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Sophomore Slumps? Not with These Guys

Friday, April 29th, 2016

An old saying in every sport is the “sophomore slump” for a player that struggles in his second year of action. With so many young players that are entering that area for the Cubs in 2016, it is easy to point to that as a possible fallback for bad performance. However, the Cubs sophomores are performing, and getting better.

One of the storylines for the 2015 Cubs was the young kids coming up from the minor leagues and performing, while helping the Cubs reach the NLCS. Heading into 2016, the worry with some people was about the dreaded “sophomore slump” with these young Cubs. It is one of the worst narratives to have for a young player, but these Cubs don’t seem affected by it (or really anything for that matter). While a slow start has caused some to concern, the two sophomores for the Cubs, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, are on their way to prove that this “sophomore slump” won’t affect these Cubs.

Starting with the sophomores, why not start with the reigning National League Rookie of the Year? Kris Bryant, the highly touted top prospect for the Cubs, busted onto the scene in 2015 by posting a 6.5 fWAR, which was good for 10th overall in baseball and the third highest among Major League 3rd basemen, behind Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado. 2016 started with high expectations for Bryant, and Bryant has picked up where he left off. Through Wednesday, the third baseman has a slash line of .280/.352/.500 in 91 plate appearances, with four home runs, six doubles, and 15 knocked in, while compiling 1.0 fWAR in the process. Actually, these numbers could even get better. His batting average on balls in play is only .317, which is 61 points lower from his 2015 mark of .378. Bryant has not had a BABIP lower than .333 in his professional career. One of the adjustments Bryant has made this season is his swing rates. In 2015, Bryant had the worst contact rate on pitches in the strike zone in all of baseball, making contact with just 75.8% of balls in the zone. This year, the third baseman has raised that mark to 81.6% of the time, which is still slightly below league average, but is still an improvement. Another good early sign for Bryant is his strikeout rate in down over 10%, from 30.6% in 2015 down to 19.6% this year. Bryant’s bat is not the only part of his game that has gotten off to a hot start, his play in the field has been fantastic. Bryant is 3rd among all Major League 3rd baseman in defensive WAR, UZR, UZR/150 and seventh in defensive runs saved. Bryant has also made every play in left field, when he has been out there. Bryant is one of the best third baseman in baseball and one of the best players in the league. If he continues this, he will come close to matching the production of 2015, with no delayed start.

After Bryant made his debut in 2015, a few days later Addison Russell got the call and became the Cubs primary second baseman. Once Russell took over full time at shortstop at the beginning of August, that is when the young Cub took off. Russell’s offensive game wasn’t great last year, but a second half stance adjustment helped him immensely. During the second half of 2015, Russell hit .259/.318/.427 good for a .744 OPS, which was almost 100 points higher than his first half, which is understandable for a guy who had just 59 career plate appearances at AAA before he was called up to the majors. In 2016, Russell, who has been moved out of the 9 hole where he hit all of 2015, got off to a slow start, but has picked it up lately. Through Wednesday the 22-year-old shortstop is hitting .234/.342/.375 in 76 plate appearances. One aspect of Russell’s game that has improved from 2015 has been his walk rate and his strikeout rate. Last year, Russell had an 8.0% walk rate and a 28.5% strikeout rate. However, this season Russell is up to a 13.2% walk rate and his strikeout rate is down to 17.1%. His average may be down, but Russell has been subject of some bad luck to this point. His batting average on balls in play is .260, which is 64 points lower than his .324-mark last year. To couple with that, his hard hit contact rate is up from 27.1% to 28.8%. Also, Russell’s contact rate on balls in the strike zone has went up as well, from 71.1% in 2015 to 76.6% this year. When you think about Russell, his defense is the one strength you think of, and he has not disappointed. Russell ranks 5th among Major League shortstops in defensive runs saved and UZR/150 and fourth in defensive WAR and UZR. Russell continues to be one of the premier shortstops in the National League and in all of baseball. As his bat continues to improve, he is even going to be more dangerous.

The Cubs have a bundle of young talent that surrounds the nucleus of the team. Kris Bryant and Addison Russell have performed since their debuts in April of 2015 and continue to be a big piece of the Cubs formula for their hot start in 2016. The team is playing well, as one of the best teams in baseball. Bryant and Russell are showing that their 2015 season was a building block going forward and not just a flash in the pan, which no one expected it to be. As the two continue to grow, the Cubs left side of the infield will be locked in for many years to come, which is very nice to see. The Cubs have a ton of young talent, but Bryant and Russell are the two sophomores that are going to be a huge part of the Cubs success in 2016.

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Dexter Fowler, Patience at the Plate Help Cubs Get Off to Scorching State

Friday, April 15th, 2016

The Cubs are off to a scorching hot start, their best since 1985. What has been their secret? Well, everything, to be honest, but here is how getting their leadoff hitter back and being more patient has made the Cubs the best team in baseball.

Going into 2016, expectations were sky high for the Chicago Cubs. After a 97-win season, a trip to the NLCS, and a successful offseason, expectations should have been set high. Through eight games, the Cubs have met those expectations head on and have gotten off to their best start since 1985. So, when you dissect the Cubs, what has been there strengths that have helped them get off to the best record in baseball over the first two weeks of the season? Getting a familiar face back and changing the approach at the plate has been the biggest key for the Cubs in 2016.

When Dexter Fowler decided to come back to the Cubs on a one-year deal in late February, the Cubs immediately had their leadoff guy back from their 97-win 2015 campaign. Joe Maddon coined the phrase, “You go, we go,” when describing Fowler in 2015. The centerfielder has proven that he wants to win this year, while taking his game to new heights. Fowler has played in all eight games, while compiling a .423 average, a .559 on base percentage, and a .731 slugging percentage (1.290 OPS; small sample size stats are fun) with a 231 wRC+ (100 is league average), three doubles, a home run, and eight runs scored. The centerfielder has compiled 0.7 fWAR in 8 games, which is 22% of his total fWAR from a year ago. The best asset that Fowler has brought to the lineup is his plate discipline. Fowler has reached base in every game this season, compiling six walks and two HBP in 34 plate appearances, while only striking out seven times. His walk rate is up to an absurd 17.6% (up from 12.2% in 2015) and his strikeout rate is down to 20.6% (down from 22.3% last year). This can be attributed to laying off pitches out of the zone. His swing rate on pitches outside of the strike zone is down from 20% in 2015 to just 17.9% in 2016. With the injury to Kyle Schwarber, Fowler should be in centerfield for the Cubs close to everyday, instead of 80% of the time, like originally thought with a healthy roster. Fowler struggled through the first half of the 2015 season, but really turned in on in the second half. He looks like he is picking up right where he left off, and that is good news for the Cubs.

Fowler isn’t the only Cub that is drawing walks at a crazy rate. Well, everyone is. The Cubs had to address contact hitters in the offseason, due to the lack of production with a runner on third and less than two outs and leading the league in strikeouts. Signing Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist were meant to address that need, and they have produced thus far. Heyward, while only hitting .250, has an on base percentage of .368 and a walk rate of 13.2%, which has been exclusively out of the two hole behind Fowler. Zobrist has been hitting mostly behind Heyward, and his production is also starting strong. The new Cubs second baseman is hitting .290, but more impressive is his .421 on base percentage, his 18.4% walk rate and his 15.8% strikeout rate (which is actually high for him, but well below league average). The top three in the order haven’t been the only ones having a great start to the season. The Cubs have 12 (!!!) players on their roster with a walk rate of over 10.0%. Throw away Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Kyle Schwarber out of that mix, and there are still 9 position players that have over 10 plate appearances that have a walk rate over 10.0%. Just a reminder: the league average walk rate thus far is 8.7% and last year it was 7.7%. The only regular to have a walk rate below 10.0% is Jorge Soler, and his walk rate is just below last year’s league average at 6.7%, which is still respectable. Overall, the Cubs have a combined walk rate of 14.5%, which is nearly three percent higher than the Braves in second place. Another improvement with the team in 2016 is the strikeout total. The Cubs struck out a lot last year. Like, a lot, to the tune of 1518 times, which was the third highest strike out total in a season by a club since 2000. The Cubs, obviously, had the highest strikeout rate in baseball last year at 24.5%. In 2016, the Cubs have only struck out 67 times, which is the 14th lowest total in baseball. That’s a strike out rate of 20.2%, which is the 8th lowest rate in baseball. Quite a turnaround from one year ago. The Cubs also have the highest BB/K rate in baseball, taking 0.72 walks per strike outs, which is a major improvement from last year’s 0.37 BB/K rate. A reason for the big turn around, outside of their offseason acquisitions, has been their lack of chasing pitches outside of the strike zone. As with Fowler, the Cubs have been much better at laying off pitches that are not in the zone. Their swing rate on the pitches out of the zone in 2015 was 30.5%. This year, the Cubs have only swung at 23.8% of pitches outside of the zone, which is the 3rd lowest rate in baseball.

While small sample sizes should be cautioned, the Cubs look like one of the most potent offenses, if not the most potent, in the game. Starting pitchers in games against the Cubs have only reached the 7th inning once. They have compiled 38.2 innings (which is below five innings per start) and have thrown 705 pitches, which is just over 88 pitches per start. Getting to the pitcher early has been a successful formula for the Cubs offense so far in 2016. With high walk rates, lower strikeout rates, and lower chase percentages, the Cubs offense is going to be a nightmare for pitchers throughout the 2016 season.

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3 Cubs Prospects That Have Shined During Spring Training

Monday, March 28th, 2016

Every spring there are prospects that shine during spring training when the regular team gets rest. Coming off a year where the Cubs won 97 games and appeared in the NLCS, the minor league system may get overlooked. There is still plenty of high end talent in the minor league system, and the kids are proving themselves in camp.

The Cubs minor league system has gotten a ton of praise during the rebuilding process. The organization has consistently been ranked in the top five in all of baseball over the past two or three years. The high end talent, like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, have been the blue chip pieces that have helped that ranking. However, the high end talent in the system have graduated, so the ranking has taken a hit coming into 2016. Falling out of the top ten in farm system rankings doesn’t mean there isn’t talent in the farm system.

Spring training is a chance for the younger players to showcase their talents in front of the major league coaching staff. Every year there are players that breakout in spring training and are not known to the common fan. To some fans, this is the only look that they’ll get at these young players. For a small sample sake, here are three players that have shined in Arizona and are names to keep in mind going into 2016 and beyond.

John Andreoli

The 25-year-old outfielder has been around seemingly forever, even beating out the Theo Epstein era, as he was drafted in 2011. Andreoli has made the most of his second spring training invite. In 39 plate appearances, the outfielder has compiled a .303 batting average to go along with a .359 on base percentage, a 1.086 OPS, four home runs, and nine runs driven in. The four home runs might stand out to people because Andreoli only hit five all of last season at AAA Iowa. Another interesting stat about Andreoli is two stolen bases this spring after 33 steals a year ago. The outfielder is known as one of the fastest players and one of the best base stealers, if not the best, in the Cubs organization. His speed shows, as one of his home runs was an inside the park home run this spring.

Andreoli has been sent back to AAA Iowa’s camp and is going to be there to start the season. It is hard to see Andreoli’s role on the 2016 big league Cubs team. However, a September call-up is not out of the question. Also, his speed could be a major asset to the Cubs come postseason time, a la Quintin Berry last October. If there are injuries during the season, Andreoli could end up getting an early call and can be a very serviceable 5th outfielder.

Jeimer Candelario

The young third baseman has been making a name for himself during spring training. In 38 plate appearances this spring, Candelario has hit .361 with a .395 on base percentage and a 1.117 OPS while hitting three home runs and four doubles. One of the things to like about Candelario is his plate discipline. In those 38 plate appearances, the 22-year-old has only struck out 13.2% of the time, which is actually higher than his 2015 rate of 11.5% in AA Tennessee. While his walk rate is 5.3% in the spring, last year in AA Tennessee, Candelario had a 12.1% walk rate.

Third base has a solid foundation in the Cubs organization, as National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant has the hot corner locked up for the next 6+ years. Candelario seemingly is blocked by Bryant. Baseball Prospectus didn’t rank Candelario during their top 10 list for the Cubs, but his spring has put the young third baseman on the radar of many teams. With the position blocked and a huge spring, Candelario will garner a lot of attention in July from other teams if the Cubs decide to trade for a cost-controlled starter at the deadline. For now, Candelario will begin the season with AA Tennessee, but should be making his way to AAA Iowa sometime over the summer.

Willson Contreras

The 23-year-old catcher might not be a household name to Cubs fans yet, but he will be in the next few years as the organization sees him as the catcher of the future. After winning the Southern League batting title in 2015 with AA Tennessee and an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, Contreras continued to impress in Spring Training. In 21 plate appearances, Contreras hit .313 with a .476 on base percentage and a .976 OPS, while hitting three doubles and walking five times. Small sample size alert, but that’s a 23.8% (!!!) walk rate, and only against one strikeout.

As with Candelario, Contreras also has a very discipline approach at the plate. Last season in AA Tennessee, the catcher walked 57 times (10.9% BB%) and struck out only 62 times (11.9% K%). That is almost a 1.00 BB/K rate, which is incredible for a catcher, even at the AA level. That rate was the 7th highest in the Southern League among hitters with 250 or more plate appearances. As previously stated, Contreras is the Cubs catcher of the future, and with good reason. Contreras was ranked as the 57th best prospect in baseball and the number one catching prospect by Baseball Prospectus. The plan looks to be that he will split time with Miguel Montero in 2017 and take over full time catching duties in 2018. For now, however, the catcher is headed to AAA Iowa to get a full season in the Pacific Coast League and possibly could see some time with the major league club in September.

Spring training might be just a tune up period for most of the players who are locks to make the big league club, but the minor league players are working their tails off to impress their coaches. The Cubs system, while taking a massive hit with the graduating players, still has so much talent beyond the three players listed. The 2016 Cubs should have enough storylines, but keep these three players in the back of your head. Their names could come up at some point in 2016 and you can bet that their big springs had a part to do with that.

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Why has Jon Lester’s 2015 season been overlooked?

Monday, March 14th, 2016

As the major offseason signing, the big left hander was supposed to be the ace of the Cubs. Whether it was Jake Arrieta’s breakout second half or the dead arm issue in April, the perception of Lester’s success was overlooked. However, Lester was quietly one of the best starters in the National League in 2015.

December 10th, 2014. This day changed the course of Cubs recent history. After another losing season, the Cubs were looking to build off of their strong second half by being players in free agency for the first time since the Jim Hendry era. Their big catch was a familiar face to President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer. On that December day, the Cubs regime agreed to terms with left handed starting pitcher Jon Lester on a 6 year, $155 million deal, the largest free agent deal in franchise history at the time. With the signing of Lester, the Cubs seemed to turn a page in the rebuilding process. They got their ace, now its time for the playoffs.

Asking the common fan about Lester’s first year with the Cubs would probably garner an answer of average or not worth the money he was paid. Their reasoning would include his slow start in April or Jake Arrieta’s emergence as the ace of the staff or his trouble with holding runners at first base. While all of those statements are valid, Lester’s 2015 campaign was one of the best in baseball. The lefty finished as the 8th most valuable pitcher in the National League with his 5.0 fWAR. No, seriously.

Lester may have looking like he started out slow in April, finishing the month with a 6.23 ERA in four starts. However, April was Lester’s third most valuable month. The lefty finished with 2.21 FIP and a 2.43 xFIP while striking out just under 10 per nine innings. The .424 BABIP against and his 58.3% LOB rate had a role in Lester’s bad luck.

Through the first half of the season, Lester compiled 2.3 fWAR, which was 13th overall in the National League. It may not have seemed that way on the surface, as people may have looked at his 4-8 record and his 3.59 ERA. Remember: win/loss record is basically meaningless. After his worst two months, fWAR wise, in May and June, Lester began to turn it on.

In six July starts, Lester compiled a 1.66 ERA, a 1.68 FIP, a 2.40 xFIP while striking out 10.4 batters per nine and accumulating 1.8 fWAR, which was second in all of baseball for the month. The month was capped off with an 8 inning, 14 strikeout effort against the Colorado Rockies. Lester hit a hiccup in August, compiling only 0.5 fWAR (3rd lowest month in 2015) with a 5.04 ERA and a 3.43 FIP, with an inflated BABIP against of .360.

In September and October, Lester continued to add to his big game reputation. In six starts, the lefty earned 1.4 fWAR with a 2.36 ERA, a 2.37 FIP, a 2.91 xFIP while striking out 8.79 per nine and only walking 1.50 per nine.

The prize free agent signing finished the year with 5.0 fWAR, the second highest of his career and his second straight 5-win season. The big left hander ended the season with 205 innings pitched, his fourth straight season of 200+ innings. Lester finished in the top 10 of the National League in FIP, xFIP, BB/9, strikeouts, strikeout to walk rate, strikeout percentage, WHIP, and win probability. Along with teammate Jake Arrieta, the Cubs had two of the top 8 pitchers in the NL last year.

Speaking of Arrieta, his success overshadowed Lester’s terrific season. By winning 22 games, having one of the best second halves of all time, and winning the Cy Young award, Arrieta had one of the best pitching seasons in the history of the franchise. It is pretty hard to top that, but Lester certainly followed his teammates run with one of his own. His 2.7 fWAR in the second half was good for 6th in all of baseball and only behind Clayton Kershaw, Arrieta, and Madison Bumgarner in the National League.

One of the biggest reasons for Lester’s success in 2015, and his whole career, has been the reliance on his cut fastball. The lefty threw his cutter 26.5% of the time in 2015, 3rd highest percentage in the National League. The results followed. In 2015, hitters hit .253 with a .672 OPS against Lester’s cutter. Even with an inflated BABIP of .335 against the pitch, hitters were still below league average in wRC+ and struck out 25.9% of the time against the cut fastball. The value of the pitch can be determined by looking at the linear weight of the pitch, which is wCT for a cutter. Lester saved 4.2 runs with the pitch in 2015, good enough for 5th among all National League pitchers.

Everyone knows how good Jake Arrieta was in 2015 and how dominant he can be in 2016. However, let’s not forget about what Jon Lester did in his first season with the Cubs. While he wasn’t as dominant or didn’t have an ERA under one in the second half, the lefty was one of the best pitchers in baseball, and that gives the Cubs one of the best 1-2 pitching punches in baseball. The two combined for 12.3 fWAR in 2015, second among two pitchers on the same team in baseball. To go a step farther, counting Lester’s 2014 with the Red Sox and A’s, the two have combined for 22.9 fWAR, which is also second in all of baseball for two starting pitcher teammates. Arrieta and Lester are behind the tandem of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. With Greinke signing a monster free agent deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks this winter, that duo is now gone. There is a great argument to be had about the best 1-2 punch in baseball. Behind the reigning Cy Young award winner, Jake Arrieta, and the quietly dominant Jon Lester, the Cubs have a great resume for the best 1-2 combo in baseball. 2016 shouldn’t change that.

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A Look Back on the 2011 Cubs Top Ten Prospects

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Prospect lists are always fun. For Cubs fans prior to 2015, those lists were something to hold onto while the major league team was in a rebuilding phase. However, prospects always don’t pan out like they are projected. Cubs fans know this all too well (see Patterson, Corey and Pie, Felix). A fun exercise is to look back at old lists and projected lineups from years past. While looking for something to write about, I stumbled across a Baseball America article, written by Jim Callis, from January of 2011. Continue to read at your own risk.

Let’s start with the Top 10 prospect list:

1. Chris Archer, rhp

2. Brett Jackson, of

3. Trey McNutt, rhp

4. Hak-Ju Lee, ss

5. Josh Vitters, 3b

6. Chris Carpenter, rhp

7. Matt Szczur, of

8. Hayden Simpson, rhp

9. Rafael Dolis, rhp

10. Brandon Guyer, of

Obviously, the top of the list is elite with pitcher Chris Archer, just not elite with the Cubs. Archer was dealt literally 4 days after this article was published to the Tampa Bay Rays, along with number 4 prospect Hak-Ju Lee and number 10 prospect Brandon Guyer for pitcher Matt Garza. That may have backfired a little bit. Archer had a stellar 2015 campaign with the Rays, establishing himself as one of the top starting pitchers in the AL by compiling a 122 ERA+ with 252 strikeouts in 212 innings. Guyer played 128 games for the Rays in 2015, maintaining a solid 114 OPS+ in 385 plate appearances. Lee has not yet made the major leagues, as he has spent the last three seasons in AAA Durham in the Rays organization. The shortstop is now in the Giants organization.

Of the ten names on the list, only two were in the Cubs system in 2015: Trey McNutt and Matt Szczur. McNutt, who spent 2015 with the AZL Cubs in Rookie ball, has bounced around the Cubs minor league system since being drafted in 2009, never making it higher than AA Tennessee. During his stint with the AZL Cubs, McNutt only threw 8 innings, while posting a 6.75 ERA. After being released by the Cubs, the right hander signed a minor league deal with the San Diego Padres in February. Szczur has been back and forth between the major league team and AAA Iowa the past two seasons. The outfielder, drafted in 2010, has played in 80 MLB games in his career, mainly used as a fourth outfielder and a pinch hitter/runner. In 2015, Szczur had 80 plate appearances, where the outfielder had a 67 OPS+ with a slash line of .222/.278/.333. Szczur will be in Cubs camp this spring in hopes to land a 5th outfielder spot with the major league club.

Now for the other five names. Brett Jackson made his much anticipated debut in 2012 with the Cubs, but only hit .175 with a .644 OPS in 142 plate appearances. Jackson never played another game with the Cubs after 2012, as he has bounced from Arizona to San Francisco, where he spent 2015 with Sacramento, the Giants AAA affiliate. Jackson is currently a free agent. Josh Vitters, who along with Jackson, made his debut in 2012 with the Cubs, also struggled. The third baseman had 109 plate appearances with the Cubs that year, hitting .121 with a .395 OPS. Vitters has not played professionally since 2014 with the Cubs AAA affiliate Iowa and is also currently a free agent. Chris Carpenter, who was drafted in 2008 by the Cubs, only pitched 10 games in the majors with the Cubs, all coming in 2011, compiling a 2.79 ERA in 9.2 innings pitched. After 8 games with the Red Sox in 2012, Carpenter has not reached the majors since. The right hander pitched in 6 games with the Reds AAA affiliate Louisville in 2015, and is, you guessed it, currently a free agent. The number 8 prospect on this list is possibly the most disappointing. Hayden Simpson was drafted 16th overall in the first round of the 2010 draft by the Cubs. The right hander struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness during his time with the Cubs. Simpson never made it above High A and was out of the organization in 2013 and is currently out of baseball. The final player on the list to discuss is Rafael Dolis. Dolis pitched 40 games for the Cubs from 2011-13, while compiling a 5.48 ERA in 44.1 innings. The right hander was out of the Cubs organization in 2014 and spent 2015 in Toledo, Detroit’s AAA affiliate. Dolis signed a minor league contract with the Tigers in December with an invite to spring training.

Fun exercise time! Let’s look at the career fWAR for this top 10 list.

  1. Chris Archer: 10.3 fWAR
  2. Brett Jackson: 0.1
  3. Trey McNutt: 0.0 (No Major League Time)
  4. Hak-Ju Lee: 0.0 (No Major League Time)
  5. Josh Vitters: -1.5
  6. Chris Carpenter: -0.4
  7. Matt Szczur: -0.3
  8. Hayden Simpson: 0.0 (No Major League Time)
  9. Rafael Dolis: -0.8
  10. Brandon Guyer: 4.5

So that is a combined 11.9 fWAR among 10 players. Take away Archer and Guyer, and that’s -2.9 fWAR among 8 players. Yikes.

Now onto the projected 2014 lineup:

Catcher - Geovany Soto

First Base - Tyler Colvin

Second BaseStarlin Castro

Third Base – Josh Vitters

Shortstop – Hak-Ju Lee

Left Field – Brandon Guyer

Center Field - Matt Szczur

Right Field – Brett Jackson

No. 1 Starter - Andrew Cashner

No. 2 Starter - Chris Archer

No. 3 Starter – Trey McNutt

No. 4 StarterCarlos Zambrano

No. 5 StarterRyan Dempster

Closer - Carlos Marmol

Again, yikes. Okay, where to start? Seven names (Vitters, Lee, Guyer, Szczur, Jackson, Archer, and McNutt) have been discussed above. Let’s look at these names individually. These names are very familiar to Cubs fans. In 2014, only two players on this list played games for the Cubs. Szczur, as mentioned previously, and Starlin Castro. In 2014, here is where all of the players were playing:

  • Geovany Soto: Texas Rangers/Oakland A’s
  • Tyler Colvin: San Francisco Giants
  • Castro: Cubs
  • Vitters: Iowa Cubs
  • Lee: Durham Bulls
  • Guyer: Tampa Bay Rays
  • Szczur: Cubs/Iowa Cubs
  • Jackson: Iowa Cubs/Reno Aces/Arizona Diamondbacks
  • Andrew Cashner: San Diego Padres
  • Archer: Tampa Bay Rays
  • McNutt: Missed 2014 due to shoulder surgery
  • Carlos Zambrano: Retired
  • Ryan Dempster: Retired
  • Carlos Marmol: Louisville Bats/Miami Marlins

fWAR of this group in 2014: 8.3 combined

Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant 2015 fWAR: 12.0 combined

So, yes. Prospect lists are fun to look at and can give hope to fans that don’t have much faith in their major league team. However, always take the lists with a grain of salt. Prospects fail and under perform all the time. The Cubs young group now is terrific and it is fun to watch all the kids click and perform well in their rookie years. Just remember where the system was in 2011 and it makes this group that much sweeter.

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The Backend of the Cubs Rotation Question

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The top three in the rotation are locks, but what about the final two spots? Can Kyle Hendricks continue his sneaky good success? Can Jason Hammel bounce back from a rough second half? Or will one of the bullpen swing guys get a shot to start? Let’s discuss.

If someone would have said that the Cubs had the highest fWAR among all starting staffs in Major League Baseball last season, would you believe it? Well, its true. The Cubs starting pitchers accumulated 19.2 fWAR last season, while finishing with a 3.36 ERA (3rd best in MLB) and a 3.26 FIP (best in MLB).

While Jake Arrieta’s Cy Young 2015 campaign paced the rotation, big 2014 offseason acquisition Jon Lester was a very formidable top of the rotation option. John Lackey, who was signed away from the rival St. Louis Cardinals, slides perfectly behind Arrieta and Lester in the three spot in the rotation.

Now, the big question is: who fills out the rotation? There are three options for two different spots. Incumbents Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel look to keep their spots. Another option is one of the bullpen swing pitchers stepping up into the rotation. So who will step up for the last two rotation spots? Let’s look at each case individually.

First, let’s start with Kyle Hendricks. The righty had his first full season of big league in 2015 and was very successful. In 180 innings, Hendricks finished 2015 with a 3.95 ERA, a 3.36 FIP, 167 strikeouts, and an 86 FIP- while compiling 3.4 fWAR, good enough for 28th among all qualified MLB starters. Yes, according to fWAR, Kyle Hendricks was a top 30 starter in baseball last year. Hendricks also finished 21st in FIP, 22nd in FIP-, 21st in K-BB%, and 24th in WHIP. One of the keys to Hendricks’ success has been his changeup. It’s a pitch that Hendricks uses 20% of the time, which is the 16th highest usage percentage of the changeup in all of baseball. FanGraphs uses a statistic called pitch type linear weights to measure how run expectancy changes due to a certain pitch. Kyle Hendricks’ changeup was the 11th most valuable in all of baseball, netting 9.2 wCH, or 9 runs saved using his changeup. Another reason for Hendricks’ 2015 success is his improvement off of his 2014 rookie campaign. The right hander’s K/9 rose to 8.35, which is up from 5.27 in 2014, and his GB% went up from 47.8% to 51.3%. Hendricks should be a lock for the rotation in 2016.

Next is the case for Jason Hammel. The right hander, who signed back with the Cubs in the 2014 offseason after being traded midseason, had an interesting 2015. It was a tale of two halves, really. In the first half, Hammel was a borderline All Star candidate. The righty compiled a 2.86 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 3.28 xFIP, 0.95 WHIP, and holding opposing hitters to a .206 average and a .261 wOBA in 103.2 innings. The turning point in the season was a game on July 8th. Hammel left the game after one inning due to a hamstring strain, and his season never got back on track. After 13 days off (All Star break included), Hammel returned to the mound in Cincinnati. After his return, things got rocky for the veteran right hander. In 67 innings after his injury, Hammel slumped, compiling a 5.10 ERA, 4.54 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, 1.49 WHIP, and allowed hitters to have a .283 batting average and a .365 wOBA. Hammel’s struggles can be linked back to is strikeout rate, which dropped from 25.6% in the first half to 22.3% in the second half, and his walk rate, which went up from 4.4% to 7.3%. All together, his K-BB% went down from 21.2% to 15%. Also, hitters hit Hammel harder in the second half than the first half. Hitters’ hard hit contact rate went up from 28.3% to 38.8% against Hammel, which accounts for the BABIP spike from .254 in the first half to .335 in the second half. There are reasons for optimism, however. Hammel was terrific prior to his hamstring injury, and those types of injuries tend to linger. Along with that, Hammel had the 8th most valuable slider in baseball, which netted a 14.5 wSL. The reason this is significant is because that is Hammel’s best pitch, as he threw it 35.8% of the time last year. In 2015, opposing hitters struck out 37.5% of the time, while hitting .164 with a .206 wOBA and a .473 OPS against Hammel’s slider.

The final option for one of the two rotation spots would be to stretch out one of the bullpen swing pitchers. This list included freshly resigned Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, new acquired Adam Warren, and Travis Wood. Cahill, who turned down offers for a guaranteed rotation spot with other clubs to resign with the Cubs, turned into a key setup man during the Cubs playoff push and into the postseason. The right hander had much success in the late innings with his sinker with the Cubs, therefore it is likely he will stay in the bullpen to start the year. As, too, is the case with Richard and Wood. Both are starters that struggled and lost rotation spots. However, both strived down the stretch and in the postseason with the Cubs and both are likely to keep their roles in the bullpen to start 2016. The one interesting case in the bullpen is former New York Yankee Adam Warren. Warren, of course, was in the Starlin Castro trade in November. The right hander both started and relieved last year for the Yankees. His numbers were actually better as a reliever than a starter. Out of the bullpen, Warren compiled a 2.29 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 3.02 xFIP, while striking out 9.42 per nine (good for a 26.2 K%), and a dazzling 19.9 K-BB% in 35.1 innings. As a starter, however, in 96 innings the right hander pitched to a 3.66 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 4.31 xFIP, as his strikeout rate went down to 17.1% and his K-BB rate plummeted to 9.4%.

At the end of camp, chances are Hammel and Hendricks reclaim their starting spots. However, that is not saying that one of the four swing bullpen arms will not make a start throughout the year. Whether its injury, poor performance, or matchup, Joe Maddon will use his pitchers in a situation where they will succeed. It showed last year down the stretch and into the postseason that Maddon is willing to try every and any option to win.

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Why Not Making a Move is the Right Move

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

The upside of two trade targets, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, is not worth the Cubs exploring that option right now. Keeping Soler and Baez helps the Cubs for 2016 and the rotation is better and deeper than people realize. There could be a move at the deadline for one of these pitchers, but right now is not the right time for the Cubs.

Lets flashback to December 11th for a moment. That is the day rumors came out that Jason Heyward was going to sign with the Cubs. The happiness and jubilation filled every Cubs fan’s heart. Just dreaming about the lineup, with Ben Zobrist signed earlier in that week, was something that made every Cubs fan want the calendar to flip to February for Spring Training. However, there was one rumor that came out that same day about a different Cubs player, Jorge Soler. Soler, along with Javier Baez, has been rumored to be a possible center piece of a trade to acquire a young, cost controlled starting pitcher. While there are arguments that say trading for one of these pitchers can help not only the 2016 team, but the team for the next three to four years, there are a few reasons why the Cubs should stand pat with their team right now, but the upside of these young players isn’t worth trading them.

Acquiring a young starting pitcher would help the Cubs anchor a rotation that could change in a big way in two or three years. However, there isn’t a realistic deal for the Cubs to make to trade for one of these pitchers without including a part of their young core, namely Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. Let’s start with Soler. The 23-year-old outfielder is signed through 2020, after signing a 9 year/$30 million deal in the summer of 2012. Soler has struggled to stay on the field in his time in professional ball, while dealing with a number of injuries. In 2015, Soler missed time with an ankle sprain and an oblique injury. The outfielder only accumulated 404 plate appearances in 101 games over the season, but the postseason is where Soler thrived. In his first playoff appearance, Soler reached base safely in his first nine plate appearances and in all seven postseason games that he played in, while finishing with a .474/.600/1.105 slash line, three doubles, and three home runs. While Soler was only worth 0.1 fWAR and the defense is shaky at times, Soler slides perfectly into the right field spot for the 2016 Cubs, with new outfielder Jason Heyward in centerfield. If the Cubs were to part with Soler, that moves Heyward to right field, and an outside option, most likely, to play centerfield.

Another young Cubs position player who flourished in his postseason debut was Javier Baez. The 23-year-old started in place of the injured Addison Russell in Game 4 of the NLDS and Baez responded with a booming, opposite-field 3-run home run in the second inning, which gave the Cubs the lead. Baez has come under some criticism for his 2014 rookie year performance, where he hit .169 with a 53 wRC+, a 41.5% K rate, and was worth -0.8 fWAR in 434 plate appearances. In 2015, Baez missed time on bereavement, dealing with the death of his sister, and a broken finger, as the young infielder only had 80 plate appearances in the majors, which were all in September. However, in his time in the majors, Baez did improve. Baez ended with a .289 average, a 98 wRC+, a decreased K rate of 30%, and a final fWAR of 0.5 in 28 games. The upside with Baez is that he can play three positions in the infield, all above average, and is now working in Winter Ball playing some centerfield. The Cubs signed Zobrist in the offseason, and they may have a different version of Zobrist in Baez.

While the Cubs current rotation is a reason for concern with most people, it actually looks better than last year’s. The 2015 Cubs rotation actually ended with the highest starting pitcher fWAR in baseball at 19.2. Pointing at the lack of starting pitching in the playoffs is a viable argument. Then enter John Lackey, who is coming off a career year in St. Louis last year with a 2.77 ERA, a 3.57 FIP, and 3.6 fWAR to lead the Cardinals rotation. Lackey fits into the three spot in the Cubs rotation, behind NL Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta and last offseason’s free agent prize Jon Lester. While the backend of the rotation was a revolving door, especially the 5 spot, the depth has been answered. Kyle Hendricks likely has the 4th slot locked down, coming off a sophomore year where he compiled a 3.95 ERA, a 3.36 FIP, a 3.25 xFIP, and 3.4 fWAR. For the last spot in the rotation, there are a number of interesting options that including Jason Hammel, who was a star in the first half of 2015, and a number of swingmen like newly-acquired Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Clayton Richard, who all will be stretched out in the spring to battle for the last rotation spot. With these pitchers that can move from the rotation to the pen and back to the rotation gives the Cubs flexibility if there were an injury were to happen in the rotation, a spot the Cubs were not suited for last year.

While trading for a Carlos Carrasco or a Tyson Ross would certainly help the Cubs rotation and make it possibly the best rotation in baseball, the Cubs are in a great position right now. They don’t have to make a move. The 2015 Cubs won 97 games and added three key free agents and rotation depth. While Soler and Baez both have flaws and could not end up as projected, there is a ton of upside for both players. Soler should be the starting right fielder on Opening Day, and Baez could possibly play four different positions and provide much needed power off the bench. As for the rotation, the newly acquired depth is a key attribute and can help the Cubs in the long run of the season. There are many reason to make a move, but right now, the Cubs should sit back and get ready for the season with the team they have now.

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Potential September Callups

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

As the calendar continues to grow closer to the end of the “dog days”, the Cubs will not be competing for a playoff spot, obviously. An interesting scenario is about to arise as the schedule turns to September 1st, the roster expansion. By rule, any player on the 40 man roster is eligible to be called up to the majors. Kris Bryant will not be on this list and will not be called up in September, but there are some interesting players that could be fighting for a closer look in spring training next spring.

Pitchers: Felix Doubront, Dan Straily, Dallas Beeler, Arodys Vizcaino

Aside from the obvious candidates like Blake Parker, Brian Schlitter, and Chris Rusin, these guys could be interesting new names to the mix. The Cubs have said that they will tinker with the starting staff once the calendar turns to September. With Jacob Turner making a start yesterday, he will stick in the rotation. A few guys I listed (Doubront, Beeler, and Straily) will also make starts when they are called up. Doubront is currently on the 15-day DL and has made rehab starts in AA Tennessee. An acquisition from the Red Sox in July, the left hander could make his Cubs debut as early as this week. As for Beeler and Straily, they have both made starts in Chicago this season. With Iowa looking like they will not make the playoffs, don’t be surprised to see these two guys back up with the big club. Straily, an acquisition from the A’s in that block-buster deal, has pitched better since being traded. In nine starts with the Cubs AAA club, the right hander posted a 3.42 ERA in 50 innings while nearly striking a batter out per inning. As for Beeler, he has been even better in Iowa. Throughout the season, the 25 year old right hander has started 19 games for the I-Cubs, posting a 3.61 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP in 117.1 innings pitched. The dark horse to be called up is one of the Cubs top prospects, Arodys Vizcaino. Acquired for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson in 2011 from Atlanta, the 23 year old right hander missed over two years with Tommy John surgery and complications from the surgery. Vizcaino came back in 2014 ready to roll, as he has posted a 3.60 ERA through 40 innings spanning three levels of the Cubs system (now in Iowa). In those 40 innings, the righty has held opponents to a .245 batting average and only 1.35 walks and hits per inning. Vizcaino has been on the 40 man since being acquired, and that could lead to his promotion in September.

Position players: Mike Olt, Josh Vitters, Junior Lake

With Logan Watkins, Jorge Soler, and Matt Szczur up in the big leagues already, a trio of players with something to prove will be called up in September. The first of which is Mike Olt. The third baseman started the year with the Cubs and really struggled to make contact consistently, only hitting .139 with a .575 OPS in 187 at bats with the Cubs before being demoted to Iowa in late July. The one big problem Olt had was the strikeouts. The 26 year old struck out in 36.9% of his plate appearances with the Cubs. Since being demoted, however, Olt has turned it around. The third baseman, who has switched to playing first base because of Kris Bryant, is hitting .302 with a .933 OPS in 115 plate appearances and has lowered his strikeout rate to 29%. If Olt can come up and secure the third baseman job in Chicago, that would cause the Cubs to move Bryant to the outfield or could be a useful trade piece. Another player who started with the Cubs this year and has been demoted is Junior Lake. The outfielder played in 98 games with the big league club, hitting .216 with and OPS of .608 over 305 plate appearance. Lake struck out in 33.4% of his plate appearances and was sent down to work on his contact issues, much like Olt. Since being sent down, the 24 year old is hitting .318 with a .862 OPS and only a 23.4% strike out rate. Lake is trying to hang on the big league roster as a backup outfielder. The third and final player that will be called up is a guy who is, essentially, on his last chance with the Cubs, and that is Josh Vitters. The third baseman turned outfielder was, at one time, the big prospect in the Cubs system. After being called up and hitting under .200 with a 33% strike out rate in his only MLB experience in 2012, Vitters has hit a wall in AAA after a very good 2013 season. In 2014, the former first round pick has hit .213 with a .607 OPS in 404 plate appearances, while striking out 26.5% of the time. This is Vitters’ last shot with the Cubs. His spot on the 40 man roster could expire after this season with the influx of young talent coming up. This could spell the end for the 25 year old with the Cubs.

When the Cubs reach September, there are very interesting pieces that could come up and play a significant role. With the Cubs looking to be competitive in 2015, the players coming up this next month have some time to audition to be on the team when the Cubs are doing damage around the league soon.

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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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