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!
I’ll never cease to be amazed by the amount of discontent that occurs during a losing streak. And, at the same time, how quickly it disappears when the team wins four out of five.
As we were reminded this week, however, the roster is not complete, and will not be that way for quite some time.
- Matt Garza had a “setback,” in that his arm got tired. I wasn’t terribly concerned at the time because “dead arm” is something a lot of pitchers go through in Spring Training (which is pretty much where Garza is now). While it makes the news, and subsequently makes fans fall all over themselves about the guy being fragile and not worth the trouble, it’s really nothing. Until it has a reason to be something. Garza is now scheduled to pitch on May 1, so while his rehab from the lat strain may not have been as quick as we, as fans, would have liked, it does seem like the progress is good. When it comes to strains like that one, it is better to get it completely healed, and from everything we’ve been told, that seems to be the case. Now, it’s just a matter of getting him stretched out sufficiently to start at the major league level.
- Ian Stewart had a real setback the other night when he got hit on the elbow. He missed last night’s game, and is playing tonight. I get it. Most of you out there think Ian is a bum, and he’s not worth the peanuts the Cubs are paying him this season, you want Tyler Colvin back, etc. I’m going to continue to defend him, and the front office for bringing him back. At least until he’s had time to finish a cup of coffee with the major league team. His numbers aren’t good at Iowa, but he’s in the same boat as Garza. He’s getting his timing back and working through the Spring Training process. Unlike everyone in these games he’s playing, he’s still working the bugs out from not playing in about 11 months. Let’s see him healthy and for a while in the bigs before we write him off. We, as Cubs fans, should know that if he hits the streets before he gets all the way back, he’s going to go somewhere else, and be the third baseman we want him to be at Wrigley.
Neither of these players is going to be the savior to what is sure to be an uncompetitive season. They do, however, make the Cubs deeper (in spite of your feelings for Stewart). Getting Garza back will likely push Scott Feldman (because Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva have earned the right to be in the rotation thus far) to the bullpen, as a long reliever. Since he’s been good for three or four inning stretches this season, maybe being the long man will add to his value. The same with Luis Valbuena. If Ian Stewart can come back and take hold of the third base job, the Cubs will have two versatile infielders who can play all over in Valbuena and Cody Ransom, who hit from each side of the plate. With Scott Hairston, Julio Borbon, and Dioner Navarro rounding out the bench, suddenly the Cubs don’t look quite so sad.
There are a lot of ifs in those statements. I’m sure not all of it will come true. Ian Stewart could come back, lay an egg, and be designated for assignment within a few weeks. We don’t know. But that is what the 2013 season is for. Finding out who’s got value and who’s not going to be with the team moving forward is what the plan was for this season.
In the mean time, just enjoy the winning streak.
In keeping with the theme of looking ahead, one of the interesting players for the Cubs moving forward is going to be 3B Ian Stewart. Acquired from the Rockies, along with AA pitcher Casey Weathers for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, Stewart was the first man given the chance to replace the departed Aramis Ramirez. Stewart’s numbers, in 55 games, were not spectacular, but there is more to the story than plainly looking at the numbers.
Drafted: 1st Round (10th Overall), 2003 by the Colorado Rockies
Debut: 8/11/2007 (0-2, Run)
Cubs Statistical Analysis:
As I said earlier, there is more to the numbers than meets the eye for Ian Stewart. First of all, he played in 55 games, so it is almost unfair to do this. But, in his 55 games, he hit 5 HR and drove in 17. That put him on a pace for 15 HR and 50 RBI in a full 162 game season. What goes largely unnoticed is how much Stewart improved as the season wore on. After hitting .169 in April, he hit .225 and .226 in May and June, respectively. Part of that is how cold and windy it is at Wrigley in April. As the weather got warmer, so did Stewart’s numbers. With a ground ball: fly ball ratio of 2:1, it is fair to say Stewart would have out-performed his 15 HR pace. One prime example is the bottom of the ninth inning on opening day. Ian Stewart absolutely tattooed a baseball into the well in right field. If there was anything short of gale force winds, he hits a game tying home run in the ninth inning on opening day. But there were winds (I promise, I was there in a sweatshirt…it was cold) and he ended up with a hustle triple. Offensively, his numbers were not great, but they were not as terrible as some of the haters have made them out to be. Defensively, he was outstanding. His range factors, fielding percentage, and runs saved numbers were all in the league average area, but some those numbers were all off the pace of his career averages. I can speculate that defensive positioning had something to do with the slight drop in his defensive numbers, but his leather prowess did not go unnoticed by Dale Sveum, who said on more than one pregame show that his glove was keeping him in the line-up, whether there was a lefty starter or not.
Who else do Cubs’ fans know who hit about .225 (what Stewart hit in May/ June, which is a better indicator than his April average), with power from the left side of the plate and an excellent glove at a corner infield position? I’ll give you all a hint: Carlos Pena. And do any of us remember how much we liked Carlos Pena? Of course not…because he’s not a Cub, anymore. Ian Stewart, however, is a very similar player in what he brought to the line-up. He brought a great glove and a workman like attitude, in spite of a wrist injury that absolutely hampers the ability to swing a bat. If healthy, I have no doubt in my mind Stewart can match the 25-30 HR and 80 or so RBI Pena gave the Cubs in 2011.
The BIG Question:
Will Ian Stewart’s wrist heal after surgery enough to make him a productive player, and will be he back with the Cubs next season?
Without trying to read Jed Hoyer’s and Theo Esptein’s minds, I would guess that the two questions are going to be related. Obviously, the Cubs sent a pretty good prospect in Colvin and a player many in the Cubs’ organization thought had a chance to be an everyday 2B in LeMahieu for Stewart, so the price was not cheap at all to get him here. 55 games with a bad wrist is not exactly a good opportunity to gauge what a player can do day in and day out. Should Stewart get the go-ahead to start baseball activities again and gets his swing going again, he is worth at the very least, a look in Spring Training. At best, he could find the swing that made him the 10th pick in the draft nine years ago. To be picked that high, it is apparent that there is some talent in there. Stewart said on Twitter some time ago that was was willing to take $1.5M for next season, which is peanuts in baseball, so he is absolutely worth bringing back, in my mind. Josh Vitters continues to work hard, but he hasn’t exactly grabbed the bull by the horns and locked himself down at the hot corner. Absent a surge by Vitters between now and October 3, there is no good reason not to bring Stewart back. There are no good prospects, other than Vitters, waiting in the wings to come up right away. Free agency does not offer too much of a short term, stop gap player to add for a year or two, and certainly not as inexpensively as Stewart will be. My crystal ball is not always right, but I cannot see why Stewart wouldn’t be back…at least for the spring.
Since the arrival of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, there has been a significant changing of the guard, which started with the trade to acquire 3B Ian Stewart for OF Tyler Colvin and IF DJ LeMahieu. Last night, the Cubs sent three of their veteran players packing, all of whom were rumored to be on the move. Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson are headed to Atlanta, and Geovany Soto is headed to Texas. For those players the rumors end. For the rest, there are still about 13 1/2 hours of uncertainty remaining until the deadline.
Veteran players are always going to be on notice when a team is trying to rebuild for the future. Ian Stewart was acquired to be a piece to replace the departed Aramis Ramirez, who went to the Brewers as a free agent. Rumors are a part of the deal that comes with any kind of rebuilding process. Stewart had not had his best season in Colorado in 2011. Colvin had been counted on to take over in right field for the Cubs after a strong rookie campaign, in which he hit 20 home runs. The “change of scenery” swap had been rumored for quite a while before the trade actually happened. When I asked Ian on Twitter (@IAN_STEWART_2sc … great guy, very fan friendly, I highly recommend following him) what the rumors were like, he was candid, saying he “hated it.” And that he “love(ed) it there [in CO].” What it all boils down to is, it is difficult to understand what it is like to be traded or to be the subject of trade rumors because very few of us will ever be professional athletes.
The trade deadline and off-season “hot stove” bring a lot of excitement to media and to fans. There is another side of it, though. Players with families are forced to pick up and move on short notice. Focusing on Ian Stewart in this piece was easy. First, he’s accessible on twitter, in one of his late night Q&A sessions. Second, he is one of the younger parts brought in for the changing of the guard, and was subjected to rumors about being traded to the Cubs for quite a while before the trade actually happened.
First, 3B Ian Stewart was placed on the 15 Day Disabled list today with his wrist injury. I have not seen for sure, but I assume that is retroactive to the 12th, which is the last day Stewart played. Surgery is an option for Stewart, as several of the Cubs’ beat writers have discussed the possibility of nerve damage. Hopefully, Stewart can recover and realize his potential, and not make trading DJ LeMaheiu and Tyler Colvin look like a tremendous mistake. In his place, the Cubs recalled IF Luis Valbuena from Iowa, and he started at third this afternoon in the loss to the Tigers.
Additionally, the Cubs activated C Wellington Castillo from the 15 Day Disabled List and Designated C Koyie Hill for Assignment. The Hill DFA removes him from the 25 man roster to make room for Castillo and from the 40 man roster to make room for Valbuena.
In my last post, on what I project to be the pitching staff this season, I referred to the Cubs’ pitching last season as “an unmitigated disaster.” I have no qualms about that statement because, in short, it was. It was not over- stated. It was not even putting a microscope on a weak spot from a team that struggled for a good portion of the season. It just was what it was. With all of that said, the guys behind the pitching last season contributed to it mightily. Last season, the Cubs were 29th in defensive efficiency with a .680 rating. That narrowly edged out the Minnesota Twins, who finished with a .679 DER. To contrast, the Tampa Bay Rays were first in MLB with a .724 DER. Nobody in the majors topped the 134 errors by the Cubs last season, which led to an expected last place finish in fielding percentage. The pitching was bad. The fielding was worse. If the Cubs have a snowball’s chance in Mesa, AZ of making the playoffs, those numbers need to improve dramatically.
The offense was very middle of the road, and the numbers bear that out. They finished between 10th and 20th in the majors in just about all offensive categories, except for stolen bases, where they were down toward the bottom of the league. Don’t expect that to get much better this season. With the losses of 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B Carlos Pena, and OF Kosuke Fukudome, a significant portion of the output from last season is gone. The biggest bats left in the line up are C Geovany Soto, LF Alfonso Soriano, and SS Starlin Castro. The only one of those guys that is consistent is Castro, so the offense figures to be a work in progress all season long.
The position players are going to be a fluid group for all 162 games, in spite of what Dale Sveum said about sticking to one line up earlier this week. As such, take this projection with the smallest of grains of salt…
Line- Up and Batting Order
1. RF David DeJesus – The free agent from Oakland figures to be the first of the lead off hitters this season, although that may change as the season wears on. He’s never played more than 144 games in a season, and hit .240 last season with the A’s. That figures to be an aberration, though, because his career average of .284 is significantly better. If he can be who he was before 2011, hitting in the neighborhood of .300 and getting on base around .350, he figures to hang on to the job for a while.
2. 2B Darwin Barney – Darwin wore down as the season wore on last season after a red hot start. He added some muscle this off-season, which may help him. Aside from the offensive struggles late, Darwin was a nice surprise for a bad team last season. His defense was average and he figures to continue to be an opportunistic base stealer, having nine and being caught twice last year. As he grows at the major league level, his numbers could rise. Or, he could be in for the dreaded sophomore slump. With the way his teammates and coaches have raved about his work ethic, I would bet on the former before the latter.
3. SS Starlin Castro– Starlin figures to settle into the third slot in the line-up this season, although Dale Sveum has said he will consult Starlin about where he wants to hit. The free swinging short stop doesn’t walk too much, but still managed to hit over .300 again last season, and led the NL in hits with 207 at age 21. He did have 29 errors in 158 games, which was actually an improvement in his defense from the 210 campaign, where he had 27 in
123 games. Those numbers are a bit misleading, though, because Starlin makes errors on plays that would be hits with others short stops because he has such great range. He also makes throws that a number of other short stops would not dream of making because of his sensational arm. Expect former major league short stop and new Cubs’ Skipper to work with Castro. And expect the errors to come down.
4. 1B Bryan LaHair – The reigning PCL MVP gets the opportunity to start, and will probably hit fourth in the line- up on the heels of his 38 HRs in AAA last season. He is not going to replace the production from Aramis Ramirez, but he did have a good showing after he was called up last season. He hit .288 with 2 HRs and 10 RBI in 59 at bats last season. If he can contribute at that pace, with about 500 at bats this season, he will be just fine. There will be a drop off in production in the clean up slot, but it will be manageable.
5. CF Marlon Byrd – Marlon had a tough year last season. His veteran presence in CF and in the middle of the line- up are important to a young team. He comes in slimmed down and expecting to improve on his .276 average and 9 HRs from last season. Considering he lost six weeks with the facial fracture suffered in Boston, it wasn’t nearly as bad, statistically, as it looks. If he can rebound and hit around .290 and give the team the 12-15 HRs and 60 or so RBIs that he typically gives, it will be a nice rebound for Marlon this year.
6. LF Alfonso Soriano – ‘Fonsi is the guy that epitomizes why Cubs’ fans hated Jim Hendry. Even though there is wide spread information available that says he was a product of the Tribune Co. ownership group, Hendry takes the fall for a guy that has hit no fewer than 20 HRs in this five seasons in Chicago. He is the last known threat in the line- up, too. His 26 HRs and 88 RBIs last season were a strong number for an aging outfielder. He is not the guy that everybody thought the Cubs were getting before the 2007 season, but he is still a legit power threat, and the streaky hitter can carry the team for weeks at a time when he gets hot. He will likely continue to be a defensive liability that is replaced by either Reed Johnson or Tony Campana late in games when the team is leading, but I would expect, barring injury, another 25 HRs and 80 RBIs from Soriano in a status quo season for the veteran.
7. C Geovany Soto – The bad news about Geo is that he goes up and down in his production from year to year. The good news is that last year was a down year, so he is due a good year. After slimming down again, Soto thinks that he can keep the weight off this time. He will likely give the Cubs the 20 HRs and 60 RBIs that he has been in the ballpark of giving, but if he brings his average back to around .280 and starts taking the walks he took in 2010, it should be a resurgent year for Soto. He called last season a “confidence problem.” If he can manage to focus on each at- bat, many of his issues might correct themselves, and we could see a much better Soto in 2012.
8. 3B Ian Stewart – Remember 2010…when Tyler Colvin had a good bat, and made Cubs’ fans think about him being the first real fixture in RF since Sammy Sosa? I introduce the you the Colorado Rockies’ version of Colvin. In 2009 and 2010, Stewart was a legit hitter with the Rockies with 25 and 18 HRs, respectively. His average has never blown anybody away, but when he was able to put the ball in play, it was generally going to be with some authority. Now, he’s a Cub after being traded for the aforementioned Colvin, along with infielder, DJ LeMahieu in the ultimate “change of scenery” swap. If he can recapture any of the offense he had in 2009 and 2010 under Hitting Coach Rudy Jaramillo, he might be able to fend off slowly progressing Josh Vitters this season.
IF Jeff Baker – Super utility player, Baker, can play First, Second, Third, and the corner outfield with some effectiveness, and hits well against left handed pitching. He will play a lot this season, in pinch hitting and platoon roles in multiple positions.
OF Reed Johnson – “Web Gem” is going to back up all three outfield spots this season, and will be the “go to” defensive replacement for Soriano late in games this year. Reed is a strong veteran that seems to deliver in the biggest moments with either a defensive play that saves runs or with a huge hit. I wouldn’t expect anything different than what Reed did last season in the 2012 campaign.
OF Tony Campana – Tony’s game changing speed is the reason he will likely break camp with the big league team, being the Cubs’ lone serious stolen base threat. He is going to be a pinch runner and defensive replacement when he gets into the game, with the occasional start in any of the three outfield slots. This is the first person that will head back to Iowa if and when any of Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, or Dave Sappelt join the big league team.
IF Adrian Cardenas – The 24 year old middle infielder stole the roster spot held by Blake DeWitt, and figures to make the team as a back up at both middle infield positions after being claimed off of waivers from the Oakland A’s. He’s a left handed hitter, who had strong numbers in AAA last season, hitting .314, and runs better than Dewitt.
C Wellington Castillo – With the departure of Koyie Hill, the opportunity to make the major league team on a permanent basis opens up for Castillo, after seeing some time last year with Soto injured. Castillo is a good hitter and a strong defensive catcher. If he proves that he can handle the young pitching staff, he is the favorite over Steve Clevenger and Jason Jaramillo to win the back up role out of camp.
Other Expected Contributors
CF Brett Jackson – Brett Watch 2012 is on in full force, as this could be the year where the Cubs’ top prospect makes his debut in front of the ivy at Wrigley. I would anticipate that to be the case at some point. That means Marlon Byrd either moves over to one of the corners (left field if someone can be found to take Soriano) or Byrd himself gets traded.
IF Blake DeWitt – Blake probably will not make the roster out of camp, but he will most likely be with the team at some point over the course of the season. He is the first guy up if there is an injury to any infielder because he can play second, third, short, and the corner outfield. He may be released out of camp or a trade could be sought if he fails to make the 25 man roster out of camp.
1B Anthony Rizzo– The 1B of the future, Rizzo will start the season in Iowa, but I would be stunned if he isn’t with the major league team before July. If Ian Stewart or Bryan LaHair struggle or get hurt, this is the guy that will
probably get called up. While he probably will not start over veteran Jeff Baker, he would likely be with the major league team to get some spot starts as a left handed hitter.
OF Dave Sappelt – Dave was acquired from the Reds in the Sean Marshall trade and has plus speed and plays good defense. He got some light duty with the Reds last season, and figures to be with the Cubs at some point of the season, as the first man up if there is an injury.
OF Matt Szczur – Matt is the “other” outfield prospect that figures to make is MLB debut. He also figures to be the RF of the future, playing next to Brett Jackson when he gets to Chicago. Matt is a Five Tool prospect and could find his way to Chicago this season if there are injuries or if the team falls back early.
3B Josh Vitters – Josh will probably be an injury or September call up this season. His slow development has been hidden by the fact that Aramis Ramirez has been at third for the last eight years. He seemingly figured it out last season in the minors. If Ian Stewart struggles this season, he is going to get his opportunity. At 22, he is young enough, but after four years of minor league baseball behind him, his leash to figure it out is shortening.
The youth of this team is the first thing that should be noticed. There will be some offensive and defensive growing pains with the core youth with this team. Like I declared in my preview post, I do not expect the Cubs to be a viable playoff threat this season, and will struggle to get to .500 if they manage to. What cannot be understated is the talent of the collection of players being led by Dale Sveum. His devotion to fundamentals and playing hard should suit this roster perfectly. If the can grow, this core group will be a viable threat in 2013 and beyond. This season, though, is for “building.” And it is going to start with this foundation of players gaining invaluable experience at the major league level this season.