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The Real Strength of the 2014 Cubs: The Bullpen

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

All of the attention surrounding the Cubs right now is focused in on the prospects and young stars, and rightfully so. These kids are exciting and it is perfectly fine to zone in on the top prospects, but that isn’t the only part of the puzzle that seems to be solved. The part that might be the best section on the major league club right now is the bullpen.

Now when you look at the stats as a whole, it doesn’t look impressive. A 3.57 ERA in 375.1 innings this year is good for 8th best in the NL. However, you have to think that Jose Veras’ 8.10 ERA (12 ER in 13.1 innings) is included in there. If you exclude Veras’ numbers, the bullpen has a 3.42 ERA, which is good for 6th in the NL and 13th overall in baseball. To go along with that ERA, the relievers have combined for a FIP of 3.42, which is 9th in MLB and included Veras’ stats. This year’s bullpen is far better than the bullpen that posted a 4.04 ERA in 474 innings last season (25th in MLB) and the second worst FIP at 4.23.

There are a few reasons for the resurgence of the ‘pen. One of these reasons is a stable closer. Cubs’ fans have gotten used to seeing Carlos Marmol or Jose Veras blow games in such a way only they could. Since Veras’ release in June, Hector Rondon has taken over the closers role and performed terrifically. A Rule Five draft selection last year, Rondon has posted a 3.45 ERA in 44.1 innings while striking out 49, posting a 2.10 FIP, and converting 14 of 18 save opportunities.

Another reason for the improvement in the bullpen is the power, middle relief arms. The Cubs received two bullpen arms in the Matt Garza deal last year, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm. The first of which, Ramirez, has pitched in 28.2 innings this season and has only given up 4 runs. To go along with his sparkling 1.26 ERA, his FIP is 2.89 and he has struck out 36 over those 28.2 innings. Grimm, on the other hand, has struggled a bit, but has an average 4.21 ERA in 51.1 innings. Also, his FIP is above average at 3.70 and has struck out more than a batter per inning (52 in 51.1 innings). Another guy that has emerged this year, actually it started last year, is Pedro Strop. Acquired in early July last year for Scott Feldman, has pitched 43.1 innings this season compiling a 2.70 ERA and a 2.99 FIP. During that span, Strop has struck out 49 batters and owns a 1.11 WHIP.

The final reason for the bullpen’s bounce back season is the help of some crafty pitchers. The leader in appearances for the ‘pen this year is none other than Brian Schlitter. Wait, what? Yes, Schlitter in his first full season in the big leagues leads the Cubs with 53 games pitched. In 49.1 innings through this year, Schlitter has a 3.47 ERA, 3.68 FIP, a 1.18 WHIP, and only giving up 0.4 HR/9. Another crafty veteran is swing man Carlos Villanueva. Besides having an amazing mustache, Villanueva has been one of the most reliable pieces in the Cubs bullpen the last two years. After starting the season in the rotation and getting hit hard, the right hander has turned it around in the ‘pen. In 42 relief innings, Villanueva has a 2.57 ERA and a .222 batting average against while giving the Cubs a long relief option out of the pen. The lone lefty that has been in the bullpen all year is first year Cub, Wesley Wright. A free agent signee in December, Wright has compiled a 2.78 ERA and a 3.39 FIP in 35.2 innings over 45 games. Actually, the lefty has fared better against right handed batters. Righties are hitting .213 with a .617 OPS against Wright while lefties are hitting .293 with a .626 OPS.

There are other names that have plugged in the bullpen this year including Zac Rosscup, Blake Parker, Chris Rusin, and Kyuji Fujikawa among others. Also, the future looks bright for the bullpen as well. In AAA Iowa, two top prospects are lighting up the radar gun and mowing down Pacific Coast League batters. Armando Rivero and Arodys Vizcaino both should get a nod in September and will have a shot in spring training next March to make the bullpen in 2015.

Regardless, any way you look at it, the bullpen in much improved from last year. My favorite stat comparing the two bullpens is: 2013 bullpen -0.5 WAR, 2014 bullpen 2.8 WAR. That is ridiculous. As much as a crazy thought it is, the facts are the facts. The bullpen is the strength of this team and could be another strength, with the mega lineup, in 2015 and beyond.

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An Ode to Darwin Barney

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

It has become official. Darwin Barney is no longer a Cub. On Monday, the second baseman was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers with a cash consideration for a Player to be Named Later. The Cubs had only a few days left to trade their third longest tenured Cub after designating him for assignment last week. After the trade became official, I figured I would do a tribute to Barney’s time with the Cubs organization. Before this, I’ll make a few notes. I completely agree with and understand the DFA and trade. This isn’t a, “OMG! Epstink is terrible!!” piece, I promise. This is purely a final ode to the Cubs life of Darwin Barney.

In the 2007 draft, the Cubs had the third pick in the fourth round, number 127 overall. The Royals had the pick before the Cubs and they selected Mitch Hodge, who never made it past Low A. With their selection, the Cubs took a shortstop from Oregon State University, fresh off of back to back national titles. On June 7th, Darwin James Kunane Barney was a Cub. He signed on July 9th and was ready to get back on the field.

Barney started his Cubs career in Arizona in the Rookie League. He only played 5 games and was ready for a new challenge. The shortstop hit .444 (8-18) with three doubles to go along with a .545 OBP and a 1.157 OPS. He moved to Low A Peoria to finish his first pro season. In 44 games, Barney hit .273/.313/.392 with nine doubles and 27 runs scored. In the field, he made eight errors in 165 chances at short in those 44 games. Was he ready for High A Daytona after just 49 games in pro ball? Apparently he was, as he was promoted to start the 2008 season. Barney spent all year in Daytona, playing shortstop for 123 games. In his first full pro season, Darwin didn’t blow anyone away with the bat, as he hit .262/.325/.357 with 107 hits, 22 doubles, and 46 runs scored while making 21 errors at short in 565 chances.

Going into the 2009 season, the fast moving Barney found his way onto the AA Tennessee roster. The shortstop played in 74 games with the Smokies, hitting a career high .317 with an OPS of .769. 12 more doubles for the former OSU Beaver and 30 runs scored as Barney was one step closer to the big leagues after being promoted to AAA Iowa mid-season. He spent the rest of 2009 and the majority of 2010 with the I-Cubs. Barney played 177 games during that span with Iowa, compiling 199 hits, 36 doubles, and scoring 97 runs. On August 12th, 2010, the dream was realized.

Barney made his major league debut by being a defensive replacement at second base in San Francisco that night. The next night, he started for the first time, batting seventh and playing second base in St. Louis against the Cardinals. Barney went 0-4, but did not strikeout and did not make an error in the Cubs 6-3 loss. From that point on, Darwin Barney was the second baseman of the Cubs future. In 2011, Barney moved permanently to second base, playing 143 games that year and hitting like a key piece to the Cubs future plans. The second baseman hit .276/.313/.353 in 2011 compiling 146 hits, 23 doubles, scoring 66 runs, and driving in 43, while putting together a 1.7 WAR season. He did make 12 errors in 135 games a second, but it was still an adjusting period. None of us, however, could possibly imagine what he was going to do in 2012.

Darwin Barney cemented himself as one of the best defensive players in baseball in 2012. He played in a career high 156 games, all but one of which was at second. Incredibly, he posted a .997 fielding percentage, while only making two (!!) errors in 731 chances at second base. He was honored at the end of the year with the Gold Glove at second, beating out the Reds’ Brandon Phillips for the honor. Oh, and he didn’t hit terrible in 2012, but nothing compared to his defensive value (you see a theme developing). Barney hit .254/.288/.354 in that season, with 139 hits and 26 doubles, along with a career high seven home runs and compiling a 4.6 WAR season, largely in part to his defense. In 2013, however, the downfall began.

In 144 games in 2013, Barney only hit a measly .208 with a .569 OPS. He did hit seven home runs, matching a career high, but only had a total of 104 hits in those 144 games. The defense was there, again, but a .993 fielding percentage wasn’t good enough to win his second straight Gold Glove. Barney’s WAR fell from 4.6 in 2012 to -0.5 in 2013. His struggles continued, as Barney had a combination of lack of hitting, .230 with a .593 OPS in 72 games, and young prospects coming up to diminish his role on the team. As he left for paternity leave on August 9th, Arismendy Alcantara took his spot on the roster. Barney only played two games after coming back and was DFA’d by the Cubs on July 22nd.

The Darwin Barney era in Chicago will always be remembered, whether it was for his unbelievable plays at second or his inability to get a big hit when the Cubs needed it. I’ll always have a spot for Darwin in my Cubs history books. He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, but unfortunately a good thing can’t last forever.

Goodbye, Darwin.

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How the Astros are falling, and the Cubs thriving

Friday, July 18th, 2014

Fast-forward to the 2017 World Series, as Sports Illustrated did. They predicted that the Astros would win the World Series over the Cubs. Now, obviously, a ton has to go right for just one of these teams to be in playoff contention. Each team has picked in the top 5 of the draft the last two years. It looks like 2015 will see those two teams up towards the top of the draft board again, as both teams could finish in last place again. These two teams have been often compared to each other during their respective rebuilds. The rebuild has been acquire minor league talent by drafting high and trading major league players for more minor league talent. For the Cubs that is looking pretty good. For the Astros, it is not working out so much.

Both the Cubs and the Astros ranked in the top 5 of farm systems in baseball at the beginning of the season, according to Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus. The top prospects on the lists for each team was Javier Baez for the Cubs and Carlos Correa for the Astros, both shortstops. Baez’s stats are known throughout Cub land. Through the first half, Baez has a .240/.305/.449 slash line in AAA Iowa with incredible bat speed and power that has led to 14 home runs so far this year. To go with those solid numbers, Baez also participated in the Future’s Game and got two at bats. One of which, off of Nationals top prospect Lucas Giolito, he took a curveball the other way for a home run. Correa, however, hasn’t had the luck that a top prospect usually has. The former number one overall pick was hitting .325/.416/.510 at High A Lancaster in 62 games. Unfortunately, the 19 year fractured his fibula in late June and has been lost for the season. Who knows in Correa will come back the same; regardless, he has lost a year of development.

In the 2013 MLB Draft, the Astros picked number 1 and the Cubs picked number 2. Houston selected a right handed pitcher from Stanford, Mark Appel. To follow, the Cubs selected a third baseman from San Diego University, Kris Bryant. Appel was the sought after top pick. He failed to sign with the Pirates the year before after being drafted 8th overall by Pittsburgh. The right hander had a decent start to his professional career in 2013, compiling a 3.79 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 10 starts that covered 38 innings. 2014 has been a complete disaster for Appel. The 2013 top pick has pitched all year in High A Lancaster. In 38.1 innings, the right hander has been shelled to the tune of a 10.80 ERA, 69 hits, and 49 runs (46 earned). In Appel’s last two starts, he has pitched a combined 6 innings while giving up 20 hits and 14 earned runs. On the other hand, Kris Bryant has flown through the Cubs system up to AAA Iowa. The third baseman has played 128 games and 463 at bats in his professional career and compiled a slash line of .343/.430/.698 to go with 40 homeruns and 113 RBIs. In 2014, Bryant has spent time in AA Tennessee and AAA Iowa while hitting .346/.444/.701 with 31 home runs and 81 RBIs. Keith Law of ESPN has ranked Kris Bryant the number 1 overall prospect in all of baseball in his midseason rankings.

Now in the 2014 MLB Draft, the Astros again picked number one overall and the Cubs picked 4th. While the Astros took the top talent available, high school lefty Brady Aiken, fears about his elbow have made negotiations between the two sides very tense. As the deadline for signing draft picks approaches, it is possible that the Astros lose Aiken, and possibly other picks that were signed with the savings they thought they would get by signing Aiken. It could turn into a complete mess with the Astros getting a compensation pick in next year’s draft. As for the Cubs fourth overall pick, Kyle Schwarber has made his way all the way up to High A Daytona in just 28 games. Through those 28 games and one game with Daytona, in which he went 0-2 with two walks, he has hit .400/484/.733 with 8 home runs and 9 doubles.

As the rebuilding efforts continue for both teams, the Cubs seem to have the upper hand. The Astros have been that Cinderella story earlier in the season with George Springer and Jonathan Singleton coming up and getting on Sports Illustrated, but that magic has faded as they have come back down to the second worst team in baseball. As for the Cubs, they would pick 5th in the draft next year. They probably have the top farm system in the game and the talent is close to the big leagues. The Astros on the other hand have talent, but it is in the lower minors. Sports Illustrated was correct with their pick of the Cubs to represent the NL in the 2017 World Series, but the Astros might be a few more years after that.

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Who could be the next Cub moved?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

While the fireworks were going off on the 4th of July, the Cubs were making fireworks of their own. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer teamed up with Oakland GM Billy Beane to construct the first massive trade of the year. The Cubs sent pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A’s for their top two prospects, Addison Russell and Billy McKinney, along with up-and-down pitcher Dan Straily. The Cubs shocked everyone by trading their two biggest chips this early in July, but they aren’t done on the trading market.

There are multiple pieces still left on the roster that can be moved for solid return packages. The Cubs really don’t have any one on their roster that is untradeable. Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jake Arrieta, and Welington Castillo would probably be the closest to that untradeable title. However, the rest of the roster is full of players that can be flipped.

Starting out in the infield, Luis Valbuena is an interesting piece to a contender. Valbuena can play solid defense at third and second while contributing by getting on base. His 11.3 BB% and .334 OPS are both great for a platoon option at second or third, while providing above average defense and 80 grade bat-flipping.  Another infielder that can provide value to a contender is Darwin Barney. Barney, the 2012 Gold Glove award winner at second, doesn’t give much at the plate, but he is one of the best defenders in the game. At the dish this year, Barney is just hitting .224 with a measly .577 OPS. However, as stated above, his value comes from his defense. As a late inning replacement, he can really help out a team in need for that defensive upgrade. With Arismendy Alcantara coming up the last two days and performing quite well at second and at the plate, one of these guys could be on their way out sooner rather than later.

The outfield is much more crowded with names that could be traded. Nate Schierholtz is the name that comes up most often. The right fielder, a free agent at the end of the year, is hitting only .204 on the year with a .566 OPS, but can provide solid defense in right. He is just a half of a year removed from hitting 21 home runs for the Cubs in 2013. A big second half could be in the cards for Schierholtz.  Second player that could be on the move in the Cubs outfield is Chris Coghlan. Brought in on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training this spring, Coghlan has found himself regularly hitting leadoff and playing left or center for the Cubs.  In July, he is catching fire. In 36 at bats this month, he has 14 hits and a 9.3 BB%.  One player that has been mentioned is Junior Lake. This certainly doesn’t seem likely to happen. A change of scenery is said to be the reason Lake’s name has been out on the market. However, the outfielder has not yet completed a full season in the majors and is still relatively young at 24. Lake has had his struggles, only having 16 hits in 93 June and July at bats, therefore his stock is not high at this point.

Shifting to the pitching side, the rotation looks to stand pat. Edwin Jackson doesn’t look like an attractive piece to a contender, with a 5.05 ERA and walking nearly four men per nine. Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta are both cost controlled beyond this year, so both pitchers can be instrumental parts in the competitive Cubs’ teams that hopefully start winning next year. The bullpen has a few pieces that could be moved to help out contenders. The first of these pitchers is left hander Wesley Wright. The lefty was granted free agency by the Rays and signed by the Cubs in December. Wright is in the second year of arbitration, therefore he will have one year of team control beyond this year.  The lefty has been excellent in his 26.1 innings this season. He enters Friday with a sparkling 2.39 ERA and 2.85 FIP. Plus, his LOB% is at 79.7%, meaning he basically leaves 4 out of every 5 men on base, which is the second highest rate of his career.  The second lefty that could be on the move is James Russell. The reliever is the longest tenured Cub, called up in 2010, and one of the most used relievers in baseball over the last two years. Russell, like Wright, is in the second year of arbitration, meaning he is under team control through 2015. The lefty specialist has a reverse split in his 25.1 innings pitched, which means he is better against right handed hitters than left handed hitters. Against righties, he is allowing a microscopic .108 batting average against in 53 at bats against. His ERA is also fantastic at 2.84 through 35 games with a sparkling .203 BABIP against, which is 76 points lower than his career mark. The final bullpen arm that could be moved prior to the July 31st deadline is swing man Carlos Villanueva.  Villanueva is valuable for several reasons. One of these reasons his he is only owed $2.5 million for the rest of the year. Also, he is a free agent at the end of the year and as stated before, he is a swing man. The right hander can come in and make a spot start or be a long reliever in the pen.  Villanueva’s ERA (6.47) is a bit inflated due to a bad month of April, but he is a solid piece for a contender.

As Theo and Jed have actively said after the Samardzija/Hammel trade, this is the last year of being sellers. The Cubs will trade the pieces that aren’t necessarily in the future plans for players that will fit in the competitive window that has become clearer after this trade. The picture has become a lot more visible and 2015 cannot come soon enough for Cubs fans. It is going to be a fun ride. For now, however, there will be more movement by the front office.

While the fireworks were going off on the 4th of July, the Cubs were making fireworks of their own. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer teamed up with Oakland GM Billy Beane to construct the first massive trade of the year. The Cubs sent pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A’s for their top two prospects, Addison Russell and Billy McKinney, along with up-and-down pitcher Dan Straily. The Cubs shocked everyone by trading their two biggest chips this early in July, but they aren’t done on the trading market.

There are multiple pieces still left on the roster that can be moved for solid return packages. The Cubs really don’t have any one on their roster that is untradeable. Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jake Arrieta, and Welington Castillo would probably be the closest to that untradeable title. However, the rest of the roster is full of players that can be flipped.

Starting out in the infield, Luis Valbuena is an interesting piece to a contender. Valbuena can play solid defense at third and second while contributing by getting on base. His 11.3 BB% and .334 OPS are both great for a platoon option at second or third, while providing above average defense and 80 grade bat-flipping.  Another infielder that can provide value to a contender is Darwin Barney. Barney, the 2012 Gold Glove award winner at second, doesn’t give much at the plate, but he is one of the best defenders in the game. At the dish this year, Barney is just hitting .224 with a measly .577 OPS. However, as stated above, his value comes from his defense. As a late inning replacement, he can really help out a team in need for that defensive upgrade. With Arismendy Alcantara coming up the last two days and performing quite well at second and at the plate, one of these guys could be on their way out sooner rather than later.

The outfield is much more crowded with names that could be traded. Nate Schierholtz is the name that comes up most often. The right fielder, a free agent at the end of the year, is hitting only .204 on the year with a .566 OPS, but can provide solid defense in right. He is just a half of a year removed from hitting 21 home runs for the Cubs in 2013. A big second half could be in the cards for Schierholtz.  Second player that could be on the move in the Cubs outfield is Chris Coghlan. Brought in on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training this spring, Coghlan has found himself regularly hitting leadoff and playing left or center for the Cubs.  In July, he is catching fire. In 36 at bats this month, he has 14 hits and a 9.3 BB%.  One player that has been mentioned is Junior Lake. This certainly doesn’t seem likely to happen. A change of scenery is said to be the reason Lake’s name has been out on the market. However, the outfielder has not yet completed a full season in the majors and is still relatively young at 24. Lake has had his struggles, only having 16 hits in 93 June and July at bats, therefore his stock is not high at this point.

Shifting to the pitching side, the rotation looks to stand pat. Edwin Jackson doesn’t look like an attractive piece to a contender, with a 5.05 ERA and walking nearly four men per nine. Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta are both cost controlled beyond this year, so both pitchers can be instrumental parts in the competitive Cubs’ teams that hopefully start winning next year. The bullpen has a few pieces that could be moved to help out contenders. The first of these pitchers is left hander Wesley Wright. The lefty was granted free agency by the Rays and signed by the Cubs in December. Wright is in the second year of arbitration, therefore he will have one year of team control beyond this year.  The lefty has been excellent in his 26.1 innings this season. He enters Friday with a sparkling 2.39 ERA and 2.85 FIP. Plus, his LOB% is at 79.7%, meaning he basically leaves 4 out of every 5 men on base, which is the second highest rate of his career.  The second lefty that could be on the move is James Russell. The reliever is the longest tenured Cub, called up in 2010, and one of the most used relievers in baseball over the last two years. Russell, like Wright, is in the second year of arbitration, meaning he is under team control through 2015. The lefty specialist has a reverse split in his 25.1 innings pitched, which means he is better against right handed hitters than left handed hitters. Against righties, he is allowing a microscopic .108 batting average against in 53 at bats against. His ERA is also fantastic at 2.84 through 35 games with a sparkling .203 BABIP against, which is 76 points lower than his career mark. The final bullpen arm that could be moved prior to the July 31st deadline is swing man Carlos Villanueva.  Villanueva is valuable for several reasons. One of these reasons his he is only owed $2.5 million for the rest of the year. Also, he is a free agent at the end of the year and as stated before, he is a swing man. The right hander can come in and make a spot start or be a long reliever in the pen.  Villanueva’s ERA (6.47) is a bit inflated due to a bad month of April, but he is a solid piece for a contender.

As Theo and Jed have actively said after the Samardzija/Hammel trade, this is the last year of being sellers. The Cubs will trade the pieces that aren’t necessarily in the future plans for players that will fit in the competitive window that has become clearer after this trade. The picture has become a lot more visible and 2015 cannot come soon enough for Cubs fans. It is going to be a fun ride. For now, however, there will be more movement by the front office.

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Is Mike Olt the Long Term Answer at Third?

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

The 2014 season for the Cubs wasn’t going to be a year where the postseason was going to be reached. Everyone knew that going in to the year. The big project this year, for the big league club, was the development of the younger players who regressed last season. The names that come up when this topic is discussed are Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. However, there is one guy who had a terrible year in the minors in 2013 that got his chance to contribute to the big league roster this season, and that is Mike Olt.

The 25 year old third baseman started last season in AAA with Round Rock in the Texas Rangers organization. At the trade deadline, Olt and three other prospects were traded to the Cubs for pitcher Matt Garza. After being traded to the Cubs, he continued to struggle in AAA Iowa. Between the two teams, he hit .201 with a .684 OPS and a strikeout rate of 31%. In a winter league game before the start of the 2013 season, he was hit in the head by a pitch, and he continued to have head problems throughout the season. In the spring of 2014, the third baseman got a chance.

Olt made the team out of spring training and started at third on Opening Day in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the season did not start out as good as many of us had hoped. He hit just .164 with an OPS of .589 and 4 home runs in 61 plate appearances in March and April while splitting time with Luis Valbuena at third. Also, Olt had a strikeout rate of 35% and a walk rate of 5%. He was struggling at the plate and trying to get regular playing time at third base.

It has come full circle for the third baseman recently. Olt has started 8 and played in all but one of the Cubs’ 12 games in May, including starting 6 out of the last 7. All of his stats are up after this month, including his average (.233), OBP (.361), slugging percentage (.633), and OPS (.994). Also, Olt is hitting the ball out of the ballpark of late. In those 12 games, he has hit 4 home runs  to give him 8 total on the year. Another good sign is that his strikeout rate is down lately to 25%, walk rate is up to 8% for the season, and  OPS+ is just above average at 101.

As Olt gets more playing time and officially takes over the everyday third base job, his numbers will continue to grow. His progress is arguably just as important as Rizzo’s and Castro’s. If Olt can take a stranglehold on the third base job, the future of the Cubs looks a lot clearer. There are a few candidates to take over the third base job, but Olt can take over permanently with a solid year in 2014.

One of these contenders for the third base job is the first round pick last year, the highly touted Kris Bryant. The bat is not an issue for Bryant; he will hit in the majors, but the glove can be a little shaky at times. Olt is not a gold glove defender at third, but he can be an above average defender. Bryant projects better as a corner outfielder with his size. Another candidate is Christian Villanueva, the AAA third baseman now. Villanueva’s glove has been credited as the best defender in the Cubs system. There are questions of how his bat will translate to the big leagues. Olt’s bat will be more value than Villanueva’s glove in the long run.

How nice would it be going into 2015 knowing who will be your third baseman for the next 6 years? Olt would be a great piece to have in the fold going forward. He is under team control through the 2019 season, which gives the Cubs flexibility going forward. It is not out of the question that Olt could secure NL Rookie of the Year honors. The Cubs third baseman is leading all NL rookies in home runs, RBI’s, slugging percentage, and OPS. If Olt can get his average and on base percentage up, he very well can be a top candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. To go along with those rookie stats, Olt is in the top 10 in the NL in home runs with eight.

Right now, all Olt needs is playing time regularly and that will come. Luis Valbuena is better suited compared to Darwin Barney at second and that will open up third base for Olt full time. There is a ton of “if” with Olt, but there is a ton of upside as well. The Cubs just may have found their third baseman going forward as they move into their window of competing.

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Reasons For Optimism With Edwin Jackson

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The Cubs haven’t scored since Sunday afternoon and the offense has sputtered throughout the season. But one bright spot has been the starting pitching. Led by ace Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood, along with newcomer Jason Hammel, have been giving the Cubs a chance to win every time they pick up the ball and get up on the mound. One starter has gotten the most heat since early last year and that is Edwin Jackson.

Jackson, who signed a 4 year $52 million deal before the 2013 season, has not gotten off to the best start in his young Cubs career. He finished last season with the most losses in the NL, 18, and an ERA of 4.98, which was one of the worst of his career. But to go along with those stats, there were some sports that gave hope when looking forward to this year. He had an above average FIP (Fielding Independence Pitching) of 3.79. FIP is a stat that measures how well a pitcher actually pitched given what he can control. Looking forward to 2014, there was a lot of hope that Jackson would turn it around going forward, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

Through three starts, Jackson has a 6.19 ERA as he has given up 11 earned runs in 16 innings. Walks have been an issue for Jackson as he has walked 12 in those 16 innings. These stats have gotten Cubs fans and analysts going nuts. People saying that the front office missed on Jackson, saying that Jackson should be traded, and saying Jackson will not be on the team when the team goes on to, hopefully, win the World Series in a few years.

Many people say that, but in my opinion, I don’t believe any of that is true. Of course, it is hard not to look at the struggles and come to that conclusion, but there are positive things to look at when looking at Jackson going forward.

Number one item I like going forward about Jackson is his contract. Now, people may say they over paid for him, but I don’t see it that way. Sure, he got paid $13 million last year to compile an ERA close to five, but going forward, it is actually not that bad. From 2014-2016, Jackson’s contract is worth 3 years and only $33 million. If you look at these next three years, including this one, that deal is a great find going forward for a middle of the rotation pitcher with occasionally number two, or even number one, stuff.

Let’s take a look and compare Jackson’s deal going forward (3 years, $33 million) to a deal that was made this offseason. Let’s take Matt Garza’s deal to compare. Garza signed a 4 year, $50 million deal with the Brewers in the off-season. Now, I’m not saying Jackson is better than Garza, but Jackson has had a better FIP the last two years. Also, Jackson has logged more innings than Garza, who has been a health risk for his entire career. Garza is owed $12.5 million over the next 4 years. Isn’t Jackson the safer bet going forward? Jackson is more durable than Garza and for a number 3 starter, Jackson is a perfect ft for the Cubs.

Reason number two Jackson looks good going forward is where are you going to find established starting pitching? Jackson is a perfect 3 starter going forward on a winning team, or even a 4. Now, the Cubs do have some pitching accumulating in AAA and AA, but you don’t know if these guys can come in and perform well in the major leagues. Also, if the Cubs are going to trade Jeff Samardzija, they are going to get young pitching talent, but most likely single A arms. Jackson can help build the bridge to the young arms and help them get their confidence in the bigs. Another way you can get starting pitching is through free agency, but that seems less likely to happen, seeing as teams are eager to lock up their young arms on team friendly deals that buys out their arbitration years. So if you are going to sign someone through free agency, you are going to get a guy who is equal to Jackson’s talent or worse. Flippable pieces are nice, but they are only on one year deals and you get talent back for them, but it is younger prospects. In my opinion, Jackson is a stable piece in the rotation and can be that for the next three years.

The last reason is that Jackson can actually turn this season around.  Jackson’s walk rate is irregularly high for him. Also, Jackson has given up a .396 average in balls in play, which is also abnormally high. Jackson’s three starts have come against the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Pirates at home, and in St. Louis. Not exactly three teams that are easy to get out. His first start in Pittsburgh was his best, giving up two runs in 5.1 innings, and only one of those runs were earned. The second start against Pittsburgh was a little bit rougher. He gave up six runs in 4.2 innings, but it is tough to face a team back-to-back to start the year. Teams have a good idea what is coming and it showed. Jackson gave up nine hits in those 4.2 innings. And his final start was in St. Louis where he gave up four runs in six innings. But, during the game, Jackson gave up three runs in the first two innings, and then the rain came. After almost an hour, Jackson only gave up a run in the four innings after. If Jackson can cut back on his walks and get more groundballs, he can get back to form. And crazy enough, his FIP is better than last year at 3.73, where 3.75 in above average.

Now I’m not saying Jackson is an ace, but he is a solid pitcher for the Cubs. I am looking forward to getting to watch him pitch for the next three years and I hope he shuts the haters up.


The Cubs take on the division rival, Reds this weekend and so we have a guest blogger in to preview why the outlook is not good for the Cubs.

Why The Reds Will Crush the Cubs

by Greg Daffler
www.redlegnation.com

Not only have the Reds (6-9) gotten off to a slow start in the standings, but the Reds’ bats were on a delayed flight from Spring Training and arrived in Cincinnati about two weeks after the start of the season. The Reds scored only 28 runs in their first 11 games, which included three 1-0 pitcher’s duels. New manager Bryan Price made a lineup move five games ago that you’d never see in a Dusty Baker lineup card: Joey Votto batting #2 in the lineup. Since the team has busted out for 30 runs in their last four games against the Rays and the Pirates, I suspect we’ll see Votto in his new lineup spot for the foreseeable future.

Highlighting the Reds biggest lineup change from one year ago is centerfielder and leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton. Hamilton can change the game with his speed if he could just get on base. Case in point, to lead off the first inning in Wednesday’s 4-0 win over the Pirates, Hamilton walked, stole second base, advanced to third on a wild pitch, and then scored on another wild pitch. Devin Mesoraco has replaced Ryan Hanigan behind the plate as the full time starting catcher. Though an oblique injury delayed his start to the season, Mesoraco has been crushing the ball in 6 games since being activated, including with 11 hits, 3 doubles, and 3 homeruns.

Given the recent resurgence in run production and the often stellar pitching, I like the Reds chances to win 2 or 3 of the games this weekend. The Reds have allowed the 3rd fewest runs per game in the NL this season. Four of the five Reds starting pitchers rank in the top 21 in National League ERA.

The toughest pitching matchup on paper for the Reds will be Friday’s afternoon affair against Jeff Samardzija. While Mat Latos is on the DL with a right elbow injury and an unknown timetable for his return, Alfredo Simon (Friday) has stepped in and made two big starts already. Starting for the first time since 2011, Simon has pitched 15 innings and allowed just one run in each of his appearances.

Tony Cingrani (Saturday) hasn’t allowed more than 5 hits in any of his first 21 major league starts (h/t to Neal Kendrick). While Homer Bailey (Sunday) has had a rough couple of starts this season, last year he ranked 21st among National League starters in WAR.

The Reds bullpen has been hit the hardest with injuries to their primary 8th and 9th inning relievers. Aroldis Chapman broke a bone near his eye during spring training and won’t return until May. Jonathan Broxton has only made two appearances since recently returning from the DL. Sean Marshall is currently on a rehab assignment with AAA Louisville and could be activated to face his former team sometime this weekend.

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