Now that the World Series is over and the Cardinals lost (HOORAY!), we can get to the task at hand. The off-season. The Cubs are chocked full of needs this winter. Those will have to be addressed going into 2014 to keep the rebuilding plan on schedule.
These are the most pressing…
1. Find a new manager
After the firing of Dale Sveum, the next guy to lead the Cubs on-field is the first concern. With the playoffs having ended, the obstacle of candidates still playing is over. To be honest, I don’t care who they hire, as long as he fits the mold of what the front office is looking for. That Dale was the guy for a while, then suddenly became not the guy doesn’t matter. Great organizations are stable. And since 2010, this will be the fourth manager. That’s not stable. Find the guy. The right guy. So we’re not going through this mess again in two years.
2. Find some outfield depth
After losing Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and Scott Hairston to midseason trades, it is going to be important for the Cubs to replace that lost depth at the major league level. The preference would be to sign veterans on short (1-2 years) deals while the youngsters get ready. With Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, and Junior Lake, there is a need for two more outfielders. Preferably one who can play center and one who hits right handed. To be clear, I do not see Shin Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury as viable options. I have no visions of the Cubs spending on either of those players with the talent that is coming behind them. I do see players like Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore, Corey Hart, and Tyler Colvin as options. Colvin is the standard “buy low flier” that this front office has taken in the past, and with his talent and familiarity with the Cubs, and the admission that the Stewart – Colvin trade may have been a mistake, he could be back. The others are veterans who have had some success, but have also had injury issues. Any resurgence could make them trade bait in July, and they all likely come relatively cheap. David DeJesus is also an option if the Rays decide not to pick up his option for next season
3. Trade Darwin Barney
The popular defensive wizard is not part of the core. He’s a below average hitter. And he’s getting a bit older. There is a market for him, though. His value, however, is at its highest point right now. He’s just now entering arbitration. Teams who have a need at second base can use him. The Cubs do not have that need. They are stocked full of middle infielders, from Starlin Castro to Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, Logan Watkins, and Luis Valbuena, the Cubs have no shortage of middle infield options. All of whom are younger than Barney. And all of whom possess greater offensive upside and the potential to continue good defense at second base in the future. The return for Barney won’t be ground breaking, but it should be a decent prospect, or maybe two if Epstein and Hoyer break out the mask and gun. Now, though, is the best and most logical time to move him.
4. Address the rotation
The rotation was surprisingly good last season, throughout the year. There was a lot of depth that withstood trades, and some players emerged as legitimate long term options. Travis Wood showed that he is a solid mid to back of the rotation starter. Jake Arrieta showed that he is still talented and should get a shot going forward. Edwin Jackson had a rough first year, but with his contract and history, he will be back in the rotation next season, and I would venture to guess he has a better second year with the Cubs. It is the very top of the rotation and the very bottom that should be addressed. Jeff Samardzija walked more, stuck out fewer, and allowed more runners to score in 2013 than 2012. The differences aren’t startling, but they exist. Could it have been fatigue from the most innings in a season he’s thrown? Frustration from another near 100 losses? Displeasure over his contract situation? A combination of all three? I don’t have the answer. What I do have the answer to is Samardzija getting rocked a number of times. And it happening a number of times at home. That’s not an ace. That’s a third in the rotation type pitcher, at best. I am not sold on Japanese stud Masahiro Tanaka being an answer at the top of the rotation, either. Too many Japanese pitchers have flamed out because of arm issues. I understand his stuff is excellent, and he’s still young. That may make him a nice investment, but not for the $100+ million it’s going to cost. If the Cubs get him, I’ll hope for the best, but I won’t be at all surprised with the worst. As far as the back end of the rotation is concerned, bringing back Scott Baker, giving Chris Rusin a shot at a full season, and low cost free agents are all options.
5. Back-up catcher
I have a tough time with the idea of signing a Brian McCann (because of age and injury every bit as much as his high douche factor). All things being equal, I would hope the starting catcher market doesn’t treat Dioner Navarro as he would like, and he comes back. He had a nice year, seemed to have a good relationship with Wellington Castillo, and is a reliable backstop. Whoever comes in should take a back seat to Castillo, though. Big money free agent catchers shouldn’t (and probably won’t) be a priority. If the Cubs can land a guy like Jarrod Saltalamacchia for a decent price, great. if not, a LH hitting backup will work just fine.
One of the great parts about baseball is how this is going to play out throughout the off-season. The Cubs are not going to compete for a World Series next season, most likely. It could, though, bring the first wave of prospects to Wrigley Field. Javier Baez and Kris Bryant very well could debut with the big league club at some point next summer. In addition, could be up after being acquired in trades. It appears that the worst is behind the Cubs in the rebuild. Much of the “acquire talent at all costs” is over because of the amount of talent in the organization. The time now is for the build up. While the Cubs will continue to add pieces and make the team better and organization healthier, this off-season is the beginning of the build up of a contender. Whether it be adding placeholders for a prospect, adding leadership to help those prospects grow, or the eventual hiring of a new manager, the fruits of two years of painful big league play are beginning to ripen.
Look no further than what’s been going on in Arizona. Let the off-season begin!
The injury news seems to finally be good for the Cubs today (unless your name is Junior Lake), which is a welcome change from the first four weeks of Spring Training.
- Scott Baker is primed to make a Cactus League start this weekend after pitching a couple of innings in a minor league game on Tuesday. His recovery seems to be right on schedule, which is terrific news.
- Dale Sveum may have confirmed my hypothesis on Matt Garza today. He said Garza needs to throw off of a mound and start throwing live BP, and his Spring Training will essentially begin in a week. If they put Garza through a full spring schedule starting next week, he will likely be back at the end of April or beginning of May. That said, Garza thinks he will be back in the middle of April. So there’s some optimism on his part. Which is nice.
- Starlin Castro played three innings today. He went 1-1 with a single and walk. After he finished, he said he felt good. Hopefully, he was knocking on wood as he said it.
- Ian Stewart is going to play soon. If not tomorrow, I would guess Friday. Stewart talked to ESPN Chicago today and said he felt good. After ten months, It’ll be nice to see him on a field, and at as close to 100% as he’s been in quite some time.
- Junior Lake stress fractured his rib. This isn’t an uncommon injury in baseball players, but it is one to take seriously. Stress fractures are no joke, and Lake will likely be sidelined the full 4-6 weeks that was reported today before he does anything. Since he was a long shot to make the roster (at best), and was going to spend the season in Iowa, there is no sense in rushing him.
Tom Ricketts said that April is still a deadline for getting a deal done in order to start renovations at Wrigley in October. It seems as though we’re at the point where both sides have planted their heels and aren’t willing to concede much anymore. Then again, I’m not sure the Cubs have anything left to concede. The beat goes on…
Brennan Boesch was released today. The book on him is that a change of scenery would probably do him some good. Bruce Levine wrote today that he makes sense for the Cubs (and Sox…but who gives a crap?). As a left handed bat with some power, he’d be nice to have, but the Cubs already have a pretty well packed outfield. Unless the Cubs were able to move Alfonso Soriano, I can’t think there’s anywhere to put him.
Lastly, Opening Day is in 2 1/2 weeks. So smile. Real baseball is right around the corner.
The positional previews return after a bit of a delay, but some clarification as to how the starting rotation is going to stack up when the Cubs break camp and head north.
While this preview is going to be the rotation as a whole, when injuries are settled, the start of the season, with the injury to Matt Garza and the delayed return of Scott Baker, is going to show off whatever depth the front office was able to assemble this winter. Between a challenging schedule and the rotation not being at full strength to start the season, there is some real likelihood that this is going to be the rotation until the end of July, and no longer…
1. Jeff Samardzija
This differs from the division preview only in the manner that Jeff is taking the ball on Opening Day. As hard as he’s worked, he’s earned the opportunity to start in Garza’s absence. This season figures to be a step forward for “Shark,” after posting some solid numbers in his first season in the rotation and improving as the season wore on. The most impressive improvement came in the walks department, issuing 56 free passes in 174.2 innings last season after walking 50 in 88 innings in 2011. Samardzija has all of the tools to be an ace caliber pitcher and this season is going to be the first step toward that.
2. Matt Garza
Look, I know he’s starting on the DL. I also know he might be back for a couple of months, then packing his bags for good. I also know he is going to be a vital starter for the team when he gets back. He’ll either display that he is healthy and the team will trade him for pieces for the future, or he will show that he is worthy of the extension that has been talked about since he got to Chicago. This is a big year for Garza professionally, and I would expect that he shows it. I love the guy and think he would be worth a deal similar to the one Edwin Jackson signed…but that’s not up to me.
3. Edwin Jackson
The aforementioned Jackson signed a 4 yr/ $52M deal this winter, which finally gave him some stability. He’s been with five teams over the last three seasons, but he’s seemingly always been around winning teams. His numbers aren’t jaw dropping, but he eats innings, and doesn’t walk very many. At the tail end of his deal, the Cubs expect to be a contender, and are hoping he’s in the back of the rotation. They also hope that some piece of mind about where he’s going to be and some stability in coaching and messaging helps improve his numbers. He was a top prospect coming through the minor leagues, but his career has never quite matched that potential. He’s been around for a long time, but is still young enough that he may improve some, yet. It seems, though, that with Jackson, what you see is what you’re going to get.
4. Scott Feldman
Feldman, like Scott Baker is on a one year contract to prove that he can be an effective starter. His numbers make you cringe a little bit, but the man was pitching in Texas, where ERAs go to die. His career has been spent swinging back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation, and again, here, with some certainty that he will be taking the ball every fifth day may help him pitch better. He’s out to prove that he can be a major league starter, so I would expect him to come to work everyday because he’s going to be a free agent again next winter.
5. Travis Wood
Travis Wood is likely going to be the one sent to Iowa when Scott Baker returns. The reality is, Wood is young and has minor league options remaining, so he’ll be the one to go. That being said, Wood was solid at times last season for the Cubs, and showed some real growth in his first season after coming over from the Reds. His future, either as a back end starting pitcher or a long reliever in the ‘pen, seems to be pretty bright at the moment.
As a reader was kind enough to point out, Travis Wood is out of options. Thinking he had one more is a fine illustration of my ability to count. That said, it doesn’t change that he is likely the odd man out of the rotation when Baker joins the club. He will then probably join the cluster of pitchers in the bullpen. **
Other Contributors: Scott Baker, Carlos Villanueva
There is no doubt that Scott Baker will be in the rotation when he returns to the team in May. The cautious approach to bringing him back from Tommy John surgery is being applied, and while Baker made it clear at the Cubs Convention that he feels good and is ready to go, the team is making sure he is 100% when he returns. I can’t say I blame them. That’s probably a wise move for a guy who is going to be trade bait at the deadline. Carlos Villanueva is on a two year deal, and will be mostly used as a long man out of the bullpen, but he’s a very good spot starter. He’s a guy who can be leaned on for a start without massacring the bullpen, which is an asset that nearly every team would love to have.
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.
There has been some news surrounding the Cubs lately, so now seems to be as good a time as any to update it.
- First, the best news of the off-season is that Matt Garza can return to his normal off-season routine, which the team announced today. Garza last pitched in July, before the trade deadline, which effectively killed his trade value at the deadline last year. This is the last off-season in which Garza is eligible for arbitration, so there shouldn’t be any surprise about trade rumors involving Garza to surface again. For his part…Garza seems to be mildly pleased about his clean bill of health… “I’m cleared for takeoff!! Strap it on tight cause we are going on one helluva ride… #getitdone#freedom#2013” Matt Garza, via Twitter, @Gdeuceswild
- The Cubs did manage to sign starting pitcher Scott Baker this week, too. Not to blow my own horn too much, but I did speculate in August that he would make some sense for the Cubs. I also speculated Ryan Dempster would make some sense, and the possibility of his return hasn’t been ruled out, yet. Just saying… Anyway, Baker is 31, missed last season after having Tommy John Surgery, and got a $5.5M deal for this season, with some incentives. The short and sweet on Baker is that over the course of his career, he’s been steady, if not good, with the Minnesota Twins.
- The team has been in contact with 3B Ian Stewart, which could mean a decision on his return could be forthcoming in the next few days. Stewart may still be non-tendered, but if all really is well with his wrist (Stewart, for his part, has insisted that it is), he could find his way back to third base to start 2013, especially with the limited options available within the organization and free agency. Speaking of Ian Stewart, he just had a baby girl. So, Congratulations Ian and now bigger family.
- Theo Epstein suggested the Cubs may open the pocket book a little for a starting pitcher. Obvious speculation is Anibal Sanchez with a very outside chance of talks with Zack Greinke. I would be surprised if either were a Cub on Opening Day, which is only a mere 136 days from today.
- For what it’s worth, Bud Selig said at the owners’ meetings today if he were running an organization, he would do it the same way Theo Epstein is going about it with the Cubs. If I recall, he did run a franchise (Brewers). And they sucked. A lot. Until he left. And for a long time afterwards. Until his family completely ceded control. Just food for thought.
The Winter Meetings will probably bring about more of a flurry of activity. They typically do. I would not be surprised, however, if the Cubs make a number of moves before that time. It is nice to have a quiet off-season, to this point. Last year was very chaotic with the changes in the front office, the managerial search, and the volatile changes in the roster. This year, it seems like it will be much more “normal.”
With the season winding down, the off-season stove is going to start to heat up in front offices around MLB. To think Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer aren’t putting together a list of names to go after this winter would be foolish. Theo said earlier this year that he made some mistakes in making big slashes in Boston, and when accompanied by the team’s “bottom up” approach to building, don’t expect any big names to be added to the roster this winter. Any clamoring for Zack Greinke, B.J. Upton, or Brian McCann should be toned down dramatically. It is highly unlikely that it happens. Think starting pitching, relief pitching, and veteran players that can help develop players and may have trade value down the line…like Paul Maholm last winter. With all that said…ON TO THE SPECULATION!!
1. RHP Scott Baker, Twins
Scott Baker is exactly the type of free agent that would interest the Cubs. He has had some success in the major leagues, and probably will not command a big price. The Twins do have a club option on Baker, so he may not even be available, but if he is, I would anticipate the Cubs to give him a look. He’ll be 31 next season, so he won’t be too old, and would be a good candidate for a contract similar to what Paul Maholm got last winter.
2. RHP Ryan Dempster, Rangers
I know, I know. He’s barely out the door and now I’m talking about bringing him back. Why? First, because he said he wouldn’t rule out coming back. Second, he pitched very well for the Cubs this season. Third, he has strong ties to the city of Chicago. I can keep going on and on about why Dempster is a logical target, but it’s pretty obvious. He didn’t want to leave, his teammates love him, and he loves Chicago. A reunion shouldn’t be out of the question. It is very possible.
3. RHP Colby Lewis, Rangers
He’s another Ranger who has some success at the major league level. Before this season, he has pitched over 200 innings and kept his ERA respectable in the bam box in Arlington. He’s another second tier free agent that can make starts and eat some innings. And he will probably have some trade value at mid-season. While it is unlikely that every free agent will be traded, they should at least have the ability to bring something back via trade, and Lewis will. His 4-1 record and 2.34 postseason ERA proves that October isn’t too big for him, so that gives him value to teams looking to acquire him, but an injury history and average numbers will keep his free agent value marketable.
4. OF Reed Johnson, Braves
Reed is basically in the same boat as Ryan Dempster. You know what you’re getting. A versatile outfielder that plays excellent defense, can make a start and give four good at bats, and is always ready. There wouldn’t be a better man to have on the bench for a young team than Johnson, and he proved that during the first half of this season.
5. RHP Jair Jurrjens, Braves
Jair Jurrjens is arbitration eligible, but has struggled mightily in 2012 and was sent to the minors and currently resides on the disabled list. He has pitched his way, this season, to non-tender contender, which would make him a buy low candidate for any team looking to sign him. He is a 26 year old, who has been excellent until this season. The Braves have arms in their system and may not want to deal with a Jurrjens arbitration, so he could be an odd man out. If he’s available, he is exactly the type of player Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein would target. He’s young, got a good arm, and has a ton of upside. Unless he commands big money, he would be a great pick up for the Cubs. There is a lot of low risk, high reward potential to grabbing a non-tendered Jurrjens.
Without knowing who is going to be available for sure until the winter, this was an exercise of trying to get an idea of what the Cubs could look for. The front office is going to center their efforts around adding starting pitching, especially after trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm. While Dempster could come back and fill a rotation spot, there are going to be openings for free agents to step in and contribute. There will not be any big names coming to the North Side, but there are some nice players that could be available at a reasonable price. After trying so hard for years to fill spots with free agents to contend right away, these names may not make anyone sit up and take notice, but they are names that can help the rebuilding process move along.