Two years, in sports, is an eternity. In the last two years, the Cubs went from being among the bottom of the farm system rankings to among the top, if not the very top. Over the last two summers, we have swooned over the bat speed of Javier Baez, gushed at Albert Almora’s defensive ability in center, looked wide eyed at Kris Bryant’s power, and Soler-gasmed at one of the biggest signings of the Epstein/ Hoyer era. Two of the cornerstone prospects, two years ago, were Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. Now, in some circles, those guys are busts.
In every respect, it is completely unfair to call either Jackson or Vitters a bust. Neither has had an extended look at the major league level. And both have performed in the minor leagues. The “bust” conversations are had among those who have expected to see them in the majors at this point. It doesn’t help that the only thing we heard about either of them was Brett Jackson being demoted to AA Tennessee while he continued to try to control the strike out problems that have plagued him. We didn’t actually hear anything at all about Josh Vitters. Mostly because it’s pretty hard to talk about a guy who didn’t play a whole lot because of persistent injury issues in 2013.
Josh Vitters is making is overdue transition to being a full time outfielder, which can help mitigate his defensive struggles. After only 100 plate appearances at Iowa last season, and 88 at-bats, Vitters needs to bounce back from a shortened and injury plagued 2013. Thing of it is, when he played, he was fine. his .295/.380/.511 triple slash line in an age 23 season in AAA isn’t anything to gloss over, even if it wasn’t very much. The kid can hit. He’s performed every step of the way in the minors, albeit with an adjustment period after arriving. A broader view of his numbers shows us that in 552 plate appearances in AAA have him at .302/.361/.513. The biggest knock on Vitters is that he was selected so long ago that people forget that he will not turn 25 until the end of August next season. If he can get and stay healthy and come to spring training ready, Vitters has to have as realistic a shot as anyone at making the roster, for two reasons. First, the Cubs are not going to be competitive next season and it would make sense to get a look at him. And second, because on a team full of fourth and fifth outfielders, there are not clear runaways for roster spots, outside of Junior Lake, Nate Schierholtz, and Ryan Sweeney. Even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day 25 man roster, it would be a surprise not to see him get an extended look in the majors next season, if for no other reason than to see what he can do there. His 2012 call-up was the very definition of a small sample size. 109 plate appearances were unspectacular (.121/.193/.202), but it’s ridiculous to give up on a kid who was 22 and playing in mop up duty in a lost season.
Brett Jackson is just over a year older than Vitters, but is similarly forgotten. He will be turning 26 in early August. Also, like Vitters, his 2013 was hampered by injuries. Starting in Spring Training with shoulder inflammation and then having toe and calf problems as the season wore on, Jackson never really got it going. He was limited to 367 plate appearances between Arizona, Tennessee, and Iowa, and his strike out problems persisted through a reworked swing after spending last winter with former manager, Dale Sveum. When Jackson has made contact, he’s been fine, with BABIPs generally hanging between .350 and .400 through his full minor league seasons. It’s the hole in his swing that drives down his average. One thing Jackson does have going for him is his walk rate, which has been at or above 10% for most of his career, including his brief stint in the majors in 2012. Between his speed and power, he too has ability that can’t be simply discarded because of an arbitrary timeline for success. Also, like Vitters, it would be a surprise if he didn’t see some time at the major league level this season, assuming he stays healthy.
Vitters and Jackson are both obviously talented. They would not have been selected in the first round of their respective drafts if that were not true. Both would have likely seen time in Chicago last season if it weren’t for injuries. This season is important for both, to stay healthy and to take the next step. With Almora, Soler, and potentially Kris Bryant coming behind them in the outfield, their opportunities may be limited by the surge of the newer prospects. Still, it is far too early to write off either one. We still don’t know what they are or what they can be, whether that be solid regulars or AAAA players like Bryan LaHair. And as evidenced by both of these players, the value (real or perceived) of a prospect can change quickly, so it is still in the best interest of the organization to try to get everything they can from these two assets.
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.
All of the deadline talk, and justifiably so, has been centered around Matt Garza to this point. There are also some other players who have been talked about as candidates to move on as the deadline approaches. David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Alfonso Soriano, and Kevin Gregg have all been spoken of as players who could very likely be traded as the deadline nears, or at least wouldn’t cause anybody any surprise if they were moved. There is also a list of attractive players that the Cubs could move who are not talked about prominently as the deadline inches closer. They fit the needs and holes of teams in contention and are low cost options to upgrade a roster, and it would make perfect sense if the Cubs were fielding calls about these players…
2B Darwin Barney:
The Cubs are stacked in the middle infield in the minor leagues at just about every level. With Logan Watkins at AAA Iowa, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez at AA Tennessee, and even Gioskar Amaya at Low-A Kane County, middle infielders are of no shortage in the Cubs’ organization. Darwin Barney has done everything he can to become a member of the core group of players that the Cubs use to make their eventual run, but his limitations with the bat seem to make him less attractive than other options. With a Gold Glove in his pocket and over a year before he even gets to arbitration, he could make a team looking for a low cost second baseman, without a need for a highly productive bat, very happy. The need doesn’t even have to be strictly second base. Barney came up as a short stop, and played third base when he first came up to the majors. He could be quite the defensive addition for any team looking to shore up its infield defense. Darwin actually fits into a line-up like Detroit’s perfectly. Incumbent Ramon Santiago plays both offensively and defensively at about replacement level. Replacing him with Darwin Barney doesn’t hurt their prolific offense at all, and very much shores up their middle infield. With the rumor that Detroit was interested last year, it makes sense that they would be interested again this year, given how close they came to winning a championship last year. Darwin Barney won’t net any team’s top prospect, but he should net a solid prospect or retread a la Scott Feldman. And with the depth already mentioned in the system, Darwin is expendable.
IF Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom:
Luis Valbuena is another player who could see himself on the move as the deadline approaches. Because he is an everyday player with the Cubs, he has displayed what he can do with the bat from the left side of the plate, and has shown to be more than capable as a defender. A team looking for a left handed hitting platoon infielder would love to have a player like Luis Valbuena for his ability to work counts, take walks, hit for power and field three infield positions well. A team like the Yankees, who have had a hard time keeping players on the field may take a long look at a Luis Valbuena. He would fit into the gaping holes left by repeated injuries and days off because of the advanced age of regular players, and his bat would play well with the short porch and right field power allies at Yankee Stadium. The Rays could also have interest in a player with his skill set. He wouldn’t net much of a return, but if there is a low level player in a system that catches Jed or Theo’s eye, don’t doubt for a second that the original “low risk waiver flyer” could be flipped for a lottery ticket at the deadline. Cody Ransom is in pretty much the same situation as Valbuena, except he’s right handed, comes with less control, and more age.
P Carlos Villanueva:
Maybe the least surprising player on this list, and quite possibly the most likely to be traded, Villanueva is a player who has been talked about as a trade candidate. He was merely overshadowed by the talk of Garza and Feldman, among the pitchers. Villanueva is particularly valuable because of his versatility as both a starter and reliever. While specific locations for him may be tough to pin point, it is reasonable to say that any team looking for a ‘pen arm with the ability to give you a solid swing start from time to time would be interested…which boils down to pretty much everybody. Again, it would be a surprise if Villanueva netted anything of note, but a middling prospect in somebody’s system who hasn’t progressed or a retread could be an expected return.
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.
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.
The recap comes a day late, as I was at Wrigley yesterday, and driving from Madison for a day game requires an early departure…
(* NOTE ON SCOUTING REPORTS- I am not a scout. My reports are collaborations of Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, and MLB.com scouting reports. Typically, I take information common to at least 2/3 of the reports. My thinking is, if more than one scout is seeing something, there is more likelihood that it’s a solid piece of information.)
As I noted on Thursday night, the Cubs selected big time power hitting 3B/ OF Kris Bryant with the second overall pick. This was a mild surprise because the Cubs were tied to one of the two big name pitchers, Mark Appel from Stanford and Jonathan Gray from Oklahoma. It isn’t a big surprise that the Cubs are going to start with Bryant at 3B, according to Jason McLeod, who leads the player development staff. I suspect, though, his size is going to push him into one of the outfield corners, where he projects to be an average or above fielder (At this point, I will allow you to drool over an outfield of Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler…). He was drafted for his bat, though. His 31 HRs outpaced roughly 3/4 of division one college teams. Bryant, himself, says he could step in and play in the majors now. The earliest I would expect him to suit up in the big league uniform is as a potential September call up in 2014. Assuming he gets signed and he shows some advanced skills, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see him start at AA Tennessee, as early as this season.
Second Round pick, LHP Rob Zastryzny has been tagged by everyone outside of the Cubs organization as a “finesse” pitcher. That’s not a totally unfair assessment of him, with a fastball that ranges from mid-80s to mid-90s, but being able to crank it up to the mid-90s shows some good ability to change speeds. Overall, he has a three pitch array of Fastball-Change Up- Slider, which he commands fairly well, and all have the chance to be roughly league average. The consensus is that he has a ceiling of a middle of the rotation starter, but his higher floor makes him a safe second round pick.
As the draft progressed, the Cubs continued to select college pitching prospects. The 4th-8th round picks were all pitchers out of college or community college, which was entirely expected heading into the draft. The 3rd round pick, CF Jacob Hannemann was fascinating because of his inexperience at the collegiate level, but the token comparison to Jacoby Ellsbury has made a lot of fans excited about him. While he is behind the progression curve for his age because he went on his Mormon mission after high school (should be around AA), his upside makes him a strong pick at that point in the draft. The pitching selections seemed to echo the comments by Jed Hoyer before the draft, that the best relief pitchers are failed starters. It would stand to reason, assuming they sign, that Tyler Skulina, Trey Masek, Scott Frazier, David Garner, and Sam Wilson will all get the opportunity to start in the minor leagues, and moved to the ‘pen if required.
Overall, I disagree with the notion that this draft was a signal that the rebuild is being pushed back, as was a popular comment shortly after Bryant was selected. It seems to me that the Cubs took the player they thought would have had the most impact. While it may have stunted the growth of the organizations young pitching by not having one of the big arms from this draft in the system, it does not set back the rebuild. The system is packed pretty tightly with some solid prospects in both the infield and outfield, so there is some chance that turns itself into young pitching…not to mention the existence of this year’s trade deadline. Also, Steve Stone said on CSN Chicago’s Sportsnet Central that the selection of Bryant means that Starlin Castro is going to get traded. That’s absurd. Tying the selection of Bryant and a potential trade of Castro is like saying that tripping on a curb is going to cause food poisoning. No wonder the Cubs and ESPN canned Stone.