Friday, October 7th, 2011
When I was growing up, my brother and I used to love the one week out of the month when NBC would replace Saturday Night Live with Saturday Night’s Main Event. I remember it would always start with something like “SNL will not be seen tonight. Instead we bring you Saturday Night’s Main Event.” We’d be jacked up and I always wondered why they couldn’t just get rid of that SNL show and just put wrestling on every Saturday. I had no idea what SNL even was, but I knew it couldn’t be as good as what we were about to watch.
I share that for one silly reason. The morning roundup will not be seen today. Instead we bring you the first of a monthly series called State of the Team. It’s a collaborative effort amongst some of the writers here to bring you an update on where we stand at that present time. What better time than now to start.
Catcher – Buddy
Infield – Dustin
Outfield – Joe
Starting Pitching – Chet
Bullpen – Jedi
Coaching / Front Office – Jeremiah
CATCHER – 2011 was a forgettable year from a catching standpoint. After a solid but abbreviated 2010 (.280/.393/.497 in 105 games), 28-year-old Geo Soto took a major step backwards this season. Soto finished at .228/.310/.411 in 125 games. There’s still plenty of reason to be optimistic, but 2012 is a big year for the Cubs catcher. His effort looks even worse considering who the backup was in 2011. Automatic out Koyie Hill gave the Cubs absolutely nothing in a reserve role: .194/.268/.276. Soto is arbitration eligible this off season and a free agent after 2013. Hill seems like a lock to move on, or at least I hope that’s the case.
How are things down on the farm? Wellington Castillo is a fan favorite, but he looks like a liability in the batter’s box. He’s only 24, so there’s obviously time for him to develop. Steve Clevenger is an intriguing catcher. The 25-year-old backstop hits left-handed, and he’s compiled a career .369 on-base percentage in 1,800 minor league at bats. Could he catch on as the Cubs backup next year? Mario Martinez and Chris Robinson saw time behind the plate in AAA Iowa this year, but both appear to be offensively challenged.
Blake Lalli has decent numbers in three AA seasons, but he’s already 28 years old. Nothing to write home about there. Mike Brenly and Chad Noble called games for the High A Daytona Cubs, but neither player has much upside at this point. Sergio Burruel and Micah Gibbs were dreadful for Low A Peoria. The Cubs drafted Neftali Rosario in this year’s draft, so he’s somebody to watch going forward.
Soto appears to be entrenched as the starter in 2012. The key will be finding a backup who can actually contribute with the bat. Free agent options include Rod Barajas, Dioner Navarro, and Kelly Shoppach. All three players have their flaws, but they’ve shown enough offense in the past for the new Cubs GM to at least kick the tires. Would one of those former starters agree to a reserve role and a one-year deal? Inquiring minds want to know. In any case, the Cubs have to find a competent backup to keep Soto’s bat and legs fresh.
INFIELD – For better or for worse, the infield unit was one of the few sources of consistency for the Cubs in 2011…and for the most part, it was for the better. While the lineup and batting order was juggled throughout the year, most days you could be certain that Carlos Peña was going to be at first, Darwin Barney at second, Aramis Ramirez at third and Starlin Castro at shortstop. The four starting infielders each saw action in at least 143 games; each started at least 128; and aside from a two week DL stint for Barney in June, remained relatively healthy. Additionally, for the advanced stat heads among us, they led the team in offensive production finishing as the team’s top four position players in Wins Above Replacement.
Peña turned out to be pretty much exactly the player we all thought the Cubs were getting when he signed a one year, $10 million dollar deal last winter. Despite a slow start in terms of power, the first basemen led the team in home runs (28) and walks (108), but also struck out a ton (161) and hit just .225. Defensively he was solid, which is good enough to stand out on this team.
At second base, Barney started off his first full season in the majors looking like a perennial all-star and finished it looking more like a utility player. After hitting .326 in April there was early talk about a possible Rookie of the Year campaign, but that was quickly quieted as his average dropped each month (with the exception of a rebound to .276 in July). The job is his for the foreseeable future, but it’s fair to say his name is written in pencil rather than pen in the starting line-up for the next few years.
Ramirez has been a fixture at third for the Cubs for the better part of the last decade, and he continued to stake his claim to the title of “best everyday player” for the team in 2011. As we have come to expect, he had a solid overall season, hitting .306 with 26 homers and 93 RBIs with his best numbers coming in August when he hit .377 with an OPS of 1.007. A-Ram’s days in Cubs pinstripes appears to have come to a close, however, as he will pursue free agency this off-season and is unlikely to return.
Shortstop featured the Cubs’ one and only All-Star in Starlin Castro, who very likely will be a mainstay not only in the Cubs lineup but also in the All-Star game for the next decade. The 21 year-old lead the National League in hits with 207 and finished second amongst all shortstops with a .307 average. With a lot of years left to develop, he certainly has time to improve on his power numbers (10 home runs this season) and his focus in the field, which has been the one area of concern regarding Castro. His 58 errors were by far the most on the team.
From a bench standpoint, Blake DeWitt and Jeff Baker were the utility guys in the lineup, picking up the starts made available when the “big four” were out of the line-up for one reason or another. Neither showed any reason to be considered for anything more than utility roles moving forward. Prospect D.J. LeMahieu some time at second and third during two call-ups, though I would have liked to see him get even more at bats to gauge his potential as a future fit at third.
Peña: Free agent, could re-sign
Barney: First year of service – not arbitration eligible
Ramirez: Free agent, not expected to re-sign
Castro: Second year of service – not arbitration eligible
DeWitt: Arbitration eligible
Baker: Arbitration eligible
How deep is the farm system? The Cubs certainly have some infield talent in the system, unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be developed enough to fill the big holes the Cubs will be facing at the corners next year. The departure of Aramis Ramirez will be the biggest immediate hole, and LeMahieu has been mentioned as a possible replacement. He may turn out to be a better option at second should Barney turn out to be the player we saw at the end of the season rather than at the beginning.
Bryan LaHair, who was another September call-up for the Cubs played more time in the outfield, but may have a future at first base. However, at 30 years old, there is a reason he hasn’t gotten a prolonged look before now, but could be a possible short term solution should the Cubs not fill 1B through free agency.
Further down in the system, Josh Vitters has long been considered to be the 3B of the future for the organization, but has yet to progress past AA though was somewhat improved this year, spending then entire season in Tennessee and finishing with a line of .283/.322/.448.
Ryan Flaherty, on the other hand, most of it spent at AA-Tennesse as well, where he should good pop (with 14 homer is 83 games) and an ability to hit for average. While not ready for the big leagues yet, he may be someone to keep an eye on at 2B in 2013 and beyond.
For those looking towards 2015 (and who among us isn’t), the Cubs lower levels look to be stocked with solid infield potential and feature two infielders listed the top 20 Arizona Rookie League prospects according to Baseball America (Marco Hernandez and Giosakar Amaya).
OUTFIELD – Hey, come close for a second. Closer. Just a little closer. I’ve got a secret to tell you. You can’t tell anyone. It’s been a pretty well kept secret. The Cubs outfield sucked. It’s littered with aging, overrated players and prospects who have either failed to reach expectations or are pesky singles hitters trying to start their own legend of Sam Fuld. It’s no wonder people are clamoring and champing at the bit for Brett Jackson. It’s not a pretty picture right now in the outfield. I certainly would not envy the job facing the new GM in that area.
Alfonso Soriano is the bain of many Cub fans existence, but of all the outfielders still on the team, he was the most productive, producing an OPS+ at 104. That means he was 4% better than league average. Encouraging that he was the best, right? On the flip side, Tyler Colvin battled hard to try to make Adam Dunn feel better about the year he had by putting up an OPS+ of 38. That horrific number got me thinking about what the worst season was by someone with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title was. That led me to Bill Bergen. Check out his 1909 season with an OPS+ of 1. Yes, you read that right, 1. What’s even more amazing is that he played 11 seasons and finished with a career .170 batting average. Let’s all hope to God that those numbers aren’t what Colvin turns into. He is being counted on as a part of the outfield of the future. He was supposed to be coupling with Jackson to make up 2/3 of the outfield. Now we’re not so sure.
In the meantime, right now we’re stuck with Alfonso Soriano in LF, but you have to think that the new GM will try hard to make a big statement right away and rid himself of that albatross, especially considering the fact that Tom Ricketts has stated that the Cubs would be willing to eat a significant chunk of salary to make it happen. Marlon Byrd is in the final year of his deal and will be making a very reasonable $6.5 million. He could find himself on the trade market this off season or at the very latest by the July deadline to make room for Jackson.
As bad as the OF was, there were a few bright surprises. Reed Johnson caught lightning in a bottle again in a Cubs uniform despite sucking everywhere else he plays, and Tony Campana showed us speed is sexy. Admit it, you got a little exciting when he hit the inside the park home run. You desperately wanted to see him steal home. I know I did. Beyond those two guys, there really wasn’t a whole lot to be excited about when it came to the outfield. It’s going to be the future that we’ll need to get excited about.
Brett Jackson should be an exciting part of that future and could begin that as early as April. Matt Szczur is another name to keep an eye on. He’s a former two sport athlete chosen in the 5th round of the 2010 June draft and played really well in his first full season of professional baseball, sporting a .303 / .350 / .404 split line and 10 home runs. He’s got some speed to his game which is always something we desperately crave.
Overall, the system looks to have a few up and coming potential stars, but the current makeup does little inspire much excitement.
STARTING PITCHERS – A great majority of baseball minds feel that starting pitching is the ticket to the post-season . Similar to a football team attempting to win without a quality quarterback, a baseball team cannot have success without a quality starting rotation.
On the surface the Cubs Starting staff looks like a patchwork blend of youth, veteran savvy, and power. A few up and comers along with some sage vets to keep the ship on course. …or at least that is how it was sold to us in the spring.
Starting rotation on April 1st , 2011 (opening day):
Starting Rotation on September 28th, 2011 (Last game):
Needless to say, other than Garza, nobody impressed this season. Matt led the staff in ERA (3.32), Wins (10 *tied with Dempster), Strikeouts (197), and WAR (2.9 ….this one is for you SABR guys). None of these stats is eye popping, which describes the crux of the 2011 starting rotation.
Dempster had a down year and what I believe is the beginning of the end. I can do without Casey Coleman and Rodrigo Lopez in future rotations. Andrew Cashner never got his chance to make his big splash due to injury and Randy Wells is looking more and more like a flash in the pan than the up and coming starter he seemed to be after 2009. Jury is still out on Randy but deliberation is about to come to an end….it’s 2012 or bust!
This leaves us with the ever combustible Carlos Zambrano. I can’t see a scenario in a sane Cubs world where Big Z will pitch again on the north side. It’s not that Carlos lacks talent, it’s really never been about that. The man has more ability in his pinky than most of the starting staff from 2011. It’s the quagmire between the ears that gets in the way of his fierce power on the mound. I liken Carlos to a rock star that writes beautiful music while wired up on heroin. Then you clean him up and he can’t put two chords together. The difference is heroin is replaced with raw unbridled emotion. He needs his Latin fire to compete. We are talking the difference between Ozzy Osbourne biting the heads off bats on stage and present day Ozzy. Which music is better? Exactly!
At any rate, we took the fire out of Carlos with all the therapy and trust trees. The man is a broken horse, only able to cantor at a slow pace. It shows on the mound, he giggles and laughs at errors and golfer balls. He holds it all in and bottles it up….then boom!
Carlos needs a new stage, and I hear the Marlins just hired one of his good friends. Maybe it’s time they get the band back together? I won’t accuse them of tampering.
What is in store for 2012? I don’t want to poop in the gravy but we have nothing to look forward to for next year where pitching is concerned. Unfortunately this is a shallow position within the organization. The other bizarre situation, which can be viewed as a positive, is that many of these guys are not signed for much longer.
Ryan Dempster is signed through 2012. This would be a contract year coming up.
Carlos Zambrano is signed through 2012. Your guess is as good as mine as to what happens with this vortex from hell. My guess, the Cubs eat some contract and send him to the Marlins to hang with his buddy Ozzie Guillen…..the Cubs get a brand new bag of balls back in return.
Randy Wells is in his first year of arbitration. He is also free agent eligible in 2012. The word is that he should get resigned, but it won’t cost us the farm. If he becomes a back of the rotation guy I am in.
Matt Garza won’t become a free agent until 2014 but he is arbitration eligible for 2012 and 2013. Many would like to see the Cubs lock Garza up for a while. He is a fine pitcher and I like him middle of the rotation. A big market club needs more at the top however.
Andrew Cashner will be back with the Cubs as he is still under his original rookie contract. The real question is whether or not he will start? Is Cashner a true reliever or can they get starts from him? The way Carlos Marmol has closed out games lately, I would not mind seeing Cashner get his college roll as closer back.
Joe wanted us to report on the “farm situation” in relation to each position we reviewed. Let me give a you a quick glance…..did you see that?
In my opinion we have nothing close to a major league starter in our farm. Somebody is going to contest this; a person who believes in prospects and potential. I need to see this on the mound in the majors, until then they are unproven.
What you need to know about this position lays in the names Rodrigo Lopez and Dave Bush. We don’t have anybody that can pitch better in the minors. If we did, this would have been the perfect season to showcase them. It would have been the perfect time to get them some MLB experience.
We saw nothing and barring a nice spring from Trey McNutt, I don’t see starting potential that will affect the 2012 season.
As you can see, one of the most important positions in any organization is quite thin for the Cubs. Even at the Major league level we lack a true ace. Our current best would be back of the rotation for just about any team in the current post-season.
Is the correct action to upgrade or overhaul?
BULLPEN – Inconsistency. The closer Marmol was wildly inconsistent. Marshall had a rough June & July. Wood was hurt for a month, the rest of the time he was unspectacular. Russell’s numbers are terrible because of his time as a starter. He and Samardzija both seemed to find their role in the bullpen as the season progressed. Samardzija had a really solid final two months; unfortunately his first four months were terrible (not coincidentally, he had a much shorter leash in those final two months. A lot of evidence points towards getting Samardzija out before he throws much more than 20 pitches). The rest of the bullpen was a grab bag of minor leaguers and two garbage vets. Grabow, Ortiz, Berg, Carpenter, Mateo, Maine, Stevens, Gaub, Dolis – that’s a forgettable list.
Marmol, Marshall, Russell, and that long list of minor leaguers are all under team control. The Cubs hold an option for Samardzija (I anticipate they’ll exercise it). Grabow is gone and won’t be back. Wood and Ortiz are free agents. The fans almost certainly want Wood back. Ortiz has some added value as a spot starter when insert starting pitcher here goes down with an injury in April.
Most of the Iowa (AAA) relievers made at least an appearance for the MLB team at some point and are on that list above. Perhaps the most notable name left off was Esmailin Caridad who has previous MLB experience with the Cubs, but didn’t pitch for them in 2011. There’s nothing at Iowa that really excites me, including those guys who made an appearance at the MLB level. Most of those guys have been highly touted at one point or another only to eventually be revealed as one-trick ponies. Lefty specialists, guys with overpowering fastballs and erratic secondary pitches, groundball pitchers who walk too many guys, etc.
There is one guy at Tennessee (AA) that intrigues me. Jeff Beliveau. We picked him in the 18th round of the 2008 draft – so already he’s a success! He’s had success at every stop, good ERAs, a nice strikeout ratio, and mostly very low WHIPs. I’d like to see what he can do at the MLB level.
I’m not going to address the teams below AA at this juncture. The bullpen is a bit different than the rest of the team in that it’s really a team within the team. Your bullpen parts need to be complimentary while still possessing the ability to get guys out. If you assume that we will bring back Kerry Wood and that Samardzija stays in the bullpen, I think it should look something like this:
Marmol, Marshall, Wood, Samardzija, Russell, and then one or two guys from the minors. I’d like to see Gaub given a legit chance, perhaps Carpenter or even Beliveau (who I think should be at Spring Training for the Cubs). Mateo, Maine, and Stevens have all had chances in the past and the results were bad to mediocre – although Maine might be the most deserving of another look. Dolis might be a future closer, but he needs to find the strike zone and a consistent pitching motion. Berg was such a success that the bearded one recently cleared waivers after being DFA and has been once again outrighted to the minors (along with the aptly named Brian Schlitter).
Obviously, the Cubs could potentially deal Marmol, Marshall, or Samardzija – there would likely be significant interest in all three. The bullpen is a tricky place to predict success; sometimes the puzzle fits together well, other times it looks a Picasso. If there’s a Matt Karchner-like deal for one of our current arms, it would be nice to be on the right side of a deal like that for once. The Cubs might find a top tier team with money to spend intent on getting a solid back-end of the bullpen arm. Any of those three would fit in with most bullpens. If we can get something back, great; if not, re-sign Wood, rinse and repeat next year. The bullpen won’t be the key to success or failure in 2012, so there’s no reason to monkey with too much. It was serviceable, inconsistent, and not spectacular.
FRONT OFFICE – The 2011 season saw a lot of upheaval in the Cubs’ front office. The long tenure of General Manager Jim Hendry came to an end in mid-August, but Hendry had known about his dismissal for nearly a month prior. He stuck around to maintain continuity while the Cubs finished signing an expensive slate of draft picks like Dan Vogelbach, Dillon Maples, and Javier Baez.
Hendry left the Cubs with an uneven legacy. His nine years as GM were marked by overspending and under-performing, but he also was at the helm for the Cubs’ playoff appearances in 2003, 2007, and 2008. He entered the 2011 season with his usual optimism, but few fans believed this was a team that could compete for the postseason. Getting off to a slow, injury-riddled start proved to be one of the final nails in his coffin. Randy Bush replaced Hendry as the interim GM, and still currently holds that title while Tom Ricketts searches for a permanent replacement.
Hendry’s chief assistants are also sticking around, at least for now. The Cubs were quick to extend the contract of their Director of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita, but are letting Scouting Director Tim Wilken ride out the rest of his current contract through the 2012 season. While Tom Ricketts wasn’t willing to let Fleita leave (the Tigers were reportedly interested in hiring him away), he seems content to wait to make any further commitments to his front office staff until he’s named a new GM. We’ll see what that means for Wilken.
Hendry also had a small team of special advisers. His longtime friend Gary Hughes has already notified the Cubs that he’s retiring after more than four decades in MLB front offices. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux was another of Hendry’s special advisors—it remains to be seen what role, if any, he’ll play in the Cubs front office going forward.
Obviously, the front office is currently hanging in a holding pattern until Ricketts installs a new General Manager. Unlike Hendry, the new GM will answer directly to Ricketts, meaning that Crane Kenney’s role of club President now only pertains to off-the-field matters. The shuffle at the top of the food chain has caused some sportswriters to theorize that Ricketts might make multiple additions to the front office—a senior baseball mind as President of Baseball Operations (perhaps a Pat Gillick type) and a younger GM (Epstein, Friedman, Hahn, etc.). Next Friday, I’ll take a closer look at some of the key candidates and break down where they might fit best within the club.
That same organizational holding pattern extends to the coaching staff. First year manager Mike Quade has been publicly optimistic about keeping his job, but not many people in the press or in the stands think he’ll be writing out the opening day lineup card next season. In a year and change since replacing Lou Piniella, Quade has not impressed with his managerial style or abilities. In particular, he’s shown a knack for overestimating the hitting talent and fielding versatility of his position players, and leaving his pitchers in games for one or two hitters too many. Quade was a fine third base coach for the Cubs. It’s possible he could be again in the near future.
As for the rest of the Cubs coaching staff, there’s not much to say. Highly-touted hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is probably guaranteed to stay no matter who the manager is. But the futures of pitching coach Mark Riggins, first base coach Bob Dernier, third base coach Ivan De Jesus, bullpen coach Lester Strode, and bench coach Pat Listach might all be tied to Quade’s, for better or worse. Quade’s contract does run through the 2012 season. Depending on how long it takes Ricketts to hire a new GM, the coaching staff’s jobs might be safe for another year.
All told, there’s not a lot that can be said with any certainty about the Cubs’ front office right now. But as the season draws to a close, there are a number of pressing issues for the next GM to deal with—among them are the contract decisions on corner infielders Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, the potential long-term extensions for Matt Garza and Starlin Castro, the future of Carlos Zambrano, and the desperate need for capable pitchers. Whoever the new Cubs’ GM is, he’ll have a full plate waiting for him on his first day of work.
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