Heading into this season, a commonly expressed thought regarding the Cubs roster was that a few young, high ceiling players on the roster that should be big pieces when the Cubs will be actively looking to compete at the Major League level in a season or two. Pretty much everyone would have put the same three players at the top of that list: starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Prior to delving into the trio, it is necessary to note that one month is not enough time to come to conclusions about anyone. A week long hot or cold streak for a hitter can twist numbers greatly, and a couple of bad or great starts for a pitcher could do the same. But the first month can give us some things to look to as the calendar has now flipped to May.
Following a successful transition to the starting rotation in 2012, Jeff Samardzija entered 2013 as the Cubs’ opening day starter. Despite a 1-4 record, Samardzija has only improved this season. He’s striking out more than 11 batters per 9 innings, and walking less than 3.5 per 9. His ERA is 3.35, and according to both FIP (2.81) and xFIP (2.76) he’s likely had a bit of bad defense and bad luck behind him. He’s also inducing a ton of ground balls, with his current 55.4% ground ball rate beating his best in any prior season by more than 10%. As Jedi noted yesterday, the one knock on Samardzija this season is that he has been inefficient.
If Samardzija keeps this up all season, he will make himself a very, very wealthy man. If he keeps this up and becomes more efficient he also could enter the discussion of being one of the true “aces” in baseball. Honestly, in all my years of watching baseball I have never been more amazed by such massive improvements in a player. Prior to the 2011 season, many did not think Samardzija could even hold down a middle relief role. Two and a half seasons later he is, at worst, a solid 2.
.275/.332/.440. A 7.3% walk rate. An isolated power mark of .166. These were some of Castro’s numbers in the second half of 2012. And, aside from a low for Castro BABIP of .297 leading to the lower batting average, they were some of the most impressive numbers of his career. And they are also some of the reasons I have found Castro, who is hitting .271/.291/.393 heading into Tuesday’s game (although he did hit a home run on Tuesday night), to be one of my most disappointing Cubs so far this season.
I just keep waiting for Castro to make the jump from good player to great player. To do that, Castro needs to either walk more or hit for more power. To this point, he not only hasn’t made the jump to the next level, he’s taken a step back from the latter half of 2012.
On the other hand, Castro also started seasons 2011 and 2012 with less patience and power than he ended them. Although I wouldn’t mind if I we saw that version of Castro pop up in May instead of July this season.
Castro’s defense has also, unfortunately, been disappointing so far. Again, this is far too early to make any pronouncements or predictions, but if the lapses in the field continue the “can Castro stick at shortstop talk” is going to pick back up this offseason.
Rizzo easily earns the most unfairly maligned award for the first month of the season. Is the batting average down? Yes. But that’s largely a result of an extremely low BABIP, a .186 that just won’t continue. Whether you think there’s more of an element of skill in extreme BABIP variations for one player than I do or not, any Major League hitter having a .186 BABIP is significantly influenced by a combination of bad luck and running into some great defensive play.
Despite the .202 batting average entering Wednesday (and in his first two plate appearances he has gone 2-2 with 2 doubles), Rizzo has still hit 8 home runs, and has a 113 wRC+ (meaning he would create 13 percent more runs than the league average hitter). And while the strikeout percentage was a concern after the first couple of weeks of the season, over the past two weeks the K rate has been at a perfectly acceptable 21%.
As the season goes on Rizzo will get more balls that don’t leave the yard to fall for hits, and the numbers will come up. If they do fairly quickly, Rizzo could be looking at his first All Star Game appearance, and is a likely candidate for a nice fat extension at the end of the season.