With the Christmas Day news that Masahiro Tanaka will indeed be posted by his team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, we’ve all started fawning (more than before we knew for sure he was coming) over a guy who could become one of the pieces the Cubs can use to get to the next level in the rebuild. In fact, Theo Epstein was talking about just this kind of player when he said that he wishes there was free agency for 25 year olds. There is something we should all consider when we start talking about Tanaka, though, and it is that he is going to cost a lot of money. And he’s Japanese.
Being Japanese matters. In Japan, running up high pitch counts is a badge of honor. Unlike in the United States, where arms are nurtured and cared for, they are worn out and used up until exhaustion over there. And unlike the US, where athletes merely hide injuries, but eventually relent and tell someone they have an injury, pitchers in Japan work until it is no longer physically possible. All of those things matter. His potential for being injured is higher because his arm wasn’t cared for like that of a college pitcher in the US. That’s not to say he will get hurt, but it happens to pitchers more so than it does to just about any other athlete imaginable. His previous environment only heightens that risk. It’s the extent of the heightening risk that is unknown.
None of this is to say that he will bust. There is no way to know for sure that Tanaka will get hurt, and even with advanced imaging and scans on his elbow, there’s no way to know for sure that he will get hurt or won’t get hurt. I am quite positive that he will be X-Ray’d, MRI’d, CT’d, poked, prodded, and tickled like an Elmo doll before any team actually signs him between now and the end of January.
Injury risk has to be part of the equation. Theo was burned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing when he was with Boston, though. I am sure he remembers. And I am sure there will be a calculated gamble when it comes to signing Tanaka, whoever lands him. His age helps. Being young means his soft tissue is a little more elastic than it would be if he were in his late 20s or early 30s, as most of the other Japanese pitchers were when they came to the US.
EDIT: To clarify, I used fatigue interchangeably with overexertion, which I should not have. Having an exertion that is normal with a normal recovery period can make muscle stronger while relieving stress on tendons and ligaments. That is consistent with the way every team “stretches out” their starting pitchers during Spring Training. Overexertion is working until the point of physical exhaustion. Remarkable weakness to the point of significantly reduced velocity is an overexertion, and doing it as repeatedly as Tanaka has can (but not necessarily will) increase the risk of injury. There is no guarantee that he will get hurt, but since he has been exerting himself at this level for so long, and is just now reaching his physical “prime,” there is some risk to signing him. Whether that risk is the same as signing a pitcher who is older, like a Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez or if it is similar to signing Mark Prior just before he was injured can’t be known. The key confounding variable to all of this is: Everyone is different.
What is unsaid about Tanaka is that he does pose an injury risk that is likely greater than an American pitcher at 25 because of the strain that Japanese baseball puts on its pitchers. The recency bias tells us that Yu Darvish looks sensational and like he was worth every penny the Rangers paid for him. That bias excludes the fact that there have been a lot of Japanese pitchers who have come to the United States as highly touted players who have just flamed out because of injuries or because the competition here is greater than it is over there.
Jeff Sullivan wrote about Tanaka at Fangraphs, in which he said that Tanaka is the market’s best starter, which is true, and that international free agents “represent limitless possibilities, and people naturally shift their attention toward the positive extreme.” That is also true. Sullivan dives deeper into the scouting report of Tanaka, which is tremendous, and his numbers back the limitless talent. But like any player, especially pitcher, Tanaka has an injury risk that cannot be ignored. It will not be by the front office, and it shouldn’t be by fans. After all, we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?
Right, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior?
After a deal fell apart on Friday, Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the Cubs and Rangers are nearing a deal for Matt Garza.
A deal was reportedly close on Friday between the Cubs and Rangers, which would have sent Garza and another player (some reports say James Russell) to the Rangers for 3B Mike Olt, SS Luis Sardinas, P CJ Edwards, and P Neil Ramirez before the Cubs backed out when the medical records of one of the players became an issue.
UPDATE 1: From Jeff Passan…
UPDATE 2: Rosenthal with a bit more…
UPDATE 3: Final Deal appears to be…
Rangers Get: RHP Matt Garza
Cubs Get: 3B Mike Olt, RHP CJ Edwards, RHP Justin Grimm, PTBNL (Who is reportedly a pitcher, from @TomLoxas). Pool of players includes Neil Ramirez, according to Gordon Wittenmeyer.
Because I have been traveling, I have not had the opportunity to get in on the Matt Garza trade posts, but I have an opportunity to now, and it seems, just in time…
The madness starts with David Kaplan, via Bob Nightengale, saying that Jurickson Profar is in play…
Let me first say, Garza for Profar won’t happen because that deal would have already been made. I could see Profar being in play if the Cubs add to the deal with good prospects that are less developed. Garza, Arismendy Alcantara, Dan Vogelbach for Profar and some other lesser pieces has a VERY outside shot of happening. Maybe not that exact deal, but something along those lines.
Another report about a trade with the Rangers has the Cubs looking to acquire Neftali Feliz. Again, that would be a great move for the Cubs, in spite of Feliz recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has the stuff to be a really good starter, but if injuries were to prevent that, he is definitely the kind of guy you put on the mound in the ninth to end games. Again, I am not sure it is likely that he comes to the Cubs in any deal. Jon Heyman reports that Martin Perez isn’t going anywhere in a Garza deal, so it would seem that door is closed. It makes sense. The Rangers need pitching, so it wouldn’t be a great move to deal a young pitcher producing in the rotation right now.
The most likely acquisition for Matt Garza from the Rangers is Mike Olt, who seems to be the most realistic of the players being discussed. The big concern about Olt is that he was struggling with vision problems early this season. That problem was, apparently, an inability to make tears, causing things to be blurry. Once discovered, Olt was given special drops, and for his part, seems to be past the injury, saying “I definitely noticed a huge difference the first day I used them.” Being past his vision issues would make him a still excellent prospect, and a nice “buy low” piece.
A lot of teams, including the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers are also being connected to Garza, among others. The most talked about, though, with actual players in return being discussed is Texas. It would be a significant upset, in my mind, if Garza went anywhere but Texas. Unless a team swoops in late with a package that wows Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer (which the Red Sox can if Clay Bucholtz doesn’t return healthy), the Rangers are the team to watch, especially if it is to be believed that Matt Garza has pitched his last inning as a Cub.
As the deadline approaches, the Cubs are in a full court press, trying to make moves to improve the overall talent level of the organization. The good news is, they are actually well positioned to add one or more core pieces to the roster. While it will probably take more than one of the Cubs’ chips to get a piece that would be significant enough to add to the big league roster right away, the Cubs do have Matt Garza, who can fetch a player who has upside and is Major League ready.
There are some destinations where Matt Garza could turn into a piece who is part of the team that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and presumably, Dale Sveum are looking to push into the playoffs. And those teams could all use a player like Garza to make a push in the second half of this season. While it remains to be seen what happens, Garza is the player who will net the biggest reward, and it is he who should be watched the closest as the next month unfolds.
Last year, it was reported that the Rangers were in on Matt Garza before being scared off by his medicals and settling on a deal for Ryan Dempster. They were also the team that took Geovany Soto and sent Barret Loux when Jacob Brigham had a medical issue. The point is, the Cubs and Rangers are no strangers to making deals, and the magic could be rekindled this year.
3B Mike Olt: It is only a guess that Olt was the piece the Cubs were in on when trying to move Garza to Texas last summer. He has the potential to be a nice core piece, especially if Kris Bryant has to move off the hot corner. Keith Law rates him as a plus defender. He probably won’t hit for a huge average, but he’ll get on base with his fair share of walks (12.4 walk rate at AAA this season). He also has the power to hit the ball out. The consensus is that all he needs is at-bats, and if he were to come to Chicago this season, there is no good reason why he couldn’t get his share of them immediately.
The Cubs have been rumored to be discussing a Matt Garza trade to the Padres. A deal here would make some sense, considering Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod came to the Cubs from San Diego. Familiarity can breed success, so being familiar with the players as deeply as the front office knows these players make the likelihood of a successful trade a little greater.
2B/3B Jedd Gyorko: One thing the Cubs have done successfully is add big bats who will hit for a ton of power. Gyorko isn’t one of those guys. While he is playing second for the Padres this season, he is a natural third baseman, who will hit for good average, but will not put up gaudy power numbers. He has a .284/.341/.461 so far this season, to go with eight long balls and 25 driven in while playing at a park and in a division that is not conducive to big time hitting numbers. Coming to the more hitter friendly NL Central could really help his offensive game blossom, while giving the Cubs a good hitting third baseman to compliment the power that is already in the organization.
The Dodgers are eight under .500. They are also only a mere seven games out of first place. You know they’re not afraid to spend money and to take on as many good players as they can. Anything short of the playoffs would be a disaster for the Dodgers and their obscene payroll. And, after having too much starting pitching as the season started, are now in a position where another arm couldn’t hurt.
RHP Zach Lee: While Lee is not ready for “The Show,” he is an athletic pitcher who has some solid middle of the rotation potential. At the AA level, he would be the most developed Cubs’ prospect who is pitching this season. It would be a surprise if he were the only piece coming back in return for Garza, but he would be a strong centerpiece if the Dodgers were so inclined to try to bring Garza out west.
The Indians haven’t been good recently, but are in the hunt this season. They also have terrible pitching. This is a match made in heaven.
RHP Trevor Bauer: He is pitching much better in the early going in his Indians career after being traded from Arizona last off-season. He would be a heavy price to pay for half of a season of Matt Garza. Veteran pitching with his playoff experience is hard to come by, though. While this is the least likely of any scenario, there is no denying the mid to upper 90s fastball to go with a very good curve ball. Pairing the 22 year old Bauer up with Jeff Samardzija at the front end of the Cubs’ rotation for years would make for a solid 1-2 punch.
The last destination for Garza is one where he doesn’t actually leave. He’s had some injury issues the last couple of seasons, but throughout his career, he’s been durable, he’s been tested, and he’s had success as a player who’s gone to the World Series with the Rays. Extending him for a contract similar to the one the Cubs dangled to Anibal Sanchez would be a good move, especially if the Cubs don’t get a deal they like at the deadline.
With the news that the Cubs are now “Open For Business,” it is apparent that the “cold assessment” of where the Cubs are is complete, and the plug is being pulled. In reality, it isn’t any big secret that the Cubs were going to sell off pieces this summer, as the rebuild continues.
The timing couldn’t be better. While other teams are deciding whether or not to get into the market and start moving anything that isn’t bolted down, the Cubs should start making moves now. The reason is simple: they have a lot of pieces that can be had from other teams if and when they get into the fray.
Starting pitching is going to be heavily available this summer. The Phillies have denied that Cliff Lee is going to be available, but that is far from definite. The Phillies could cure a lot of ailments with that arm, and if they decide to move players, Lee is the biggest and best chip they have to push into the center of the table. His presence would put a major damper on the market for Matt Garza. If a team like the Giants or the Rangers is looking for an arm to push them back into the Fall Classic, Lee is going to be sought before Garza. He comes with more control and he’s a better pitcher. His price will be bigger, but his reward will match.
Trading Garza will also be met by the resistance of the potential for the Brewers to put Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse on the market, the Blue Jays to seek to move Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, or the White Sox trying to trade Jake Peavy. All would be nice acquisitions that could be thrown into the middle of someone’s rotation for a run to October. At this early stage, it would appear to be a buyers’ market for mid-rotation starting pitching as the deadline draws closer.
The same can be said about a player like Scott Feldman, who can start at the back of a rotation until the playoffs and become a contributor out of the bullpen in October. The Twins can move Kevin Correia, the Marlins will likely move Ricky Nolasco, and the Astros are going to try to unload Bud Norris, so the market for a piece to add to the back of a rotation could also get to be a little crowded.
Yet another problem the Cubs face is the marked improvement of their farm system. The Cubs are not in a position where they have to take on as much talent as they can get because the system is so depleted that it needs as many good bodies as it can take on. The major area of weakness for the Cubs is in the pitching department. The front office acknowledged that the pitching is going to come from international signings and from the trade deadline. The problem with that strategy is simple: the teams who are going to look at adding pieces aren’t rich in pitching prospects. The Giants and Rangers don’t have a lot of pitching depth in their systems. Kyle Crick and Clayton Blackburn are the Giants’ top two prospects, and both are in the bottom quarter of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects this season.
What has been said repeatedly still holds true. If the Cubs can find a team who needs multiple pieces that the Cubs can provide, they have their best opportunity to maximize their return. What has not been said, though, is that the Cubs face a lot of competition for the players they have to offer, especially the pitching. It would be doubtful to see the extensive sell-off this season for that reason. There will be more teams offering similar pieces, and the other teams offering their veteran players need a lot more for their depleted farm systems, which make it much easier to make a deal.
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.
For a day without a game, there sure is a lot of drama surrounding the Cubs today…
- For starters, David Kaplan has an interview posted on CSN with Theo Epstein that will air tonight at 10 PM. For those that don’t live in Chicago or don’t get CSN or don’t want to click the link, the short of it is: they’re sticking to the plan. Bleacher Nation has a number of great quotes posted from the interview if you want a little more depth. My two cents remain the same. This is the right way to do it. In an era with free agency yielding weaker classes, draft slotting, international spending limits, etc, it’s going to be tougher to get good overnight, so trading veterans when the team is out of it, developing a stockpile of talent, and making them a cohesive team that grows together and learns to win together is the best way to be a contender for a long time. There was some great action on Twitter and the linked BN post’s comment section from people who want the checkbook to flop open, but none of it is realistic. The good news is that as this season wears on, we should see improvement, and going into next season, the team could play winning baseball. I’ve said before that last season was as much fun watching the Cubs as I’ve had since 2008…because we could see players get better and what was building. The last two months were brutal by design. The long term value of getting Jackson, Vitters, Rusin, and the
other youngsters up was off the charts, though.
- I Tweeted a few moments ago that I hope the goat’s head that was sent to Wrigley today was actually allowed in the park. It would be silly to renew the curse on a rain day.
- Patrick Mooney and Bruce Levine both have posts about Starlin Castro out today. I keep saying when that kid grows up, he’s going to be really good at baseball. It’s still true. The best part of both stories is that it seems like Castro himself wants to meet his off the charts potential. There is no debate about how good he can be. For those who forget, he’s 23. He is a week YOUNGER than Jean Segura, who was in town with the Brewers this week, and Segura didn’t make his way to the majors until the Brewers got him in the Zack Greinke deal and they were basically giving up on the season. Castro, in his fourth season, is a legitimate 20/20 threat with great range (ask Carlos Marmol about this), and want to. Not a bad deal.
- Hooray for not having a deal! Sort of. Lots of sources for the information from last night’s meeting about the renovation that was closed to media, but Bleed Cubbie Blue does the math for the alderman. I’ve said all along that the Cubs should explore the suburbs. A number of different stories have said Tom Ricketts’ siblings agree. I think if the city had a credible reason to believe the Cubs would pack their balls and bats and go to Rosemont, they’d be a lot more willing to cough up some night games. It’s good to know the Cubs and the city have some agreement on 40 games and four concerts. I’m with the crowd that says the Cubs should get the six flexible dates for TV on top of the 44 night events that have been agreed to. Mostly because the Cubs are willing to pay for all of this themselves. At some point, the neighbors need to suck it up and know who butters their bread…and it’s not the alderman or the mayor, in spite of what those individuals think.
- Last night, I had a tweet (among the others with his truly not good stats) that I think David DeJesus saw, “.
@David_DeJesus3 needs to go. Bottom of the order. Bench. Somewhere. He’s awful. #Cubs“ After that point, he went 3-3, which caused me to say, “Remember all that stuff I said about @David_DeJesus3 earlier tonight? David, I’m so, so, so sorry. Seriously. My bad. Do you need a maid?” While I am not easily swayed, DDJ was terrific last night in the clutch. And I’m sorry I doubted him. Until the next time I do it.
The Giants are in tomorrow afternoon to start a four game series after smacking the Rockies around a little bit. Let’s hope they got all that hitting out of their system and Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner miss the plane to Chicago and can’t get flights to anywhere but Milwaukee (which is where they play starting on Monday). Hopefully, the Cubs can manage to win their now nine game homestand, but that won’t be easy with the Rangers following the Giants.
Theo Epstein was on WEEI Boston today, where he spoke about a number of topics. He spoke about the signing of Edwin Jackson and him having years left in his prime, Anthony Rizzo, and draft pick compensation being at a premium when considering signing free agents that would cost a draft pick, in addition to a number of other topics related to the Cubs and Red Sox. The interview is lengthy, but it’s worth a listen if you’re so inclined to do those types of things. Hear Theo Epstein’s interview with WEEI here.
Bruce Levine had a chat today, which covered a number of topics. Some of the highlights, with some of my own commentary are as follows…
- He was asked about the potential of a Soriano trade to the Phillies, and he said that was a “tremendously old rumor.” That doesn’t say good things about the potential about it actually happening, but Soriano might be a better alternative to the Phillies with the free agent market for Michael Bourn. With the Cubs willing to eat a significant portion of Soriano’s deal, he could be a cheaper alternative for a team looking to acquire an outfielder, without wanting to give up a valuable draft pick. The Cubs will look to see if they can move Fonsi, but I would be a little surprised if he were moved before Opening Day.
- When asked if Jeff Samardzija had a chance at 200 strike outs, 15 wins, and a sub 3.2 ERA and said that he had spoken to scouts who said Samardzija was the most improved pitcher last season between April and September. He also said there is no reason to think those numbers can’t be approached. I would be inclined to agree to a certain extent, but I would caution against expectation. Samardzija is a young pitcher and any growth would be a good thing from him in 2013. Since the team does not figure to contend, it would be wise not to burden a good young player with big expectations too early.
- Bruce was also asked about the leaks, to which he said that the Cubs are pretty accessible, but they don’t let information get out that they don’t want out. He also pointed out that agents are a factor in free agency. I’m inclined to agree. It seems like the Cubs have had leaks happen to them, but haven’t been the source. The Dempster leak came from the Braves, the Marmol leak from Marmol himself, and the Sanchez leak was from an agent trying to leverage a team. Really…there’s nothing that could be done there from the Cubs’ side of things.
- He outright dismissed the idea of trading for Justin Upton and Giancarlo Stanton. Amen.
- Matt Garza trade rumors to the Rangers came up for a heavy package, and he said it was possible. I agree that the Rangers could use the statement addition of Garza after missing on Greinke, and that could drive up the return value for him, but with Garza having been injured, I would be surprised if he were traded before the season. It would be a risk for any team to send the Cubs a package of prospects without seeing the guy pitch after last July. His elbow is the reason he didn’t get moved at the deadline last year, so I have a tough time seeing him getting moved before he pitches. That’s just my feeling. A desperate Rangers team (or someone else) could change that, though.
- The speculation about political bitterness between the Ricketts and Mayor Emanuel made an appearance. Honestly, get over it and do what’s best for the ball club. I know Wrigley is a historical landmark, but it is still a functioning ballpark and will need renovations, so the gamesmanship and BS need to stop. A successful Cubs team is good for the Ricketts and the city of Chicago, and a modernized Wrigley is a key to that.
- Conversation about prospects came about with Bruce saying he thought Brett Jackson was the most likely to come up to the majors this season. Javier Baez will play short where ever he is in the minors this year, and Josh Vitters and Junior Lake could see themselves moved to the outfield, or at least it is time to consider it. I think Vitters could be a good left fielder. Hide his defense, and continue to develop his bat in that spot. If Soriano is traded, I think he would be a good choice to get a crack at the position first.
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.
The Epstein Administration is off to a very honest start, to say the least. When Theo came, he made no mistake that the intention was to build an organization, from the bottom up, in order to sustain success for the long term. To this point, he has kept his word. The Cubs’ system now features five of the top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com’s updated, post season rankings. Half of the organization’s top ten prospects have been acquired since Epstein and Co. have arrived, and that does not include First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, who would be the undisputed #1 prospect in the system if he met MLB.com’s criteria for what makes a prospect. The fact that he has had a rookie season in the majors, from my view, does not make him any less of a prospect. He is by no means a finished product…which is a scary good thought after his 2012 season.
With all of that, here is a positional look at the system:
- PITCHING: Pitching is still the weakness of the system. Theo knows it. Jed knows it. Even the guy in the bleachers drunkenly screaming to fire Dale Sveum because we could have won the World Series this year knows it. That is why the focus has been on acquiring pitching. The new regime spent almost the entire draft on infusing the system with new arms. They made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire Randall Delgado for Ryan Dempster. They made a successful deal with the Braves to acquire Arodys Vizcaino, who is the best pitching prospect in the system, according to MLB’s new rankings. Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn are also top 20 prospects in the system, who were drafted in the slots gained from the departures of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Nine of the top 20 are pitchers, none of whom is Hayden Simpson, the 2010 first round pick. We are very close to reaching bust status with him. The front office knows that there is still a shortage of arms in the system, so look for a continued focus on acquiring them, either through trades or in the draft. Alfonso Soriano and Matt Garza could each become prospect pitching, if there is a deal to be made.
- CATCHERS: With Wellington Castillo looking primed to crouch behind the dish on a full time basis, with Steve Clevenger being a capable back up, and Geovany Soto being a Texas Ranger, it would seem the system is lacking in catching depth. That’s mostly true. The only catcher of note who will be in the minor leagues next season is Anthony Recker, who finished the season in the majors because of a September call-up. The bright side to the catching situation is that both of the big league backstops are young players, who, like Anthony Rizzo, I would still consider prospects, who are developing at the big league level. That’s some good news. The bad news is, catchers tend to be injured more than other positions, and there is not a lot behind them.
- INFIELD: There is some talent in the infield in the organization, but it’s nothing to jump out of your chair for. Javier Baez is a notable exception to that, as the system’s number one prospect, again, according to MLB.com. Christian Villanueva and Junior Lake are also both in the top ten in the organization, but neither seem to be all that close to cracking the major league line-up anytime soon. Lake is probably the closest prospect, but he projects to be a utility player, who can play all over because of his arm and athleticism. He has good power, but lacks plate discipline and still needs some polish in the field. He could be a call-up in the mold of Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson in 2013, to get some experience at the major league level before going back to the minors to work on deficiencies he may not get to know without a call-up. As for Baez and Villanueva, both finished the season at Daytona. They may go to AA, Tennessee together next season, but a more sure bet is that they open at Daytona next year. Josh Vitters, the most major league ready prospect in the infield, showed that he still needs some time to grow. I could see him being moved to a corner outfield spot if his glove does not improve significantly. An interesting prospect on the infield is Dan Vogelbach, whose bat will probably propel him up the system. He hit for a combined 1.051 OPS between Mesa and Boise. Being a 1B, though, is going to hurt him with the Cubs. He is blocked by Anthony Rizzo. If he could become a 3B, he could be a Pablo Sandoval type player in the future, although Keith Law says he has “no shot.” My guess is, his lack of athleticism is going to be a significant issue with him being anything more than a first baseman or a designated hitter…which the Cubs have no use for.
- OUTFIELD: The outfield is where the most depth is within the system. After getting a sight of Brett Jackson, it appears that he has the ability to man CF at Wrigley for a long time, with improvements to his swing and approach at the plate. The additions of Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, both of whom played well in their first taste of American pro baseball, make them, with Jackson, three of the top five prospects in the system. With other interesting prospects, like Dave Sappelt and Shawon Dunston Jr, there is some serious talent, much of which is still saturating the low levels of the system. For the time being, it is interesting to wonder about what an Almora, Jackson, Soler outfield will look like…because it won’t be a reality for a few years. For now, we’ll get to watch a Soriano, DeJesus, LaHair (or whoever else they can manage to throw out there).
There is a lot more talent in the minors now than there was 12 months ago. That is something that has to be attributed to building the organization, as opposed to trading any and all talent we can to get veteran players to win right now. There has been a lot of that over the years, leaving the cupboards pretty bare. Building it back up will take as much time and effort as it will to build the big league team into one that can consistently win. It is a good thing to have talent saturation in the minors, and at this point in time, there is much more of it than there was when Jim Hendry left the club. It is exciting, however, to watch the build-up. Seeing lower level clubs compete, like the Boise Hawks did in 2012 is a sign of talent infusion. Hopefully, the Cubs are able to build a system that can compete at all levels. No organization can have too much talent. At this point,though, it is still a work in progress.