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!
There has been a great deal of discussion about why Dale Sveum was fired, and this post is not a discussion about that particular topic, although it is an interesting one. This post is to discuss whether or not Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro went through a significant regression during the 2013 season.
The short answer to that question is no*.
First, let’s examine Rizzo’s season. I will say this, a guy who came into the season with 521 career plate appearances in the majors isn’t regressing in his FIRST full major league season. It just doesn’t work that way. He had 690 PAs this season in 160 games, which was more than the 136 career games he had coming in. When a season counts for over half of your career numbers, it wasn’t regression. This season was about adjustment for Rizzo. His .233/.323/.419 line isn’t all that spectacular, but his power numbers were. Before the season, I predicted he would hit between 25 and 30 HRs and drive in between 80 and 90 runs. I didn’t miss by much. He finished with 23 HR and 80 RBI. For a first full season, not too shabby. When tossing in his 40 doubles, two triples, and 76 walks, there is no reason not to be excited about the kid’s ability. It is fair to say that after a hot start, he got considerably colder, hitting ten of his home runs and driving in 36 of his runs before June. The number that really sticks out to me is .258. That was his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). That is much lower than his .310 mark in 2012, and is inconsistent with his career marks, save his brief period with the Padres in 2011, which can be explained, in part, by small sample size. He did hit more fly balls (30.2% in 2012 to 37.9% in 2013) and his line drive percentage dropped about 5 points to 19.6%. None of that to me suggests that he is broken or regressed. It suggests that a young player was undergoing an adjustment after a successful initial prolonged stint of major league baseball. In the field, he was as advertised. In fact, a case can be made to grant Anthony Rizzo a Gold Glove. His 16 defensive runs saved was the best among first basemen in MLB. His Ultimate Zone Rating was third in MLB and topped the National League. And his 43 plays made out of zone also topped the NL. To me, this doesn’t look like a regression. This looks like a kid learning, taking some lumps, but still performing pretty damn well. He may not win a Gold Glove because the award doesn’t go to the most deserving player, but Rizzo has as good a resume as anyone for it…in just his first full major league season.
Starlin Castro is a lightning rod. This was, statistically (in some cases) his worst major league season. Was it regression? Probably not. Consider this:
“He’s a pretty unique hitter. I think we made efforts to introduce him to the concept of getting pitches he can really drive because in the long run that will benefit him. But if that can’t be accomplished without him being himself as a hitter than you just have to let time play its course and he’ll naturally evolve that way.”
“With Starlin, if you try to throw too much at him — which maybe at times we’ve been guilty of — who knows, I think we’ve always been conscious of letting him be himself. In his case he’s at his best if he’s single-mindedly himself.”
Those comments coming from Theo Epstein (via Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com) on the organizational decision to try to alter Starlin’s approach at the plate. That makes me feel a whole lot better about his .245/.284/.347 this season. It is easy to say he regressed, but if he tried something that simply didn’t work for him and he is able to start fresh in spring as the player we saw in 2010 and 2011, then 2013 will be a forgotten blip on the career of the still only 23 year old shortstop. It’s not a regression until it happens in subsequent seasons because, for now, there is at least a plausible explanation for Starlin Castro’s season other than “he got worse.” Defensively, everybody is going to get caught up in the “mental gaffes” and the errors, but the reality is his defense has taken some major steps forward. His 22 errors are his career best to this point. That has to do directly with the work done with Castro with former manager Dale Sveum, former infield instructor Pat Listach and current infield instructor (for now) David Bell. He cut throwing errors down from 16 in 2011 to eight in each of the last two seasons for a total of 16. The coaching staff worked on his feet, got him to get into good fielding and throwing positions, and it has made a positive difference. It will remain up to Castro to continue with the things that he has done to cut his errors down. He was third in the NL in plays made out of zone, and 87% of his chances resulted in outs, which was relatively unchanged from his 88% mark in 2012, but still up from the 85% marks he put out in 2010 and 2011. This suggests that the coaching he’s gotten is to make sure he gets at least one out, which is a step forward for him from his first two seasons of trying to do way too much. None of this is to say Starlin doesn’t have work to do. We all saw he has some work to do defensively, but much of the bad stuff came early and he got better later in the season. That is to say, there wasn’t a regression in his defense as the season wore on, which says something about the maturity he likes to get hammered for…since he was struggling at the plate and it did not transfer into the field.
There are words to be used to describe Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro this season. Disappointing, which comes with the expectations placed on young talent with long term contract extensions in hand. It is entirely too early to say they got worse, however. Regression doesn’t happen in one season. In Rizzo’s case, one full season. He never had the time to establish a standard of performance from which to regress with because less than one full season’s worth of at-bats doesn’t cut it. In Castro’s, it doesn’t come in one season where the approach he took at the plate was tinkered with by the organization. That’s not regression. If he has another season like last season, then we can talk about regression. Until then, it’s too soon.
Since I wasn’t in the room to decide on Dale Sveum’s fate, I cannot say why exactly he was “relieved of his duties as manager.” I can say that if it was “regression,” of Castro and Rizzo, then he got a raw deal. More than likely, it has something to do with the message he was delivering. After all, you can’t tell your most talented two players that “The bottom line is you have to perform. Whether you need more development or you decide all those kind of things. There’s still that accountability,” without it happening to you. Isn’t that a cruel irony?
*Meatball stopped reading at this spot. He is currently telling me I’m an idiot on Twitter, telling me that is why Dale was fired (maybe it was), and that I should look at the numbers (I did).
That seems remarkably hard on Junior Lake. It was meant to be. Because sometimes, the truth is really, really harsh.
Today was a growing pain for the kid, who had three hits and drove in the lone run for the offensively challenged Cubs. And while
maybe he didn’t deserve the benching that Starlin Castro got yesterday from Dale Sveum, he does deserve a meeting with both Sveum, and outfield instructor Dave McKay.
From where I sit, after watching the replay over and over (because I could not watch the play live), Junior Lake simply got complacent and dropped the ball. He got to the spot in plenty of time. He did not appear to be fighting the sun. I could be wrong. I really hope I am. It just didn’t look that way. And it led to the Cardinals’ second and third runs.
If my suspicion is correct, it shows that Lake is guilty of an effort mistake, which in my estimation is worse than any other kind, to include the one that Starlin Castro gets tagged with, the mental mistake. Yesterday is a prime comparison. Starlin went all out, made a tough play, and spaced on the runners, allowing a run to score. Junior Lake, today, didn’t have to go all out, got to the routine fly ball, and let it fall harmlessly to the Wrigley turf because he didn’t use two hands when he looked to have ample opportunity to do so. That is an effort mistake, from a player who has limited experience in the outfield. There is no excuse for that. Effort should be the last thing you’d have to worry about from Junior Lake right now as an outfielder. To have the play he had today should raise the maturity concerns that have been raised about Starlin Castro.
Effort mistakes are inexcusable. Junior Lake’s today is the first that I can recall from him in his time with the major league club. David DeJesus had a similar one on June 13th, dropping a routine fly, allowing a run to score against the Reds, albeit in a game the Cubs eventually won in extras (where it was Starlin who got tagged for dogging it admiring his near walk-off in the ninth). The Cubs are not good enough to not play hard all the time. When they don’t, especially against the Cardinals or like two months ago against the Reds, they won’t win. Young players like Junior Lake, who are in auditions with the team have no excuse for not busting it 100% of the time. Veterans like DeJesus, who’s had his share of mental and effort blunders this season are also in auditions. What makes it worse for a player like DeJesus is that players like Lake are watching him and what he does on and off the field every single day.
Maybe the veteran leadership is what the Cubs are missing. Say what you want about Alfonso Soriano and, going back further, Marlon Byrd, effort was not an issue from those veteran players. That might be where they’re missed the most.
Javier Baez is good. He’s really, really good. And based on the looks of things, he has very little interest in remaining in the minor leagues for all that much longer.
Currently with AA Tennessee, Baez hasn’t had any drop-off in production since being promoted from High A Daytona. In fact, looking at the numbers, they’re remarkably similar in a lot of respects. With Daytona this season, Baez was a .274/.338/.535 hitter. With Tennessee, the pace has been .273/.329/.580. Last night, he hit his 12th home run with the Smokies and 29th for the season. What makes these numbers more impressive is that both the Florida State League and the Southern League are considered pitcher friendly. He is sitting at 14th in the league in home runs in just 34 games. If he had the at-bats to qualify, he would also lead the Southern League in OPS.
Clearly, when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said that a prospect will get promoted if he dominates his competition Javier Baez took it to heart. That is the exact kind of thing you want from your top prospect, too. He’s not by any means a finished product, but he is making leaps and bounds at the plate. He still strikes out more than his fair share (about 28% of the time), and his walk rate isn’t what you want in a middle of the order bat. The walks part of the equation is coming around, though. He’s taken 33 of his 47 professional walks this season. While some of the lack of walks before this season is probably due to inferior competition at lower levels of the minors, the numbers bear out that he’s not walking up to the plate hacking quite as much as he used to.
The area of concern that remains about Baez, and the thing that can hold him back is his defense. He has 40 errors for the season, and a .929 fielding percentage, which isn’t going to cut it at any level. To his credit, his fielding percentage has come up with Tennessee, from .922 in Daytona to .946, which can probably be attributed to, in part, better field conditions in AA than were seen in the Florida State League and a smaller sample size. This also shows how little fielding percentage should be used to judge defense. Baez has all of the tools to play three infield positions, and could end up supplanting the platoon at third or Darwin Barney at second. His range and arm work well at both positions, in addition to short stop. Jed Hoyer said earlier this summer that he thinks Baez can stick and play short in the majors.
It would be a surprise to see Javier Baez to go to Spring Training and win a spot on the 25 man roster when camp breaks. With the way this front office develops players, there is, while non-zero, a very slim chance of it happening. It is entirely possible that Javier Baez breaks with AAA Iowa, however. Considering how he’s played at AA Tennessee, it is possible he’s doing what he’s been asked: forcing the organization to move him up. There is still some time to play in 2013, but nothing that has happened to this point should suggest a slowdown in Baez’s production.
AA is a phone call away from the major leagues. Ask Starlin Castro. When Baez gets to Iowa, he will actually be a mere phone call away from the majors. If he plays as well in Iowa as he is in Tennessee and did in Daytona, there is no reason to believe that the offensively starved Cubs would not call Baez, especially if they find that they are one more bat away from being a competitive team. Ultimately, it’s up to Baez. If he dominates his level, he moves up, until he gets to Chicago. At that point, we all hope he dominates at that level for a long time.
In just about two days time, the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go. The Cubs, who have been more active than any team in the month of July, will see a considerable slow down in activity with the passing of the draft, the initial international free agent signing period, and the trade deadline. That leaves them with an ample opportunity to take care of what may be the most vital piece of business they have left before next season: Extend the contract of Manager, Dale Sveum.
As Theo Epstein’s hand picked successor to Mike Quade, Dale Sveum has done everything the Cubs could have imagined…and more. He deserves to go into next season with some job security, and the Cubs should go into this off-season, where they will surely try to add players who can help the major league team take the next step toward respectability, with stability in the manager’s office.
Although his 109-156 record isn’t outstanding, it is also not his fault. He walked into a complete overhaul of a roster of albatross contracts, aging veterans, and young players who really weren’t major league players. To make matters worse, the front office either traded or shut down major portions of his starting rotation…in both 2012 and 2013. The bullpens he’s had to work with have been largely unproven young players or veteran retreads (*cough cough* Shawn Camp *cough*), and it has shown in the win-loss column.
Dale Sveum was hired to do two main things: Keep the clubhouse together and develop young talent. He’s done exceedingly well on both fronts in his first two seasons.
On the player development front, the biggest feather in his cap is the coaching staff he’s put together. While he may have had Rudy Jaramillo and Pat Listach as hold overs for either part or all of last season, the additions of Dave McKay, David Bell, and Chris Bosio have all been successful. Dave McKay helped turn Alfonso Soriano into a serviceable left fielder. After years of being afraid of the wall and hopping around like a wounded bunny rabbit, Soriano had the highest UZR among NL left fielders last season. It’s amazing what a little coaching will do after Soriano admitted that he hadn’t gotten any outfield instruction before last season, from either Quade’s staff or Lou Piniella before him. Anthony Rizzo is another success, as Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach, brought his hands down, shortening his swing, and making him better than the .141/.281.242 hitter he was with the Padres in 2011. The anecdotes serve as evidence of a whole: the Cubs are a vastly improved defensive team from the years before Sveum. And the approach at the plate is starting to get better, too. Nothing happens over night, but the results are starting to show up. In spite of all of the player movement, trades, and lost veterans in the clubhouse, the Cubs have a winning record since May 26 (30-25). While the sample is small, the results matter. Even with major bullpen issues and a complete inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are playing competitively. The steps in the right direction are adding up.
The clubhouse is the other place Sveum was asked to thrive. As a former top prospect, he can relate to the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and soon Javier Baez, et al. He can also relate to the 25th man on the roster because that’s where his career ended after a devastating leg injury. He knows the weight of expectations and he knows the plight of the role player who is tasked to sit and wait for his name to be called, and the need to be ready. He relates to his players because he’s been there and done that. And while he took some undeserved criticism for his loyalty to Shawn Camp from fans, it was not his job to get rid of Camp. It was the front office’s. Having his player’s back, especially one who he’s had history with, was the only move he could make that doesn’t send the alienating “as soon as I see trouble, I’m going to turn my back on you.” message. That’s a terrible image to portray to the rest of the team. The fact that Dale said it was tough to see Camp go may have made fans cringe, but it probably made the team smile a little bit. When veterans like Matt Garza hang around after being shut down with 2 1/2 months left in a 100 loss season, it says as much as there is to say about a clubhouse…especially when Garza admitted if it had been Quade’s clubhouse, he would have gone home. And being able to sign quality free agents like Edwin Jackson after a 100 loss season doesn’t happen if the player thinks the manager is a bum who can’t manage a clubhouse. Think about it. Has anything obscenely negative come out of the clubhouse during Sveum’s tenure? For a team with the win-loss record the Cubs have had, you’d think there would be something. Especially in a media market like Chicago. But it’s been remarkably quiet. Which means the bad stuff is being handled where it should…in house.
Dale has been charged with over-seeing a complete rebuild, which couldn’t have been fun, couldn’t have been easy, and couldn’t have happened in any worse a place than Wrigley Field, where every year is “THE YEAR” to a group of people who only watch the game and read the box score in the paper each morning. The reality is, last year, this year, and probably next year are not “THE YEAR.” But the team is heading in the right direction in spite of the instability among the player personnel. That is a credit to Sveum, and the right thing to do is ensure that he never gets to “lame duck” status in the last year of a contract with a team, who next year may be able to win consistently for the first time in his tenure.
Besides. He got shot in the face and laughed it off. How cool is it to have a manager like that?
The Cubs and Yankees finalized the trade sending Alfonso Soriano to the Bronx today. It breaks down as follows:
Yankees Get: OF/DH Alfonso Soriano, Cash
Cubs Get: RHP Corey Black
Corey Black pitched for the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League. He throws in the mid to upper 90s, and has touched 100, according to some reports. He’s had some issues with walks, but has the big fastball to go with an above average change up. John Arguello from Cubs Den had the following to say about Black:
“Of all the names mentioned, he’s the one that intrigues me the most. He’s undersized, but has similar athleticism and build as Travis Wood. He can also bring it, able to pitch last year at 95-98 with sinking movement. Some reports have him touching 100 mph in the instructional league. His changeup is solid and his secondaries lag behind, though the slider is further along than the curve. He has struck out 9.58 batters per 9 innings and although he has walked 4.90 per 9 IP, he does have the kind of athleticism to repeat his delivery and develop better command.”
Soriano being moved means the Cubs no longer have a player with a no trade clause, which gives the front office free reign to deal at their heart’s desire. Ultimately, that’s probably the best thing for the organization. Theo Epstein
had some comments about the Soriano deal, via Carrie Muskat:
“I don’t look at this as a watershed moment, or a transformative moment at all. It was simply the right time for Sori to move on and open up some at-bats for Junior Lake and when [Ryan] Sweeney and [Brian] Bogusevic come back from injury, now that [David] DeJesus is back from injury, we have a chance to find out about left-handed bats and some on-base skills and see who might be in the mix for next year. It was just the right time for this particular move.”
Dale Sveum also had some strong words about Alfonso Soriano (via Paul Sullivan and the Tribune)…
“It’s emotional for all of us. You don’t usually gather teams together that often when people get traded to say your goodbyes. That just shows what kind of person he is.”
And from Carrie Muskat…
“You say you’re prepared for it, but I don’t think you’re really prepared to lose somebody of that nature. All the things he brings to a team, the fourth hole, the character, the clubhouse, the leadership and everything. You just don’t replace that.”
With Soriano being traded, Jeff Samardzija is the longest tenured Cub, and the only one remaining from the 2008 season. It also leaves a gaping hole in the “veteran leader” spot. David DeJesus is the first, best candidate to fill that role, and with the team getting younger and younger, he really doesn’t have an alternative, as long as he himself is still a Cub. It also means that the youngster Soriano mentored on being a professional, Starlin Castro, is going to be thrust into the position of being one of the veteran leaders, at just 23 years old. Such is life when you’re the longest tenured position player on the roster.
The line-up is another issue altogether. It appears there is some solution to left field and to the clean-up slot…
That is a perfectly good solution for the time being. Realistically, Junior Lake is going to regress. He’s a talented player, but his obscene start is going to cool off and his numbers are going to come back to earth. Nate Schierholtz manning the clean-up spot (as long as he is also still a Cub) isn’t really a good solution, either. Realistically, the best option in the fourth spot in the line up is Anthony Rizzo. Ultimately, there will likely be a number of different line-up combinations that we see through the end of the season, as Dale Sveum gets new players and returning players to move in and out of the line up.
The one certainty this trade brings the Cubs for the remainder of the season is uncertainty. While it will likely not get as ugly as last season dd, it does mean that Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney need to start performing at the level shown on the back of their baseball cards. With difficulty comes opportunity. It will be difficult to replace Soriano’s bat in the line-up, and there will be a number of players who get ample opportunity to prove they can do it.
This probably means Brad Zapenas is headed back to Kane County…
When this season started, I thought there was some chance that one of or both of Javier Baez and Jorge Soler could start at AA Tennessee. That isn’t to say I was surprised when both were sent to Daytona. That actually affirmed the notion that the Cubs, led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer with Jason McLeod leading player development, are really committed to letting these players develop and “master the level” before moving them up. Granted, I thought it was more likely that Soler would beat Baez to Tennessee when the season started, mostly due to Baez’s defensive shortfalls and his lack of plate discipline, but a five game suspension and an injury have changed the equation for Soler.
This season, Baez took a step forward for the D-Cubs. After finishing down there last season with a .188/.244/.400, he came back strong this season after getting some time in spring with the major league club. This season’s .274/.336/.537 is a vast improvement, especially in a pitcher’s league. In 98 games between 2012 and 2013, Baez delivered 21 HR, 70 RBI, went 14/18 stealing bases, and walked at a rate of about 6%. In June, however, his walk rate improved to over 10%, which is a major step forward for the 20 year old 2011 first round pick.
Timing wise, this is about as good a time as any. John Arguello over at Cubs Den sniffed this out when Ronald Torreyes was sent to the Astros, so I am all about giving credit where it’s due (and he deserves a TON of credit. He’s the Gold Standard on prospect/ draft stuff). But, it’s not like it was a leap to send him to Tennessee right now. Baez is obviously comfortable in Daytona, and that is the time to move a player up. Moving Torreyes was probably a justified by Baez being ready to move up. And at this point, Baez gets to dip his feet in the water before the AA All-Star break, and finish with a touch over 50 games with the Smokies this summer. He gets a half season to see where he stacks up at the level that saw Starlin Castro complete his minor league career. He will very likely be headed right back to AA as next season opens up. Again, he is going to have to master the level before going to Iowa. He will be given every opportunity to do that, though. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was a struggle or there is some inconsistency at the outset. This is his biggest jump in competition level to date.
What does this mean for Baez’s possible timeline to Wrigley? Well, it definitely brings him closer. I would be stunned if he were in Iowa any sooner than this time next year. In reality, there’s a good chance he spends all of 2014 in Tennessee, and doesn’t see Iowa before 2015. If he succeeds, though, it’s not impossible to see an aggressive promotion, although that does not fit the MO of this front office. I suspect the timeline is similar for both Baez and Soler to get to Chicago. There is an outside chance that they make brief September cameos in 2014, if they come up next year at all. More likely, they come up at some point in 2015. The truth is, though, their promotions and eventual arrivals in Chicago are up to them and how quickly they work on they things they need to improve to make them worthy of a call-up.
For the third time this season, the Cubs lost a 1-0 game today. This was the first time it happened to Travis Wood (The first two happened to Jeff Samardzija). Wood has been excellent all season long, and today was no exception. The fact that he went six shutout innings and didn’t take a loss (like Shark did in his two 1-0 losses) is a small moral victory for him, but in reality, if you lose a game 1-0, regardless of who allows the run, or why the run scores (like today’s passed ball), some of the blame goes to the offense, and the other part of the blame goes to the opposing pitcher. Remember, the other guys get paid, too.
Apparently, a lot of the blame for today needs to be directed at Starlin Castro for not hustling on the single by Alfonso Soriano in the fourth inning that resulted in Castro being thrown out by Yoenis Cespedes at the plate. Since the Cubs lost today by a single run, I would argue that it all be placed solely on the 23 year old who is being accused off dogging it.
On second thought, maybe, and this is me just brain-storming here, but maybe Starlin didn’t break it off second to make sure the ball was going to drop. Or maybe he slipped on the dirt. Or maybe the A’s broadcast duo who accused Starlin of “half jogging” are morons and all of the replies Buster got for his tweet are biased based on the audio of the clip. From what I saw on video (which is a horrible way of judging whether or not someone is at full speed), Starlin did turn it up some when he rounded, but it’s not like he can go full speed making a hard left turn. Nothing suggested to me that he was dogging it. Cubs’ Manager, Dale Sveum didn’t seem to think it was an issue, saying after the game via Carrie Muskat, “I thought he was [going to score]. It seemed like a no brainer right off the bat. I don’t know what happened there.” If Sveum, who’s been pretty blunt about whether Castro, or anyone else, is playing the right way in his first year and a half as manager, didn’t say “he was dogging it until he got to third,” I don’t think there’s much of a story here.
In his own post game comments, via Carrie Muskat, Starlin said, “The guy made a great throw. I thought I’d score easy. I never stopped, I never said to myself, ‘I’m out.’ I ran hard right away to second base. I was surprised I was out.” I think Starlin said it best. The guy (Cespedes) made a great throw. In fact, it was a frozen rope right to A’s catcher Derrek Norris that beat Castro by a couple of steps. If the throw had been anything but that perfect, Castro would have scored. This should be chalked up to not knowing the guy in the field because this is the first time they’ve seen him. You can watch all the video and read all of the advanced scouting you want…sometimes it takes being gunned down by a cannon arm to know just how good an arm is.
That, of course, won’t stop Buster Olney from putting a quarter in the masses who want to see Castro shipped out for being a space cadet and any other unfair labels they want to place on a kid, who in just over three full seasons (527 games), has 611 hits. Like I said in a previous post, Starlin Castro moves the needle. That is to say, he also gets a national reporter on a flailing network some mindless response on Twitter…in this case by rubbing two sticks together and yelling fire.
Through the beginning of their tenure, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have done nothing short of a masterful job of adding quality talent to the Cubs’ minor league system. Between the inherited talent and the added talent, the Cubs now have what is a consensus top ten system in the game, and it is likely to get better with the addition of second overall pick Kris Bryant, international signings, and the trade deadline.
Not all of the positions in the organization are overflowing with talent, however. With the international signing and the trade deadline looming, there are some clear areas of need. To build the caliber of organization that the team needs to have and the front office wants to grow, weaknesses need to be addressed.
The focus needs to be on positions with glaring deficiencies. There are positions that are strong at the lower levels of the minor leagues without much talent at the top end, while some are stronger throughout the system or aren’t strong at all. The focus needs to be on picking up pieces to build a strong pipeline to the majors sooner than 2015-2016 and strengthen areas without much talent to speak of at all.
This is a no-brainer. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have acknowledged that the Cubs will use the international pool and trade deadline to strengthen this piece of the puzzle. There are some nice pieces at just about every level of the organization, but not nearly enough. The best prospect in the organization is Arodys Vizcaino, who was acquired last July in the Paul Maholm trade. When he gets healthy, he has front of the rotation stuff, but his arm trouble might limit him to a relief role. Pierce Johnson just got his long overdue promotion to Daytona, and he appears to be on his way. Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood are nice young pieces at the ML level. The focus has been on arms in the draft, but none of them appear to be impact arms, with the Cubs grabbing position players with their last two top ten picks. The clear lack of high end, projectable pitching talent makes it job one for the Cubs this July. They could start out by signing Cuban prospect Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. He’s 26, and could realistically start in the upper levels of the minor leagues this season, if not at the major league level…and all he costs is money. Which the Cubs don’t seem opposed to spending on international free agents.
Beyond Wellington Castillo and Steve Clevenger, there isn’t a lot of strength to one of the keystone positions. While Castillo is a young player who is looking more and more like an everyday backstop, organizational depth is paramount at a position where injuries mount and nobody can catch everyday. Dioner Navarro is a stop gap at the major league level. While the Cubs can be active in signing veteran catchers for a year or two at a time, there is a ton of value in bringing catchers through the system who have a history with the pitchers coming up through the system.
3. Corner Infielders
Count me among the guys who really likes Christian Villanueva. And Jeimer Candelario. And Anthony Rizzo. Beyond that, there are a ton of question marks. Josh Vitters may never figure it out defensively. I am not sold on the idea that Kris Bryant can stick at third base. Dan Vogelbach appears to best project as a designated hitter. Junior Lake is looking more and more like a super utility player. Luis Valbuena is a utility player who is having a nice season as a starter for a rebuilding team, but in no way should or would be a starter on a playoff caliber team. It really boils down to defense with this group. While first base at the major league level appears to be filled for the foreseeable future, third base is a bit of a black hole and there is almost no depth in the system at first. One thing that helps this group along is the potential for Javier Baez or Starlin Castro to slide over to third and fill the slot whenever Baez makes his way up to the majors.
4. Center Field
The cupboard at the major league level is bare. David DeJesus, Dave Sappelt, and Ryan Sweeney are really nice filler material during the rebuild, but they are similar to Luis Valbuena. All three are reserves on playoff teams, and none of them figure to be around for the long haul. Albert Almora looks fantastic at Kane County thus far. He’s a few years away from being an option, though. It is up in the air if Brett Jackson makes use of his incredible talent because he is endlessly afflicted by the strike out. Jae-Hoon Ha and Matt Szczur both look like the DeJesus/ Sweeney type, as in they could be spare outfielders who can play all over as defensive replacements. For those reasons, it wouldn’t hurt to add a center fielder with upside if the opportunity presents itself.
5. Corner Outfielders
There isn’t much for depth here in Iowa, but there is a lot to like about the potential for corner outfielders in the Cubs organization. Jorge Soler is obviously the crown jewel of these guys at any level, but he won’t be in Chicago until September of 2014 at the absolute earliest. The better bet is 2015 at some point. Kris Bryant, to me, is probably going to end up in the corner not occupied by Soler, should everything go right. This is a group that could also include Junior Lake, Josh Vitters if his defense stays as shaky at third as it has been. Reggie Golden is at Kane County and is a sleeper to me. Overall, I like the group of players the Cubs have stocked up on that could be turned into corner outfielder, where hitting is most important, and where defensive liabilities like Vitters can be hidden. Again, it wouldn’t hurt to add to it if the opportunity arises, but there are definitely better places to add pieces.
6. Middle Infield
Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Logan Watkins, Arismendy Alcantara, Ronald Torreyes, Javier Baez…need I say more? There is a legit prospect at just about every level of the minor leagues in the middle infield. And the major league level has a two time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner in the line-up everyday, neither of whom is old by any stretch of the imagination. The middle infield is the strength of the organization, and unless you’re getting Jurickson Profar in a deal, this area isn’t a priority in the least.
There is no argument to be made that the Cubs wouldn’t be best served to get the best players they can, regardless of the positions they play. Weaknesses cannot be ignored, however, and the goal when moving players like Matt Garza should be to find high level talent in areas of need, which would make the trade good for both sides. Again, if the Rangers are parting with Profar (for example), you have to pull the trigger. Talent like that doesn’t come around very often. At the end of the day though, the focus has to be on adding impact arms that can make a difference in the near future and catchers to work with them coming up through system.
Alright, they didn’t say exactly that, but they did say he has “regressed.” On ESPN 1000’s “Waddle and Silvy”, Theo said (via Doug Padilla from ESPNChicago.com),
“Failure is innate in baseball; it’s inevitable. It’s actually an important part in the development of the development process. Starlin is someone who went very quickly through the upper minor leagues. If you look at the number of at-bats he had at the Double-A and Triple-A level, there are not very many and he was in the big leagues instantly and had success.”
Actually, Starlin Castro didn’t have any at-bats at Iowa because he was called up from the Smokies in 2010, skipping right over Triple A. Theo also talked about the value of such a slump.
“Because he never failed, he never had to make adjustments as an offensive player and he’s going through that now; he’s struggling. He’s well below the high standards he has set for himself. That means it’s failure, it’s a slump and it’s incumbent on him to work his way out of it and for us to help put him in a position where he can get out of it and I think that he will, and he will be a better player in the long run because of it.”
Dale Sveum was asked about Theo’s comments and agreed with the assessment. From Paul Sullivan in the Chicago Tribune…
“By numbers alone he’s regressed, there’s no question about it. He’s getting way, way down as far as all the other shortstops in baseball right now, as far as the offensive part. He’s under a .600 OPS. So that would go without saying that he’s regressed.”
While neither talked glowingly about Castro’s present, they didn’t say anything that should worry anyone about his future. The major takeaway is that Starlin is struggling and in the long run, he should be better for it.
The current ramifications of his struggles are tied to the team’s success. Since Starlin Castro is such an integral part of the offense, no matter where he hits in the line-up, his success or failure is going to be directly tied to the team’s success or failure, and it will remain that way for at least the next year. In some ways, it would seem that the Cubs’ early failures offensively can be tied to Castro’s struggles and at the same time his struggles can be tied to the early offensive failures. He isn’t hitting well, so the offense looks weak, but because the offense is weak and Starlin knows his value in the line-up every day, he pushes himself harder to perform and doesn’t stay within himself to perform at the level he is accustomed to.
At this point, Starlin Castro is the least of the Cubs’ problems. There is no reason to think he won’t be the hitter he is capable of. Even if he stays at a .290/.340/.430 level for the rest of his career, which is on par with the numbers he put up through his first three seasons, he’ll be one of the most productive short stops in the game and be a bargain at the contract extension he signed last season. Eventually, he’ll come out of the slump. Hopefully, it’ll happen soon. The Astros are in this weekend and the Cubs are in Milwaukee next week…and those are some slump busting pitching staffs.