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The Last Three Weeks Still Matter…Kinda

Friday, September 13th, 2013

I am finding it increasingly more difficult to watch this team and it’s making it near impossible to write about them. I have a few things in the works for the off-season already that are Cubs related but not necessarily this team related, however, I don’t want to burn those ideas now and then be struggling for writing material when there won’t be bad baseball to discuss. I am sure everyone here is feeling the same lack of inspiration that I am. It’s hard to follow a bad baseball team and recycle the same thoughts day after day after day. With the minor league season coming to an end, there’s even less to talk about.  Yet there’s still meaningful baseball to played for some of the Cubs players and I want to tackle the little things I’ll be watching as the season winds down.

1) Has Starlin turned it around?  Sveum has said recently the past few weeks were the best Starlin has swung the bat all year, but Castro followed that comment up with 3 straight 0-fers. He’s seeing more pitches than ever (usually a good thing) and his defense has went from abysmal to pretty good since the end of June but he’s still hitting in the low .240s (even after a very solid July hitting near .300 for the month).

2) WTF Jeff Samardzija…  You got many people to label you the ace of the staff (myself included) after a dominant start to the season where you ranked top 15 in nearly every major pitching statistic and then you put up a terrible 2nd half which has seen your numbers skyrocket beyond mediocrity? Also what’s with the home/away splits? You’re overall numbers on the road are nothing short of dominant yet you’ve become completely incompetent at home?

3) The roller coaster that is Junior Lake. Up, down, up, down, up… down? Depending on where you set your arbitrary end points you can make any argument you want about Lake this season. Take away those first 7 games, and he’s been below par. Look at only August and he was “meh,” but look at his numbers since Aug 1st and he’s been very good after a very hot start to September. His batting average on balls in play is still not maintainable, but since those first 7 games, it’s at .337 and with his speed that is a reasonable number; yet he’s only hitting .254/.298/.352 in those 34 games.

4) How does Scott Baker perform over these last few starts? We just paid him 5M to rehab this year, so we should have the inside track in resigning him if we want to. We have a vacant rotation spot so Baker’s last couple weeks are very important for evaluating him. Keep an eye on his pitch repertoire and velocity because he was only a 3-pitch pitcher in his first start relying heavily on sinkers and sliders with an average velocity sitting at only 88mph.  When Baker was good, he had a healthy 5 pitch arsenal including a changeup and curveball to go with a low 90s velocity.

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Talking Cubs Prospects With John Sickels of

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

I think we’re all a little weary of the Cubs and their play recently and we’re all excited about the future so here’s another prospect interview with one of the hardest working guys covering baseball, John Sickels. As you’ll notice I recycled a couple questions to get a comparison with the recent Jim Callis interview as well as interviews coming in the near future.

John Sickels is a baseball writer and analyst at SB Nation. He is the author of the annual Baseball Prospect Book and is the Senior Editor at  You can also follow him on twitter @MinorLeagueBall.

Q: What do you look for when you are scouting a prospect [pitching & position]?

Sickels: I try to take a comprehensive approach. For pitchers, I look first at size, arm strength, mechanics, and consistency of mechanics. A guy with unusual mechanics doesn’t bother me that much as long as he repeats them well and his body is used to it. I look at his fastball, of course, how fast it is, but also how fast it plays. Oftentimes I don’t look at radar readings until after he’s thrown several pitches; I try to rate his fastball quality without looking at the gun or being prejudiced by the readings. My idea here is to get a read on how deceptive the fastball is, or how well it moves, and how well he locates it, before knowing what the radar says. All the standard questions apply from here of course: what kind of breaking stuff? Can he change speeds? Does his delivery change when he uses a different pitch? How fast does he work? Does he appear confident? How does he handle tough situations?

Statistically I look at all the normal things: K/IP, K/BB ratios, considered within league context, batting average against, statistical splits, ground ball and home run rates, etc.

For hitters, again, I try to look at everything: overall athleticism, arm strength, running speed, etc. Batting eye, plate discipline, etc…type of swing…does he go for line drives or is he an uppercut power type? Is he a fastball hitter or does he handle breaking stuff well? Is he too aggressive? Too passive? If he’s fast, how well does he USE that speed? And statistically I look at all the stuff you normally look at, the standard numbers, BB/K/PA ratios, home/road splits, line drive rates, etc.

Basically I look at everything I can.

Q:   Who are the top 5 Cubs prospects and in what order do you rank them? Which Cubs prospects are in the mix for next year’s top 100 [or 150 if you go that high again]?

Sickels: Well I won’t be doing an exact ranking for a few months yet. Once the season ends, I have a very specific process that I go through for every organization, examining and ranking each prospect, and skipping steps in the process tends to trip me up. I would say off the top of my head that the top 5 are Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant in some order, Baez first but after that I’m not certain yet. I’d be looking at CJ Edwards and Pierce Johnson and Arismendy Alcantara to round that out. The big international guys that were signed I need to study more before knowing where they will slot.

Q:  You are higher than most on Dan Vogelbach, what do you see in him to rank him that high?

Sickels:  The thing for me that stands out for DV is that he isn’t just some slugging masher. He has pure hitting skills, too, good plate discipline and feel for hitting to go with the strength. Obviously he has to keep his weight under control, but the guy can really hit.

Q:  For good and bad, which Cubs prospects have surprised you the most this year?

Sickels:  I thought Christian Villanueva and Gioskar Amaya would have better years. They haven’t been bad, but I thought they would be breakout guys and they weren’t. Alcantara ended up being the breakout guy.

Q:  CJ Edwards is off to a great start in the Cubs system. Do you think his frame (6’2”/155), even if he fills out a little, can sustain the rigors of a 162 game schedule based on his power approach?

Sickels:  It could be an issue but he’s a really good athlete and that gives him a chance to pull it off. As long as his workload is managed reasonably, I don’t think his injury risk is any higher than it would be for any other pitcher his age. Which is still pretty high, of course…young pitchers get hurt a lot even if they are handled wisely and even if they are good athletes. But I don’t think his risk is abnormally high.

Q:  The Cubs are still pretty weak in pitching within their system but there are some interesting names and potential rotation pieces in the farm. What are your thoughts on some of the other Cubs top pitching prospects and when should we start seeing them? Is there any pitching help for next season?

Sickels:  Pitching is still the weakness in the system but they are addressing it. Johnson has performed well, the trade for Edwards helps a lot, and they have been aggressive with international arms though of course we don’t know how those guys will pan out yet. I don’t see any super impact arms ready to help in 2014. Kyle Hendricks will get a shot but he is more of a control type. You could also see Alberto Cabrera make a return engagement. Eric Jokisch could get there, but like Hendricks he is more of a complementary arm than a future anchor. There should be more available in 2015 than 14.

Q: The knock on Christian Villanueva before the 2012 season was that he added a few pounds and lost a step in the process. Was that premeditated in order to boost strength and power numbers? His SB numbers have dropped significantly this season. As he progresses, could he regain the speed and possibly project to a 20/20 type guy?

Sickels:  I don’t know if it was premeditated or not. It could just be the natural maturing process but at this stage either way he’s not likely a 20 steal guy at the major league level now. I’d be more concerned about his strike zone judgment than his speed frankly.

Q: I recently wrote about Baez; his contact problems and plate approach are very worrisome for me and I have him ranked 4th behind Soler, Bryant, and Almora because of that. I think he’s either going to figure it all out and be a superstar or be a huge bust with no chance of anything in the middle. Since I wrote about him, he’s been crushing it. How do you feel about him? Can he succeed at the majors with his ultra aggressive approach that has worked thus far or will something have to give if he is going to become a major leaguer?

Sickels:  Baez is tough. He is very aggressive as you point out and yes, I do have some concerns about his approach. But his bat speed is so good that Double-A pitchers have been unable to expose this weakness. My guess is that Triple-A will be more of a challenge, though of course the environment in Iowa and the Pacific Coast League will play to his strengths. If I had to draw a scenario for next year, I’d say that he gets off to a slow start at first in Triple-A, but that after a couple of weeks he starts blasting the ball as the weather warms up, and by late June it is clear that the PCL won’t challenge him further. He’ll get to the point where only major league pitchers will teach him what he needs to know. That’s probably 11 months from now, although who knows…if he has a great spring, maybe they will accelerate that.

Q:  Arismendy Alcantara was in the middle of a breakout year last season before injury. He’s been even better this year. What kind of future do you see for Alcantara at the majors?

Sickels: I think he has a 14 year career and some years as a regular, never quite an all star but solid and productive.

Q:   The organization is very strong on the left side of the infield. What position do you think the following players will end up at and what kind of defensive ability will they have there.


  • Starlin Castro -some other team
  • Javier Baez -I think he sticks at SS for 5 years but is 3B by the time he’s 30.
  • Arismendy Alcantara – second base, slightly above average
  • Kris Bryant – decent enough to stick at 3B until he gets old, above average if moved to 1B
  • Mike Olt – All facets of his game slipped this year, including his defense which was previously rated potential Gold Glove caliber. I don’t know what is wrong with him but something is. It isn’t just the strikeouts eating him up. The glove had declined too
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Defensively Speaking: Let’s Talk Defense

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

The Cubs’ pitching staff gets a lot of attention for pitching very well under pitching coach Chris Bosio; however, it’s been highly overlooked that defensively this team has been very good. One reason for this is the Cubs have (or had) a number of good defensive players but another reason is Dale Sveum’s defensive alignments. This is Sveum’s greatest strength by a wide margin, yet it’s something hard to notice without someone pointing it out to you. Sveum’s defensive alignments have not only improved the overall defense, but the pitching staff is the main benefactor of these shifts with nearly every starting pitcher seeing some of the best numbers in their career (minus the hit machine Edwin Jackson).

Looking at the defensive metrics you can see just how good the Cubs have been. The table should be pretty self explanatory, green is good, red is bad, darker is more extreme one way or the other and finally blue is average.

Quick Glossary:

UZR – Ultimate Zone Rating. Advanced Metric that uses play-by-play data to estimate each fielder’s defensive contribution. Zero is average. The higher you are, the better. (via Baseball Info Solutions, can be found on FanGraphs)

TZR– Total Zone Rating. The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made with zero being set as average. (via, can be found on baseball-reference)

DRS – Defensive Runs Saved. The number of runs above or below average the player was worth on the number of plays made with zero being set as average. (also Baseball Info Solutions, can be found on baseball-reference)

As you can see there’s some discrepancy depending on which stat you choose but that’s why it’s best to look at all of the information before making a conclusion. The Cubs have had 4 players clearly above average in Castillo, Rizzo, Barney, & Valbuena making up the majority of a very good infield. They’ve had a solid outfield with DeJesus, Soriano and Schierholtz taking the majority of the playing time. Ransom’s advanced metrics are solid, but the traditional counting stats are bad. Lake has struggled with his shift to the outfield, but that was a given considering he only played a handful of games in the outfield prior to his call up. That leaves Starlin Castro, who has been horrible both offensively and defensively almost all year. The one bright spot in Castro’s defense has been the lower error numbers. Only 15 on the year, a discernible improvement over previous years. Obviously, mental mistakes like the sac fly recently that got him benched don’t result in errors so that number is skewed a bit for all players, not just him.

Overall though, the Cubs are pretty good defensively and they have obviously been great with starting pitching, except Edwin Jackson who did have an exceptional month of July. With strong starting pitching and good defense the Cubs have had many close games. With the terrible offense, spurred by Castro’s struggles, Rizzo not taking a step forward, and injuries, the team has the potential for a quick turnaround next year if they can get the bullpen in order and some offensive improvement. The Cubs are the Cubs but everything points to next year being the first year under this regime that we’re competitive.

  • We saw the frustrating side of Jake Arrieta last night. Lacked command, gave up a lot of big hits, and was on the hook for the loss after surrendering 6 runs in only 4 IP with 4 BB, 5 hits and tallying 5 strikeouts.
  • The Cubs had a huge 5 run rally in the bottom of the 5th inning aided by a 2-run homer by Rizzo (his second of the night) and 4 straight singles by Schierholtz, Murphy, Bogusevic, and Gillespie; finally capped off by a Castillo sac fly.
  • Russell blew it in the 7th after giving up a near homer to Harper, an IBB, then Scott Hairston went deep. Shouldn’t of been in there vs all that RH hitting.

  • Ichiro got his 4,000th hit of his professional baseball career.
  • Jason Heyward got hit by a pitch in the face and had his jaw broken.  He’s going to miss all of the regular season and potentially the playoffs. Not much you can do as a hitter in that situation, but doesn’t it seem injures always find Heyward? This puts the Dodgers in the driver’s seat for the NL.
  • The MLB found no violation from Miguel Tejada in relations to their Biogenesis investigation, even though Tejada was linked to the company.  Tejada was suspended 105 games last week because he tested positive for amphetamine use. According to Tejada and the players’ union, he had a therapeutic use exemption that expired and while seeking an extension, he tested positive.
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Interview With Jim Callis of Baseball America

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Jim Callis is the Executive Editor at Baseball America and you can follow him on twitter @JimCallisBA. In my opinion, he’s one of the most knowledgeable and more approachable guys in the industry and I am grateful he keeps giving me the opportunity to question him on all things related to the Cubs.

Q: Who are the top 5 Cubs prospects and in what order do you rank them? Which Cubs prospects are in the mix for next year’s top 100?

Callis: The top four prospects are pretty clear to me, though the order is debatable. I’d line them up like this: Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler. At the time of the Matt Garza trade, I was willing to give Mike Olt a mulligan and put him at No. 5, but he has slumped even worse since the deal. Other candidates would be Dan Vogelbach, Arismendy Alcantara, Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards. I’ll go with Johnson.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about the Cubs potentially being a top 3 system going into next year. I believe you had the Cubs ranked 12th going into the season, where would you have the system ranked now after their recent acquisitions?

Callis: Hard to say exactly, because we don’t rank all the systems until we break them all down for the Prospect Handbook. The Cubs are definitely on the upswing for a variety of reasons: a number of players have stepped forward; they’ve acquired more prospects via trades without graduating anyone significant to the majors; they’ve had a strong summer on the draft and international fronts. I think they definitely rank in the upper quartile of systems and could see them in the top three.

Q: The front office decided they loved the international talent in this year’s market and didn’t let the new CBA rules stop them from signing everyone they wanted. They exceeded their pool to the amount that they will receive the maximum punishment of a 100% tax and no signings over 250K in next year’s International free agent market. What do you think of that strategy and the talent they acquired? These guys are so far off, do they even sniff BA’s preseason top 31 Cubs prospects?

Callis: I just wrote a column on this for the latest edition of our magazine. The strategy makes sense to me because the Cubs liked this year’s pool better than next year’s and essentially got two years’ worth of talent up front this year. The penalties aren’t as tough as they would be for draft overspending–the Cubs can’t sign anyone for more than $250,000 next year but they’ll still have their entire draft pool and can trade their slots they can’t really use, which will have value. Outfielder Eloy Jimenez and shortstop Gleyber Torres were our top two prospects in our July 2 ratings, so I bet they both make the Top 30 in the Handbook.

Q: For good and bad, which Cubs prospects have surprised you the most this year?

Callis: We had Arismendy Alcantara ranked pretty high (No. 10) on our preseason list, so I won’t say that his year has been much of a surprise. Christian Villanueva has taken a step forward with his power, which is a positive development. Rock Shoulders has had a nice little breakout, Shawon Dunston Jr. has taken some positive steps. Kyle Hendricks and Erik Jokisch continue to prove themselves at every level they go to. On the downside, I thought Brett Jackson might turn things around this year and he hasn’t. Tim Saunders’ strong 2012 debut looks more like a mirage now. And Arodys Vizcaino hasn’t been able to get back on the mound yet.

Q: I think most fans have unrealistic expectations for prospects. I completed a study last year on the success rates of first round picks from 1990-2007 and there’s other studies out there using similar methods with Baseball America’s Top 100 rankings in previous years and the results are not good. What kind of percentage do you think the Cubs top prospects have at being at least an everyday player, and also, what percentage would you put on them reaching their ceiling? (specifically the ones you feel will be in the top 100)

Callis: I do think there’s a lot of truth in that first statement–prospects miss a lot more than fans realize. I think the good news, though, with the Cubs’ top guys (Bryant, Baez, Almora, Soler) is that they are rated so highly (upper third of the Top 100, at least) and were drafted so highly (the three draftees all were top-nine picks) that their success rate should be a lot higher than everyone in an entire Top 100 or an entire first round. I don’t see anything right now that makes me think they all won’t be good everyday players. But to inject a little realism, one of them probably will fall by the wayside.

Q: There’s 2 names I feel obliged to ask about, Matt Szczur and Junior Lake. Szczur’s putting up another solid season this year at AA, and Lake hit the ground running with the big league team after posting the best numbers of his minor league career at Iowa. You tempered your Szczur expectations a bit last year and Lake you believed was the perennial tease who was not going to be an everyday regular- has your opinion changed on them any this season? What kind of future should fans expect from these guys?

Callis: I haven’t changed my opinion much on those guys. I still like Szczur more than most but I still think he’s more of a second-division regular or, on a contender, a fourth outfielder. Especially on the Cubs, I don’t see how he cracks a projected outfield of Almora in center and Bryant and Soler on the corners. Lake is off to a nice start in the majors but he’s also hitting .400 on balls in play and has a 28-5 K-BB ratio. I see him as more of a tools than skills guy, and there’s also no place for him in Chicago’s future outfield. His best position might be third base, but the Cubs are loaded there. I think the best case for the Cubs is that Lake plays well enough to where they could deal him for a pitcher.

Q: I recently wrote an in-depth scouting report on Baez; his contact problems and plate approach are very worrisome for me and I have him ranked 4th behind Soler, Bryant, and Almora because of that. I think he’s either going to figure it out and be a superstar or be a huge bust with no chance of anything in the middle. However, he’s turned it around rather quickly at AA, as he did at Daytona earlier this season. How do you feel about him? Can he succeed at the majors with his ultra aggressive approach that has worked thus far or will something have to give if he is going to become a major leaguer?

Callis: The lack of plate discipline is a concern, but I’d look at him as more unique than worrisome. Yes, he swings at everything and strikes out, but he’s also 20 and has hit 31 homers this year and done just fine in Double-A. His walk rate is actually improving as he moves up. He has yet to get to a level where pitchers have stopped challenging him, and he makes such hard contact when he connects that I think he can have a higher BAPIP than most. Right now, he looks to me like a .270 hitter with 30-plus homers in the majors who might be able to play shortstop. I’d have a hard time ranking him behind anyone besides Bryant in the system.

Q: Which prospect has the highest power potential out of Baez, Bryant, Soler, Olt, & Vogelbach and which is most likely to reach it?

Callis: I like Olt’s power but I don’t think he belongs in the same group as the others. The other four all have elite power potential. All of those guys have 40-homer upside. I think Baez and Bryant are the most likely to get to that point.

Q: The Cubs are still pretty weak in the pitching department but there are some interesting names and potential rotation pieces in the farm. What order would you put these pitchers in – Pierce Johnson, CJ Edwards, Juan Carlos Paniagua, Kyle Hendricks, Arodys Vizcaino, & Barret Loux – and what kind of potential do they have? Are there any other pitchers in the system that you’re high on?

Callis: Johnson, Edwards, Vizcaino (if he’s healthy, a huge if), Paniagua, Hendricks, Loux. Pitching is the Cubs’ biggest need right now, and they need a lot more in their system. I do like some of the guys they’ve drafted the last couple of years, such as Paul Blackburn, Duane Underwood, Trey Masek and Tyler Skulina.

Q: The organization is very strong on the left side of the infield. What position do you think the following players will end up at and what kind of defensive ability will they have there?


* Starlin Castro – I think he’s far from their best option at shortstop, but he’s already established there and I don’t see him moving. To me, he’s a 45 defender on the 20-80 scouting scale.

* Javier Baez – Think he could be a 50 defender at shortstop but will wind up as a 55-60 defender at third base.

* Arismendy Alcantara – Erratic at shortstop so he’s probably a 45 in the long run there, see him as a 50-55 at second base.

* Kris Bryant – Think he could be a 50 defender at third base but if Baez goes there, Bryant becomes a 50-55 corner outfielder.

* Mike Olt – Can be a 60 defender at third base but hard to see where he fits in Chicago’s lineup of the future right now.

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Bullpen Fodder

Friday, August 16th, 2013

I started to write this as part of The Hypothetical 2014 Chicago Cubs but I think it deserved its own article since the bullpen is in such a state of flux. Bullpen arms have very little value to most analysts and fans – outside of the closer – which is a discussion for another day – but they are still a highly important piece to the contending puzzle. I haven’t cared about fixing the bullpen; mostly  because I didn’t expect us to compete so the more losses the better these last two years.

Next year is different. I do expect us to be solid so the bullpen is something that needs to be addressed.  But I also know bullpen arms are volatile, and performance year-to-year is unpredictable minus the handful of elite late inning arms scattered across the league. Many fans still think we should be spending money on veteran arms to sure up the bullpen for next season but I am not a big fan of spending money on the bullpen, yet I understand the thought behind it.

Looking at the Cubs’ bullpen performance this year, they rank 2nd worst only trailing the Astros in terms of fWAR and SIERA and they’re 5th worst via ERA. They’ve blown the most saves this year, have struck out the lowest number of hitters while walking the 9th most. Any way you look at it, the bullpen as a whole has been atrocious. If the Cubs even had a league average bullpen, they’d have about 10 more wins.  This is definitely an area the Cubs could improve their record drastically with an overhaul.

Dumping Carlos Marmol and Shawn Camp at the end of June were major steps in the right direction but they only accounted for 6 of the 24 blown saves. These two combined were worth -1.5 fWAR, had an ERA of 6.54, and drew the most ire from Cubs fans.  The bullpen has improved since, especially due to the production of Pedro Strop and Matt Guerrier, who have been excellent for the Cubs since being acquired. Unfortunately Guerrier is having surgery on his throwing elbow due to a flexor mass buildup and is now lost for the rest of the season. The bullpen’s ERA has went from 4.37 to 4.16 since the end of June but even with that noticeable progress, that doesn’t improve the team – a 4.16 bullpen ERA is still 5th worst in baseball, a 4.37 bullpen ERA is only one spot worse, not much of a difference.

Kevin Gregg, the replacement closer after Marmol was dumped has accounted for 4 of the blown saves, but his save conversion rate of 86% is actually about 10% above league average over the past decade. He’s been a stabilizing force for the bullpen, and if it wasn’t for a swoon in early July, he would’ve been traded. He’s still an option to be traded by the waiver deadline but the team that still needs bullpen help the most is the Orioles, and they’re they team that waived him earlier in the year.

The pitcher who has been most valuable in terms of fWAR, James Russell, has accounted for 7 of the team’s blown saves. His numbers are actually very good, which made me think he was misused before I even looked deeper at the numbers. Russell is an excellent LOOGY, allowing a .165/.216/.244 triple slash line against left-handed hitters in 26IP. However against righties, he’s giving up .309/.395/.567 and has actually faced 17 innings worth of right-handed hitters – that’s about 17 innings too many. In fact, his only blown save against a left-handed batter was on 7/1 against Jason Kubel.  As long as Russell is used in the correct situations, he’s been dominant.

Some of these mistakes weren’t entirely on Sveum; during a season you’re going to have to use bullpen in matchups that aren’t favorable and in a couple of the cases, Russell was used to try to rest the bullpen; like the first game of the doubleheader vs Milwaukee on 6/30. Cubs up 5-2, with 1 out and 2 on in the 7th, Sveum tried to keep Russell in there to escape with a lead, but Russell gave up a game tying 3 run homer to right-handed pinch hitter Khris Davis. Another reason to defend Sveum’s use of the bullpen is the lack of talent on the bullpen roster, and we’ve heard that from our front office many times this season. For instance, rule 5 pick Hector Rondon has been the worst pitcher still on the roster. Rondon isn’t a bad pitcher, he’s just not ready for the majors; he should be sitting in AAA right now refining his command and developing his repertoire after only pitching 7 innings the past 2 seasons for the Indians, instead Sveum is stuck with him on the 25-man so he has to use him. It’s also been a revolving door with the rest of the bullpen spots. We lost Fujikawa early, we’ve claimed nearly every arm that has been sent to waivers, and we’ve used a bunch of young guys from our farm trying to piece it together for the season.

Nevertheless, I am not letting Sveum entirely off the hook, maybe this is something that improves with more experience, but the area he needs to work on the most is how to handle the bullpen. He’s late with the hook with his starting pitchers (this could easily be related to a lack of trust of a terrible bullpen though), he gives very little slack to young bullpen arms and trusts veterans to figure it out too long even when it’s clear they’re struggling.  Overall, I think Sveum is an solid enough manager with some areas he’s excellent in but bullpen management is critical for a contending team, so he must improve if the Cubs are going to win under him.

Looking at next year, after looking at this free agent market, there’s not much there either for relief pitchers. I like 3 names, Jason Frasor, Jesse Crain and Joe Smith – all 3 guys have contender experience in the AL, with an excellent track record, so all 3 should be highly sought after by contenders. I don’t think the Cubs will spend a big amount on a top tier free agent reliever so it looks like internal options may be our only choice.

Internally, barring any unforeseen trades, Villanueva looks to be the swing man, Russell as a LOOGY and Strop as the late innings righty are locks. I would assume Fujikawa is the closer if/when he is healthy.  Those 4 should be very good in their respective roles, but after that is where it will be interesting. I don’t expect the Cubs to tender an offer to Gregg. The team will also lose Guerrier who is in the last year of his deal, and with his injury I don’t think the Cubs will be interested in bringing him back. We’ve had a lot of auditions this year and we’ll have more these last 6 plus weeks. Many younger arms with potential like Putnam, Bowden, Dolis, Rusin, Raley, Rodriguez and Parker will be in the mix for next season and if they don’t make it, some will have to be outrighted off the 40-man completely since we’ve hit a point where we have too many prospects that need to be protected and we’ve also got quite a few guys out of options, so expect to see the Cubs make long-term decisions on a lot of players in the near future.

One important name for instance is Jake Arrieta who will have to be on the 25-man one way or another. I expect him to get a rotation spot, but if he struggles the rest of this year (he’s being called up today), he may end up a late inning reliever next season.  A side note on Arrieta, the Cubs gained an extra year of control and avoided super two status by waiting to call him up until August.

As I mentioned last week, I have Arodys Vizcaino penciled into the BP, and after listening to Jason McLeod yesterday on the Keith Law’s podcast, I feel a little more confident expecting Vizcaino to be ready. The short take, Vizcaino was throwing especially well in Spring Training before his setback, and the Cubs expect him to throw multiple innings each outing in the Arizona Fall league to rebuild arm strength and get back into the routine of pitching to be ready to pitch for next season.

That leaves 2 spots. I like Bowden but he’s really struggled lately and could be on the chopping block, again. Raley and Rusin both still have options and are lefties so unless something happens with Russell, I expect them to be at AAA. Rusin pitching well enough to stay in the rotation mix and is probably our best internal option if there is an injury so I’d be shocked if he’s not starting at AAA next year. Dolis has the stuff, but I think he’s the first guy outrighted off the 40-man due to his health. Putnam is probably outrighted as well since he’s returning from an elbow injury. Blake Parker has pitched extremely well and is deserving of a spot right now but that can change by next Spring and he also has options left.  Rodriguez could also be outrighted if he continues to struggle.

Down on the farm, we have a couple intriguing options including Alberto Cabrera, Justin Grimm (recently acquired in the Matt Garza deal), Barret Loux (replacement for Jake Brigham, as part of the Geovany Soto deal), Kyle Hendricks (part of the Ryan Dempster trade) and Tony Zych (2011 4th round draft pick). Most of these guys are being groomed as starters but I’m a believer in the theory that it’s smarter to let a rookie pitcher start their career in the bullpen to get them acclimated to the majors and to also keep their innings down as long as it’s not an instance where the role keeps changing back and forth. If the Cubs don’t want to take that route, Zych is a definite BP arm, that is close to being ready for the majors. He has a 2.52 ERA in 50IP with 36 strikeouts to only 20 walks but with the 40-man issues the Cubs are facing, adding another player who doesn’t need to be there just complicates matters more. And then there’s service time/player control to consider and this option works best as a midseason call up, not to start a season.

So out of all the internal options right now, I’d lean towards Bowden and Parker getting those spots. Other than getting back Fujikawa, that’s basically the same bullpen minus the 3 worst pitchers this year while also losing Guerrier and Gregg, who were 2 of the best albeit in limited time and with major questions marks going into next year.  On paper it’s not a terrible BP, and like I said earlier, an average BP would have been worth roughly 10 more wins this year. But I thought this year’s BP was going to be solid and look how far off I was then.

Who do you guys want in the BP? Is removing the 3 worst performing pitchers plus hoping for some progression from young arms going to be enough of an improvement? Is adding Fujikawa and Vizcaino, two very high upside arms to the BP going to replace the production lost from Gregg and Guerrier?  Is free agency our best course of action? As always drop your thoughts and questions below.

  • The Cards took 2 of 3 from the Pirates, moving them within 2 games. The Reds beat Milwaukee, putting them only 2.5 games back. I think all 3 end up making the playoffs, but it’s going to be an exciting 6 weeks in the NLC even if the playoff teams are pretty much locked down. I really hope the Pirates don’t end up a wild card and then get bounced after 1 game.
  • The AL on the other hand is still wide open with Detroit, Boston, Texas, Oakland, Tampa, Baltimore, and Cleveland fighting over divisions and/or wild cards.
  • While the Yankees lost and see their playoff hopes drop each day, Alfonso Soriano did his part to win going 4-5 yesterday. He’s got 10 hits including 4 HR and a double with 14 RBI plus a walk in his last 15 plate appearances.  I don’t think he’s going to even make it past the first ballot, but he’s a fringy Hall of Famer for me. We’ll see what he does these last few years but there’s only 4 guys in the 400 HR + 300 SB club (A-Rod, Bonds, Mays, & Dawson) and he’s going to be joining that list soon. He at least deserves some serious consideration especially since he’s one of the few power hitters who we think did it clean this era.
  • Jayson Stark wrote yesterday that Miguel Cabrera is one of the greatest hitters ever, and I agree. He’s probably going to run away with another MVP, which I think he actually deserves this one over Trout. Last year I thought (and still do) that Trout was the MVP. But this year Trout has slipped a bit, while Cabrera has increased his offensive production across the board. The only real threat is if Chris Davis carries Baltimore to the playoffs.

Starting Pitcher

by Rob Willer

Top Prospect: Pierce Johnson

Bio: Johnson was born in Colorado and was originally drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 15th round of the 2009 Amateur Draft. He bypassed the offer by the Rays and attended Missouri State University instead where he played the next three years. After his junior season Johnson established himself as one of the top college arms in the draft. Finally after 42 picks in the first round the Chicago Cubs selected Johnson 43rd in the 2012 Amateur Draft becoming their top pitching prospect. He measures at 6 foot 3 and 170 pounds which seems to be the pitcher’s build of today’s game. Overall he has had a great story bypassing the first draft after high school to attend college and get rewarded for his choice.

2012-2013 Season: Overall Johnson has pitched for four affiliates of the Chicago Cubs including Rookie Ball Cubs in the Arizona League, Boise Hawks (Short Season A Affiliate), Kane County (Low A) in the Midwest League and Daytona Cubs in the Florida St League. Over his 2012 season he combined to go 11 innings between both affiliates while allowing five runs (four earned) and striking out 14 in six games. Next he moved to Kane County at the start of the 2013 season where he started 13 games for the cougars. Johnson’s season stats include 69 and 2/3 innings pitched while registering a 3.10 earned run average. Some other stats of note are 74 strikeouts to 22 walks which is good for a 3.36 SO/BB ratio. The Cubs felt their second pick of the 2012 draft behind Albert Almora deserved another challenge so they called up Johnson to Daytona. The Daytona Cubs play in the Florida St. League which is regarded as pitchers friendly league where most dominate their opposition on a nightly basis. So far through seven starts in eight games he has completed 41 and 2/3 innings and put up a minuscule earned run average of 2.16. Johnson will most likely finish out the year at Daytona as they are headed for the playoffs which will be very important in Johnson’s development (playoff pressure). I believe if he keeps up this pitching we could see him start at Tennessee next year and have the chance for a mid to late season call-up to Iowa.

Sleeper Prospect: CJ Edwards

Bio: Edwards was one of the three pieces in the Matt Garza deal last month which also netted the Cubs 3rd Base Prospect Mike Olt and Starting Pitcher Justin Grimm. The most shocking thing about Edwards is that he was a 48th round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 2011. He attended Mid Carolina High School in South Carolina and is considered to be one of the biggest steals in the draft after being drafted so late. Edwards got his start with the Rangers system at the age of 20 where he followed the same path as Johnson mentioned above. They both spent their first season in each system at Rookie Ball and then got called up to Short Season A Ball. Edwards combined to go 5-3 with a ridiculous low earned run average of 1.48. Some other key stats to know about his 2012 season include 85 strikeouts in 67 innings pitched and no home-runs allowed while having a KK/BB ratio of 3.40.

2013 Season: Before the trade Edwards pitched at A Ball Hickory where he turned an impressive 18 starts registering an 8-2 record. Edwards pitched 93 and 1/3 innings and struck out 122 batters with yet again you guessed it giving up a home-run. After the trade with Texas, Edwards reported to Daytona to join the High A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Due to the rain in July and August, Edwards only has gotten in three games where he has went 9 and 2/3 innings and struck out 17 batters while walking just 5. CJ Edwards features three pitches–a four-seam fastball that comes in anywhere from 90 -95 mph, a big curveball at 75-80, and a fading changeup at 82-86. Right now, he generates a lot of his strikeouts by changing hitters’ eye levels with high heat and low curves. Most scouts have said that Edward’s best pitch is his curveball as already at only 21 years old its a plus pitch. He should start the season next year at Double A Tennessee and be on the same path as Johnson mentioned above. Should be fun to watch this system develop and start to build depth. Other possible candidates include Dillon Maples, Ivan Pinyero and Kyle Hendricks.

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