The final player installment of the positional previews is the group who will see the most change throughout this season. In reality, that’s the case for just about every team, every season.
This season figures to be extra interesting for the Cubs in the bullpen. The addition of Kyuji Fujikawa from Japan as a potential (and likely) closer when Carlos Marmol departs the organization, either via trade or the expiration of his contract after the season lends some stability to the the back end, and the addition of Carlos Villanueva gives the Cubs the long reliever they’ve been without since Tom Gorzelanny packed his bags. Indeed, this will be the group with the most turnover of any on the team.
Closer: Carlos Marmol
For now. In spite of being only 30 and coming off of an impressive rebound in the second half of last season, Marmol is the most talked about trade piece this side of Alfonso Soriano. The fact that he did have a strong second half, is 30, and is in the last year of a deal with Cubs would be willing to pay almost all of make him a valuable piece for any contending team (*cough cough* Tigers) that needs a proven back end. I am of the opinion that Brian Wilson makes more sense for the Tigers than Marmol because he will be inexpensive and won’t cost prospects, but it seems as though Detroit is looking at all available options, including Marmol. That said, however long he’s around, he should be fine. Sure, he’s an adventure. He’ll put some on and he’ll make it interesting. But he slammed the door quite a bit last year. Another year of Chris Bosio would probably do him some good, but I don’t see Marmol being back under any circumstances next season if he finishes this season in Chicago. I see him becoming “controllable assets” before too long. This spot is definitely one that is not set…
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
This is the guy who will likely be the closer if/ when Marmol is sent out. The 32 year old “rookie” from Japan is coming over on a two year deal and was an excellent closer before coming over the states. The thing that worries me about “KJ” is that Japanese closers haven’t exactly been common…or good. In Japan, though, Fujikawa was uncommonly good. His ERA broke 2.00 only one time, a 2.01 ERA in 2010, and his 202 career saves lend him some credibility to finish games. He’s entering a new level of competition, and he very well could struggle like many of the Japanese pitchers before him. If he can be the exception to what has been the norm, however, everything should be fine for the short term.
Middle Relief: Shawn Camp, James Russell, Hector Rondon , Jaye Chapman, Michael Bowden (and a host of others throughout the season)
The two major pieces to this puzzle are Camp and Russell. Both of those guys were fixtures just about every day last season. And they were each pretty good. Russell appeared in 77 games with a strong 3.25 ERA. After being used in a variety of situations in 2011 and struggling before settling into the bullpen, 2012 was spent entirely in the bullpen, and Russell showed that he is an effective lefty, and can pitch effectively to both left and right handed hitters. He’s shown his value and as everyday asset much like Shawn Camp, who might be the oldest guy in the organization. At 37, Camp was another everyday fixture in the bullpen and led the league with 80 appearances. He was surprisingly effective in a set-up role with Russell, but struggled when he became the closer in Marmol’s absence. For a guy who signed a minor league deal during camp last season, Shawn Camp turned into one of the most valuable players on the roster. This season, he will probably not get the same use, and may improve the effectiveness of his aging arm. The last player of note is Rule 5 selection, Hector Rondon, who needs to be on the active roster for 90 days. The difference between Lendy Castillo from last season and Rondon is that Rondon has pitched at AAA, which is something Castillo had never done. Rondon has had arm issues, and if he’s past them, he could turn into a pleasant surprise, and may not spend months and months on the DL with Rule-5itis.
Long Relief: Carlos Villanueva
Even though, Villanueva will start the season in the rotation, this is going to be his role going forward. He’s well suited for it, too. Coming over from Toronto, he was looking for a chance to start, but it will probably not come
to fruition for him without some injury and trade subtractions from the rotation. And that’s alright. His numbers won’t blow anyone away, but he can make a start in a pinch and go 5-6 innings, or come in early in a game and save the bullpen from being spent. This is an often overlooked role and an unglamorous position for just about any pitcher to be in. He doesn’t get his name on the scroll on ESPN as the probable starter, nor does he get his name on it for the save. But this is a vital role because it allows the other players in the ‘pen to stay in their roles. As far as long relief pitching goes, there aren’t many who are better than Villanueva, even if he does look himself in the mirror and call himself a starting pitcher.
Other Names to Watch: Arodys Vizcaino, Trey McNutt, Robert Whitenack, Barret Loux, Hisanori Takahashi, Nick Struck
Vizcaino is probably the most well-known of these players, coming over from the Braves at the deadline last season. He could find his way into the bullpen to pick up some major league innings this season to get experience, especially if the Cubs fall out of it. McNutt seems to be throwing as well as he has in a few years, but now seems destined to have a bullpen role, and may make his way to Chicago this season. Loux is who ultimately came for Geovany Soto after Jacob Brigham was found to have had arm issues, and is in camp as a non-roster player. He seems to be a better prospect than Brigham, and is closer to the majors, so it seems like the Cubs won in the end on that deal. Takahashi and Struck are both in camp as non-roster players, as well, and could wind up in the bullpen at some point this season as well. As I mentioned at the outset, this is where there is the most flux during a season. This season should be no different.
Being led by Manager Buddy Bailey, Hitting Coach Mariano Duncan, and Pitching Coach Jeff Fassero, the Double A Tennessee Smokies are the forgotten soldiers in the Cubs’ farm system. Many of the prime prospects in the Cubs’ organization are either in Single A Peoria or
Daytona or Triple A Iowa, which leaves the Smokies out of a lot of the conversation about the future of the Chicago Cubs.
The headliner of the Smokies is 2009’s 32nd round steal Trey McNutt, who is ranked 6th in the Cubs system overall. A big 22 year old right-hander, McNutt features a powerful fastball that lives in the mid 90s, and a sharp breaking curve ball. At the moment, he is the most promising starter in the organization, even though his 2011 was marred by injury issues. His inaugural professional season of 2010 showed off how much potential he has, splitting time between Peoria and Daytona, where he was dominant with a combined 1.97 ERA in 100.2 innings. This season, McNutt is rounding back into form, with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP in 49.1 innings. While he still has some work to do at the minor league level, he could find his way to the Confines before the end of the season, especially if the expected trade of Ryan Dempster and the potential trade of Matt Garza come to fruition.
Infielder Junior Lake is another of the promising prospects that is in Tennessee this season, and he too is finding his way in 2012. After a tough mid-season transition to Double A in 2011, Lake is having a strong season this year with a .294 average and .349 OBP. Lake is still rough around the edges, but has raw talent in a multitude of dimensions. He has a good arm in the field, but like his friend, major league SS Starlin Castro, still commits too many errors. He also has above average speed, but below average base-running instincts. If he gets a better read on pitchers, he could turn into a strong base stealing threat, although he will never steal 40 bases in a season. His plate discipline is a bit behind, but like Castro, is a natural hitter with some pop. The Cubs think enough of Junior Lake to add him to the 40 Man Roster, which is an indication that a big league debut could happen this season.
Other players that are sporting the Smokies uniform this season are RHP Casey Weathers, who came with Ian Stewart from the Rockies over the winter. He’s been a little erratic, walking 16 in 14 innings pitched, but has some of the same raw talent that Lake and McNutt have to make him a potential reliable reliever. Brian Schlitter is another name the Cubs’ fans may know. He debuted with the Cubs in 2010 before making the waiver rounds in 2011, ultimately coming back to the Cubs. He initiallyt came to the Cubs from the Phillies for Scott Eyre in 2008, made his trip around waiver lane and is now refining himself in Double A. Lastly, James Adduci is a 27 year old minor league veteran that was a trade replacement from the Marlins in 2006 when the pitcher acquired for Todd Wellemeyer was found to have a pre-existing hand injury. Adduci is the kind of minor leaguer that every team has, spending a lot of time in the minors, but Adduci has seem to find his stride this season and could find an invite to the show if the big league squad suffers from injuries or sees turnover in the trade market.
Traditionally, Double A is where the most intriguing prospects are found. With Triple A being a major league overflow of sorts, Double A is where prospects go to really learn the major league game. The Tennessee Smokies are a highlight of just how bare the Cubs system has been in recent years, because there is not a ton of major league quality talent in the pool. Years of trading quality prospects for veteran bandages have left the Smokies as a middle child of sorts, with the best talent sitting in Iowa or the Single A level. With Theo Epstein & Co. looking to build the franchise from the ground up, the Smokies could be infused with talent very soon, as an important stop on the road to Wrigley.
Quick…somebody name the player that the Cubs sent to the Minnesota Twins when they hired Andy MacPhail. Come on…I’m waiting. I’ll give you a hint…that’s his Minor League card from 1992 off to the left. Still waiting. Don’t know? Huh. Well, I guess I can’t blame you. Have you ever heard of pitcher Hector Trinidad? No? To be honest, I hadn’t either until after Theo Epstein was hired and I googled “player sent to Twins when Cubs hired Andy MacPhail.”
At the time, in 1994, Andy MacPhail was every bit the star Theo Epstein is among baseball executives. He was also on good terms in Minnesota. The compensation for the Twins however, would have been more valuable if it were something the Twins could have sold…say a case of beer and box of peanuts.
When Theo Epstein was hired, the Red Sox, naturally, set the compensation bar high. I can’t say I would have done anything differently in a negotiation. But when the Cubs said they weren’t stupid enough to send Matt Garza to Boston for Epstein, they should have come back to earth, at least a little. Names like Brett Jackson and Trey McNutt were floated, as top level prospects. Those, too, were shot down without much thought.
Alas, we thought a deal was struck shortly after Spring Training began. The Red Sox got Chris Carpenter, and a player to be named for Theo and a player to be named. He wasn’t a top level prospect, but he was a B level prospect that was expected to contribute in the Cubs’ bullpen with the 100+ MPH fastball this season. Since, the players to be named have been named; everything is done and all is well, right? Wrong. Even though Carpenter went on the DL with a forearm strain last season, was given a physical by the Red Sox, and had his medical records reviewed by the Red Sox, they’re crying foul over the fact that Carpenter needed elbow surgery this week.
We’re not revealing state secrets when we say that Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein didn’t see eye to eye. Is that prompting the move to explore their options and keep the compensation issue open? In my opinion, maybe. I think it probably has something more to do with the fact that the Red Sox don’t want to be second fiddle to the Yankees in anything, and if that means being as ruthless and as arrogant about their place in the baseball hierarchy, fine. The Yankees would never allow for the public to even get the chance to think they’ve been taken for a ride, and the Red Sox are doing the same here, even though they’ve acknowledged that the Cubs probably acted in good faith.
I agree with ESPN Chicago’s Bruce Levine when he says Bud Selig needs to step in. I disagree with his assertion that Selig should have the Cubs cut the Red Sox a check and call it a day. I think Selig should tell the Red Sox that baseball players are like used cars. When you get one, it comes “as is.” If they did their homework, knew about his injury history, and admit they think the Cubs acted in good faith, that should be the end of the discussion. A pitcher’s elbow is like a car’s brakes. Eventually, it is probably going to need some work.
The Sawx should thank their lucky stars that they got a B level prospect out of the deal. They could have gotten RHP Michael Jensen. Don’t know who he is? That’s alright…not many people outside of the Cubs’ Organization or Boise, ID would know who a guy who hasn’t been assigned a number on the lower Single A affiliate is.