Tagged: Wellington Castillo

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!

 

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TRADE DEADLINE: Cubs Have Areas of Obvious Need

Through the beginning of their tenure, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have done nothing short of a masterful job of adding quality talent to the Cubs’ minor league system.  Between the inherited talent and the added talent, the Cubs now have what is a consensus top ten system in the game, and it is likely to get better with the addition of second overall pick Kris Bryant, international signings, and the trade deadline.

Not all of the positions in the organization are overflowing with talent, however.  With the international signing and the trade deadline looming, there are some clear areas of need.  To build the caliber of organization that the team needs to have and the front office wants to grow, weaknesses need to be addressed.

The focus needs to be on positions with glaring deficiencies.  There are positions that are strong at the lower levels of the minor leagues without much talent at the top end, while some are stronger throughout the system or aren’t strong at all.  The focus needs to be on picking up pieces to build a strong pipeline to the majors sooner than 2015-2016 and strengthen areas without much talent to speak of at all.

1. Pitching

This is a no-brainer.  Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have acknowledged that the Cubs will use the international pool and trade deadline to strengthen this piece of the puzzle.  There are some nice pieces at just about every level of the organization, but not nearly enough.  The best prospect in the organization is Arodys Vizcaino, who was acquired last July in the Paul Maholm trade.  When he gets healthy, he has front of the rotation stuff, but his arm trouble might limit him to a relief role.  Pierce Johnson just got his long overdue promotion to Daytona, and he appears to be on his way.  Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood are nice young pieces at the ML level.  The focus has been on arms in the draft, but none of them appear to be impact arms, with the Cubs grabbing position players with their last two top ten picks.  The clear lack of high end, projectable pitching talent makes it job one for the Cubs this July.  They could start out by signing Cuban prospect Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.  He’s 26, and could realistically start in the upper levels of the minor leagues this season, if not at the major league level…and all he costs is money.  Which the Cubs don’t seem opposed to spending on international free agents.

2. Catching

Beyond Wellington Castillo and Steve Clevenger, there isn’t a lot of strength to one of the keystone positions.  While Castillo is a young player who is looking more and more like an everyday backstop, organizational depth is paramount at a position where injuries mount and nobody can catch everyday.  Dioner Navarro is a stop gap at the major league level.  While the Cubs can be active in signing veteran catchers for a year or two at a time, there is a ton of value in bringing catchers through the system who have a history with the pitchers coming up through the system.

3. Corner Infielders

Count me among the guys who really likes Christian Villanueva.  And Jeimer Candelario.  And Anthony Rizzo.  Beyond that, there are a ton of question marks.  Josh Vitters may never figure it out defensively.  I am not sold on the idea that Kris Bryant can stick at third base.  Dan Vogelbach appears to best project as a designated hitter.  Junior Lake is looking more and more like a super utility player.  Luis Valbuena is a utility player who is having a nice season as a starter for a rebuilding team, but in no way should or would be a starter on a playoff caliber team.  It really boils down to defense with this group.  While first base at the major league level appears to be filled for the foreseeable future, third base is a bit of a black hole and there is almost no depth in the system at first.  One thing that helps this group along is the potential for Javier Baez or Starlin Castro to slide over to third and fill the slot whenever Baez makes his way up to the majors.

Photo: Paul R. Gierhart/MiLB.com

Photo: Paul R. Gierhart/MiLB.com

4. Center Field 

The cupboard at the major league level is bare.  David DeJesus, Dave Sappelt, and Ryan Sweeney are really nice filler material during the rebuild, but they are similar to Luis Valbuena.  All three are reserves on playoff teams, and none of them figure to be around for the long haul.  Albert Almora looks fantastic at Kane County thus far.  He’s a few years away from being an option, though.  It is up in the air if Brett Jackson makes use of his incredible talent because he is endlessly afflicted by the strike out.  Jae-Hoon Ha and Matt Szczur both look like the DeJesus/ Sweeney type, as in they could be spare outfielders who can play all over as defensive replacements.  For those reasons, it wouldn’t hurt to add a center fielder with upside if the opportunity presents itself.

5. Corner Outfielders

There isn’t much for depth here in Iowa, but there is a lot to like about the potential for corner outfielders in the Cubs organization.  Jorge Soler is obviously the crown jewel of these guys at any level, but he won’t be in Chicago until September of 2014 at the absolute earliest.  The better bet is 2015 at some point.  Kris Bryant, to me, is probably going to end up in the corner not occupied by Soler, should everything go right.  This is a group that could also include Junior Lake, Josh Vitters if his defense stays as shaky at third as it has been.  Reggie Golden is at Kane County and is a sleeper to me.  Overall, I like the group of players the Cubs have stocked up on that could be turned into corner outfielder, where hitting is most important, and where defensive liabilities like Vitters can be hidden.  Again, it wouldn’t hurt to add to it if the opportunity arises, but there are definitely better places to add pieces.

6. Middle Infield

Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Logan Watkins, Arismendy Alcantara, Ronald Torreyes, Javier Baez…need I say more?  There is a legit prospect at just about every level of the minor leagues in the middle infield.  And the major league level has a two time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner in the line-up everyday, neither of whom is old by any stretch of the imagination.  The middle infield is the strength of the organization, and unless you’re getting Jurickson Profar in a deal, this area isn’t a priority in the least.

There is no argument to be made that the Cubs wouldn’t be best served to get the best players they can, regardless of the positions they play.  Weaknesses cannot be ignored, however, and the goal when moving players like Matt Garza should be to find high level talent in areas of need, which would make the trade good for both sides.  Again, if the Rangers are parting with Profar (for example), you have to pull the trigger.  Talent like that doesn’t come around very often.  At the end of the day though, the focus has to be on adding impact arms that can make a difference in the near future and catchers to work with them coming up through system.

 

The Cubs Will Be Sellers…But Won’t Empty the Store

I think we’re all sure that there is going to be a sell off at the deadline this season again.  The extent of that sell off is yet to be determined, but in comparison to last year, it will likely be pretty minor.  The reason for that is simple…there is less there for the Cubs to sell.  That’s not to say this team is less talented than last year’s team.  Actually, the opposite is true by a wide margin.  Looking at “the plan,” though, and what the Cubs have on their roster, who is likely to go is pretty limited.

STARTING PITCHING:

NOT GOING ANYWHERE:

Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood

The only player in this group who has any chance of being dealt is Travis Wood.  Jeff Samardzija is a stud who is under team control through 2016.  That type of pitcher is someone you don’t let go of if you’re lacking impact pitching talent in the first place.  Travis Wood has an outside shot of being traded because of his hot start to the season, with nine quality starts in his first ten outings.  He, too, is under team control for a long time.  He won’t hit free agency until 2017.  He is exactly the type of young, cost controlled asset the regime has said to want to keep around.  Dealing him at the deadline would be a huge shock to me, and I don’t see it happening without some type of high end prospect coming back in return.  And because Travis Wood is still only a good 4-5th starter, I can’t see a team willing to cough up that much for him.  Edwin Jackson’s not going anywhere.  He was signed to be a piece for when the Cubs compete.  And he will get ample opportunity to figure out what troubles him.

MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:

Matt Garza

He’s only been back for a week, so I think it is entirely too early to tell whether or not he is fully back from his arm/ lat injuries.  And it is too early to tell what kind of value he has.  I know that the Cubs are looking to get back impact prospects for Garza, and if they get the right package of them, he’ll be packing his bags and headed to another city.  It is just too early to tell if any team is going to be willing to ship the Cubs the right package of prospects for a pure rental player, who is due to become a free agent at season’s end.  It would figure to be just as likely that Garza stays in Chicago all season and the Cubs slap a qualifying offer on him.  If that happens, it would be entirely possible that Garza would return to the Cubs after watching Kyle Lohse wait until just before the season to be signed.  There is an outside shot that the Cubs extend him for a contract similar to the one they offered Anibal Sanchez.  He is worth that kind of money when healthy, and if he shows that he is, he’d be worth the investment.

DON’T GET COMFORTABLE:

Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva

Both of these guys are attractive pieces at the deadline.  Neither makes all that much money.  Both can come out of the pen.  Both can give you a good start every five days.  That makes them the two best candidates to be out the door this July.  Feldman was asked about being flipped at his introductory conference call, so none of this should come as news to him.  Villanueva, however, signed a two year deal, so he would likely net a bit more than

Photo: Rob Carr, Getty Images

Photo: Rob Carr, Getty Images

Feldman in a trade, simply for the extra year of inexpensive control.

BULLPEN:

NOT GOING ANYWHERE:

Hector Rondon, Shawn Camp, Kyuji Fujikawa, Carlos Marmol

I know you’re all upset that Marmol is on this list.  I am, too.  He’s not worth a day old hotdog, though.  At the deadline he’ll be due about $5M, and his numbers aren’t going to make that a good investment for a team looking for a quality reliever.  The only way he comes off this list is if he has a turn around like last year and the Cubs eat most (…or all) of his remaining contract.  And he won’t bring back very much in return.  The most likely scenario with him is finishing the season and walking away in free agency.  Shawn Camp is much more likely to be released than traded.  Kyuji Fujikawa has been injured too early to have any chance at being dealt, and Hector Rondon is a Rule 5 player who the front office likes.  That makes all of them mostly untradeable.

MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:

James Russell, Kevin Gregg

James Russell has proven to be a valuable commodity in the bullpen the last couple of years, which increases his value immensely, but since he is under team control through 2016, it stands to reason that the team would like to keep a controllable asset like him.  There are good teams looking for left handed relievers who can get guys out on both sides of the plate, though.  And if one of them offers up a good package for James Russell, it would not be outside of the realm of possibility that he gets shipped off for multiple pieces.  Kevin Gregg is having a bit of a resurgence with the Cubs, which makes him attractive.  He’s a cheap piece who could fit into a bullpen and occasionally close for a team looking for that type of player.  He probably wouldn’t net a whole lot, but considering the Cubs were just throwing a line in the water to see what he had, any return would be a nice profit on their low risk investment.

INFIELDERS:

NOT GOING ANYWHERE:

Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Wellington Castillo

Rizzo and Castro both signed long term extensions.  Those are obvious.  Castillo is a talented young catcher who is going to get every opportunity to win this spot long term.

MAY  BE GOING SOMEWHERE:

Darwin Barney, Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom, Dioner Navarro

The most attractive piece in this group is obviously Darwin Barney.  His glove makes him an attractive trade piece for someone looking for a really good utility infielder.  Remember, he came up as a short stop and played some third base when he was initially called up.  If his bat keeps coming along, he could be a really good long term starter at second base for a contending team with a shortage in that spot.  He’s 27, so the Cubs may not see him as a long term piece of the core group of players.  He is under team control until 2017, though.  And if he continues to make progress with the bat, he is every bit the kind of player you want at 2B on a contending Cubs team.  Luis Valbuena and Cody Ransom both offer the same kind of value for a team that Jeff Baker added last year.  They are both utility players who can swing the bat some.  They may not bring a lot in return, but that probably wouldn’t stop the front office from sending them away for some intriguing young players.

OUTFIELD:

MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:

Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Scott Hairston, Ryan Sweeney

The safest bet for any of the outfielders to go anywhere is David DeJesus.  A veteran, left handed hitter who can take pitches and work counts  while offering solid defense at all three outfield positions is always in demand.  If the price is right, DDJ is out the door.  It’s just not clear what his value is.  It can’t be too much higher than it was last year, and he wasn’t traded then.  I sense that he would have been traded last year if there was a market for him, which gives me some reason to think he’s not the slam dunk to be traded that some are calling him.  Soriano is going to be shopped aggressively, and if the Cubs find a team willing to package some good pieces together and Soriano is willing to waive his no trade rights, he likely goes at the deadline.  There is too much uncertainty with Soriano, though.  He’s picky.  And he has that right.  If the Cubs get a call about the other three players, I am sure they will listen, and if they can get a prospect of two that they like, there is almost no chance they refuse.

None of this is to say that the Cubs will stand pat at the deadline.  It just isn’t clear who will or will not be going anywhere.  There are not the sure things this season, like Ryan Dempster last season.  There are attractive pieces on this team for others to look at, but none of them are necessarily special.  Matt Garza would net the most in return, theoretically, but if Jed and Theo don’t get a package they like, it is hard to believe they will trade him for the sake of trading him.  That actually applies to pretty much everybody on the roster short of Feldman.  He is a true rental, even for the Cubs, so if they can squeeze a prospect out for him, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to do so.  They may be a little more choosey with Villanueva only because they have him next season, too, and if they plan on being in the hunt next year, he’s a nice piece to have.  Or, if we’re looking at another cold assessment that leads to selling, he has value then, too.

Expect some movement from the Cubs.  Just don’t expect them to send away everything not nailed down like last year.  This is year two.  It’s time to start hanging on to some of the talent.

2013 Positional Preview: The Infield

The positional previews continue with the infielders tonight, and will be capped off over the course of the weekend with the rotation, the bullpen, and the coaching staff.

The infield probably offers the most stable portion of the roster, with a wealth of young talent and players who have staked claims on positions as pieces to build around.  Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney all appear to be locked into their positions, at least for a few more years.  Wellington Castillo is a talent who could make his claim to the catcher position, and there are some intriguing prospects who could lay claim to the hot corner.

Catcher: Wellington Castillo, Dioner Navarro

I list both Castillo and Navarro because no catcher plays everyday.  The most physically demanding position on the diamond requires two players who can handle the job effectively.  This season, Wellington Castillo has the opportunity to stake his claim to the job as the primary back stop.  Being guided by veteran, and 2008 All-Star, Dioner Navarro was one of the better moves the front office made this off-season.  Navarro has history with Matt Garza and has been around long enough to be a calming and guiding influence on the young, talented Castillo.  The talent aspect is what jumps out about Castillo.  Bruce Levine posted a great article for ESPNChicago today about Castillo, and quoted one NL scout saying, “As a hitter he makes hard contact and has plenty of power. The only thing you aren’t sure of when you watch him is how he calls a game. Last fall they had so many below par starters that I could not evaluate his game calling skills.”  Without spoiling the rest of the article, it goes on to talk about how it’s tough to judge Castillo’s ability to call a game because of the pitchers he was working with last year as the season came to a close.  I tend to disagree with that a little, because he got reps with those pitchers in Iowa, but there is something to be said about major league experience.  Either way, Castillo is mighty talented, and has a chance to solidify himself as the catcher of the future this season.

First Base: Anthony Rizzo

Two things jumped out at me  about Anthony Rizzo since his call-up.  The first was that he is a terrific defender at first.  The second actually happened at the Cubs Convention this year when I really got to see him up close, and that is how big he is.  He looks about as well put together as any baseball player I can think of.  His hitting is tremendous, but he was known for that when he came over from the Padres.  This season is going to be a challenge for Rizzo.  How will he fare in Wrigley when the wind is blowing in and it’s cold?  How will he adjust to the adjustments being made for him?  I can speculate that he’ll be fine, and it is my guess that he will be.  If he prepares and plays hard, his at-bats should continue to be positive.  I am not sold that he will double his numbers from last season and become a 30 HR/ 100 RBI guy this season.  I do think he will hit between 25 and 30 home runs, though, and probably drive in 80-90 runs.  Those are Derek Lee type numbers, and he has a Derek Lee type glove, so we’ll take it…all while trying to remember he turns 24 this August.

Second Base: Darwin Barney

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

I’m not even going to hide it…I love Darwin Barney.  I love that he hustles.  I love that he takes pride in his defense.  I love that he thinks the team can go to the playoffs this season.  I love it all.  I don’t even mind his career .305 on-base percentage.  I’m not saying I would mind seeing that come up some, but I don’t even see it as that big of a problem for a guy who will likely be hitting in the lower third of the order.  I do believe some of his on-base issues are with hitting so low in the order.  A guy hitting in front of the pitcher with an offense like the Cubs had last season wasn’t going to get any free passes, and was going to get attacked.  That shows in his numbers from last season against his numbers from his previous work in the bigs.  If his offense rebounds at all, and he defends his Gold Glove, he will be the same steady player you’re used to seeing.

Third Base: Ian Stewart

I’m still going with Stewart here because it’s been a week and nobody is grabbing the bull by the horns and taking the job this spring.  Brent Lillibridge is not going to be the every day third baseman.  Luis Valbuena had a great winter and has started off well this spring, but I think everyone who has a say in the matter knows that he is a utility player.  Josh Vitters has the same problems he had last season and seems ticketed for Iowa to work on his hitting and defense.  Junior Lake is built like a third baseman, but hasn’t done anything to prove he deserves to be in Chicago, yet.  It may be Ian Stewart’s job to win, but it’s not like anyone else has grabbed the bull by the horns and taken the spot.  My feeling is, when Stewart gets back into action this spring, if he shows anything at the plate, and shows he is still the good athlete that Dale Sveum liked at third last season, he will be there on Opening Day.  And he should be.  The Cubs gave up a lot to bring him in.  The sample size he showed last season is not anywhere close to enough to determine is he is a bust.

Photo: Jim Mone/ AP

Photo: Jim Mone/ AP

Shortstop: Starlin Castro

Entering his fourth big league season, the veteran of the group is the nearly 23 year old Starlin Castro.  He hit .283 last year, and seems genuinely upset about it.  That is a scary good thought.  If he can be the .300 hitter he was in his first two seasons, increase his power to the extent that everyone seems to think he can, and keep the steady improvement of his defense going, he is going to be a lock for the All-Star team he’s already made twice.  Don’t be fooled by his error totals, either.  A number of those were early last season.  And after the San Francisco debacle, his attentiveness improved dramatically throughout the season.  As the only player to go all 162 last season, I would expect nothing less than continued improvement*.
*If you’re on the “he’s a bum and it’s time to trade him” wagon, you’re an idiot.  Starlin Castro might be the best young shortstop in the game, and he’s 22.  He’s not anywhere close to his prime, so I will repeat myself…when that kid grows up, he’s going to be really, really, really good.*

Bench: Luis Valbuena, Brent Lillibridge

Both of these guys offer quite a bit of versatility, but neither is an attractive option at first base.  Lillibridge is a super-utility player, who can play all over the infield and can give you some innings in the corner outfield, also.  Dale Sveum loves his versatility, so I expect him to break camp with the major league team.  Valbuena is similar in that he can play second, short, and third.  He’s another nice piece off the bench who is capable of giving a regular a day off.  First base is likely to be backed up by Castillo and Navarro because there really is nobody else.  Lillibridge can do it, but being 5’11” makes him a bit short for the job.

2013 NL Central Preview

Ah, yes…we have reached the time of the year where bats start cracking and gloves start popping.  Spring Training is upon us.  While pitchers and catchers are on the cusp of having to report, there are a number of position players who have already descended on Arizona.  It would not have been surprising to see players wait until the last possible day before reporting after last season’s 61 wins.  Many will do that, anyway.  It is good to see that there are players in camp and working, already.  It is evidence of the players having some optimism for this season.

Optimism is admirable, considering the Cubs will not contend this season, either.  Don’t get me wrong, here…they’re going to be much better than they were last season.  I predicted last season’s version of the Cubs would finish with a record of 77-85.  My prediction appeared to have some validity until the trade deadline.  While it was anticipated the team would sell at the deadline, the degree to which they did, coupled with the losses of Matt Garza to injury and Jeff Samardzija to an innings limit pushed the Cubs to the wrong side of 100 losses for the first time since 1966.  This season, even if they do end up trading some players (Matt Garza the most likely), they have some depth to keep the losses from piling up as quickly and as plentifully as they did in 2012.

A great many prognosticators are saying the Cubs are a lock for last place this year with the Astros leaving for the American League.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS!”  This season, it appears the Pirates walk the plank, right into the cellar…

Consider this the official prediction of the division in 2013, in both  final standing and record for each of the now five NL Central ball clubs.

1. Cincinnati Reds (94-68)

With the top of the division, it’s the status quo.  The Reds are still the most complete team in the division and have, arguably, the best bullpen in baseball.  I say that knowing full well that Dusty Baker plans on slowly sucking the life out of Aroldis Chapman’s arm.  For now, though, they are the best team, and with a healthy Joey Votto, there isn’t a good reason why they wouldn’t win the division this season.  A team without major holes is a team that seems destined to win a division.  That best explains the Reds, and the only thing I can see changing this is a rash of injuries.  Even that seems unlikely to cause the Reds to falter, as the team without Joey Votto for a sizable piece of 2012 still won the division by a wide margin.

Projected Line-Up
1. Shin-Soo Choo, CF
2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Jay Bruce, RF
5. Ryan Ludwick, LF
6. Todd Frazier, 3B
7. Zack Cozart, SS
8. Ryan Hanigan, C

Projected Rotation:
1. Johnny Cueto
2. Mat Latos
3. Bronson Arroyo
4. Aroldis Chapman
5. Homer Bailey

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Sean Marshall
Closer: Jonathon Broxton

2. St. Louis Cardinals (89-73)

As sick as it makes me, the Cardinals are chalk for a winning season and competing for a Wild Card…especially since there are two of them, now.  Even with the loss of Chris Carpenter, there is a wealth of depth on this team and in this organization.  They seem to heal wounds better than any team in baseball.  That, in large part, comes from the best farm system in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law.  Without any major changes to the way this team is constructed from last season and Adam Wainwright being a full season past Tommy John Surgery, there is no good reason why they would fail to meet their usual standards of being a complete pain in the neck.  Even after losing Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa, and Chris Carpenter, they’re still pretty darn good.  Which blows.  Hard.

Projected Line-Up
1. John Jay, CF
2. Rafael Furcal, SS
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Matt Holliday, LF
5. David Freese, 3B
6. Yadier Molina, C
7. Allen Craig, 1B
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Marc Rzepczynski
Closer: Jason Motte

3. Chicago Cubs (80-82)

Unlike the top two teams, everyone else has some question marks, starting with our beloved Cubs.  The outfield looks to be a strength of the organization…but not at the big league level.  Nate Schierholtz was looking for a one year deal to be an everyday player for a reason.  He is very talented, but that hasn’t translated well at the major league level, yet.  David DeJesus is a good on base player and can grind out an at-bat, but is not a prototypical lead off hitter.  He actually projects nicely into the 7th spot in a contending line up.  Third base looks like it will be held by Ian Stewart, if he’s healthy and shows some of the pop he had in Colorado.  He had flashes of it last year, but his wrist just didn’t let it happen like it needed to.  If he doesn’t get the job done, the hot corner will be ice cold for the Cubs again this season.  Luis Valbuena is a nice player, but doesn’t have the punch a corner infielder should have, and Josh Vitters appears to need more minor league time.  There is some question as to whether Wellington Castillo can be the everyday catcher.  Dioner Navarro is a nice addition to help, but Wellington is the most talented and will need to play to his level.  While the offense has some question marks, the rotation has been solidified by the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, and Edwin Jackson.  Even if the Cubs do end up trading Matt Garza or have injuries, it will not leave the devastation that trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm and losing Garza to injury did last season.  With seven legitimate options to start, not including Arodys Vizcaino,  the Cubs figure to be in much better shape in the rotation.  The bullpen looks better, too.  Shawn Camp was retained, James Russell is another year in, the team signed Kyuji Fujikawa, and Carlos Marmol seemed to figure it out in the second half last season.  If Marmol gets dealt, which is a real possibility, Fujikawa is an option to step into the closer’s role that was so uncertain for the first half of last season.  Villanueva gives the Cubs a flexible option in the bullpen and as a spot starter, if needed.  Long story short, a much improved pitching staff is going to be a catalyst to a much improved Cubs team in 2013.

Projected Line-Up
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Ian Stewart, 3B
6. Wellington Castillo, C
7. Nate Schierholtz, RF
8. Darwin Barney, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Matt Garza
2. Jeff Samardzija
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Travis Wood
5. Scott Feldman

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
Closer: Carlos Marmol

4. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)

Looking at the Brewers, they will score runs.  A lot of runs.  I did not include Corey Hart in the projected line-up because he is going to be sidelined for the beginning of the season.  When he comes back, and likely occupies first base, it is going to be full steam ahead at Miller Park.  If they can get some stability out of their starting pitching, if their bullpen improves to be average (or settles for better than worst in the NL), if Corey Hart comes back healthy sooner rather than later, if Aramis Ramirez doesn’t go on a six week slump out of the starting block, and if Ryan Braun emerges clear of PED links again, this team has the potential to have a record just the opposite of what I predicted, and could peak into the playoff window.  There is a lot of if with this team, though.  Generally, some of the ifs work out, but not all of them.  The pitching is suspect.  Mike Fiers was outstanding last season, but with a year to adjust to a guy most teams had never seen and with a season’s worth of tape on him, hitters may be able to get a better read on his less than overwhelming stuff.  I love the kid as a 4th or 5th starter…not as a 2.  The bullpen could be better, but they added nothing to instill confidence in it to anyone but the homeriest of homers up here in Wisconsin.  Too many questions, too many uncertainties, no way to give them the benefit of all of the doubts at their chances of being competitive.

Projected Line-Up
1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Rickie Weeks, 2B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Matt Gamel, 1B
6. Jonathon Lucroy, C
7. Carlos Gomez, CF
8. Jean Segura, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. Yovani Gallardo
2. Mike Fiers
3. Chris Narveson
4. Marco Estrada
5. Tom Gorzelanny

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mike Gonzalez
Closer: John Axford

5. Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)

I’ll admit, my projected line-up here seems amiss.  I look at the parts they have, and they don’t seem to fit together that well.  I like a number of their offensive players individually, and I think they will score some runs, led by Andrew McCutchen, who is an absolute stud of the highest order.  Like the Brewers, I have major concerns about their pitching staff.  A.J. Burnett is getting older.  Wandy Rodriguez is a good pitcher, but he doesn’t match up well with other number two pitchers in good rotations.  He’s a good middle of the rotation guy.  James McDonald faded down the stretch last season, and will need to figure it out again.  The bullpen, once a strength, loses much of its force by losing its strongest asset in Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox.  That move alone makes the bullpen average, at best.  With Jason Grilli becoming the closer, it appears to have sent the bullpen just over its head.  Everybody in it is elevated one spot, which to me, seems to be one spot too big for each player.  If Hanrahan were still a Pirate, I could make a good case for the team’s bullpen being the strength of the team.  Without him, it just doesn’t look the same, which is to say it does not look right.  Like the Brewers, too many ifs and concerns to see them being anything more than a team winning in the mid 70s.  For Pirates fans after the last couple of seasons, that may not be desirable, but they’re still much better than the Pirates of the last 20 years have been on average.

Projected Line-Up
1. Neil Walker, 2B
2. Starling Marte, LF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones, 1B
5. Travis Snider, RF
6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
7. Russell Martin, C
8. Clint Barmes, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. A.J. Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. James McDonald
4. Jeff Locke
5. Jeff Karstens

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mark Melancon
Closer: Jason Grilli

Let the Roster Shuffle Begin

Tomorrow is the deadline to set the 40 man roster for the Rule 5 Draft.  I could post an exhaustive list of players the Cubs have who are eligible, but instead, I have chosen to go the lazy route and link it here to Chicago Cubs Online.  I would expect at least one of those guys to be taken.  We’ll see…and we’ll see if the Cubs actually select anyone this season.  They did pick RHP Lendy Castillo last year, and they lost Ryan Flaherty and Marwin Gonzalez.

I am amused by Bruce Levine’s vague report that a “big trade” involving “young players” is in the works.  That is not to say I doubt the report, because Bruce Levine has proven to be nothing, if not reliable, in his reporting from my perspective.  It’s just so vague that it boarders on “not worth mentioning until something actually happens” or actual names come about.  If/ when the deal is brokered, I’m sure I’ll have comments on what went each way.  Until then…

The Cubs did agree to sign Shawn Camp today for another year.  The question is whether he’ll actually sign before the Rule 5 deadline, or if the parties agreed to hold off on putting ink on paper until after this mess is cleaned up so the team can keep an open slot on the 40 man roster for someone they’d prefer not to lose.  All of the official reports say they’ve “agreed.” I think that might mean something.  I could also be wrong.  If he indeed signs, the 40 man inflates to 39.

I am still completely behind the idea of the Cubs signing OF Jason Bay.  He is a guy who could probably be had cheap, play a corner OF spot, and be flipped if he performs well.  That is exactly the kind of guy the team is looking for at this point.  I’m not exactly sure about whether or not Theo Epstein (who acquired Bay when he was in Boston) or Jed Hoyer have had the same idea.  I’m just throwing it out there.

After the last post, the Cubs announced they signed Dioner Navarro to catch, likely in a back-up role to Wellington Castillo.  He spent last season with the Reds.  Statistically, he’s nothing special.  Career, he’s a .245/.306/.357 guy.  He did manage to be selected to the 2008 AL All-Star team with the Rays.  His value is probably to help Wellington Castillo as a major league catcher, and allows Steve Clevenger to go back to Iowa and work on his craft for another season.  Clevenger is still new to the position.  Time in the minors to fine tune will serve him will in the long run.

 

 

Resetting the Farm System

The Epstein Administration is off to a very honest start, to say the least.  When Theo came, he made no mistake that the intention was to build an organization, from the bottom up, in order to sustain success for the long term.  To this point, he has kept his word.  The Cubs’ system now features five of the top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com’s updated, post season rankings.  Half of the organization’s top ten prospects have been acquired since Epstein and Co. have arrived, and that does not include First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, who would be the undisputed #1 prospect in the system if he met MLB.com’s criteria for what makes a prospect.  The fact that he has had a rookie season in the majors, from my view, does not make him any less of a prospect.  He is by no means a finished product…which is a scary good thought after his 2012 season.

With all of that, here is a positional look at the system:

  • PITCHING: Pitching is still the weakness of the system.  Theo knows it.  Jed knows it.  Even the guy in the bleachers drunkenly screaming to fire Dale Sveum because we could have won the World Series this year knows it.  That is why the focus has been on acquiring pitching.  The new regime spent almost the entire draft on infusing the system with new arms.  They made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire Randall Delgado for Ryan Dempster.  They made a successful deal with the Braves to acquire Arodys Vizcaino, who is the best pitching prospect in the system, according to MLB’s new rankings.  Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn are also top 20 prospects in the system, who were drafted in the slots gained from the departures of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena.  Nine of the top 20 are pitchers, none of whom is Hayden Simpson, the 2010 first round pick.  We are very close to reaching bust status with him.  The front office knows that there is still a shortage of arms in the system, so look for a continued focus on acquiring them, either through trades or in the draft.  Alfonso Soriano and Matt Garza could each become prospect pitching, if there is a deal to be made.
  • CATCHERS: With Wellington Castillo looking primed to crouch behind the dish on a full time basis, with Steve Clevenger being a capable back up, and Geovany Soto being a Texas Ranger, it would seem the system is lacking in catching depth.  That’s mostly true.  The only catcher of note who will be in the minor leagues next season is Anthony Recker, who finished the season in the majors because of a September call-up.  The bright side to the catching situation is that both of the big league backstops are young players, who, like Anthony Rizzo, I would still consider prospects, who are developing at the big league level.  That’s some good news.  The bad news is, catchers tend to be injured more than other positions, and there is not a lot behind them.
  • INFIELD: There is some talent in the infield in the organization, but it’s nothing to jump out of your chair for.  Javier Baez is a notable exception to that, as the system’s number one prospect, again, according to MLB.com.  Christian Villanueva and Junior Lake are also both in the top ten in the organization, but neither seem to be all that close to cracking the major league line-up anytime soon.  Lake is probably the closest prospect, but he projects to be a utility player, who can play all over because of his arm and athleticism.  He has good power, but lacks plate discipline and still needs some polish in the field.  He could be a call-up in the mold of Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson in 2013, to get some experience at the major league level before going back to the minors to work on deficiencies he may not get to know without a call-up.  As for Baez and Villanueva, both finished the season at Daytona.  They may go to AA, Tennessee together next season, but a more sure bet is that they open at Daytona next year.  Josh Vitters, the most major league ready prospect in the infield, showed that he still needs some time to grow.  I could see him being moved to a corner outfield spot if his glove does not improve significantly.  An interesting prospect on the infield is Dan Vogelbach, whose bat will probably propel him up the system.  He hit for a combined 1.051 OPS between Mesa and Boise.  Being a 1B, though, is going to hurt him with the Cubs.  He is blocked by Anthony Rizzo.  If he could become a 3B, he could be a Pablo Sandoval type player in the future, although Keith Law says he has “no shot.”  My guess is, his lack of athleticism is going to be a significant issue with him being anything more than a first baseman or a designated hitter…which the Cubs have no use for.
  • OUTFIELD: The outfield is where the most depth is within the system.  After getting a sight of Brett Jackson, it appears that he has the ability to man CF at Wrigley for a long time, with improvements to his swing and approach at the plate.  The additions of Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, both of whom played well in their first taste of American pro baseball, make them, with Jackson, three of the top five prospects in the system.   With other interesting prospects, like Dave Sappelt and Shawon Dunston Jr, there is some serious talent, much of which is still saturating the low levels of the system.  For the time being, it is interesting to wonder about what an Almora, Jackson, Soler outfield will look like…because it won’t be a reality for a few years.  For now, we’ll get to watch a Soriano, DeJesus, LaHair (or whoever else they can manage to throw out there).

There is a lot more talent in the minors now than there was 12 months ago.  That is something that has to be attributed to building the organization, as opposed to trading any and all talent we can to get veteran players to win right now.  There has been a lot of that over the years, leaving the cupboards pretty bare.  Building it back up will take as much time and effort as it will to build the big league team into one that can consistently win.  It is a good thing to have talent saturation in the minors, and at this point in time, there is much more of it than there was when Jim Hendry left the club.  It is exciting, however, to watch the build-up.  Seeing lower level clubs compete, like the Boise Hawks did in 2012 is a sign of talent infusion.  Hopefully, the Cubs are able to build a system that can compete at all levels.  No organization can have too much talent.  At this point,though, it is still a work in progress.