Tagged: Theo Epstein

Too Early To Quit On Vitters and Jackson

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.

Why We Need To Pump the Brakes On Tanaka

With the Christmas Day news that Masahiro Tanaka will indeed be posted by his team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, we’ve all started fawning (more than before we knew for sure he was coming) over a guy who could become one of the pieces the Cubs can use to get to the next level in the rebuild.  In fact, Theo Epstein was talking about just this kind of player when he said that he wishes there was free agency for 25 year olds.  There is something we should all consider when we start talking about Tanaka, though, and it is that he is going to cost a lot of money.  And he’s Japanese.

Being Japanese matters.  In Japan, running up high pitch counts is a badge of honor.  Unlike in the United States, where arms are nurtured and cared for, they are worn out and used up until exhaustion over there.  And unlike the US, where athletes merely hide injuries, but eventually relent and tell someone they have an injury, pitchers in Japan work until it is no longer physically possible.  All of those things matter.  His potential for being injured is higher because his arm wasn’t cared for like that of a college pitcher in the US.  That’s not to say he will get hurt, but it happens to pitchers more so than it does to just about any other athlete imaginable.  His previous environment only heightens that risk.  It’s the  extent of the heightening risk that is unknown.

None of this is to say that he will bust.  There is no way to know for sure that Tanaka will get hurt, and even with advanced imaging and scans on his elbow, there’s no way to know for sure that he will get hurt or won’t get hurt.  I am quite positive that he will be X-Ray’d, MRI’d, CT’d, poked, prodded, and tickled like an Elmo doll before any team actually signs him between now and the end of January.

Injury risk has to be part of the equation.  Theo was burned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing when he was with Boston, though.  I am sure he remembers.  And I am sure there will be a calculated gamble when it comes to signing Tanaka, whoever lands him.  His age helps.  Being young means his soft tissue is a little more elastic than it would be if he were in his late 20s or early 30s, as most of the other Japanese pitchers were when they came to the US.

EDIT: To clarify, I used fatigue interchangeably with overexertion, which I should not have.  Having an exertion that is normal with a normal recovery period can make muscle stronger while relieving stress on tendons and ligaments.  That is consistent with the way every team “stretches out” their starting pitchers during Spring Training.  Overexertion is working until the point of physical exhaustion.  Remarkable weakness to the point of significantly reduced velocity is an overexertion, and doing it as repeatedly as Tanaka has can (but  not necessarily will) increase the risk of injury.  There is no guarantee that he will get hurt, but since he has been exerting himself at this level for so long, and is just now reaching his physical “prime,” there is some  risk to signing him.  Whether that risk is the same as signing a pitcher who is older, like a Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez or if it is similar to signing Mark Prior just before he was injured can’t be known.  The key confounding variable to all of this is: Everyone is different.

What is unsaid about Tanaka is that he does pose an injury risk that is likely greater than an American pitcher at 25 because of the strain that Japanese baseball puts on its pitchers.  The recency bias tells us that Yu Darvish looks sensational and like he was worth every penny the Rangers paid for him.  That bias excludes the fact that there have been a lot of Japanese pitchers who have come to the United States as highly touted players who have just flamed out because of injuries or because the competition here is greater than it is over there.

Jeff Sullivan wrote about Tanaka at Fangraphs, in which he said that Tanaka is the market’s best starter, which is true, and that international free agents “represent limitless possibilities, and people naturally shift their attention toward the positive extreme.”  That is also true.  Sullivan dives deeper into the scouting report of Tanaka, which is tremendous, and his numbers back the limitless talent. But like any player, especially pitcher, Tanaka has an injury risk that cannot be ignored.  It will not be by the front office, and it shouldn’t be by fans.  After all, we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?

Right, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior?

Cubs Have Holes to Fill This Winter

Now that the World Series is over and the Cardinals lost (HOORAY!), we can get to the task at hand.  The off-season.  The Cubs are chocked full of needs this winter.  Those will have to be addressed going into 2014 to keep the rebuilding plan on schedule.

These are the most pressing…

1.  Find a new manager

After the firing of Dale Sveum, the next guy to lead the Cubs on-field is the first concern.  With the playoffs having ended, the obstacle of candidates still playing is over.  To be honest, I don’t care who they hire, as long as he fits the mold of what the front office is looking for.  That Dale was the guy for a while, then suddenly became not the guy doesn’t matter.  Great organizations are stable.  And since 2010, this will be the fourth manager.  That’s not stable.  Find the guy.  The right guy.  So we’re not going through this mess again in two years.

2.  Find some outfield depth

After losing Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and Scott Hairston to midseason trades, it is going to be important for the Cubs to replace that lost depth at the major league level.  The preference would be to sign veterans on short (1-2 years) deals while the youngsters get ready.  With Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, and Junior Lake, there is a need for two more outfielders.  Preferably one who can play center and one who hits right handed.  To be clear, I do not see Shin Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury as viable options.  I have no visions of the Cubs spending on either of those players with the talent that is coming behind them.  I do see players like Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore, Corey Hart, and Tyler Colvin as options.  Colvin is the standard “buy low flier” that this front office has taken in the past, and with his talent and familiarity with the Cubs, and the admission that the Stewart – Colvin trade may have been a mistake, he could be back.  The others are veterans who have had some success, but have also had injury issues.  Any resurgence could make them trade bait in July, and they all likely come relatively cheap.  David DeJesus is also an option if the Rays decide not to pick up his option for next season

3. Trade Darwin Barney

The popular defensive wizard is not part of the core.  He’s a below average hitter.  And he’s getting a bit older.  There is a market for him, though.  His value, however, is at its highest point right now.  He’s just now entering arbitration.  Teams who have a need at second base can use him.  The Cubs do not have that need.  They are stocked full of middle infielders, from Starlin Castro to Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, Logan Watkins, and Luis Valbuena, the Cubs have no shortage of middle infield options.  All of whom are younger than Barney.  And all of whom possess greater offensive upside and the potential to continue good defense at second base in the future.  The return for Barney won’t be ground breaking, but it should be a decent prospect, or maybe two if Epstein and Hoyer break out the mask and gun.  Now, though, is the best and most logical time to move him.

4.  Address the rotation

The rotation was surprisingly good last season, throughout the year.  There was a lot of depth that withstood trades, and some players emerged as legitimate long term options.  Travis Wood showed that he is a solid mid to back of the rotation starter.  Jake Arrieta showed that he is still talented and should get a shot going forward.  Edwin Jackson had a rough first year, but with his contract and history, he will be back in the rotation next season, and I would venture to guess he has a better second year with the Cubs.  It is the very top of the rotation and the very bottom that should be addressed.   Jeff Samardzija walked more, stuck out fewer, and allowed more runners to score in 2013 than 2012.  The differences aren’t startling, but they exist.  Could it have been fatigue from the most innings in a season he’s thrown?  Frustration from another near 100 losses?  Displeasure over his contract situation?  A combination of all three?  I don’t have the answer.  What I do have the answer to is Samardzija getting rocked a number of times.  And it happening a number of times at home.  That’s not an ace.  That’s a third in the rotation type pitcher, at best.  I am not sold on Japanese stud Masahiro Tanaka being an answer at the top of the rotation, either.  Too many Japanese pitchers have flamed out because of arm issues.  I understand his stuff is excellent, and he’s still young.   That may make him a nice investment, but not for the $100+ million it’s going to cost.  If the Cubs get him, I’ll hope for the best, but I won’t be at all surprised with the worst.  As far as the back end of the rotation is concerned, bringing back Scott Baker, giving Chris Rusin a shot at a full season, and low cost free agents are all options.

5.  Back-up catcher

I have a tough time with the idea of signing a Brian McCann (because of age and injury every bit as much as his high douche factor).  All things being equal, I would hope the starting catcher market doesn’t treat Dioner Navarro as he would like, and he comes back.  He had a nice year, seemed to have a good relationship with Wellington Castillo, and is a reliable backstop.  Whoever comes in should take a back seat to Castillo, though.  Big money free agent catchers shouldn’t (and probably won’t) be a priority.  If the Cubs can land a guy like Jarrod Saltalamacchia for a decent price, great.  if not, a LH hitting backup will work just fine.

One of the great parts about baseball is how this is going to play out throughout the off-season.  The Cubs are not going to compete for a World Series next season, most likely.  It could, though, bring the first wave of prospects to Wrigley Field.  Javier Baez and Kris Bryant very well could debut with the big league club at some point next summer.  In addition, could be up after being acquired in trades.  It appears that the worst is behind the Cubs in the rebuild.  Much of the “acquire talent at all costs” is over because of the amount of talent in the organization.  The time now is for the build up.  While the Cubs will continue to add pieces and make the team better and organization healthier, this off-season is the beginning of the build up of a contender.  Whether it be adding placeholders for a prospect, adding leadership to help those prospects grow, or the eventual hiring of a new manager, the fruits of two years of painful big league play are beginning to ripen.

Look no further than what’s been going on in Arizona.  Let the off-season begin!

 

The Mythical Regressions of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo

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.”

And…

“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). 

Cubs Struggles Not All That Surprising

On July 29th, the Cubs returned home for the first time since the All-Star Break, seven games under .500, and without Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, who’d both been dealt on the west coast road trip.  Things looked good.  They’d won the trip against the Rockies, DBacks, and Giants, in spite of moving Garza and Soriano.  But some warning signs were there…

First, they weren’t scoring all that much in San Francisco.  They scored six runs in the series.  It’s not like they were lighting the world on fire.  They were just less futile than the Giants that particular weekend.  And the Giants hadn’t been playing all that well, anyway.  The Cubs were playing an equal, in spite of what that banner from last October might have said.  The Giants simply aren’t all that good this season.

Coming home, they got a series with the lowly Brewers.  Who are in the division.  Which, this season, automatically means inexplicably losing at least two of the games.  Lo and behold, they drop three of the four, all of which were in typical 2013 Cubs fashion.  Pedro Strop gave up the only five runs he’s allowed as a Cub in the first game.  They dropped both games of a doubleheader, blowing leads on a James Russell home run allowed in the first game and a Kevin Gregg blown save in the second, with a third strike call that wasn’t and a soft line out to short that wasn’t helping them blow the lead in the ninth inning.

After the Brewers, they got the Dodgers for four.  As of today, the Dodgers have won 40 out of their last 48.  In case you weren’t sure, an .833 winning percentage is freakin good.  They’ve been killing everybody lately.  It would have been a surprise if the Cubs won more than once in the series, and it doesn’t come as any surprise that they didn’t win at all.  The Dodgers are a buzz saw right now, and the Cubs were a thin sheet of plywood at that point.  Sure, they could have scored some runs in the last two, but it’s not earth shattering news that they didn’t…they haven’t been scoring all that much all season long.

The road is a little more kind to the Cubs.  Splitting six games with the Phillies and Cardinals is a good result.  In spite of their record, the Phillies still have some talent on their roster, and the Cardinals have been toward the top of the standings in all of baseball since Opening Day.  Winning half of your road games is a good thing, so no complaints there.

Getting the Reds, and Mat Latos when you get back home isn’t the house warming gift a struggling offense wants or needs.  And Latos was nasty on Monday night.  So they got shut out again by another good pitcher.  They got to Homer Bailey a little bit, which was nice to see, but Bronson Arroyo, who’s pretty solid, and loves to stick it to the Cubs for whatever reason, shut them down again.

I give you that nice summary of the painful last two and a half weeks to tell you this…all of those (with the exception of the Brewers) are pretty decent teams.  The Cubs just aren’t.  Not after trading away another 40% of the rotation and the clean-up hitter.

Let’s go back to spring, with a refresher of what Theo said…

“What I want to avoid is the middle ground.  It’d be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick. We’re not hiding that. There’s no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?

We’re going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season. If we have a legitimate chance to push for a playoff spot then 2013 can become our primary focus. If we think a playoff spot’s not in the cards, there will be no concern for appearances or cosmetics whatsoever. We’ll continue to address our future and trade off some pieces that would keep us respectable.’

And presto…the team who didn’t have a chance for the playoffs this season made their cold assessment, looked to the future, moved some parts that could keep it respectable, and it’s gotten ugly against some better than average competition.  And we’re bitching about not scoring any runs?  WE WERE TOLD THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN SIX MONTHS AGO!  If you thought the Cubs had a chance to win the division or compete for a playoff spot, you were one of three things: on the team and have to believe you’re not going to suck just to keep your own sanity, a big time optimist, or delusional.  I had the Cubs, as they arrived at camp, hanging around .500.  (I also had the Pirates finishing dead last in the division, so take it for what you will)  I made that prediction early because nobody for sure can never tell who’s going to stay or go, or get hurt.  And, the team that broke camp, actually played well enough to be near .500 every month except for April (10-16) and thus far in August.

The moral of the story here is simple…It is ridiculous to be on board with the rebuild and bemoan that the team isn’t all that good during the middle of it.  It’s even more ridiculous to be critical of how ugly it is when we were told explicitly by the guy who was going to decide on who to move and when to move them that it was probably going to happen.  None of this is a surprise.  If it is, you haven’t been paying attention.

I now return you to waiting for Javier Baez to hit another home run in AA.

Don’t Say Mid-Market Like It’s A Bad Thing

Theo Epstein spoke today, and like all times when Theo has something to say, it’s generated some buzz.

“A million here, a million there, that’s what we can afford.  We’re not in position to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency. But if we can do it in that (international free agency) market, we might as well try to monopolize it as best we can.”

That line from Theo has started the “mid-market” talk among fans and media, alike.  Patrick Mooney put out a great piece which explicitly called the Cubs just that.  Then again, knowing the Cubs’ history of flushing money down the crapper and how the landscape of baseball is changing with the new labor agreement, is that such a bad thing?

At the risk of repeating myself, the way the Cubs are going about their business is the best way to do it.  Free agency is not going to produce a team that goes from the bottom of the division to the top after just one winter, like the Cubs managed to do between the 2006 and 2007 seasons.  There are no quick fixes.  So spending “a million here, a million there” on international free agents and by acquiring a load of talent to retool from within is the last best option.  Minor league talent is currency.  Teams can develop and field that talent when it reaches the point major league ready (unlike the Cubs have…see Patterson, Corey; Pie, Felix) , or they can use it to acquire established players…which is the “new free agency.”  Teams who are selling off veterans like the Cubs have the last couple of seasons are essentially teams of free agents who can be had if the price is right.

Drafting and development hasn’t been a strength of the Cubs in the past.  Bleacher Nation had a piece yesterday that should make the former front office want to huddle in a corner and cry.  You think the team we’re watching is bad?  Take a look at that roster.  It makes me cringe.  The good news is, the article BN referenced is linked, showing all 30 teams…including the Red Sox, which was led by Theo Epstein.  In a weird, mid-market sort of way, a number of the major pieces of what made the Red Sox good over the second half of his tenure were homegrown…like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholtz, and Jonathan Papelbon while players like Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez were used as currency to obtain other useful parts.

The era of big market supremacy has passed.  In all reality, it never really existed.  Even the Yankees in the ’90s were mostly homegrown with some complimentary free agents sprinkled in.  It is time to embrace the “mid-market” philosophy of spending wisely and developing players…because it works.

Javier Baez May Be Forcing His Way Into Cubs’ 2014 Plans

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.

Photo: Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies

Photo: Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies

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.

As Deadline Passes, Cubs’ Priority Should Be Extending Dale Sveum

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.

Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

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?

Alfonso Soriano Traded To Yankees; A Lot of Questions Need Answering In His Absense

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.”

And lastly…

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.

Under The Radar Deadline Deal Candidates

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.