For those of us who treat this as more than a hobby, the coverage of the off-season has been significantly more extensive. Since this is only a hobby for me (because of my other actual obligations…all to varying degrees less interesting and fun than following baseball), there have been few and far between since the end of the season. With some time, though, now is a perfect time to talk about the thing that has dominated the Cubs’ off-season…PITCHING!
Today, Edwin Jackson was introduced at Wrigley Field. With the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa, resigning Shawn Camp, and having Arodys Vizcaino coming off of surgery and being ready for 2013, it seems as though the Cubs will have a surplus of pitching talent to get them through this season. That is something they did not have last season, especially after losing Matt Garza, who is progressing nicely though his rehab from a stress injury last July, and trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm at the deadline. At the end of the season, LHP Travis Wood was the ace, after the team sat Jeff Samardzija in early September. That wasn’t an ideal situation, and it was a key reason why the Cubs lost 101 games.
The flip side to the off-season is the stunning lack of movement in the rest of the division. The Brewers have not done much with their staff, adding journeyman lefty and former Cub, Tom Gorzelanny, who I like as a solid reliever and spot starter, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking he is anything more than pitching depth for a team who had all kinds of trouble in the bullpen last season, and ended up losing Francisco Rodriguez this off-season. They also added Burke Badenhop, who has had an up and down (as in between the majors and the minors) career with the Marlins and Rays. No world beaters. They seem to be enamored with Mike Fiers, who was very good after debuting with the club last season. My own analysis of him is that he reminds me a lot of Randy Wells.
I wish I could say something bad about the Cardinals and their pitching. I really do. They haven’t done much (anything?..I haven’t seen any moves at all from them in the pitching department this off-season), but they seem to grow pitchers as well as anyone in the game. With Chris Carpenter coming back, I’m sure they’ll be fine. It makes me physically ill. Seriously.
The Reds still have a lot of arms. They still, in my estimation, have the best bullpen in the majors, even though they’re moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation. They, too, have a nice strong staff that, in my opinion, keeps them the favorite to repeat as the division champions in 2013. Again, it makes me sick…but not as sick as the Cardinals make me. Nothing makes me that sick.
The Pirates confuse me. I genuinely thought they were trying to compete…and then they went and traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. They also resigned Jason Grilli, who the Cubs were in on. Without being too familiar with who the Pirates have coming up, they’re current rotation and bullpen screams average, and their back end looks shaky with the loss of Hanrahan. I can only muse that this season they don’t want to disappoint their fans by playing well for the first four months before imploding with the uncanny appearance of controlled demolition for a third year in a row.
The Astros are gone…for those that forgot. They’re off the the AL West to play for 110 losses at the hands of the Angels, Rangers, and A’s. Good Luck, ‘Stros…you’re going to need it. Desperately.
What it all means…
I can’t for the life of me see how the Cubs win this division next season. I just can’t. They do figure to be considerably better than their 101 losses last season. They could make a strong push at third with the Pirates and Brewers regressing. All of this is interesting in early January, but the off-season is by no means over, so something could cook up between now and the time pitchers and catchers report next month. The Cubs have a much improved corps of pitchers. That group would have been made much more potent had they actually signed Anibal Sanchez. Theo Epstein and Tom Ricketts went to visit him personally, and the deal was reported, but like others for the Cubs, was prematurely reported and ended up not to be. GM Jed Hoyer, today, revealed that he went to visit Edwin Jackson, who actually did sign. At 29, he is on the side of 30 that the Cubs are looking for in players to add and build with, and having pitched in the division with the Cardinals in 2011, there is familiarity with the NL Central, and he pitched well while with St. Louis. Teaming him up with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, there is a solid top three, and there is a good group of Baker, Feldman, Wood, and Villanueva competing for two spots at the back end of the rotation.
The Cubs have to know they can’t lose like they did last season and expect fans to turn out. The fans stopped coming last season because it was nearly pointless to go watch them give up runs in bunches. This season figures to be different. Even if they trade some of their pitching (GARZA!), they’ll have some fall back pieces to lean on so they don’t fall off the side of the Earth. The off-season has gone to plan to this point. It remains to be seen if the offense will be potent enough to push this team to .500. The Cubs are not a finished product by any stretch, but this off-season is the next step to contention.
The Cubs have acquired Marcelo Josue Carreno and a cash consideration for Jeff Baker, to complete the trade from the Tigers. In other news, Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein will be under indictment for grand theft of a prospect in this deal. Marcelo Carreno was the 11th ranked prospect in the Tigers system (well, not anymore) at the end of the 2012 regular season. He spent 2011 and 2012 in the Midwest League with West Michigan, posting some decent numbers. MLB.com’s ranking report on him says “Better command of his fastball, curve and change-up could help him become a solid middle-of-the-rotation type,” which is basically stealing from a team who used Baker for about 15 minutes (actually, it was 15 games, and he hit .200) before sending him to Atlanta for a player to be named later.
With the season having come to a close about two weeks ago, things are going to start to make themselves clear in a short amount of time about the shape of the club next season. It has already been made apparent that the Cubs will seek out additional starting pitching for next season. So, don’t despair about an entire season with what we saw the last two months of this season, where there was little to no pitching available outside of Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija, until he was shut down. With Samardzija, and potentially Matt Garza, coming back to start the season with Travis Wood (probably) and two new guys, the pitching should be a lot more stable at the beginning of next season than it was at the end of this one. Matt Garza, however, still is a candidate to be dealt this off-season, which would make it more likely that Wood and Samardzija join three new acquisitions in the rotation as 2013 begins.
The powers that be are still singing the praises of Dale Sveum, so to all of you out there who are thinking there could be a third straight year of managerial search or want another managerial search…stop it.
ESPN’s Buster Olney says that the Brewers are in play to sign Josh Hamilton this off-season. Not Cubs related at all…just something to snicker at. They seem to be turning into the Brewers circa 2007 when they were trying to out slug everyone because they couldn’t pitch. I don’t see it happening, but the thought of it is just amusing.
Remember the name Pete Mackanin? It’s cool. Not everyone lives this stuff like I do. He was one of the guys who was interviewed to be the manager last off-season. Well, since he was fired from his role as bench coach in Philadelphia, his name has surfaced as a potential replacement for the departed Pat Listach, as third base coach. Listach was let go, likely because of philosophical differences. I don’t understand them, because his philosophy clearly worked with Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro’s defense. Mackanin is a name that has been mentioned. Former Astros manager, Brad Mills is also an option. We’ll see who Epstein, Hoyer, and Sveum come to a consensus on. I wouldn’t bet against Mackanin, though. Too many things are in play for him to not get a real shot at being the new third base coach.
There are going to be names to watch this off-season. They include Matt Garza, Alfonso Soriano, and Carlos Marmol. All three are prime trade candidates, especially Marmol and Soriano, who had very nice seasons to improve their stock.
On a day after a ninth inning to forget, we all probably need some good news…so here we go.
- Darwin Barney enters tonight’s game vs. the Brewers one game short of the single season National League record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman. I think it bears repeating that this is only Darwin’s second full season as a second baseman, and his defense is nothing short of outstanding. At the plate, Dale Sveum said he can be a .290-.310 hitter, which would make him an All-Star worthy player, should he put together his fielding and hitting. While others may not have the hopes for Darwin that I have, I do see him as an everyday player that is still getting better. Additionally, there are very few that work as hard, hustle as much, or play with the toughness that Darwin brings to the yard every day. He’s a valuable piece, and hopefully the front office can see that.
- Starlin Castro’s extension was announced today. It is the 7 year/ $60 million that was reported, with escalators and options that could raise the value to 8 years/ $79 million when all is said and done. Reminders about Castro are important, too. He is 22. He already has 1761 career plate appearances, which have only been exceeded by Robin Yount, Edgar Rentaria, Alex Rodriguez, Elvis Andrus, Arky Vaughan, and Travis Jackson for a short stop of that age. Those are some pretty good players to be in company with, and if Castro turns into anything similar to any of those other players, this is going to be a great deal for the Cubs. During his presser, Castro said he wants “to be here” and doesn’t want “to go nowhere.” He was also asked about being a leader, which he seemed to embrace. From a body language standpoint, he seemed to be a little surprised that it was happening for him. He looked humble. He also admitted that the extension talks were a distraction, which might be an explanation for some of the dip in production. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out for Castro, and whether or not his batting average climbs back up to around .300.
- Brett Jackson seems to be settling in at the plate for the Cubs, going 1-2 with his 3rd HR in 4 games and 2 walks last night. He seems locked in at Wrigley, and defensively, he’s been as advertised, running down balls and making plays in the outfield. It was quite the slow start for both Jackson and Josh Vitters, with only Jackson breaking out of that. Vitters is 5-53 with 19 strikeouts since being called up. I do wonder if Vitters has been struggling at the plate because of the focus on his defense. That may be a simple explanation, but without asking Josh himself, and getting an honest answer, we’ll never really know.
- Jed Hoyer said during the Starlin Castro presser that the hardest things to find were starting pitchers and short stops, and that he is excited to have short stop taken care of. As for pitching, the current rotation of Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, Brooks Raley, and Justin Germano is proving his point. Since Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, and Matt Garza have left the rotation, the Cubs have only won only six games. And the starting pitching has been a big reason why. That said, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija seem to be pitching themselves into rotation spots next season.
- Yesterday, the Cubs made a minor move with the Oakland A’s, acquiring Catcher Anthony Recker for Blake Lalli, and optioned him to Iowa. To make room on the 40 man, Scott Maine was designated for assignment.
- And finally, in the “no surprise here” move of the day, the Cubs have activated Blake Parker from the 60 day DL, and have designated Alex Hinshaw for assignment. If you recall your nightmare from last night, Hinshaw is the guy that threw beach balls to the Brewers, retiring nobody, and allowing three massive home runs to ensure the Cubs had no shot against oft-gotten John Axford, en route to a nine run ninth for the Brewers.
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.
At this point of the spring, all of the forecasting, predicting, prognosticating, and analyzing has been done. Repeatedly. This is just some of the fodder that has come out of Cubs camp in the last week or so, since the last post.
- Today, Andy Sonnanstine elected to become a free agent after refusing to take an outright assignment to Iowa. He had an uphill climb to make a crowded rotation picture, and the emergence of Jeff Samardzija made it even less likely that he would make the team. Today, he officially did not.
- Joe Mather has made the team. No. I do not have any insider information that tells me that he will be on the 25 man Opening Day roster when the Cubs head north. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to leave him off of the roster at this point. He’s hitting .432, including two sharp doubles in today’s win over the Indians. Ten of his 19 hits have gone for extra bases. In addition, he made an amazing over the shoulder catch that would
have made Jim Edmonds tip his cap. A man that can play all three outfield slots, and both corner infield slots is something every team needs. Mather does that. There is no way he doesn’t make the team at this point.
- It appears the Opening Day rotation will be Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Paul Maholm, and Chris Volstad when the team heads north. With Travis Wood having some struggles this spring and Jeff Samardzija grabbing the bull by the horns and taking a spot in the rotation, it seems all but a lock at this point.
- Alfonso Soriano has six home runs this spring, and is in the Major League lead this spring. His damage has not been spread out, either. As streaky as Soriano is, he has been mightily consistent this spring. His opposite field blast today was a terrific sign for Cubs’ fans knowing that he is going to be a vital part of any success the team has this season. There are going to be times where he is going to have to carry the team with all of the youth on the roster. At least at this point, with the shorter leg kick and literally huge bat, he looks up to the task.
- The biggest departure between this spring and the last number of years is the aggressiveness on the base paths. Today, Geovany Soto tagged from first on a deep fly ball to center. That never happens. Ever. The traditional teaching of going half way in the event of a drop is not in Cubs’ camp this spring. They have stolen 26 bases, good for fourth in MLB this spring, and have been caught 12 times. Clearly, the Sveum Administration is in full effect. Putting pressure on the defense is going to be important this season because the offensive talent lacks. Edgar Gonzalez today, scored from first on a stolen base, throwing error by Indians’ Catcher, Matt Pagnozzi, and a misplay by CF, and former Cub top prospect,
Felix Pie. It was all about putting pressure on the defense. It won’t work out that way all the time. It will lead to unnecessary outs on the bases on occasion. But it is aggressiveness that the team is going to need. They have to outplay opponents this season because there is a development gap. The Cubs are talented…and severely underdeveloped. Winning this season is going to take baptism by fire. It appears at this point, Dale Sveum has a full book of matches.
The Countdown to Opening Day 2012 is in full effect. We are a mere 11 days from the new season, where Ryan Dempster will take the ball for the second straight season opener, against the vastly improved Nationals and their young star in the making, RHP Stephan Strasburg. Until then…we are stuck in the Dog Days of Spring.
First and foremost, I don’t care that it’s the second week of March, getting back-to-back wins against the White Sox and Brewers is a good feeling.
Now, on to the more important (debatable) topics of the post:
- Even though the defense and base-running have been better, there are still signs of what ailed the Cubs last year. We saw it today with Blake DeWitt getting picked off of second base against the Dodgers while the Cubs were in the process of taking three consecutive walks. It also happened Friday afternoon against the first batter Travis Wood faced, missing the ball trying to field a bunt and compounding his mistake by playing catch with the right fielder. He clearly appeared to be trying to make up for his mistake, and ended up trying too hard. I know the coaching staff is working diligently on cleaning that up and, in spite of the early mistakes, so far, so good.
- Matt Garza has gotten beaten up in both second innings he’s appeared in this spring. There is no source of concern because it is still mid-March, but it would be nice to see the ace of the staff have more clean efforts in his spring starts. He did have an excellent first inning today, retiring the Dodgers in order on all ground ball outs.
- The Cubs are taking more frequent walks this spring, thus far. Something they failed to do basically all of last season, ranking 29th with 425 walks in 2011, only exceeding the 401 taken by the Houston Astros. It is a good sign that free swingers like Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano are showing more patience at the plate.
- Speaking of patience, Castro hit a 2-0 bomb out against the Brewers. In Arizona, balls carry. Hopefully, though, that is a sign that Starlin will start to drive the ball out when he has the opportunity. As major league players, it is held
that the last things to develop in young players are power and defense. I think there will be a strong jump in home runs hit by Castro this season, probably hitting between 15 and 20, while I think it would be disappointing if he committed more than 20 errors, down from 27 and 29 in his first two seasons.
- Geovany Soto made his first start Saturday against the Brewers (ss), returning from the groin injury that has hampered him this spring. He made an impressive throw to second, catching Logan Schafer on a steal attempt in an otherwise uneventful debut, going 0-2.
During the WGN broadcast on Saturday, Cubs’ TV announcers Len Kasper and Bob Brenly has the opportunity to talk to Manager, Dale Sveum and Brewers’ Beat Writer, Tom Haudricourt. Haudricourt talked about the low level of Sveum’s “BS bar” and how he always gives “a straight answer.” The most compelling, and in my opinion, complimentary thing Haudricourt said about Sveum was “watch what he does, not what he says.” Sveum spoke about camp, his coaching staff (which will be the subject of a later post…stay tuned) and being a first time manager. He discussed how he was pleased with the work ethic of the team and his coaches thus far.
ESPN Chicago’s Doug Padilla wrote a column today about Dale Sveum’s opinion on the impact of Cubs’ fans in Milwaukee. He said that it was frustrating to the Brewers that there were so many Cubs’ fans in the building, going so far as to say the Brewers players “hated it.” On being on the other side of the field, Sveum said, “Being on this end, hopefully we get three-quarters of the place full.”
Quote of the week: “That would have been a tough pitch to bunt.”– Ryan Dempster, after throwing the first pitch of the at bat against former Cubs’ third baseman Aramis Ramirez’s head in the first inning. Rami joked with reporters before the game that he was going to bunt in his first at bat. Dempster said that an inside pitch “got away,” and he did not mean to brush back his former teammate.
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.