THE LINEUP

Catcher – Buddy

Corner Infield – Noah

Middle Infield – Dustin

Outfield – Joe

Starting Pitchers – Chet

Bullpen – Jedi

Front Office / Coaching – Jeremiah

CATCHER – Rooting for Geo Soto can be a frustrating experience, but there’s still a lot to like. Despite his “every other year” cycle of production, Soto has shown that he can be one of the best offensive catchers in the National League. Here’s what he’s done since becoming a regular for the Cubs:

2008–.285/.364/.504
2009–.218/.321/.381
2010–.280/.393/.497
2011–.228/.310/.411

Even with a couple clunker seasons, Soto’s career OPS is .803. The key for 2012 is keeping him fresh. That means Theo and company have to find a backup who can actually contribute at the plate. The minor league system doesn’t have a strong contender (though I’m slightly intrigued by Steve Clevenger). Is there a free agent who might be a good fit?

Kelly Shoppach’s name jumps off the page for me. The 31-year-old backstop has belted 59 home runs in 1,288 Major League at bats. He’s been especially productive vs. LHP, posting a career line of .274/.373/.536. The Rays have a team option on Shoppach, but my guess is they let him walk. If Shoppach stays in Tampa, the Cubs still have a few free-agent options. Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro are also looking for work this off-season.

And now for something completely different! Jorge Posada is a free agent. It was a year full of drama for Posada and the Yankees, so it seems pretty obvious that he won’t return to New York. Assuming that he’s not ready to retire, maybe a backup role would be attractive. Would he sign a one-year deal for a reasonable salary? Probably not. But crazier things have happened, and I’d love to see it.

Anything would be better than another season of Koyie Hill.

CORNER INFIELD – The obvious answer for the Cubs at first base, and the one many Cub fans are hoping for, is going after Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.  Pujols has undeniably been the best player of the last decade, while Fielder has been one of the best left handed hitters in baseball since becoming a full time Major Leaguer in 2006.  This route actually is not my preferred choice for the Cubs for a couple reasons.  First, I am concerned about the contract length both players would require.  Pujols will be 32 on opening day 2012, and might require a 10 year contract.  Fielder has a body type and skill set that tends to age young.  Second, I don’t like investing that much of the payroll in a first baseman when a team is still rebuilding.  If it was an elite up the middle player or starting pitcher, that would be one thing.  But a team can find value at first base for less money without the risk of having so much  payroll tied up in one player at this time.

My preferred option would be for the Cubs to try to trade for Logan Morrison, the Marlins’ left fielder who is actually a first baseman.  LoMo had well documented issues with the Marlins this past season, reportedly largely due to being a bit more active and uncensored on Twitter than the team preferred.  But he still is two seasons away from even reaching arbitration, hits for power (.201 career ISO), walks (11.7% BB rate), and doesn’t strike out a lot (18.7% K rate).  But there are significant problems with this scenario.  To start, it is not even clear that the Marlins are shopping LoMo.  Even if they are, it is also unclear if the Cubs could get him without ravaging their farm system.  With rumors that the Marlins are looking to significantly upgrade their Major League team going into their new stadium in 2012, rumors of a Sunshine State swap of James Shields for LoMo have popped up.  For the Cubs to give up equivalent value, they’d have to trade players like Andrew Cashner, and they are reasonably apprehensive about doing that.

Honestly, I think the best realistic option is seeing what Bryan LaHair can do.  LaHair may only be a AAAA player, and, if the Cubs were making a strong push to contend in 2012, playing LaHair would be a risk they couldn’t afford.  But it is unlikely the Cubs will compete in 2012, and LaHair was great over the past two seasons in Iowa and a brief stint this past September with the Cubs.  The Cubs might as well see if they found a late developing diamond in the rough in LaHair.

The first thing to discuss related to the hot corner is what to do with Aramis Ramirez.  Thankfully, this should be an easy choice.  Ramirez has a mutual option with the Cubs for $16 million next season.  If the Cubs reject the option, they have to pay a $2 million buyout.  The Cubs should pick up their end of the option.  If Ramirez picks up his end of it, that is fine and the Cubs will retain one of the better offensive third basemen in baseball for another season.  Ramirez has said he wants a multi-year deal, though, so odds are he rejects his end of the option.  That means the Cubs do not need to pay him the buyout money, which saves the team $2 million in sunk costs.  Then the Cubs should offer Ramirez, arbitration, which he will almost certainly reject.  The Cubs should follow that by letting Ramirez sign a multi-year deal elsewhere (I’m betting the Angels), and collect the supplemental first round draft pick Ramirez’s Type B status brings with it.

Presuming Ramirez leaves, the question is what the Cubs should do to replace him?  If the Cubs are going to go outside of the organization, the only potentially available veteran I am interested in is Edwin Encarnacion.  As I discussed in my bargain bin series, Encarnacion has some significant issues, namely that he’s prone to bad behavior and is a bad defender.  But Encarnacion is young and talented enough to be a good player for the next few seasons, should be pretty cheap for 2012 and could potentially still meet a peak that has alluded him if he gets his head on straight.  With that said, there is an issue that makes the Cubs bringing in Encarnacion pretty unlikely: the Blue Jays have a quite cheap $3.5 million option on Encarnacion that they will reportedly exercise, so he will probably never hit the free agent market in the first place.

I am not particularly interested in the other veteran options available through either the free agent market or potential trade.  Wilson Betemit is the best of the rest of the free agent third basemen.  He is an above average but not great hitter in every category, but he also is a poor fielder and has had a lot of problems staying healthy.  He would be worth a shot for a contending team that had a hole at third base, but I don’t see significant value for a rebuilding Cubs team.

Rumors have it that new Padres GM Josh Byrnes is going to explore the trade market for Chase Headley.  Headley, who is 27 and headed into his second year of arbitration, and Headley’s career offensive numbers have been hampered by playing home games in the pitcher’s haven that is Petco Park.  For his career, Headley has hit .229/.319/.336 at home, compared to .303/.364/.441 on the road.  Headley’s a solid contact hitter who takes a decent amount of walks.  He has a reputation as a strong defender, although a closer look at the metrics shows that his reputation is probably just the result of a very strong 2010.  Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference rate him as a below average to flat out bad defender every other season.  On top of that, Headley doesn’t hit for for much power.  Even on the road, Headley has only hit for a .138 ISO and 21 home runs in 1117 plate appearances.  Much like Betemit, I think Headley would be a strong pick up for an organization looking to compete with a cost controlled third baseman in 2012.  I do not think he is worth the prospects required bring him to a rebuilding team like the Cubs.

That brings us to the internal options.  DJ LeMahieu should be starting somewhere for the Cubs in 2012.  Barring the Cubs picking up someone like Kelly Johnson to play second base, I think that LeMahieu should start there with Darwin Barney moving to a backup middle infielder role.  If the Cubs have someone else starting at second, though, LeMahieu should get everyday at bats at the hot corner.  LeMahieu arguably has the best contact skills in the organization, and that includes Starlin Castro.  Just so I don’t cause an uproar, please just note that I said “arguably”, that LeMahieu does not have anywhere near Castro’s ability to drive the ball, and he is nearly two years older than Castro.

Josh Vitters, flat out, is not ready for the Majors at this point, despite at least one prospect writer (FanGraphs’ Mike Newman) believing the Cubs should just throw him  in the deep end that is the Majors and see if he sinks or swims.  Also, Vitters really has not improved defensively, and should probably be moved elsewhere on the diamond for 2012.  His athletic ability and arm strength should allow him to play a solid right field.

Ryan Flaherty had a great first half of 2012 in Double A Tennessee (.305/.384/.523), but flat out hit a brick wall upon promotion to Triple A Iowa (.237/.277/.399).  I’ve read that the power he showed in Tennessee was largely due to cheating on the ball to pull it, and that tactic was exposed by more experienced AAA pitchers.  Flaherty needs to return to Iowa to start the season, but could see some time at third base as the season progresses.

As such, if the Cubs don’t bring in Edwin Encarnacion, and DJ LeMahieu is starting at second base, I honestly think the Cubs should just plug Blake DeWitt in at the position.   I know what you’re thinking (in elementary school playground terms it’s something like “Blake DeWitt?!  Gross!”), but DeWitt does have a few things going for him.  First, he is still young at 26.  DeWitt is also cheap, entering his first year of arbitration coming off a down year with limited playing time.  Moreover, DeWitt has underlying talent, evidenced by his multiple appearances in Dodger Top 10 prospects lists prior to being called up.  Also, while DeWitt is a below average defensive second baseman, he is above average defensively at the hot corner.  DeWitt still has potential, and it would be good to see if the Cubs can coax that out of him with regular playing time in 2012 while he’s still cheap.

So there you have it: as far as I’m concerned, the Cubs starting corner infielders should likely be Bryan LaHair at first base and DJ LeMahieu or Blake DeWitt at third base.  I know it’s not a sexy or exciting pick, but we’re trying to build a foundation here.

MIDDLE INFIELD – At first blush, it would appear the middle infield is the one area where the Cubs don’t have much work to do going into 2012. Both Darwin Barney (who started 124 games at 2B) and Starlin Castro (the Cubs’ all-star shortstop of the near-past, present and foreseeable future) are playing out their rookie contracts and are under team control until at least 2017. Throw in Jeff Baker, who is up for arbitration, and you have the three players that made up 92% of the Cubs’ possible starts at 2B and SS under team control for next year. However, if you’re amongst those that are ready to write in Barney and Castro as the everyday starters next year, well…I’d bet you’re half right.

Let’s start with the good news: Castro will be the Cubs’ starting shortstop in 2012. There really isn’t anything to debate about here. At 21 years of age, Castro is the best offensive player on the team, and is only going to get better. Yes, he has areas where he can improve (read: maturity and fielding), but he’s a budding superstar on an otherwise superstar-free team. If there is any suggestion I would make it would be to start the process of locking Castro up with an extension before his stock (and price) rises any further.

Second base is a different story altogether. It often isn’t a popular opinion, but I will continue to state that Barney is not the long term answer at second. Yes, he seems like a great kid and if the season was only a month long, he definitely would have been right there in the Rookie of the Year race. Unfortunately for Barney, it’s a six month season and months two through six showed us a lot more about the player he is than his hot April did.

The positive news for Barney fans is that there isn’t much talent out there to replace him with immediately. Noah gave pretty good arguments for pursuing either Kelly Johnson or Aaron Hill in this Bargain Bin piece, but it’s not a guarantee that either will hit the market, and I don’t believe either are long term solutions.

Considering the blatant holes that the Cubs need to fill through free agency (such as the other two infield positions) and the dearth of available free agents at the position, I fully expect Theo and the Gang to stand pat with the players they currently control at second base. In fact, I would agree that is the best strategy. That said, I hope they don’t go into the spring with the mindset that it is Barney’s job to lose.

I’d like to see second base as an open audition in 2012 for some of the other young talent in the system to see what they can do. Give players like D.J. LeMahieu and Ryan Flaherty, both of whom appear to have better overall potential than Barney, an opportunity in the spring to win the starting role and see how things shake out. While I’m not writing-off Barney as a capable major league starter, I’m confident in saying he’s never going to be a star. I say, let’s take a year and see if one of the other kids can be one.

OUTFIELD – The off-season outlook for the outfield, in my opinion, is one of the hardest tasks facing the Epstein / Hoyer brain trust with the biggest question mark being what to do or rather what can we do with Alfonso Soriano. At this point, we’re waste deep in Soriano contract and the water is rising fast. He’s signed for three seasons more at a rate of $18 million per. There were strong rumors days before the non-waiver trade deadline that the Cubs were willing to eat a great majority of the remaining contract in hopes of freeing themselves from the experiment. I’d expect that Tom Ricketts is still willing to eat that money and I now feel more comfortable with what we can get back with different minds at the helm running the negotiations. The dreary fact remains that of all the OF potentials from last year, Soriano was the most productive of the bunch. That said, I’d have to think that if we’re going to change the entire offensive philosophy from the ground up, it has to start there. He doesn’t walk and he doesn’t see pitches. Those are staples in the Epstein model so Soriano can’t be a part of this team in a meaningful role.

Assuming Soriano is gone and the trade does not bring in a replacement, you’d have to imagine the Cubs would try to either bring in a stop gap at the position or evaluate from within. A couple names in the system that intrigue me are Ty Wright and Lou Montanez. We saw a little of Montanez last year and he’s seen big league time in the past. Both put up OBP seasons over .370 so they at least grasp the concept of a walk. Neither is particularly exciting, but that’s why I mentioned it’s a section of the team that scares me. That coupled with the potential list of free agent outfielders is enough scare this Halloween season.

Age PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Montanez, Lou 29 AAA,MAJ 439 387 58 119 26 7 8 78 40 56 .307 .378 .473 .851
Wright, Ty 26 AAA,AA 302 267 40 86 17 2 7 43 28 42 .322 .382 .479 .861

Marlon Byrd is in the last year of a three year deal that was well worth the money. He’s not in the team’s future plans…or is he? Why can’t he play LF in Soriano’s absence, which would clear the way for Brett Jackson out of spring training to take over CF? Byrd still has value to this team from a leadership standpoint and should be able to hit enough to be a better option than Wright and Montanez. Should he produce as a respectable level, being in the last year of his deal, he can be a semi-valuable trade chip for us to play before the deadline. There aren’t too many productive outfielders available on the cheap and Byrd is just that…cheap.

What to do in RF is anyone’s guess. I can honestly say that I’ve all but given up hope on Tyler Colvin becoming a star, but he’s one of my favorite players and someone I still believe can be a productive player for this team. At this point, isn’t the job his to lose? He’s got to be the default guy and we’ve got to give him a shot to recapture the magic. He’s got to be given a chance to play every day and show if he can justify his draft spot. I believe he can show last year was not the real Colvin.

Theo’s mission this off-season is pretty simple in that it’s one item, trade Soriano. Beyond that it’s a matter of riding out the storm and hoping Jackson is the real deal. Should those things get taken care of, we’ll see an opening day outfield corp. of Byrd, Jackson, Colvin, Wright and probably Tony Campana. <insert uncontrollable shutters and shivers up down the spine here>

STARTING PITCHING Theo Epstein hasn’t called asking for my advice on off-season acquisitions the Cubs starting rotation but that doesn’t mean I can’t voice an opinion right?

The only problem is I don’t have much of a plan. I would like to see the Cubs stay conservative this off-season where pitching is concerned. It’s a weak free agent crop and I would hate to see them dump money into a C.J. Wilson just to find out he had a good season or two and the fire fizzled out. C.C. Sabathia falls into the “he’s so big I wonder when he will turn into Carlos Silva” category. The rest of the available “talent” lacks any sort of stable track record. Wanna take a couple million flier on Chien-Ming Wang? No thanks. I would rather see if we have any young talent ready for the majors.

If you are talking trades then that’s a whole separate ballgame. Epstein’s track record in trades is much better then free agent signings, but as we have heard, our organization is pretty much devoid of talent unless we want to trade Castro or Matt Garza. Trading for real help in the starting rotation is going to take some firepower. 2012 is a lost season, a rebuilding season if you will. We have Ryan Dempster, Garza, and Randy Wells. Let the rest battle it out.

There is one interesting pitcher of note. Yu Darvish will be looking for a major league home. Never heard of him? Google is your friend. Yu is the latest Japanese player to enter the Major League market. It is said that he will command similar dollars to Daisuke Matsuzaka. A team will have to put up the $40 million or so just for signing rights and then of course pay his contract after that fact. Honestly, I hate the idea. Ichiro aside, the Japanese players have been nothing short of busts when they get stateside. Yes, some success but never worth their cost. The Cubs are seen as a front-runner, if for no other reason then they need starting pitching that bad. From what I understand Mr. Ricketts like the international players for business purposes, it increases the scope of the Cubs brand. Call me scared, but I hate the money invested for a guy who has barely ever pitched to major League talent.

The new regime has been in place for all of one week and we already have our first move of the off-season involving the starting rotation.

Don’t get all excited, we didn’t sign Sabathia or C.J. Wilson. Ryan Dempster has chosen, and wisely I might add, to exercise his player option for the 2012 season. He will get $14 million next season, which seems like a lot for a guy who went 10-16 in 2011 with a 4.80 ERA, but Dempster brings value to the table in leadership and innings. He did manage to surpass the 200 innings mark for the fourth season in a row. Let’s put it this way, if I had to pay him or Zambrano $14 million to pitch next season I would give it to Dempster….even if he threw left handed.

Speaking of Carlos Zambrano, according to Paul Sullivan of the Tribune, Big Z starts his fling with Los Caribes de Anzoátegui of the Venezuelan League on Nov. 5th. He apparently signed a contract with the team over the weekend and will get nine starts throughout the winter league. Maybe if he throws well we can get more than a bag of balls from Ozzie Guillen for him? I would take the balls however…..

In other rotation news, the Cubs have decided to decline the $3 million option for Jeff Samardzija; they will sign him to a lesser contract however. Jeff is still under club control and not yet arbitration eligible. While Samardzija did not have a spot in the 2011 rotation, he is expected to compete for one in 2012.

That pretty much rounds out the rotation news for now. The hot stove is starting to heat up, yet nothing on the Cubs front to report.

BULLPEN – If you assume that Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Samardzija, and James Russell are all still in the bullpen.  And then add to that Andrew Cashner and another one year deal for Kerry Wood, the bullpen looks basically set.  I’d be happy with that.  The bullpen numbers in 2011 weren’t stellar, but the pitchers aren’t bad – and some of the issues may have stemmed from Quade’s inability to properly use each player (look no further than Jeff Samardzija; after Quade started limiting Samardzija to an inning or roughly 25 pitches of work, the Shark’s numbers improved dramatically).  In some ways, perhaps the best move that can be made for the bullpen would be to get a new manager.

There are plenty of arms out there available – closers, middle relievers, long men – the Cubs don’t “need” any of them.  If they keep what they have and re-sign Wood, at most they might need to promote a minor leaguer.

If you’re looking for an “out of the box” solution from the bullpen, expect it to be trading Marmol.  Texas reportedly wanted Marmol at the deadline last July when Hendry was busy hanging up the phone on everyone who might be interested in trading with the Cubs.  The Rangers, in Game 6, pitched horribly from the bullpen in the potential Series-clinching game.  Their best relievers combined to pitch 2+ innings while surrendering 5 runs on a mere 6 hits.  Marmol is sometimes prone to wildness, but he rarely gets hit hard.  The Cardinals brutalized the Rangers’ bullpen with big hits – Marmol could reasonably be seen a solution to that problem.  With experience as an 8th inning guy and a closer, he could be very valuable to a contending team.  If the Rangers come calling this season, they can safely expect that their offer will at least be heard this time.

FRONT OFFICE / COACHING – Remember all that confusion from last month? It’s gone, and it has given way to, well, more confusion.

Last week the Cubs officially announced the hiring of Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations, putting him at the head of the still-taking-shape front office flow chart.

In case you missed it, Epstein stressed the importance of establishing “The Cubs’ Way,” a top-to-bottom emphasis on player development, fundamentals, and winning, competitive baseball. He was charming, direct, thoughtful, and even funny (you had me at your Office Space reference, Theo). He stressed the need for patience on the part of the fans, but he also encouraged us to raise our long-term expectations for the team. He emphasized the importance of franchise-wide cooperation and teamwork, and mentioned repeatedly that he can’t turn the team around on his own.

Epstein then hired Jed Hoyer away from the San Diego Padres to be the Cubs’ new General Manager, and Hoyer brought along Jason McLeod as his new head of scouting and player development.

“What’s confusing about that?” you ask.

Well, for starters it raises big questions about the futures of current Cubs executives like Tim Wilken, Oneri Fleita, and Randy Bush. Where they fit into the Cubs’ revamped front office is anyone’s guess. Wilken in particular looks to me like a marked man. Fleita’s more likely to be safe, since he recently received a contract extension, and his forte is in finding players in Latin American countries—an area the Cubs hope to put greater emphasis on in the future.

Also sporting a decidedly uncertain future these days: Cubs’ manager, Mike Quade. In his introductory press conference, Epstein fielded questions about his thoughts on Quade, and who might replace him in the Cubs dugout next year. Epstein was gracious but direct—there are some things he wanted to discuss with Quade before he made any final decisions. This past weekend, Epstein and Hoyer met with Quade for a reported seven hours—expect the fruit of that meeting to reveal itself in the coming days.

Or possibly as soon as today, when Hoyer and McLeod have their own introductory press conference. It’s too early to say how Hoyer in particular will impact his new team. It’s easy for him to get lost in the shuffle of Epstein news, but don’t forget he’s essentially stepped into the position Epstein had with the Red Sox, while Theo takes over the Larry Lucchino role in Chicago. Hoyer’s been able to keep a low profile up to know, but starting soon—probably today—the responsibility and the weight of the franchise shifts to his shoulders. Epstein will draw the media attention, but Hoyer is very much in the driver’s seat going forward.

I’ll confess that most of what I know about Hoyer I’ve learned in the last week. It’s hard to assign him a grade in San Diego—probably best to look at his work there as incomplete. And just like Fleita, Wilken, and Bush, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how and where he made an impact he had in his time under Epstein in Boston. Most of what I read painted him as a well-rounded baseball guy: equal parts stat- and seam-head. Here’s one article I liked that gave some good indications of what kind of GM Hoyer might be.

One of the things that article stressed was Hoyer’s emphasis on involving former players, which is a round-about way to reintroduce the Sandberg conundrum. I think Ryno has proven enough to a lot of Cubs fans—others he won’t win over until he’s had some success managing at the big league level. Whether or not he’s the guy Hoyer tags to be the next manager, it’s clear the Cubs’ new GM values the input and participation of guys like Sandberg.

Other former players to consider—not necessarily as managerial candidates, but for a variety of front office positions—include Greg Maddux and Doug Glanville. Maddux is a unique figure in baseball, and possibly one of the most intelligent men to ever play the game. While he was a Hendry guy, I’ll be shocked if Hoyer lets him get away from the team. Even if Maddux only maintains his undefined role as a special advisor, he’s a credit to the team, and a valuable part of the Cubs’ brain trust.

At the same time, Glanville might be able to inject some new life into that brain trust. He’s about as well-rounded as former ballplayers get, with successful careers as both a businessman and a writer, while also staying in touch enough with the game to occasionally work as an analyst. Every indication is that he might be the next name on the short list of former-players-turned-successful-executives, and Hoyer would be wise to at least interview a guy with such a potentially high ceiling.

All told, it’s a remarkably and surprisingly exciting time to be a Cubs fan, especially considering the sorry state of the team, as spelled out by my colleagues above. The overhaul at the top gives me at least temporary hope that positive changes are already beginning to trickle down throughout the franchise.

Of course there’s a lot of skepticism, too. Cubs fans have heard about new directions before, and we’ve outlived more than one regime change that was supposed to bring an end to our suffering and futility. But even the most hardened North Side cynic has to look at the Cubs today with at least a glimmer of cautious optimism. And for Cubs fans, there really isn’t any other kind.

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Joe Aiello is the founder of View From the Bleachers and one of the lead writers as well as host of VFTB Radio. Growing up in Chicago, he fondly remembers attending games in the bleachers before that was the popular thing to do. Currently Joe resides in North Carolina with his wife and three kids. Connect with Joe via Twitter / Facebook / E-mail