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What to Watch for in Final 7 Weeks for the Cubs

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

by Matt Eurich

The 2012 Cubs season has been a struggle from the beginning.  Smart fans knew coming into the season that it was going to be a struggle and the Cubs have proven those fans right.  With a record below .400 with less than 40 games to go, it might seem like there is little reason to keep watching for the remainder of the season, but the future still hinges on what is going on in the present. Here are a few things to watch for in the final weeks of the season.

Young Pitching

Despite being sent down to Triple-A Iowa a day after earning his first major league win on Saturday against the Reds, Brooks Raley still figures to be part of the Cubs rotation moving forward.  Reports have indicated that Raley will likely be recalled to make start against the Colorado Rockies this weekend.  Raley struggled in his first two starts going 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA but pitched 5 1/3 innings and allowing 3 runs on 5 hits Saturday against the Reds to get the win.  Raley will likely bounce back and forth between the majors and Triple-A until September 1st but the Cubs will be looking to see whether or not he can be a piece for the rotation moving forward.

Development of Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters

After the call-up of Anthony Rizzo in June, the next big splash for the organization was the call-ups of both Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters.  Many questioned if the timing was right, with Jackson having struggled in the minors with strikeouts and Vitters being a question mark defensively.

Jackson continues to struggle with strikeouts, already striking out 24 times in 47 bats coming into Monday’s game against the Brewers.  Jackson is batting just .191 but hit his first major league homerun Saturday against the Reds.

Vitters hasn’t been given the opportunity to start every day, but he has also struggled at the plate, only getting three hits in 33 at-bats so far this season for a .091 average.

Both Jackson and Vitters will need to take the remainder of the season to prove that they deserve to remain on the major league roster for next season.  Neither player needs to light up the scoreboard moving forward, but if they can both show some improvement at the plate, it can give fans hope for two of the top prospects.

Starlin Castro’s Development

Last week I addressed the concern over Starlin Castro’s decline as a hitter and how fans should not get too concerned just yet.  The remaining seven weeks will go a long way in showing whether or not Castro is buying into the philosophies being taught by hitting coach James Rowson.

Rowson’s message has been that of patience and even though Castro has seen a minor increase in his base on balls, his batting average has suffered.  The final seven weeks will be a good time to see if Castro can find the perfect balance of knowing when to be patient at the plate and knowing when to be aggressive.  With an impending contract extension for the 22 year old in the works it will be interesting to see if Castro will find more or less pressure on his shoulders knowing he’ll be locked up until 2020.

September Call-Ups

On September 1st major league teams are allowed to expand their rosters from 25 to 40 in hopes of helping a team make a final push towards the playoffs or giving a struggling team the opportunity to look towards the future.

It is unknown who exactly will get called up for the Cubs on September 1st, but a vast majority will be players with prior major league experience.  The Cubs have already called up three of their top prospects this season (Rizzo, Jackson, Vitters) so it would not come as a surprise if there is a limit on the September call-ups.

Despite bringing up three prospects already and having Starlin Castro at shortstop ahead of him, the Cubs could possibly bring up highly regarded Double-A shortstop Junior Lake.  Lake has struggled defensively at shortstop and many see the outfield as his most likely position.  Calling up Lake may never happen with an already crowded outfield and the Cubs wanting Castro to play as much as possible, but some saw the Jackson/Vitters call-ups as a rushed move and they may do the same with Lake.

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Should fans panic about Starlin Castro?

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

by Matt Eurich

After Starlin Castro’s call-up in 2010, it was thought that the sky was the limit for the young shortstop. Castro’s first game in the majors saw him go 2-5 with a homerun and a triple and knock in six runs. Castro capped off his impressive rookie year batting .300 with 139 hits in 463 at-bats in 2010. 2011 brought forth even more success for the then 21 year-old who finished the year batting .307 with 207 hits to go along with his first all-star game selection.

The 2012 season started out with much promise as Castro batted .333 in the month of April but his batting average for each subsequent month has gone downhill, .304, .264, .235, .179, resulting in Castro’s average to be sitting at .274 heading in to Monday night’s game against Houston.

Castro has been featured in various spots in the lineup this season, starting the season batting third, moving to the two spot upon Anthony Rizzo’s arrival, and now settling in to the fifth spot. The constant moving around in the lineup could have something to do with Castro’s lack of production as of late, but manager Dale Sveum thinks otherwise:

“Sometimes, guys have to understand that there are adjustments to be made in getting back to the simple things that got you here, whether it’s tone down the leg kick, tone down all the hand movement or whatever, things he didn’t do when he first got up to the big leagues,”

Although considered a veteran, fans need to realize that Castro is still just 22 years old, younger than both Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson. Pitchers around the league have learned what the best approach is for facing Castro and now is the time for Castro to make his own adjustments.

Manager Dale Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson have been working with Castro to become a more patient hitter and his struggles could be attributed to him focusing more on pitch selection. It is no secret that one of the biggest flaws in Castro’s game has been his patience, having only walked 20 times this season, but 15 of them have been since the firing of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and the promotion of Rowson.

With any young hitter, patience is key. As fans, we have come accustomed to Castro hitting over .300 and nearing 200 hits per season because that is all we have ever known with him. Castro has always infuriated us defensively and it has begun on the offensive side of his game. We have to take a step back and understand that he is just 22 years old and once his maturity level begins to rise, the baseball will be quick to follow.

Most hitters go through struggles and the biggest difference between them being a good player or great player is their ability to make adjustments. Time will tell whether or not Castro has the ability to make the right adjustments and continue to be the player we all know he can be.

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Here Comes the Youth Movement

Monday, August 6th, 2012

by Matt Eurich

We all knew the time was coming eventually, but the call-ups of Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters over the weekend made Cubs fans realize that the future is slowly becoming the here and now.

Brett Jackson has had a nice season for the Iowa Cubs with a line of: .256/.338/.479 with 15 HR and 47 RBI in 106 games. The weakest and most notable part of Jackson’s game offensively has been his strikeouts. In 407 at-bats this season, Jackson has struck out a staggering 158 times; nearly 40% of his at-bats have resulted in a strikeout.

In Jackson’s first start with the Cubs on Sunday, he went 2-4 with a walk, a strikeout and a run scored.

Jackson will likely play every day in centerfield, but with a bit of a logjam in the outfield, David DeJesus and Bryan LaHair will be platooning in right field. Many did not expect Jackson to get the call-up until an outfielder was moved, preferably Alfonso Soriano. Soriano clearly does not play in to the Cubs future plans, yet both DeJesus and LaHair have the possibility to become pieces of a winning team in the future. DeJesus has done well as a lead-off hitter and LaHair has the ability to be a power hitter but both will struggle to find at-bats with the call-up of Jackson.

Josh Vitters has been a name that Cubs fans were ready to give up on. The third overall selection in the 2007 draft, many were ready to consider Vitters a bust when his level of production never seemed to improve, until this season. This year at Triple-A Iowa, Vitters has hit .304/.356/.513 with 17 HR and 68 RBI. The 22 year-old Vitters will need to greatly improve his defense at third base having committed 21 errors in 110 games, but with the lack of offensive production at third base this season, the Cubs will be willing to go through the growing pains.

Jackson will undoubtedly still struggle with the strikeouts at the major league level, but if he can learn to improve his patience and curb his aggressiveness the Cubs will be willing to let him prove himself in the lineup. Jackson shouldn’t have any problem defensively in the outfield, given his ability to read the ball of the bat and take good lines to the baseball. Vitters will likely be more of an adventure at third base and even though he has spent some time in the outfield and at first base in Iowa, the Cubs likely will not play him anywhere but third base. Vitters’ production offensively should be an improvement over current third baseman Luis Valbuena’s .198/.269/.336 line and although it appears as of now that they want to platoon Vitters and Valbuena, Valbuena’s continued struggles could give Vitters a chance to play everyday at third base.

Rookie Anthony Rizzo has been great since his call-up in June and despite a dip in his batting average, Starlin Castro continues to prove he is one of the best young shortstops in the game. After the trade of Geovany Soto last week to the Texas Rangers, the Cubs now have two young catchers, Steve Clevenger and Wellington Castillo, who they are expecting to be contributors in the future. Those four players along with Jackson and Vitters are starting to resemble a good young core for years to come in Chicago. Expectations certainly need to be tempered for such a young group but if they can produce on the field they just might give Chicago something to cheer about for years to come.

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Is Darwin Barney a piece to build around?

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

by Matt Eurich

The word echoing throughout the organization since the arrival of team president Theo Epstein has been: Rebuild. The Cubs have been an organization in recent years that has relied heavily on the “win now” approach, often times throwing money at players for a short term pay off and then being saddled with large unmovable contracts.

Epstein, along with General Manger Jed Hoyer and Director of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod, have made a point in the short time here in Chicago that all of their moves now are to improve the future. Having a solid draft as well as signing Cuban Jorge Soler has immediately helped to improve the system moving forward.

Most do not see the Cubs being true contenders for another couple of seasons, making it likely that most of the players currently seen on the field will not be around when that day comes. The obvious names, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, are here for the long run and the two have provided a nice base of players to build off of. Other guys like pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood are two names the organization hopes can also be major contributors for years to come, but what about second baseman Darwin Barney?

In Barney’s first major league season last year, he finished the year batting .267, good enough for seventh among all major league second baseman. Barney’s average has dipped a bit this season, currently batting .260 but has already doubled his home run total from last year with four and is on pace to eclipse the 43 RBI he finished with last season.

Although Barney’s offensive numbers are not at the top of the charts, he remains as an average to slightly above average hitter. Barney’s biggest contributions come from the defensive side of the game. Barney currently ranks 1st in the majors among second baseman with a .998 fielding percentage, having committed just one error this season and came in to Monday night’s contest against the Pirates with an 87 game errorless streak. Barney also leads all second baseman in defensive wins above replacement (DWAR) with a stellar 3.1 while the next closest second baseman, Robinson Cano, has a 1.4. Despite Barney’s stellar defense so far this season, it is unlikely he will be able to beat the reigning gold glove second baseman in the NL, Brandon Phillips.

Barney came up in the Cubs system as a shortstop but because of the success of Starlin Castro, the Cubs moved Barney to second base. With a lot of talent at the shortstop position in the minor league system for the Cubs, it has been rumored that the Cubs could eventually move Castro to second base to make way for one of their shortstops, but not many are sold on the defensive abilities of the top shortstops in the system. Javier Baez has played great in Single-A Peoria batting .351 with 11 homeruns but many think he will eventually make the move to third base as his range and size might be better suited at the hot corner. Another shortstop playing well has been Junior Lake. Lake is batting .293 with seven homeruns for Double-A Tennessee but has committed 23 errors in 67 games splitting time at both shortstop and third base. Many believe that if Lake cannot cleanup his mistakes he may be better suited to make a move to the outfield, given his great speed and range.

With a lack of depth at the second base position in the minor league system and one of the best field percentages in all of baseball, the Cubs may have found their second baseman of the future. Barney will never be a power hitting second baseman like Robinson Cano but he should be able to raise his batting average a few points and continue to play great defense for a team, that moving forward, will be relying on players that do the little things right, and Barney appears to be their guy.

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5 Possible Destinations for Alfonso Soriano

Monday, July 16th, 2012

by Matt Eurich

One of the most highly criticized Chicago Cubs in recent years has been outfielder, Alfonso Soriano.  Despite a productive first two years of an eight year, $136 million deal in 2007, Soriano had struggled the last few seasons in Chicago.

Things did not seem very different in Chicago to begin the season when Soriano struggled out of the gate, batting just .237 with no homeruns and 11 RBI through the first 20 games.  In May, Cubs manager Dale Sveum was able to persuade Soriano to use a lighter bat, dropping the weight from his standard 33 ½ ounces to 32 ounces.  With the reduced weight, it allows Soriano to get his bat around faster and has greatly improved his stats since the change.

Coming in to this past Saturday, in the 53 games since Soriano’s change to the lighter bat, he had batted .296 with 56 hits, 17 homeruns and 37 RBI.

Is Soriano still the 30+ homerun hitter he once was? No.  But his new approach at the plate with his lighter bat has made him a player that could be valuable for another team.

With the remainder of the $18 million owed to him this season, as well as the $36 million owed to him over the remaining two years, it may be impossible to move Soriano without the Cubs  being willing to eat a majority of the money left.

If Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer feel that the best thing for the Cubs moving forward is to move Soriano at any cost, then team chairman, Tom Ricketts, will have to give the front office the green light.

Being able to move Soriano may ultimately result in an opportunity for center field prospect Brett Jackson to finally get his call-up to the major leagues.  Jackson has struggled with his strikeouts this season, but if Soriano is moved, the platoon of Reed Johnson/Tony Campana can make the move to left field and it can open up an opportunity for Jackson to get much needed time and experience in center field.

If Ricketts is willing to absorb the majority of the contract, who could possibly be interested in Soriano?

Baltimore Orioles

Back in December, there were rumors surrounding a possible trade for Soriano by the Baltimore Orioles.  Despite the trade talks never culminating into an actual trade, the Orioles may be willing to reopen trade talks for Soriano.

The Orioles currently sit with a record of 46-42 and would hold the second wild card spot if the playoffs were to start today.  Despite acquiring slugger Jim Thome to fill the void at the DH spot on July 1st, Soriano could take over left field for the platoon of Steven Pearce and Chris Davis.

With a young team trying to find their way in to the playoffs, Soriano’s prior playoff experience could draw the Orioles to pull the trigger on a deal to acquire him.

Boston Red Sox

Currently sitting with a record of 45-44, the Red Sox are battling for position in the Wild Card race.

Since outfielder Carl Crawford’s injury during Spring Training, the Red Sox have been looking for a suitable replacement in left field.  Daniel Nava has spent the most time in left (52 games) and is batting .265 with four home runs and 27 RBI.  Nava has played solid defense but lacks the kind of power that is preferred in a corner outfielder.

Soriano would immediately add some pop to a lineup that is desperate for some power hitting and who also has prior experience in the AL East.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Only a half game behind the division leading Giants, the Dodgers have struggled to find consistency from its left fielder all season.

With stints on the disabled list for Matt Kemp this season, the Dodgers moved left fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. to centerfield and signed veteran Bobby Abreu on May 1st.  Abreu has struggled some in 40 games this season, hitting just .254 with 2 homeruns and 21 RBI but has continued to his ability to get on base, posting a .352 OBP.

The Dodgers could platoon Soriano and Abreu in left field, but with Matt Kemp returning to the lineup on this past Friday, the Dodgers may have more outfielders than they do spots in the lineup, but given both Kemp’s and right fielder Andre Either’s injury issues this season, the Dodgers may take a chance on an outfielder who can add more power than their current option in left field.

Tampa Bay Rays

With injuries to outfielders Matt Joyce and Hideki Matsui, the Rays, who are a half game back in the AL Wild Card race, could use more pop to a lineup that has struggled with injuries all season long.

Desmond Jennings has been serviceable as of late in left field, but the Rays lack power at the corner outfield positions with Jennings accounting for four homeruns and right fielder, Ben Zobrist, hitting just 11 so far this season.

With Matt Joyce expected to come off the disabled list soon, Soriano could split time in both left field and as a platoon DH with Luke Scott, who is currently hitting .200 with 11 homeruns and 42 RBI.

Cleveland Indians

At 4 games behind the AL Central leading Chicago White Sox, the Indians still believe they have a shot at overcoming the White Sox and Detroit Tigers to win the division, or possibly compete for a wild card spot.

The Indians have struggled to find consistency at the left fielder position with Shelley Duncan (.233, 9 HR, 24 RBI), Aaron Cunningham (.189, 1 HR, 6 RBI), and Johnny Damon (.219, 4 HR, 17 RBI) all splitting time there.

Soriano would immediately become the team’s best option in left field and would be a good insurance plan for often hurt DH, Travis Hafner.

All of these possibilities may never come to light if the Cubs are not willing to absorb the majority of the remainder of Soriano’s contract.  Few, if any, teams in the league have the ability to take on his contract at face value, so the Cubs will have to determine if Brett Jackson is ready to take make the move to the next level and if paying Soriano to play somewhere else outweighs his improved production on the field in recent months.

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5 Names That Could Come to the Cubs in a Trade

Friday, July 13th, 2012

by Matt Eurich

Despite having a record of 33-52 and sitting only a half game ahead of the Houston Astros for last place in Nation League Central, the Cubs possess two of the most sought after trade pieces on the market:  Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza.

Although he spent time on the disabled list prior to the All-Star break, Dempster has compiled a 4-3 record to go along with his league leading ERA of 1.99.  Dempster is currently on his last year of a 4-year $44 million dollar contract that pays him $14 million this season.

On the other hand, Matt Garza has struggled in his second year in Chicago, currently holding a record of 4-7 with a 4.32 ERA.  Despite Garza’s struggles, many teams view him as potential ace at the age of 28 with another year under team control.  Garza’s prior efficiency pitching in the AL East, as well as the playoffs, gives teams belief that he can still be a dominating pitcher.

So, with two of the most sought after pitchers on the trading market, who can Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer be looking to acquire if they are to trade Dempster or Garza?

Los Angeles Dodgers

Rumors have been swirling about the Los Angeles Dodgers being the frontrunners to acquire Ryan Dempster since first reported by ESPNChicago’s Bruce Levine in June.

The Dodgers appear to be making an aggressive approach in their first season under new ownership and according to CBS’s Jon Heyman they could also be looking at acquiring Garza.

If the Cubs were willing to part with both Dempster and Garza, the haul would have to be extreme.  The Dodgers are aware that Dempster may only be a rentable player for this season, but Garza offers them the ability to acquire a pitcher who is still under team control.

In almost any deal, Epstein and Hoyer will be looking to acquire arms for a farm system lacking any real depth at the pitcher position.  Here are three options:

Zach Lee, RHP

Lee, a first round selection in 2011 was expected to be a tough sign for the Dodgers, having had offers to not only pitch but play quarterback for LSU, but the Dodgers were able to settle on a deal and immediately viewed him as a potential ace.

In Low-A Great Lakes in 2011, Lee compiled a 3.47 ERA in 109 innings to go along with a WHIP of 1.22 in his first season of professional ball. Lee started the 2012 season at High-A Rancho Cucamonga getting 12 starts with a 4.55 ERA.  Despite the high ERA, the Dodgers sent Lee to Double-A Chattanooga where he has struggled a bit in three starts racking up a 5.14 ERA.

Despite Lee’s seemingly backwards trend early on in his minor league career, like most 20 year-olds, it is going to take Lee some time to adjust to the higher levels of competition.  Lee’s 92+ mph fastball, a plus curve and a developing changeup all point to Lee having the ability to become a team’s ace.

Lee’s long term potential makes him a lock for what the Cubs would be trying to acquire if they were to trade both Dempster and Garza.

Nathan Eovaldi, RHP

Few expected then 21 year old Nathan Eovaldi to be pitching in the majors in 2011 after never having pitched above Double-A prior to that season. In Eovaldi’s 34.2 innings pitched in 2011 he compiled a 3.63 ERA in 10 appearances, including 6 starts. Eovaldi has struggled in 8 starts this season, going 1-5 with a 4.21 ERA.

Eovaldi is a power pitcher who relies heavily on his 94 mph fastball.  He lacks command at times and will need to develop his second and third pitches to become a solid middle of the rotation starter.  If he is not able to develop his other pitches his power fastball will lend well to the back end of a bullpen.

Eovaldi would likely be a player the Cubs could pursue for Dempster as some feel he may of already hit his ceiling as a starter.

Joc Pederson, OF

At just a few months past 20 years old, Joc Pederson is still a very raw prospect in the Dodgers’ system.  In 62 games with High A Rancho Cucamonga, Pederson has a slash line of:  .289/.364/.426 and has 6 home runs to go along with 23 RBI. Pederson projects to have some power from the left hand side will likely be an average to above average hitter.

Despite being lean and athletic, Pederson projects more as a corner outfielder than a centerfielder as he doesn’t have the most ideal speed for the position.  While projected to be somewhere in the 15+ homeruns a year range, he likely wouldn’t be a cornerstone in left field.

Pederson could also be a player the Cubs could pursue for Dempster, but it would be hard for the Dodgers to give up on likely their top hitting prospect.

Despite being rumored as the top suitor for Dempster and possibly Garza, the Dodgers may struggle to put together a package because, like the Cubs, they lack overall depth in their farm system and may be unwilling to let go of their top-end talent.

Detroit Tigers

For what seems like months and months, the Detroit Tigers have been linked to rumors involving their desire to acquire Matt Garza.  Detroit was thought to be the front-runner to win the AL Central with a lineup boasting Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera and a pitching staff spearheaded by reigning AL Cy Young and AL MVP, Justin Verlander.  The Tigers have struggled this season and currently sit in third place, 3.5 games behind the first place Chicago White Sox.  Verlander currently leads all Tigers’ starters with a 2.58 ERA with Drew Smyly following with a 4.42 ERA.

Both Dempster and Garza would be viable options for the Tigers, but with Garza’s extra year of team control, he may be the Tigers’ greater desire.

Much like the Dodgers, the Tigers are very top heavy with talent but see a significant drop off after the first few spots.  Here are two options:

Jacob Turner, RHP

Turner, a former top-10 pick in the 2009 draft, is believed to be the Tigers top prospect.  Standing in at 6’5” and weighing 210 pounds, Turner is an imposing figure on the mound.

Turner has been on the fast track since his debut in Single-A in 2010 where he compiled a 3.67 ERA with a 51/9 K/BB in 54 innings with West Michigan.  Turner jumped to Double-A Erie in 2011 with a 3.48 ERA in 17 starts before starting 3 games for Triple-A Toledo where he finished with a 3.12 ERA.

Turner would of likely joined the Tigers rotation to begin the year if not for a nagging should injury.  In 14 starts between Lakeland and Toledo, Turner has a 2.77 ERA before being called up to start against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 21st, pitching five innings, allowing four hits and one earned run.

Turner is likely at the top of the Cubs wish list if they were to deal Garza.  Turner can reach the lower to mid 90s with his fastball, throws both a changeup and curveball, and has been working on a cutter. Turner has had trouble with injuries in the past, so that may cause the Cubs to proceed with caution, but out of all the prospects mentioned,  Turner would be the top get.

Nick Castellanos, 3B

At just 20 years old, third baseman Nick Castellanos is one of the best young hitting prospects in the game.

Last season in 135 games with Low-A West Michigan, Castellanos batted .312 with seven home runs and 76 RBI.  So far this season, splitting time between High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie, he has posted a .371 average, seven home runs, and 47 RBI.

Castellanos has backed up the hype and has hit the ball wherever he has been.  Castellanos possess a quick smooth swing and should be able to develop himself in to a power hitter.  Still raw at the position it is unknown whether he’ll stick at third base, but if he can continue to develop he should become an average defensive third basemen.

Despite not fitting the mold of a young arm, Castellanos’ ability to hit the ball and to possibly develop some power in the future will likely make him a piece that Epstein and Hoyer will want to add to any deal for Matt Garza.

The Tigers are built to be a win-now team and their farm system proves that.  After Turner and Castellanos much of the talent drops off significantly.  The Cubs would likely ask for one of, if not both players, in any deal involving Garza.  If offered only one of these players the Cubs would likely try to acquire any young pitcher with a high ceiling in the Tigers’ system.

With both Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster likely to get moved, there is no telling where they might eventually end up.  If the rumors prove to be true and if either of these teams are in the running for Garza or Dempster, the Cubs are likely to do their due diligence and try to get the best market value for either player.  Epstein and Hoyer have an opportunity to greatly change the dynamic of the Cubs farm system and if they are able to require some of these players before the trade deadline they might finally be able to build this farm system from the bottom up

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The Rejuvenated Carlos Marmol

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

By Michael Jimenez

I was vehemently against the removal of Carlos Marmol from the closer role earlier this season; not because he was pitching well by some metric or even that I expected he to return to 2010 Marmol, but because the move would wreck the little trade value he had left heading into the deadline.  So when Marmol was renamed the closer, I assumed that was dictated by the front office more than Sveum deciding he was the best choice (as that’s really been Shawn Camp all year long).  In any case, Marmol has been pretty good since he returned from the DL and this column will inspect what has changed since his DL stint.

On May 12th, when Marmol was put on the DL, he had pitched 11.1 innings, given up 9 hits, 16 walks, 1 homerun and 8 earned runs while accumulating 12 strikeouts.  Since his return on May 30th, he’s pitched 12.1 innings, given up 9 hits, 9 walks, 1 homerun and only 5 earned runs with 18 strikeouts.    The obvious improvement was he started striking out more and walking less.

During telecasts I’ve heard Len and Bob refer to a larger usage of his fastball over his slider which has resulted in his improvement since returning.  It’s true that Marmol has increased his usage of his fastball on the year, up to 50.6% from only 35.8% in 2011, 40.7% in 2010, and 44.4% in 2009; however, pre-DL stint Marmol used the fastball 50.2% of the time, and since his return he has used it 50.8% of the time – a negligible disparity.

There has been a couple noticeable differences though.  First, his velocity has significantly increased.  Pre-injury, he only averaged 92.8MPH on his fastball, and averaged only 94MPH+ in a game twice out of 15 games. Since returning he’s averaged 94MPH+ 11 out of 14 games for a total of 94.2MPH. He’s seen a similar jump in his slider velocity.  His average slider was 83.1MPH pre-injury, and afterward his average slider jumped to 84.3MPH.  There was not a discernible difference in his velocity between his starts before May 11th, which means if his forearm strain was the issue, it was affecting him all season long not something that he aggravated at some point during the season.

The extra velocity increased his swinging strike rate which is one of the reasons he has accumulated more strikeouts and less walks since returning but another noticeable difference is the amount of pitches he’s thrown that were strikes.  Pre-injury Marmol had only 54% of his pitches called for strikes. Post-injury Marmol saw that number jump to over 60%.  This seems to be due to a more consistent release point.  Here’s a side-by-side comparison of his release points before and after May 12th from FanGraphs:

Pre-Injury Release Point

Post-Injury Release Point

Marmol’s release point was quite erratic before being placed on the DL, and you can see that he was releasing his slider at a completely different point than his fastball, not only making it easier for hitters to identify which pitch was coming but also causing many sliders to be off the plate.  Since returning he has found a consistent release point for his slider which is much closer to where he releases his fastball and that has yielded better control and results.

The chances he would have been traded went from slim to none in May to a good possibility over the past 5 weeks.  A team looking for a closer should expect similar results to his last 14 games as he has fixed his issues and regained his velocity since returning on May 30th.  I don’t expect a significant return but if the Cubs can shed a chunk or possibly all of his contract off next year plus get a bullpen arm or two that may be useful in the future, that would be decent value for a guy who looked pretty lost on the mound to start the season.

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The Coming of Anthony Rizzo

Friday, June 15th, 2012

by Elizabeth Rudisill

By now, if you haven’t heard of Anthony Rizzo, you must be living under a rock.  The Cubs acquired Rizzo and Zach Cates in a trade with the San Diego Padres for pitcher Andrew Cashner and outfielder Kyuong-Min Na on January 6, 2012.  Rizzo was originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round on the 2007 First-Year Player draft out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl.

Through June 13th, his numbers are:

244 81 16 1 22 57 .367 .426 .747 1.173

The categories in which he is not on top for the team, Steve Clevenger is, and he is currently up with the big club.  Rizzo also has 20 walks and two stolen bases on the year.  The 23 year old first baseman has committed seven errors, but has played a solid first base for the first part of the season.

Rizzo’s stat line is very impressive and he is no question a rising star.  With this said, the question I pose to you is this.:  What is the difference between being a superstar and being a fan favorite?

Before, after and sometimes even during the games, the majority of the Iowa Cubs players interact with the fans by signing autographs, chit-chatting and finding out where the “hot” spots are in town.  Players (mostly the relief pitchers since the bullpen is directly on the playing field like it is in Chicago) will sign balls, baseball cards, hats, ticket stubs and casts protecting healing extremities until it’s time for them to go to work or wander back into the clubhouse after a long game.  For the most part, they enjoy this and you can see it in their eyes.

I have not once witnessed Anthony Rizzo sign one autograph.  I have not once witnessed Anthony Rizzo interact with a fan.  I have not once witnessed Anthony Rizzo turn his head in acknowledgement when a fan yells his name as he walks back to the clubhouse across the field.  But I digress.

This past Saturday night was the annual MDA Jersey Auction night at Principal Park.  Fans place bids for a player’s jersey and if you are the highest bidder, you get to go on the field after the game and the player will give you the jersey right off their backs and autograph it for you.  I was fortunate to get two of them last year and it was a great experience.  One of the jerseys I got was from Chris Robinson, a long time catcher and fan favorite for Iowa.  Chris stayed on the field and talked to me for a good five minutes after the game.  He knew how much it meant for me to be in that moment.  Saturday, Rizzo’s jersey was auctioned off for nearly $400.00 (highest one).  The gal who bought it had the same opportunity to go on the field to receive her purchase and “experience”.  This is what happened.  She approached Rizzo as he was walking toward the clubhouse and happily “flagged” him down to let him know she was the one who got his jersey.  Rizzo kept walking, taking off his jersey as he was walking.  The gal said something along the lines of hey, I spent a lot of money on this, can I get you to autograph it for me?  Reluctantly, Rizzo autographed it in a split second and handed it to the fan.  Coincidentally it dropped to the ground as she reached for it.  He did not attempt to pick it up and continued heading for the clubhouse.

Is being a superstar or a fan favorite based on statistics or how you carry yourself as a player?  Do you think his actions are justified?  Would you spend $400.00 for a signed jersey autographed by Anthony Rizzo?

He has proven he has the talent to play big league ball, but to me, he’s still not a big leaguer.

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The Cubs’ Trade Value

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

by Michael Jimenez

With the trade deadline on the horizon and the draft in the rear view, the front office will begin selling off anything of value for prospects any day now.  The Theo-Dempster chat before yesterday’s game fueled speculation that the Cubs will try to trade the veteran sooner rather than later, so before anything can happen let’s investigate the value of the players the team currently has.

I am blatantly ripping off Bill Simmons’ NBA Trade Value Column he does every year so if you’ve ever read that you’ll be familiar with this. I’ll examine the team’s assets and approximate the value and likelihood each player will be traded in descending order.  I take into consideration current performance, future potential, cost, and the need of other teams for players at that position. In addition to rankings, I place an expected return if these guys were traded.

Value Explanations:

Lottery ticket:  A player with a high ceiling but far more likely to be a bust than anything significant
C prospect: Good chance to be a future bench player
B prospect: Good chance to be a future everyday player
A prospect: Good chance to be above average to all-star level

Will Trade for Anything

25. Chris Volstad – I’d guess the Cubs keep Volstad and try to rebuild his value after we have rotation spots open; not the best time for the worst season of his career but his peripherals once again show he’s pitched better than his ERA says.

Value: A pitching machine that will give up less hits than Volstad.

24. Koyie Hill – Now that our catchers are getting healthy, it’s time to part ways again. Thanks for the help when we needed it and  I’d shake your hand but I don’t think you can make the proper grip.

Value:  A vintage 3 finger glove.

23. Casey Coleman – The only thing going for Coleman is he’s young, cheap, and has a major league pedigree.

Value:  Joe Coleman… either one.

We Should Have Sold High

22. Carlos Marmol – Not even 2 seasons removed from being the most dominant closer in baseball, now Marmol is worth next to nothing.  I advocated selling high on Marmol because he had control issues that could resurface at any time (well they never really went away, just weren’t as bad) and his delivery plus the amount of sliders he threw raised his injury chances. If the Cubs can deal him, expect the team to eat nearly his entire salary.

Value:  The complete 3-disc set of Major League

21. Geovany Soto -With his offensive skills  in hiding again after 2010, his poor defense, increasing cost due to arbitration, and growing list of injuries have killed the little value he still had going into this year.

Value:  Dime bag and some Funyuns

20. Jeff Baker – I thought former GM Jim Hendry got the short end of the stick while in Chicago, but this is one of the moves I never understood.  A bench player, even one who hits LHP as well as Baker, should never be untouchable.  Baker has struggled thus far this season after a bout with the flu but a look behind his numbers show he could still have some value. His BABIP is nearly 60 points below his career norm, his BB% is up and his K% is down; and with a bit more luck on the balls put in play he could get his average and slugging back to his career averages before the deadline.

Value:  Creighton’s 1991 CWS run

19. Randy Wells -  His move to the bullpen has shown he still has value but nothing close to where he was in 2009 and 2010.  The team is better off keeping him around like Volstad and putting him in the rotation to see if he can reestablish some value as a starter.

Value:  Internet Hottie Status

Lefties Here, Get Your Lefties

18. Ian Stewart – Another guy that the Cubs would be better off holding on to and hoping he figures it out.  A wrist injury has plagued him all year driving his numbers to career lows.  If he can get healthy and bounce back the rest of the season, with the dearth of third baseman around the league some team will be interested.  Josh Vitters isn’t ready to man third at Wrigley just yet anyway.

Value:  C- position prospect

17. Travis Wood -Wood has a solid ERA but his peripherals are screaming that regression is coming.  He has a lower than normal K/9, his highest career BB/9 and HR/9, and is hanging onto a way below normal .184 BABIP in his 5 starts since being called up.

Value: C- pitching prospect

16. Paul Maholm – I expect one of these lefty starters to be traded and unlike Wood, Maholm’s peripherals are not projecting massive regression.  While he has given up a lot of homeruns, the rest of his numbers are right in line with his career averages.

Value: C- prospect

Will 30 Million be enough? Too low? OK how about 40?

15. Alfonso Soriano – I have always been a huge supporter of Soriano. I’ve never understood the amount of vitriol directed his way since his signing with the Cubs.  Granted he’s overpaid, often injured and it’s frustrating to watch him swing at the same slider off the plate away every time but you cannot blame the guy for taking the best offer out there when he was a free agent and until his injury in 2007 (that left a baseball sized hole in his leg and crippled him ever since) he was always healthy.  It was bad luck for Soriano and the Cubs that he was so severely hurt in the first year of his contract which left him a shell of his old self.

That being said, the Cubs will aggressively try to move him this summer.  I am not really sure why the Cubs seem so intent on dealing him and paying that much money for him to play elsewhere with no clear replacement in sight (especially when LaHair has shown he’s just a platoon player) but saving 10 million to use elsewhere over the next two seasons isn’t a terrible idea.

His ongoing hot streak that started way back on April 24th (nearly 3 weeks before the bat change) has shown he’s still got something left in the tank and has raised the chances a team takes him off the Cubs’ hands at a steep discount.  He’s got 2 years left at 19 million each, plus around 10 million left this year.  I’d expect the Cubs will pay close to 40 million of that to find a taker.

Value:  Lottery ticket prospect

Realistically Obtainable

14. Joe Mather – He’s never going to light it up offensively but he is holding his own at the plate while playing solid defense at 5 positions and is signed cheap.

Value:  C- prospect

13. Steve Clevenger – He’s only this high because quite a few contenders need a catcher.

Value:  C- prospect

12. Tony Campana – I love his speed but his bat will never play.   I would spin him off while he still has an OBP above .300 to a team needing a lead-off hitter or speed guy off the bench.

Value:  C prospect

11. Reed Johnson – Solid D, crushes left hand pitching, an affordable contract and playing the best he has since 2006, Johnson should be in demand.

Value: C prospect

 10. Shawn Camp – I thought the Cubs were smart to take a buy-low, sell-high approach with guys like Stewart, Volstad, Mather, and Camp . Posting career lows in ERA and FIP after getting out of the AL East, Camp has established himself as the only reliable righty out of the bullpen that the Cubs have.

Value:  C+ prospect

9. James Russell – The only other guy in the pen that I trust, Russell has shown he’s dominant against left-handed batters.  For his career he’s allowing only a .235 avg/.270 obp/.445 slg versus lefties compared to .289/.352/.519 slash line versus righties.

Value:  C+ prospect

8. Welington Castillo – Hardest guy to place.  He always seems to be injured and is unproven at the majors but has a lot of potential.  Catching is at a premium this deadline and a team like the Rays would rather trade for Castillo who hasn’t hit arbitration yet, than a guy like Soto who is making over 4 million and a year away from free agency.

Value: B-  prospect

7. Darwin Barney – The best sell high candidate after LaHair.  Barney has amazingly posted a .400 SLG% this year (.130 ISO) which is well above anything he’s ever hit in the minors over a full season.  Everything else is right in line with expectations of a bench player but the spike in power is trending him as 3 WAR player for the season.  He’s young, cheap, and with multiple teams looking for capable middle infielders Barney could net a solid return.

Value:  B- prospect

6. David DeJesus – After a slow start DeJesus has really turned it on.  Since May 4th he’s hitting .298/.399/.488 and is one of the only patient hitters the team has.  I don’t see the Cubs trading him this year since there’s really no one to replace him, he’s cheap, and fits in with the philosophy Theo and Co. are pushing into our organization.

Value:  B- prospect

5. Bryan LaHair – I already wrote about LaHair here so I won’t go into great detail again.  LaHair is an above average left-handed power bat against RHP but cannot be built around due to his age and inability to stay in the lineup against lefties.  Flipping him for a borderline everyday player would be a great return.

Value: B- prospect

4. Ryan Dempster – I greatly overestimated the return on Ted Lilly a few years back… and am trying not to do the same here but it’s hard when Dempster is pitching lights out.  There’s pluses and minuses across the board when evaluating his value.  He’s pitched like a mid to front line starter since returning to the rotation in 2008, however he’s only pitched in the NL.  His career ERA is 4.34 which would be close to 5 in the AL, but his ERA & FIP over the past five seasons are well below 4.

This year his ERA is a sparkling 2.31 and FIP is 3.26 but his HR/9 is 35% lower than his career rate and his BABIP is about 60 points lower too.  He’s also lost a little off his fastball and his K% has dropped because of that but he’s also walking far less hitters than at any point in his career,even  a half batter less per 9 than his 2008 campaign.  So he is definitely a candidate for some regression but he has shown that he could keep his HR/9 down (it was 0.61 in 2008, and it’s 0.73 this year) and BABIP below league average (.280 in 2008, league average is around .300, and he’s currently at .243) and with his improved control I don’t expect a massive drop off.  I don’t expect him to hold onto a sub 3 ERA all year again but it’s not out of the question that he can settle in around the 3.26 FIP he currently has after some regression to that BABIP even in the AL.

But what are teams willing to give up for a 36 year old career national leaguer who still has around 8M left on his deal this year? Especially now that they cannot get compensation for him if he walks under the new CBA?  Unless Milwaukee or Philly become sellers, Dempster very well could be the premiere pitcher available this deadline.  With so many teams needing pitching, it’s hard to see the Cubs not getting significantly more than they got out of the Dodgers for Lilly.

Value: two B prospects

We’re Listening…

3. Matt Garza – I think Garza will be dealt for the exact reasons you keep hearing… the Cubs are a few years off from contending so there’s really no reason to keep a high priced pitcher around for that long, he is easily their best trade chip that is realistically available to quickly restock a weak farm system, the AL East teams are all going to be interested as he’s already been tested there,  and he’s shown the capability to dominate great teams in big game situations.

I never really thought the Cubs were serious about extending him unless he was willing to stay for a big discount (his arbitration numbers say he wouldn’t though). And for a full season and 6 weeks into this one he looked like a legitimate ace.  Then back-to-back bad starts happened and after a couple decent starts he got lit up again in last night’s game versus Detroit.  To be fair, if Mather doesn’t kick the ball while trying to field it, ruining a double play, Garza gets out of the 6th unscathed surrendering only 1 earned run over 6 innings; instead, he gave up 6 runs, 3 of them earned and had his ERA inflate to over 4 again.

His defense has to concern teams as he can barely field a bunt and make the throw to first without it ending up in the stands and he may be the worst hitter in all of baseball but he’s still under team control for another season, is affordable, and has great stuff and makeup.  If Garza was pitching like he was at the start of the season, I’d assume the Cubs would be getting at least 2 elite prospects in return.  If Garza’s value is closer to what it was when he was with Tampa, a middle rotation starter, then I’d assume his value is around 2 B prospects… the next 7 weeks will be important for Garza’s value and I wouldn’t expect to see him traded before the days just before the deadline… unless one of the AL East teams get desperate.

Value: tentatively, one A and one B prospect

Worth More to the Cubs

2. Jeff Samardzija – One of Hendry’s most criticized draft picks has turned into gold this year.  Not sure what clicked but the Cubs desperately needed some pitching to develop and got it when Shark showed up in Spring Training with better control and command of his pitches.   He went from overpaid bullpen fodder to potential ace over night.  There’s just no way the Cubs give up a young, cheap, under team control pitcher with his ceiling without getting a handsome return.

Value: two A prospects plus a B prospect

1. Starlin Castro - Only 17 players since 1900 before the age of 23 have hit at least .305 in as many at-bats as Castro has taken, and that list is full of hall of famers or soon-to-be HOFers.  His power numbers have increased yearly, as has his steals.  His defensive has drastically improved this season to the point I now realistically believe he will be able to stay at short long term.  He’s a potential 20-20-20 guy at the most difficult position in baseball. He’s under team control on the cheap for 3 more seasons and has his entire prime ahead of him and then some.

Granted he lacks plate patience which is stalling his development but all things considered there’s just no chance the Cubs find a trade worth the same value he has to the team given what he’s already done and his upside.

Value:  A Visit from Joan Harris

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