There was a flurry of roster activity of all kinds: trades, signings, call-ups, and DL stints. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer didn’t waste any time starting their sell-off, firing the first shot of the deadline season.
We can only gather that there will be even more roster moves in the next day or two with the new additions to the bullpen and over the course of the month as the Cubs continue to move pieces. This figures to be just a start of things to come…
Dodgers Get: RHP Carlos Marmol, Cubs #4 International Signing Slot, Cash
Cubs Get: RHP Matt Guerrier
What It Means For Cubs: Carlos Marmol is officially not a Cub, anymore. Guerrier was in DFA limbo with the Dodgers. He becomes yet another arm in the Cubs’ busy bullpen this season. Marmol gets a fresh start. Adding Guerrier could spell the end for Shawn Camp. *Fingers Crossed* Jayson Stark, interestingly, tweeted that this is almost a no lose for the Dodgers. If he doesn’t work out and is released, the Cubs are on the hook for more money if he signs elsewhere.
Orioles Get: RHP Scott Feldman, C Steve Clevenger
Cubs Get: RHP Jake Arrieta, RHP Pedro Strop, Number 3 International Signing Slot, #4 International Signing Slot
What It Means For The Cubs: Clevenger being moved comes out of right field, since he and the Cubs apparently just within the last day had a difference of opinion on his injuries. Feldman was expected to go as part of a sell-off, and the Cubs actually did quite well in this move. Jake Arrieta is a talented 27 year old who hasn’t quite figured it out at the major league level just yet. He will go to AAA Iowa for the time being. He could be part of a trade to the Padres, who apparently like both him and Matt Garza. Acquiring him could help sweeten the return if the Cubs send Garza and Arrieta to San Diego. Strop is a good bullpen arm and should fill the void being left by Carlos Villanueva being stretched back into a starter. He, too, has struggled some at the major league level. Overall, I’d have liked this deal if it was Feldman for Strop OR Arrieta and the pool money. To get both, while only losing Clevenger in addition to Feldman is a nice move for the Cubs, regardless of whether they view Arreita as a trade asset or as an arm to bring to Chicago.
Astros Get: INF Ronald Torreyes
Cubs Get: #2 and #3 International Signing Slots
What It Means For The Cubs: More international spending money. Torreyes is a good hitter, but with the logjam in the middle infield in the Cubs’ organization, they could afford to make this move to spend money on potential impact international free agents. The move brings in $784K to add to the spending pool, which would presumably be used to target OF Eloy Jimenez. After all of the moves today, the Cubs have $5,520,300 in total international spending money, which is one of the key means of stocking the system with talent.
Cubs Sign: SS Gleybar Torres ($1.7M). P Jefferson Mejia, Erling Moreno, C Johan Matos
What It Means For The Cubs: The search for impact players continues, with Torres ranked the #2 International Free Agent. He’s 16, so you can file his name away, but scouts love him and say he is quite polished for being so young. Mejia is 18 and his contract is for 2013, so he is a name we might hear a bit sooner than Torres.
Cubs Call-Up: LHP Chris Rusin, OF Dave Sappelt
Cubs Place OF Ryan Sweeney on 60 Day Disabled List (Fractured Rib)
What It Means For The Cubs: Rusin takes the roster spot vacated by Feldman, and he will start tonight at Oakland. He has been very good at Iowa, being named to the PCL All-Star team. This is an opportunity to try to stick in Chicago, either in the rotation or the bullpen, as more moves are likely as the deadline approaches. Sappelt adds a right handed bat to the outfield mix after Sweeney fractured a rib in Seattle. Sweeney could have been a trade chip, but going on the 60 Day DL kills that opportunity, and is now not eligible to come back until the end of August.
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.
Tomorrow is the deadline to set the 40 man roster for the Rule 5 Draft. I could post an exhaustive list of players the Cubs have who are eligible, but instead, I have chosen to go the lazy route and link it here to Chicago Cubs Online. I would expect at least one of those guys to be taken. We’ll see…and we’ll see if the Cubs actually select anyone this season. They did pick RHP Lendy Castillo last year, and they lost Ryan Flaherty and Marwin Gonzalez.
I am amused by Bruce Levine’s vague report that a “big trade” involving “young players” is in the works. That is not to say I doubt the report, because Bruce Levine has proven to be nothing, if not reliable, in his reporting from my perspective. It’s just so vague that it boarders on “not worth mentioning until something actually happens” or actual names come about. If/ when the deal is brokered, I’m sure I’ll have comments on what went each way. Until then…
The Cubs did agree to sign Shawn Camp today for another year. The question is whether he’ll actually sign before the Rule 5 deadline, or if the parties agreed to hold off on putting ink on paper until after this mess is cleaned up so the team can keep an open slot on the 40 man roster for someone they’d prefer not to lose. All of the official reports say they’ve “agreed.” I think that might mean something. I could also be wrong. If he indeed signs, the 40 man inflates to 39.
I am still completely behind the idea of the Cubs signing OF Jason Bay. He is a guy who could probably be had cheap, play a corner OF spot, and be flipped if he performs well. That is exactly the kind of guy the team is looking for at this point. I’m not exactly sure about whether or not Theo Epstein (who acquired Bay when he was in Boston) or Jed Hoyer have had the same idea. I’m just throwing it out there.
After the last post, the Cubs announced they signed Dioner Navarro to catch, likely in a back-up role to Wellington Castillo. He spent last season with the Reds. Statistically, he’s nothing special. Career, he’s a .245/.306/.357 guy. He did manage to be selected to the 2008 AL All-Star team with the Rays. His value is probably to help Wellington Castillo as a major league catcher, and allows Steve Clevenger to go back to Iowa and work on his craft for another season. Clevenger is still new to the position. Time in the minors to fine tune will serve him will in the long run.
The Epstein Administration is off to a very honest start, to say the least. When Theo came, he made no mistake that the intention was to build an organization, from the bottom up, in order to sustain success for the long term. To this point, he has kept his word. The Cubs’ system now features five of the top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com’s updated, post season rankings. Half of the organization’s top ten prospects have been acquired since Epstein and Co. have arrived, and that does not include First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, who would be the undisputed #1 prospect in the system if he met MLB.com’s criteria for what makes a prospect. The fact that he has had a rookie season in the majors, from my view, does not make him any less of a prospect. He is by no means a finished product…which is a scary good thought after his 2012 season.
With all of that, here is a positional look at the system:
- PITCHING: Pitching is still the weakness of the system. Theo knows it. Jed knows it. Even the guy in the bleachers drunkenly screaming to fire Dale Sveum because we could have won the World Series this year knows it. That is why the focus has been on acquiring pitching. The new regime spent almost the entire draft on infusing the system with new arms. They made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire Randall Delgado for Ryan Dempster. They made a successful deal with the Braves to acquire Arodys Vizcaino, who is the best pitching prospect in the system, according to MLB’s new rankings. Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn are also top 20 prospects in the system, who were drafted in the slots gained from the departures of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Nine of the top 20 are pitchers, none of whom is Hayden Simpson, the 2010 first round pick. We are very close to reaching bust status with him. The front office knows that there is still a shortage of arms in the system, so look for a continued focus on acquiring them, either through trades or in the draft. Alfonso Soriano and Matt Garza could each become prospect pitching, if there is a deal to be made.
- CATCHERS: With Wellington Castillo looking primed to crouch behind the dish on a full time basis, with Steve Clevenger being a capable back up, and Geovany Soto being a Texas Ranger, it would seem the system is lacking in catching depth. That’s mostly true. The only catcher of note who will be in the minor leagues next season is Anthony Recker, who finished the season in the majors because of a September call-up. The bright side to the catching situation is that both of the big league backstops are young players, who, like Anthony Rizzo, I would still consider prospects, who are developing at the big league level. That’s some good news. The bad news is, catchers tend to be injured more than other positions, and there is not a lot behind them.
- INFIELD: There is some talent in the infield in the organization, but it’s nothing to jump out of your chair for. Javier Baez is a notable exception to that, as the system’s number one prospect, again, according to MLB.com. Christian Villanueva and Junior Lake are also both in the top ten in the organization, but neither seem to be all that close to cracking the major league line-up anytime soon. Lake is probably the closest prospect, but he projects to be a utility player, who can play all over because of his arm and athleticism. He has good power, but lacks plate discipline and still needs some polish in the field. He could be a call-up in the mold of Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson in 2013, to get some experience at the major league level before going back to the minors to work on deficiencies he may not get to know without a call-up. As for Baez and Villanueva, both finished the season at Daytona. They may go to AA, Tennessee together next season, but a more sure bet is that they open at Daytona next year. Josh Vitters, the most major league ready prospect in the infield, showed that he still needs some time to grow. I could see him being moved to a corner outfield spot if his glove does not improve significantly. An interesting prospect on the infield is Dan Vogelbach, whose bat will probably propel him up the system. He hit for a combined 1.051 OPS between Mesa and Boise. Being a 1B, though, is going to hurt him with the Cubs. He is blocked by Anthony Rizzo. If he could become a 3B, he could be a Pablo Sandoval type player in the future, although Keith Law says he has “no shot.” My guess is, his lack of athleticism is going to be a significant issue with him being anything more than a first baseman or a designated hitter…which the Cubs have no use for.
- OUTFIELD: The outfield is where the most depth is within the system. After getting a sight of Brett Jackson, it appears that he has the ability to man CF at Wrigley for a long time, with improvements to his swing and approach at the plate. The additions of Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, both of whom played well in their first taste of American pro baseball, make them, with Jackson, three of the top five prospects in the system. With other interesting prospects, like Dave Sappelt and Shawon Dunston Jr, there is some serious talent, much of which is still saturating the low levels of the system. For the time being, it is interesting to wonder about what an Almora, Jackson, Soler outfield will look like…because it won’t be a reality for a few years. For now, we’ll get to watch a Soriano, DeJesus, LaHair (or whoever else they can manage to throw out there).
There is a lot more talent in the minors now than there was 12 months ago. That is something that has to be attributed to building the organization, as opposed to trading any and all talent we can to get veteran players to win right now. There has been a lot of that over the years, leaving the cupboards pretty bare. Building it back up will take as much time and effort as it will to build the big league team into one that can consistently win. It is a good thing to have talent saturation in the minors, and at this point in time, there is much more of it than there was when Jim Hendry left the club. It is exciting, however, to watch the build-up. Seeing lower level clubs compete, like the Boise Hawks did in 2012 is a sign of talent infusion. Hopefully, the Cubs are able to build a system that can compete at all levels. No organization can have too much talent. At this point,though, it is still a work in progress.
For a team with less than stellar expectations, it is awfully difficult to grade the Cubs’ first half performance. If I were to judge by record alone, it would almost certainly be a D, or lower. However, since the Cubs weren’t expected to be very good this season as they rebuild and since the team hasn’t been as consistently bad as it appears, this grade is going to be issued on a curve. The criteria are offensive output, defensive output, improvement, consistency, and overall performance. Whether those criteria are fair or not is for you to decide…
Starting Pitching: B-
The starting pitching has actually been better than expected, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having strong seasons. Both pitchers have lived up to their billing as the top two starters in the rotation, and that has made them both viable candidates to be traded before the trade deadline three weeks from today. Jeff Samardzija has been up and down, having both very good and very bad outings in his first seasons as a starter. Paul Maholm has been in the same boat, being both good and bad in the first half of the season. Chris Volstad and Randy Wells have been atrocious and have earned their demotions to Iowa. Travis Wood, however, has been strong since his arrival, earning the fifth starting role. This grade would be much higher if not for Wells and Volstad’s inability to throw good strikes, and the overall team record would be likely to have followed suit.
This was going to be an F, until the recent surge of Carlos Marmol, with Shawn Camp and James Russell falling into more comfortable roles. The absolute incompetence of the bullpen to throw quality strikes and the number of walks has led to a huge number of blown saves, missed opportunities to win games, and crumbling in late situations has made this season one of the most dismal in the history of the organization. While all of the blame cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of the bullpen, and the retirement of Kerry Wood was certainly unexpected, the bullpen has been a major contributor to the 33-52 record.
Position Play: C-
Ultimately, this grade is based much on injuries to all three of the top three catchers in the organization. It could have been far worse without the reacquisition of Koyie Hill, but the lack of offense out of the position is disappointing, since all three of the expected contributors at catcher for the major league team were injured and on the disabled list at one time. Throwing out base-stealers has also not been a strength, which makes it much more difficult on the pitchers, although those same pitchers have been partly to blame. Defensively, there have been some positives to keep an eye on as passed balls have been few and far between. Overall, however, the catchers have to give more at the plate, and must continue to improve on their first half performance.
First Base: B
We learned something about Bryan LaHair this spring. He can hit in the majors. And he was better than serviceable at first base. He went through a long drought, though, which prompted a long losing streak. It It is not fair to place all of the blame of Bryan’s shoulders, and that is why the position garners a B, overall. He was very good in his time there. Anthony Rizzo has been excellent in his 12 games at first base, and he could be a catalyst to see the end of season mark improve. He just has not been around long enough to cause great change in the grade. Jeff Baker has started more games at first than Rizzo, which is another reason this is only a B. Between LaHair and Baker, there has been absolutely no production against left handed pitching at this position, which doesn’t help the sorry record against left handed pitching, and that hurts the overall mark.
Second Base: B-
My man crush on Darwin Barney is based almost solely on his defense, which has been nothing short of outstanding. He is having a Gold Glove worthy season at second, with only two errors on the season thus far. Offensively, he has been Darwin Barney. He is a slap hitter that can find a gap, get a solid single, and he will do the right things on the bases. You know what to expect everyday from Darwin Barney, which is a good smart game that will not cost the team with mental errors and a full out physical effort.
Third Base: C
The hot corner has lost its pop with the departure of Aramis Ramirez. The addition of Ian Stewart was supposed to protect from a total collapse of that production, but a wrist injury which was operated on today ended his season without the production to ease the loss of Ramirez. Luis Valbuena gives very good at bats and hits the ball hard, but is not the defender that Stewart is. Both played very hard, but only Stewart excelled in any one area, and that was defensively. There has been too much inconsistency offensively to mark this position any higher than a C. At this point, there is uncertainty in that position because neither Stewart or Valbuena instill confidence at this point. Maybe Stewart will be able to regain his hitting stroke when he returns, likely next season, if at all. However, for the time being, the hot corner has been nothing more than luke warm.
Short Stop: B+
It probably isn’t fair to not give the only player to play in every game, starting all but one, less than an A when he was expected to carry this 2012 team and has done his best to do so. However, a slow start on defense, and a slump at the plate to end the first half bring Starlin Castro into the B+ range of the spectrum. 2012 has shown us nothing but more positive in the still only 22 year old Castro, who, while making mental errors common from only young players, has shown an ability to work hard and improve each day, both at the dish and in the field. His defense is much better under the guidance of Dale Sveum and since Rudy Jaramillo was replaced as the hitting coach, the walks have started to come a little less infrequently. Castro stands to get a 4.o GPA as a baseball player as he matures and reaches his prime. Now, however, he is “only” a B+…with a lot more improvement that can be made in his game.
Even though Alfonso Soriano has been on a tear since May 15, the rest of the outfield has been pretty quiet. It is very difficult to grade this group with the additions and subtractions of players all season. Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Marlon Byrd, Reed Johnson, Bryan LaHair, and Jeff Baker have all been in and out of the line up with Soriano and David DeJesus, which has hurt the consistent play of the group, and brought the grade down. The defense has been much less of an adventure out there, with Soriano showing major improvement at the behest of Dave McKay. The defense has been nothing better than average, though, and the offense has not been anything to perk up over. Soriano brings this group to above average with his offensive numbers over the last two months, but just barely.
Reed Johnson has been an excellent pinch hitter, leading the league in pinch hits over the first half of the season. It is not, however, a cure all for what has been a hit and miss bench. Tony Campana, Joe Mather, and Jeff Baker have all been up and down. This group does not provide any punch off the bench, which makes it very difficult to come back or extend leads late in games. What this group does bring, though, is defense. They are all average, or above average, defenders at multiple positions.
Managing/ Coaching: B
It has been a rough season, and much of the coaching is done behind the scenes. For a team that has been around 20 games under .500 since the end of May, though, to compete and hustle everyday is a sign of strong coaching and leadership from the guys that aren’t playing everyday. Dale Sveum has assembled a good staff of teachers that are not resting on the laurels of a lost season. That makes them a good staff. There have been growing pains that come with any new manager and coaching staff, though, and that keeps them from being excellent. The potential of this group is very high because they all appear to be good, knowledgeable baseball men. If they stay together, there could be some grade A work in their future.
Team Grade: D+
You can’t go on a 9-4 run to end the first half of the season to get to only 19 games under .500 and expect to be better than a D+. It just cannot happen. If there were any expectations for this team at all, the first half would have been a clear failure, but in their absence, this team gets the benefit of the doubt. There have been bright spots, without question, with two All-Stars, each elected by the players, for the first time since 2008. As players like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija continue to grow, there is some reason for optimism, but at the moment, this is a team that is tough to watch day in and day out. The Cubs get a D+ so far in 2012, and if they finish with a mark that has fewer than three figures in the loss column, that grade probably rises to a C at season’s end.
Alright, that’s not entirely true, but it would seem as though it is coming soon since tonight’s line up features Bryan LaHair batting third and playing right field.
Tonight’s line up at the White Sox is:
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Bryan LaHair, RF
4. Alfonso Soriano, DH
5. Steve Clevenger, 1B
6. Darwin Barney, 2B
7. Luis Valbuena, 3B
8. Geovany Soto, C
9. Tony Campana, LF
Pitching: Matt Garza
- That’s right, Geovany Soto has been activated off of the disabled list today and will start. The Cubs will not go with three catchers, as had been discussed, though. Wellington Castillo has been sent back to Iowa.
- Also, Ryan Dempster has been placed on the 15 Day Disabled List today with a “Tight Lat.” This is an injury that Dempster has been playing through for much of his 22 consecutive scoreless innings, apparently. Clearly, it had been devastating his performance and required him to shut it down for a few starts. In his place, Scott Maine has been recalled, and Randy Wells will take Dempster’s place in the starting rotation.
Today’s game marked the first quarter of what has been a very down and up and down again 2012 season. Therefore, I find now to be a perfect time for the obligatory blog entry with premature grades and analysis of 41/162 games.
- Bryan LaHair has proven to be a worthy and able first baseman during the first quarter of the season. He’s hit for power, average, taken his walks, and done a respectable job manning first base in the field. While he is not the gold glove that Derek Lee or Carlos Pena had proven to be in their tenures with the Cubs, he is making the plays he is supposed to make. His bat is the important thing, though, and with talk of an Anthony Rizzo call
up potentially coming in the next few weeks, his bat could force a shuffle of the outfield. He could force the energetic Tony Campana to the bench to make room for David DeJesus in center, while he moves to right field. The takeaway is that he is swinging a strong enough bat to force another player out of the line up if and when Rizzo arrives, and that is a major positive for the Cubs’ offense.
- Tony Campana has been a spark since joining the roster and getting regular playing time. I know I took a cheap shot at Nyjer Morgan in an earlier post, but after watching Campana a little more, I don’t think he is a Morgan type as much as he is a Juan Pierre type of player. His range and versatility in the outfield is excellent, and he has found his swing this season, keeping the ball on the ground and slapping hits all over the park more than he did last season. With his speed, those are the things he needs to do to be a successful player in the majors. In the games in which he’s played, he has been mightily successful.
- The starting pitching has been fantastic, for the most part. With Chris Volstad being sent to Iowa, the one real weakness has been removed. Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and Paul Maholm have all been very good with only a few rough outings among them. Samardzija, Dempster, and Maholm were all asked to pitch in the Wrigley bam box this weekend, and all did a respectable job. There were no cheap home runs off of Maholm today, but he limited the damage to solo home runs and kept the team in the game. Ryan Dempster gave up back to back home runs that were completely wind aided. Both of those are harmless fly balls on a normal day. I can’t fault a guy for giving up a fly ball that the wind carries just into the basket. Especially one that has been as dominant as Dempster this season. Unfortunately, none of the three were rewarded with wins. Actually, the starters only have 10 wins to this point. They deserve more. They have been excellent.
- The defense gets an honorable mention in the good because it has been. Starlin Castro’s eight errors are kind of misleading. Overall, his defense, notably his throwing, have been much better. The work in spring has very much benefited Starlin in the early going, and it seems as though he is moving in the right direction. The same can be said about Darwin Barney, who is a converted short stop. Alfonso Soriano, for as much as we ride him has also been much, much better. He makes all of the plays he is supposed to make and has been better in his paths to the ball how he plays the ball of the wall. Lately, he has been hampered with a leg injury that has made his defense suffer a little bit, but he is probably an average defender in left thus far, and that is a vast improvement over the last few seasons. Ian Stewart and David DeJesus have been as advertised with their gloves. They have been excellent at their respective positions.
- Joe Mather. The man is another Reed Johnson type that is always ready and can play anywhere he’s needed. That’s a valuable commodity in baseball, and he has provided steady and consistent play whenever Dale Sveum has called on him. He is turning into a very nice addition to the bench and is earning himself more playing time.
- Only the Toronto Blue Jays have walked more batters than the Chicago Cubs. So, while the .239 batting average against Cubs’ pitching is good for 8th in baseball, the walks have been a huge problem and need to come down. Many of those walks have come late in games by the bullpen. Carlos Marmol is tied for the team lead with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija with 16. It is to be expected that the starters would walk more batters because they throw a significant number more innings, and for the most part, the starters have been solid in the BB category. The problems are with the pen. Marmol has 16 in 11.1 innings pitched. Rafael Dolis has 11 in 24 innings, Kerry Wood had 11 in his 8.1 innings before retirement this weekend, and James Russell has 10 in 17.1 innings. That’s 48 walks out of the late inning relief pitching, in 61.1 innings. Way too many…and a very big reason why the Cubs have 6 saves and 8 blown saves through 41 games.
- The rash of injuries to the catchers has been devastating and mind blowing. At current, Geovany Soto, Steve Clevenger, and Wellington Castillo are all banged up. That leaves the Cubs with the newly reacquired Koyie Hill and rookie Blake Lalli to serve is the back stops for a young bullpen. Hill is a veteran that has experience with the Cubs and is a reliable defensive catcher. He was an excellent addition with the onslaught of injuries to the catchers. Before the injuries, the catchers were fine. Geo got off to a slow start, but his bat was coming around as he was hitting some balls hard. Clevenger was said to have a “slump proof swing” by Manager and former Hitting Coach Dale Sveum. The catchers were not winning the team any games, but not costing them too many, either. Soto had two of his four errors in one inning, neither of which were his fault because Rodrigo Lopez should have fielded both balls, and Clevenger and Castillo each have a passed ball. Other than that, 2 errors for Soto in his other 27 games and doing a good job with the new and young pitchers. The catching has been about average, and lands in the bad category because all of that average catching is injured and has given way to reacquired veterans and rookie call ups.
- More about the walks, this time for the hitters. 105 in 41 games is good for 26th in baseball. The lack of patience at the plate has led to some quick innings, which don’t allow the team to see the weakest part of the bullpen…the middle relief. Any pitcher that is in middle relief is not the cream of the bullpen because if they were, they’d be starting, setting up, or closing. Unfortunately, the Cubs have only see starters, set up guys, and closers because there is almost no need to pull the starter for pitch count. Dale’s edict to take the first pitch, unless you can hit it a country mile has not brought about the patient approach the team needs. There have been some ugly swings and misses at pitches there is no chance at hitting. Bryan LaHair, David DeJesus, Ian Stewart, and Geovany Soto are the only guys in double figures. Guys like Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano, and Darwin Barney (who has 9 BB this season) should be in double figures. They get enough at bats that they should be seeing more free passes. They’re there for the taking…and the offense would benefit from a few gift base runners.
- I’ve spoken on the schedule before, so this will be brief. The games against good and surging teams have been a constant in the early going. Fortunately, the Houstons, Pittsburghs, and San Diegos are all right in front of the Cubs right now. This is a golden opportunity to win some games against some teams that the Cubs are better than. There is room for a better mark than 15-26 at the quarter pole, but many of those teams are, frankly, better than we are. I am not stunned that the record is 11 under right now because I would have looked at the schedule and thought it about right for this team against that schedule. The surge that we saw before the current 6 game skid is promising. I expect that to happen again this season, and to happen with a little more consistency as the season continues. That’s it for the ugly, though…tough schedule that led to some very up and down results.
Dale Sveum debuted the Opening Day line in today’s 6-3 loss to the Dodgers. It consisted of:
RF David DeJesus
2B Darwin Barney
SS Starlin Castro
LF Alfonso Soriano
3B Ian Stewart
CF Marlon Byrd
C Geovany Soto
P Ryan Dempster
While it is no great surprise to me that Ryan Dempster is getting the Opening Day nod, I had assumed that Matt Garza would be the Opening Day Starter since the beginning of Spring Training because of his leadership, skill, and his excellent second half last season. That is not meant to slight Dempster, who has been an effective, if not excellent pitcher in Chicago for nine years. I merely felt that Garza had earned the right. Dale Sveum thought differently than I did, and his opinion counts more than mine.
The Epstein Compensation Issue Just Won’t Die
Chris Carpenter’s elbow injury is apparently causing the Red Sox to explore their options in the deal sending Theo Epstein to the Cubs. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted that it probably will not go very far because the Red Sox were given Carpenter’s medical records and a physical when he was sent to Boston…and he passed. Cubs’ GM Jed Hoyer was asked today if the deal would be restructured saying, “No.”
The Cubs sent RHP Aaron Kurcz to the Sox and, yesterday, received 19 year old 1B Jair Bogaerts to complete the deal…one could only hope.
The Roster is Taking Shape, But is By No Means Set
There are very few slots remaining on the Opening Day roster, with the back-up catcher slot being given to the left handed Steve Clevenger, Jeff Samardzija being the third starter, and Randy Wells being sent to Iowa. However, with names being discussed in trade rumors, there are some potential openings on the roster. Marlon Byrd being moved (Atlanta or Washington) would open a spot for, most
likely, Reed Johnson to start, and another position player to make the roster.
What has become clear in the past five months is the willingness of the new front office staff to make any move that will benefit the roster, both now and in the future. While it would be in the team’s best interest to keep Marlon Byrd right now, the chances of him being a Cub when we are looking at final roster cuts in 2013 is slimmer than the new waist line he sports. Randy Wells could also be on the black as the Cubs look to improve their bullpen, although it would be hard to imagine getting anything better than a low level prospect for Wells since he failed to make the Cubs out of camp this year…even with their weaknesses in middle and long relief.
The Cubs have finished signing every player on their 40 man roster with 0-3 years of service time, according to ESPN.com’s Doug Padilla. The list of players is as follows:
Right-handed pitchers: Alberto Cabrera, Lendy Castillo, Casey Coleman, Rafael Dolis, Marcos Mateo, Samardzija and Casey Weathers.
Left-handed pitchers: Jeff Beliveau, John Gaub, Scott Maine, Russell and T. Wood.
Catchers: Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger.
Infielders: Barney, Adrian Cardenas, Castro, Bryan LaHair, Junior Lake, Anthony Rizzo and Josh Vitters.
Outfielders: Tony Campana, Dave Sappelt and Matt Szczur.
In my last post, on what I project to be the pitching staff this season, I referred to the Cubs’ pitching last season as “an unmitigated disaster.” I have no qualms about that statement because, in short, it was. It was not over- stated. It was not even putting a microscope on a weak spot from a team that struggled for a good portion of the season. It just was what it was. With all of that said, the guys behind the pitching last season contributed to it mightily. Last season, the Cubs were 29th in defensive efficiency with a .680 rating. That narrowly edged out the Minnesota Twins, who finished with a .679 DER. To contrast, the Tampa Bay Rays were first in MLB with a .724 DER. Nobody in the majors topped the 134 errors by the Cubs last season, which led to an expected last place finish in fielding percentage. The pitching was bad. The fielding was worse. If the Cubs have a snowball’s chance in Mesa, AZ of making the playoffs, those numbers need to improve dramatically.
The offense was very middle of the road, and the numbers bear that out. They finished between 10th and 20th in the majors in just about all offensive categories, except for stolen bases, where they were down toward the bottom of the league. Don’t expect that to get much better this season. With the losses of 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B Carlos Pena, and OF Kosuke Fukudome, a significant portion of the output from last season is gone. The biggest bats left in the line up are C Geovany Soto, LF Alfonso Soriano, and SS Starlin Castro. The only one of those guys that is consistent is Castro, so the offense figures to be a work in progress all season long.
The position players are going to be a fluid group for all 162 games, in spite of what Dale Sveum said about sticking to one line up earlier this week. As such, take this projection with the smallest of grains of salt…
Line- Up and Batting Order
1. RF David DeJesus – The free agent from Oakland figures to be the first of the lead off hitters this season, although that may change as the season wears on. He’s never played more than 144 games in a season, and hit .240 last season with the A’s. That figures to be an aberration, though, because his career average of .284 is significantly better. If he can be who he was before 2011, hitting in the neighborhood of .300 and getting on base around .350, he figures to hang on to the job for a while.
2. 2B Darwin Barney – Darwin wore down as the season wore on last season after a red hot start. He added some muscle this off-season, which may help him. Aside from the offensive struggles late, Darwin was a nice surprise for a bad team last season. His defense was average and he figures to continue to be an opportunistic base stealer, having nine and being caught twice last year. As he grows at the major league level, his numbers could rise. Or, he could be in for the dreaded sophomore slump. With the way his teammates and coaches have raved about his work ethic, I would bet on the former before the latter.
3. SS Starlin Castro– Starlin figures to settle into the third slot in the line-up this season, although Dale Sveum has said he will consult Starlin about where he wants to hit. The free swinging short stop doesn’t walk too much, but still managed to hit over .300 again last season, and led the NL in hits with 207 at age 21. He did have 29 errors in 158 games, which was actually an improvement in his defense from the 210 campaign, where he had 27 in
123 games. Those numbers are a bit misleading, though, because Starlin makes errors on plays that would be hits with others short stops because he has such great range. He also makes throws that a number of other short stops would not dream of making because of his sensational arm. Expect former major league short stop and new Cubs’ Skipper to work with Castro. And expect the errors to come down.
4. 1B Bryan LaHair – The reigning PCL MVP gets the opportunity to start, and will probably hit fourth in the line- up on the heels of his 38 HRs in AAA last season. He is not going to replace the production from Aramis Ramirez, but he did have a good showing after he was called up last season. He hit .288 with 2 HRs and 10 RBI in 59 at bats last season. If he can contribute at that pace, with about 500 at bats this season, he will be just fine. There will be a drop off in production in the clean up slot, but it will be manageable.
5. CF Marlon Byrd – Marlon had a tough year last season. His veteran presence in CF and in the middle of the line- up are important to a young team. He comes in slimmed down and expecting to improve on his .276 average and 9 HRs from last season. Considering he lost six weeks with the facial fracture suffered in Boston, it wasn’t nearly as bad, statistically, as it looks. If he can rebound and hit around .290 and give the team the 12-15 HRs and 60 or so RBIs that he typically gives, it will be a nice rebound for Marlon this year.
6. LF Alfonso Soriano – ‘Fonsi is the guy that epitomizes why Cubs’ fans hated Jim Hendry. Even though there is wide spread information available that says he was a product of the Tribune Co. ownership group, Hendry takes the fall for a guy that has hit no fewer than 20 HRs in this five seasons in Chicago. He is the last known threat in the line- up, too. His 26 HRs and 88 RBIs last season were a strong number for an aging outfielder. He is not the guy that everybody thought the Cubs were getting before the 2007 season, but he is still a legit power threat, and the streaky hitter can carry the team for weeks at a time when he gets hot. He will likely continue to be a defensive liability that is replaced by either Reed Johnson or Tony Campana late in games when the team is leading, but I would expect, barring injury, another 25 HRs and 80 RBIs from Soriano in a status quo season for the veteran.
7. C Geovany Soto – The bad news about Geo is that he goes up and down in his production from year to year. The good news is that last year was a down year, so he is due a good year. After slimming down again, Soto thinks that he can keep the weight off this time. He will likely give the Cubs the 20 HRs and 60 RBIs that he has been in the ballpark of giving, but if he brings his average back to around .280 and starts taking the walks he took in 2010, it should be a resurgent year for Soto. He called last season a “confidence problem.” If he can manage to focus on each at- bat, many of his issues might correct themselves, and we could see a much better Soto in 2012.
8. 3B Ian Stewart – Remember 2010…when Tyler Colvin had a good bat, and made Cubs’ fans think about him being the first real fixture in RF since Sammy Sosa? I introduce the you the Colorado Rockies’ version of Colvin. In 2009 and 2010, Stewart was a legit hitter with the Rockies with 25 and 18 HRs, respectively. His average has never blown anybody away, but when he was able to put the ball in play, it was generally going to be with some authority. Now, he’s a Cub after being traded for the aforementioned Colvin, along with infielder, DJ LeMahieu in the ultimate “change of scenery” swap. If he can recapture any of the offense he had in 2009 and 2010 under Hitting Coach Rudy Jaramillo, he might be able to fend off slowly progressing Josh Vitters this season.
IF Jeff Baker – Super utility player, Baker, can play First, Second, Third, and the corner outfield with some effectiveness, and hits well against left handed pitching. He will play a lot this season, in pinch hitting and platoon roles in multiple positions.
OF Reed Johnson – “Web Gem” is going to back up all three outfield spots this season, and will be the “go to” defensive replacement for Soriano late in games this year. Reed is a strong veteran that seems to deliver in the biggest moments with either a defensive play that saves runs or with a huge hit. I wouldn’t expect anything different than what Reed did last season in the 2012 campaign.
OF Tony Campana – Tony’s game changing speed is the reason he will likely break camp with the big league team, being the Cubs’ lone serious stolen base threat. He is going to be a pinch runner and defensive replacement when he gets into the game, with the occasional start in any of the three outfield slots. This is the first person that will head back to Iowa if and when any of Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, or Dave Sappelt join the big league team.
IF Adrian Cardenas – The 24 year old middle infielder stole the roster spot held by Blake DeWitt, and figures to make the team as a back up at both middle infield positions after being claimed off of waivers from the Oakland A’s. He’s a left handed hitter, who had strong numbers in AAA last season, hitting .314, and runs better than Dewitt.
C Wellington Castillo – With the departure of Koyie Hill, the opportunity to make the major league team on a permanent basis opens up for Castillo, after seeing some time last year with Soto injured. Castillo is a good hitter and a strong defensive catcher. If he proves that he can handle the young pitching staff, he is the favorite over Steve Clevenger and Jason Jaramillo to win the back up role out of camp.
Other Expected Contributors
CF Brett Jackson – Brett Watch 2012 is on in full force, as this could be the year where the Cubs’ top prospect makes his debut in front of the ivy at Wrigley. I would anticipate that to be the case at some point. That means Marlon Byrd either moves over to one of the corners (left field if someone can be found to take Soriano) or Byrd himself gets traded.
IF Blake DeWitt – Blake probably will not make the roster out of camp, but he will most likely be with the team at some point over the course of the season. He is the first guy up if there is an injury to any infielder because he can play second, third, short, and the corner outfield. He may be released out of camp or a trade could be sought if he fails to make the 25 man roster out of camp.
1B Anthony Rizzo– The 1B of the future, Rizzo will start the season in Iowa, but I would be stunned if he isn’t with the major league team before July. If Ian Stewart or Bryan LaHair struggle or get hurt, this is the guy that will
probably get called up. While he probably will not start over veteran Jeff Baker, he would likely be with the major league team to get some spot starts as a left handed hitter.
OF Dave Sappelt – Dave was acquired from the Reds in the Sean Marshall trade and has plus speed and plays good defense. He got some light duty with the Reds last season, and figures to be with the Cubs at some point of the season, as the first man up if there is an injury.
OF Matt Szczur – Matt is the “other” outfield prospect that figures to make is MLB debut. He also figures to be the RF of the future, playing next to Brett Jackson when he gets to Chicago. Matt is a Five Tool prospect and could find his way to Chicago this season if there are injuries or if the team falls back early.
3B Josh Vitters – Josh will probably be an injury or September call up this season. His slow development has been hidden by the fact that Aramis Ramirez has been at third for the last eight years. He seemingly figured it out last season in the minors. If Ian Stewart struggles this season, he is going to get his opportunity. At 22, he is young enough, but after four years of minor league baseball behind him, his leash to figure it out is shortening.
The youth of this team is the first thing that should be noticed. There will be some offensive and defensive growing pains with the core youth with this team. Like I declared in my preview post, I do not expect the Cubs to be a viable playoff threat this season, and will struggle to get to .500 if they manage to. What cannot be understated is the talent of the collection of players being led by Dale Sveum. His devotion to fundamentals and playing hard should suit this roster perfectly. If the can grow, this core group will be a viable threat in 2013 and beyond. This season, though, is for “building.” And it is going to start with this foundation of players gaining invaluable experience at the major league level this season.