Mateo seem to be at the same point in their development. Berg offers a change of pace out of the bullpen that the Cubs do not have, so I expect him to be with the 25 man roster consistently over the course of the season, and Mateo is another arm that can provide relief during long trips, when injuries require an arm, or if another of the youngsters is ineffective.
When the Cubs were competitive in the last decade, their pitching was the catalyst with timely hitting. The Cubs failed to produce either of those things last season. If there is any shot that they are competitive this season, it is going to take the gentlemen on this projection, along with others making the trip from Des Moines to supplement the staff. New Pitching Coach Chris Bosio has his work cut out for him, repairing the unmitigated disaster that was Cubs’ pitching last season. The good news is, there is more depth than there was when the team broke camp for 2011. The bad news is that regardless of who the Cubs break with, the majority of the pitchers are going to be talented, but unproven or under-performing major league pitchers.
Unfortunately, there are too many ifs in this group to expect the great things that will be needed for the Cubs to make a deep run. The pitching needs to catch lightning in a bottle to be better than middle of the road this season. The bright side is, there is not a lot of age in the group, with Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, and Ryan Dempster being the most veteran of the entire staff. Here’s to hoping that I’m way off…