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!
On July 29th, the Cubs returned home for the first time since the All-Star Break, seven games under .500, and without Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, who’d both been dealt on the west coast road trip. Things looked good. They’d won the trip against the Rockies, DBacks, and Giants, in spite of moving Garza and Soriano. But some warning signs were there…
First, they weren’t scoring all that much in San Francisco. They scored six runs in the series. It’s not like they were lighting the world on fire. They were just less futile than the Giants that particular weekend. And the Giants hadn’t been playing all that well, anyway. The Cubs were playing an equal, in spite of what that banner from last October might have said. The Giants simply aren’t all that good this season.
Coming home, they got a series with the lowly Brewers. Who are in the division. Which, this season, automatically means inexplicably losing at least two of the games. Lo and behold, they drop three of the four, all of which were in typical 2013 Cubs fashion. Pedro Strop gave up the only five runs he’s allowed as a Cub in the first game. They dropped both games of a doubleheader, blowing leads on a James Russell home run allowed in the first game and a Kevin Gregg blown save in the second, with a third strike call that wasn’t and a soft line out to short that wasn’t helping them blow the lead in the ninth inning.
After the Brewers, they got the Dodgers for four. As of today, the Dodgers have won 40 out of their last 48. In case you weren’t sure, an .833 winning percentage is freakin good. They’ve been killing everybody lately. It would have been a surprise if the Cubs won more than once in the series, and it doesn’t come as any surprise that they didn’t win at all. The Dodgers are a buzz saw right now, and the Cubs were a thin sheet of plywood at that point. Sure, they could have scored some runs in the last two, but it’s not earth shattering news that they didn’t…they haven’t been scoring all that much all season long.
The road is a little more kind to the Cubs. Splitting six games with the Phillies and Cardinals is a good result. In spite of their record, the Phillies still have some talent on their roster, and the Cardinals have been toward the top of the standings in all of baseball since Opening Day. Winning half of your road games is a good thing, so no complaints there.
Getting the Reds, and Mat Latos when you get back home isn’t the house warming gift a struggling offense wants or needs. And Latos was nasty on Monday night. So they got shut out again by another good pitcher. They got to Homer Bailey a little bit, which was nice to see, but Bronson Arroyo, who’s pretty solid, and loves to stick it to the Cubs for whatever reason, shut them down again.
I give you that nice summary of the painful last two and a half weeks to tell you this…all of those (with the exception of the Brewers) are pretty decent teams. The Cubs just aren’t. Not after trading away another 40% of the rotation and the clean-up hitter.
“What I want to avoid is the middle ground. It’d be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick. We’re not hiding that. There’s no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?
We’re going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season. If we have a legitimate chance to push for a playoff spot then 2013 can become our primary focus. If we think a playoff spot’s not in the cards, there will be no concern for appearances or cosmetics whatsoever. We’ll continue to address our future and trade off some pieces that would keep us respectable.’
And presto…the team who didn’t have a chance for the playoffs this season made their cold assessment, looked to the future, moved some parts that could keep it respectable, and it’s gotten ugly against some better than average competition. And we’re bitching about not scoring any runs? WE WERE TOLD THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN SIX MONTHS AGO! If you thought the Cubs had a chance to win the division or compete for a playoff spot, you were one of three things: on the team and have to believe you’re not going to suck just to keep your own sanity, a big time optimist, or delusional. I had the Cubs, as they arrived at camp, hanging around .500. (I also had the Pirates finishing dead last in the division, so take it for what you will) I made that prediction early because nobody for sure can never tell who’s going to stay or go, or get hurt. And, the team that broke camp, actually played well enough to be near .500 every month except for April (10-16) and thus far in August.
The moral of the story here is simple…It is ridiculous to be on board with the rebuild and bemoan that the team isn’t all that good during the middle of it. It’s even more ridiculous to be critical of how ugly it is when we were told explicitly by the guy who was going to decide on who to move and when to move them that it was probably going to happen. None of this is a surprise. If it is, you haven’t been paying attention.
I now return you to waiting for Javier Baez to hit another home run in AA.
In keeping with the theme of looking ahead, one of the interesting players for the Cubs moving forward is going to be 3B Ian Stewart. Acquired from the Rockies, along with AA pitcher Casey Weathers for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, Stewart was the first man given the chance to replace the departed Aramis Ramirez. Stewart’s numbers, in 55 games, were not spectacular, but there is more to the story than plainly looking at the numbers.
Drafted: 1st Round (10th Overall), 2003 by the Colorado Rockies
Debut: 8/11/2007 (0-2, Run)
Cubs Statistical Analysis:
As I said earlier, there is more to the numbers than meets the eye for Ian Stewart. First of all, he played in 55 games, so it is almost unfair to do this. But, in his 55 games, he hit 5 HR and drove in 17. That put him on a pace for 15 HR and 50 RBI in a full 162 game season. What goes largely unnoticed is how much Stewart improved as the season wore on. After hitting .169 in April, he hit .225 and .226 in May and June, respectively. Part of that is how cold and windy it is at Wrigley in April. As the weather got warmer, so did Stewart’s numbers. With a ground ball: fly ball ratio of 2:1, it is fair to say Stewart would have out-performed his 15 HR pace. One prime example is the bottom of the ninth inning on opening day. Ian Stewart absolutely tattooed a baseball into the well in right field. If there was anything short of gale force winds, he hits a game tying home run in the ninth inning on opening day. But there were winds (I promise, I was there in a sweatshirt…it was cold) and he ended up with a hustle triple. Offensively, his numbers were not great, but they were not as terrible as some of the haters have made them out to be. Defensively, he was outstanding. His range factors, fielding percentage, and runs saved numbers were all in the league average area, but some those numbers were all off the pace of his career averages. I can speculate that defensive positioning had something to do with the slight drop in his defensive numbers, but his leather prowess did not go unnoticed by Dale Sveum, who said on more than one pregame show that his glove was keeping him in the line-up, whether there was a lefty starter or not.
Who else do Cubs’ fans know who hit about .225 (what Stewart hit in May/ June, which is a better indicator than his April average), with power from the left side of the plate and an excellent glove at a corner infield position? I’ll give you all a hint: Carlos Pena. And do any of us remember how much we liked Carlos Pena? Of course not…because he’s not a Cub, anymore. Ian Stewart, however, is a very similar player in what he brought to the line-up. He brought a great glove and a workman like attitude, in spite of a wrist injury that absolutely hampers the ability to swing a bat. If healthy, I have no doubt in my mind Stewart can match the 25-30 HR and 80 or so RBI Pena gave the Cubs in 2011.
The BIG Question:
Will Ian Stewart’s wrist heal after surgery enough to make him a productive player, and will be he back with the Cubs next season?
Without trying to read Jed Hoyer’s and Theo Esptein’s minds, I would guess that the two questions are going to be related. Obviously, the Cubs sent a pretty good prospect in Colvin and a player many in the Cubs’ organization thought had a chance to be an everyday 2B in LeMahieu for Stewart, so the price was not cheap at all to get him here. 55 games with a bad wrist is not exactly a good opportunity to gauge what a player can do day in and day out. Should Stewart get the go-ahead to start baseball activities again and gets his swing going again, he is worth at the very least, a look in Spring Training. At best, he could find the swing that made him the 10th pick in the draft nine years ago. To be picked that high, it is apparent that there is some talent in there. Stewart said on Twitter some time ago that was was willing to take $1.5M for next season, which is peanuts in baseball, so he is absolutely worth bringing back, in my mind. Josh Vitters continues to work hard, but he hasn’t exactly grabbed the bull by the horns and locked himself down at the hot corner. Absent a surge by Vitters between now and October 3, there is no good reason not to bring Stewart back. There are no good prospects, other than Vitters, waiting in the wings to come up right away. Free agency does not offer too much of a short term, stop gap player to add for a year or two, and certainly not as inexpensively as Stewart will be. My crystal ball is not always right, but I cannot see why Stewart wouldn’t be back…at least for the spring.
Since the arrival of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, there has been a significant changing of the guard, which started with the trade to acquire 3B Ian Stewart for OF Tyler Colvin and IF DJ LeMahieu. Last night, the Cubs sent three of their veteran players packing, all of whom were rumored to be on the move. Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson are headed to Atlanta, and Geovany Soto is headed to Texas. For those players the rumors end. For the rest, there are still about 13 1/2 hours of uncertainty remaining until the deadline.
Veteran players are always going to be on notice when a team is trying to rebuild for the future. Ian Stewart was acquired to be a piece to replace the departed Aramis Ramirez, who went to the Brewers as a free agent. Rumors are a part of the deal that comes with any kind of rebuilding process. Stewart had not had his best season in Colorado in 2011. Colvin had been counted on to take over in right field for the Cubs after a strong rookie campaign, in which he hit 20 home runs. The “change of scenery” swap had been rumored for quite a while before the trade actually happened. When I asked Ian on Twitter (@IAN_STEWART_2sc … great guy, very fan friendly, I highly recommend following him) what the rumors were like, he was candid, saying he “hated it.” And that he “love(ed) it there [in CO].” What it all boils down to is, it is difficult to understand what it is like to be traded or to be the subject of trade rumors because very few of us will ever be professional athletes.
The trade deadline and off-season “hot stove” bring a lot of excitement to media and to fans. There is another side of it, though. Players with families are forced to pick up and move on short notice. Focusing on Ian Stewart in this piece was easy. First, he’s accessible on twitter, in one of his late night Q&A sessions. Second, he is one of the younger parts brought in for the changing of the guard, and was subjected to rumors about being traded to the Cubs for quite a while before the trade actually happened.
With the Brewers imploding faster than the roof of the Metrodome a couple of years ago, it seems more and more apparent that the Brewers are going to sell. And with Zack Greinke pitching out of his mind tonight, it would seem that teams looking to acquire him (quite a few based on tonight’s scout count) would probably try to do so sooner rather than later. That little nugget of information, coupled with the Marlins, Rays possibly joining a seller’s market with the likes of Josh Johnson and James Shields, and Astros trading Wandy Rodriguez to the Pirates tonight, the market for starting pitching could shrink on the Cubs, who are looking to deal Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, and Paul Maholm.
As it stands with Dempster, he appears to be holding out to join former Cub and friend, Ted Lilly in Los Angeles. Exercising his 10/5 rights to veto a trade could be a detriment to the Cubs because now that it is public knowledge that the Bravos are willing to part with Randall Delgado for a rental player, other teams might try to sweeten the pot for them or try to swoop in a get Delgado for a player of similar stature to Dempster. Meanwhile, the Dodgers are still refusing to part with Zach Lee in a deal for Dempster, which would make losing out on the 22 year old Delgado a tough pill to swallow for the Cubs.
Matt Garza will not pitch until Monday, at the earliest, it appears. From my perspective, that makes it more unlikely that he gets moved before non-waiver deadline at 3:00 PM central time on Tuesday afternoon. As it stood before, it was widely reported that it was about 50/50 that Garza got moved anyway. With his “arm discomfort” and delayed start until after the weekend, the price might come down on him to a point where the Cubs are more interested in trying to extend Garza than using him as a pawn to add young arms to the minor league system. Rumors floated that the Cubs were looking for two major league ready pitching prospects for Garza, similar to what the Rockies got for Ubaldo Jimenez, which may be too steep a price. Reports today were that the Rangers were looking for an ace type pitcher, and that they don’t see Garza that way. That again, shrinks his market, and I predict he is a Cub for the duration of 2012, if not longer.
Paul Maholm was never going to net a big name prospect. With the Pirates getting Wandy Rodriguez, it seems less and less likely that Maholm gets moved at all, since they were said to be his biggest suitor. It is still possible that he gets moved in the week between now and the deadline, but it doesn’t seem likely that he will during the season. He could be a trade chip for this winter, with a modest $6.5M option for next season. Teams looking to add a back of the rotation lefty might be willing to part with a decent prospect in January for a player like Maholm after the bulk of free agency has concluded. As it stands now, it is hard to envision him going anywhere with so many new names being added to a market that has so few suitors.
The Cubs do have some nice bats on the market, led by Alfonso Soriano, who hit his 19th HR of the season in tonight’s win at Pittsburgh. Calling Mr. Friedman, Mr. Andrew Friedman…we have something Joe Maddon might like to plug into his line-up, ranked 27th in slugging. The Rays sorely need a right handed bat, and Soriano could be had if they’re willing to part with some solid prospects and pay about $4M over the next two years. He clearly has some pop in his bat and when he was a DH earlier this season, he was pure magic at the plate, highlighted by some of the bombs he launched at Target Field. Others include Bryan LaHair, who would make a nice platoon player at either a corner infield or outfield position, or DH in the American League. He probably won’t net more than a middle of the pack prospect, which wouldn’t be all that bad for a 29 year old minor league reclamation project. Reed Johnson is said to have a number of suitors as the guy he is for the Cubs; a veteran bat and solid defender off the bench that can pinch hit, play defense, and give you four good at bats when asked to start.
The most unfortunate part of all of this seems to be the foiling of the plan to get better for future years by sacrificing some on field production this year. Being 16 under .500 and 16 back in the division means it’s over in 2012. While they could conceivably fight for 4th in the division, being four behind the Brewers, that does nothing but make the holidays a little more palatable for me this winter. If the last few days are any indication of things to come, there will be a lot more movement before the deadline. The Cubs will likely make some moves and the team will not look the same next Wednesday when the Cubs square off with the Pirates as they do tomorrow when they square off with the Pirates. As is the case every year at this time, stay tuned…