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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 Minorleagueball.com

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 MinorLeagueBall.com.  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.

Sickels:

  • 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 BaseballProjection.com, 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?

Callis:

* 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.

STATE OF THE SYSTEM
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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The Hypothetical 2014 Chicago Cubs

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Since Theo and Co. have taken over the Cubs front office, I pegged 2014 to be the first year the team is competitive, and 2015 to be the first season they’re playoff contenders. The team this year has been a fringe .500 team if you put stock into run differentials or their Pythagorean winning percentage.  Luckily, at least in my mind, we’ve had a terrible bullpen blow plenty of games to keep us out of the 76 to 83 wins range which is too good to get high draft picks and too bad to make the playoffs.  I think we’re pretty close to schedule but this off season will be very interesting, as it’s the first time this front office has significant money to spend, and it’s going to be very telling on where they think the team is.

First let’s take a look at the payroll so we have some idea what the Cubs can spend.

Position Players Already Signed:

Player

Position

2014 Salary

Year Current Deal Expires

David DeJesus

OF

6,500,000

2014 Can be bought out for 1.5M

Starlin Castro

SS

5,857,143

2019 + Club Option for 2020

Anthony Rizzo

1B

1,535,714

2019 + Club Options thru 2021

Jorge Soler

OF

2,667,000

2020

Welington Castillo

C

520,000

2018

Junior Lake

OF

500,000

2020

Estimated Total

17,579,857

Pitchers Already Signed:

Pitcher

Position

2014 Salary

Year Current Deal Expires

Edwin Jackson

SP

13,000,000

2016

Carlos Villanueva

RP

5,000,000

2014

Kyuji Fujikawa

RP

4,500,000

2014

Gerardo Concepcion

SP

1,200,000

2014

Michael Bowden

RP

520,000

2018

Arodys Vizcaino

SP

520,000

2018

Estimated Total

24,740,000

Arbitration Eligible:

Player

Position

Estimated Salary

Year Cubs Lose Player’s Rights

Nate Schierholtz

OF

4,000,000

2015

Darwin Barney

2B

1,200,000

2017

Luis Valbuena*

3B

1,350,000

2017

Jeff Samardzija

SP

4,200,000

2016

Travis Wood

SP

1,600,000

2017

James Russell

RP

1,500,000

2016

Pedro Strop*

RP

1,050,000

2018

Jake Arrieta

SP

1,200,000

2017

Estimated Total

16,100,000

 * – Designates player has Super 2 Status.

That’s 18 of the 25 players on the major league roster minus Soler and Concepcion who will both still be in the minors to start the year. That puts the team at an estimated payroll of $72,419,857, after adding in the 14M going to New York as part of the Soriano trade.  If the team can spend 110M on the major league roster again next year, that gives the Cubs somewhere around the neighborhood of 37.5M to fill 7 roster spots.

The bench will need to be filled out with a couple of outfielders, a backup catcher, and another infielder to go with Barney, but most of that will be cheap internal options and none should cost more than a million for next year.  If they spend 1M each on a RH bench bat for the OF to split time with Schierholtz and another 1M to sign a backup catcher, then use internal options for the 5th OFer and 2nd IFer, that’s only 3M total.

As for the bullpen, Russell, Strop, Bowden, Villanueva and Fujikawa are in. After that, I’m penciling in Vizcaino which leaves 1 spot open.  I’d assume it’ll be whoever pitches best in the Spring out of all the internal options from the long list of pitchers already on the 40-man: Raley, Rusin, Dolis, Cabrera, Rondon, McNutt, etc. So that’s only another 500K unaccounted for.  We’ll say we’re at 76M with 23 of 25 spots filled giving the team about 34M to match this year’s payroll.

So let’s shift to the important parts of the roster.  As of right now here’s what the Cubs have controlled and should be penciled in for next season:

C: Castillo
1B: Rizzo
SS: Castro
RF: Schierholtz
CF: DeJesus

That leaves 2B, 3B, and an OF spot open for debate in my mind.  Lake could be an option at any of these positions, and I’d expect him to be in one of those spots given his production since being called up this year. Also, one of our left side infielder prospects will force their way to Chicago next season, be it Olt, Baez, Alcantara, Bryant or whomever, but the Cubs will play the service time game with these guys so they won’t be called up until June at the earliest.  Vitters is a possibility at 3B or LF but he has to get healthy, and show he can play at the major league level when he gets called up later this year.

That means we could be looking at the exact same roster on opening day as we have right now and I just don’t think the front office is going to let that happen with so much money available.  Looking at the free agent market, it’s beyond pitiful and 2015 will be even worse. There’s a couple pipe dreams in Robinson Cano & Brian McCann who are going to get 100M+ deals. I don’t think the Cubs are ready to drop that kind of salary on any player over 30. Then on the second tier there’s Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Hunter Pence; but I also think these guys are also out of the Cubs price range. There’s also the option to go after an aging vet like Beltran but I’d rather not sign a 37 year old with diminishing skills and health.

There is one interesting name left on my list who shouldn’t cost too much and won’t be receiving a long term deal, and that’s Nelson Cruz. He just accepted his 50-game suspension from the Biogenesis investigation so he’s going to be back for the playoffs (if the Rangers make it) but he’s going to go into the off season with a lot of uncertainty.  Would Cruz look to sign a 1-year deal with a player option for a 2nd year to re-establish his value for next off season and have some security if he doesn’t perform? Or would he take a higher priced 2-year deal with a vesting/club option for a 3rd to give him a moderate deal in length with a higher pay to surrender a team option? I think that’s the type of high reward contract the Cubs will be fishing for in the free agent market next year. Cruz could give the Cubs a middle of the order power bat that the team desperately needs and fill an OF spot for a couple years until our prospects are ready; and as always it would give the team a potential trade chip for next deadline in case the Cubs are sellers again. I’d expect Cruz could be signed in the 10-14M per year range depending on contract length.

I’d go aggressively after Cruz, let Lake play 3B, shift Valbuena to 2B, bench Barney, and we’ll figure the rest out later when prospects are knocking at the door during the summer and the team has a grasp on how close they are to contention heading into the deadline.

The rotation is currently set as:

SP: Samardzija
SP: Jackson
SP: Wood
SP: Arrieta

The first 3 are givens, and Arrieta is out of options so he will be on the team as well. That leaves one rotation spot open. It could be Baker on a team friendly deal after we gave him 5M to rehab all this season.  However, there’s also a couple options in free agency.  Our friend Matt Garza and Ervin Santana are both #2/3 types. I don’t think the Cubs front office likes Garza’s asking price, so I don’t see a fit there. Santana will be tied to compensation but if the Cubs are one of the 10 worst teams (and they should be given that they’re 5th worst right now), their first draft choice would be protected.  Santana is having a breakout year for the Royals and I’m always a fan of bringing a guy who has been on contending teams in the AL to the NL. I’d expect Santana to get better than Edwin Jackson money, but not quite Anibal Sanchez money. That’d be something like 4 years/64M or 16M each year.

A rotation of Shark, Santana, Jackson, Wood, & Arrieta on paper is just as good as what we had this year and has much higher potential if Arrieta ever figures it out how to control his stuff.

A lineup of something like:

CF DeJesus
SS Castro
1B Rizzo
LF Cruz
RF Schierholtz
3B Lake
2B Valbuena
C Castillo

could be pretty potent if Rizzo and Castro take a step forward next year and we get solid production from the veterans. This doesn’t block any of the top prospects, and we retain excellent flexibility when we need to make space for one, or a few of them. Lake’s ability to play 2B, 3B, and in the OF, make it easy to find him a home if Mike Olt, Javier Baez, or Kris Bryant are ready. Schierholtz and DeJesus are free agents after next year so they are expendable if the Cubs need to make room for Soler, Szczur, Lake, or even Bryant. Valbuena is a solid stop gap, until Baez or Alcantara are ready.

Those 2 signings would spend 30M of the estimated 34M available and put the Cubs at about 106M-pretty much exactly where the team went into this season at. It’s also important to note that the Cubs will have more money to spend on the major league payroll if they choose to, since they cannot go crazy in the international market due to their punishment for this year’s spending spree which after the tax penalty they spent about 10M.

As for trade options, that’s much harder to gauge; who knows what other teams are thinking. David Price should be available since the Rays probably won’t pay him and they have plenty of internal options to replace him. Trading him with 2 years left will net them the biggest return and trading their pitchers early is business as normal. Giancarlo Stanton’s unhappiness stemming from last year’s fire sale will continue to fuel rumors around him. Yovani Gallardo and Rickie Weeks were heavily shopped by the Brewers at this year’s deadline (in my opinion, no thanks on both). And there’s a few interesting pitchers that are impending free agents in 2015 that could be potential trade targets like Clayton Kershaw (#notgoingtohappen), Homer Bailey, and Justin Masterson if they can’t reach deals with their current teams.

The Cubs are going to be in a lot of rumors this off season so it will be fun. We’re also going to get a glimpse of what this regime is going to do with a big amount of cash to spend for the first time and that should give us some insight into the timetable they are expecting.

Game Notes

  • Samardzija had the worst outing of his career going only 3.1IP while allowing 11 hits, 9 ER, and striking out 3.
  • Schierholtz continues to crush righties with another HR moving his SLG over .550 vs RHP on the year.
  • Cubs selected JC Boscan’s contract today from Iowa in case Navarro misses more than a few games after his home plate collision with Chase Utley 2 nights ago. Boscan had played in a handful of games with the Braves at the major league level over the past 3 years and has a career 263/300/263 line in 20 PAs.
  • Matt Guerrier went to the 60-day DL with a sore right elbow.
  • Thomas Neal went to the 15-day DL after dislocating his right shoulder on a throw 2 nights ago.
  • Cubs recalled Eduardo Sanchez who pitched 2.1 innings, giving up 1 hit, 2 walks, 1 run on a solo homer and striking out 3.

STATE OF THE SYSTEM
Third Base

by Rob Willer

Top Prospect: Kris Bryant

Bio- Kris Bryant was born January 4, 1992 in Las Vegas, Nevada, US (Age 21). On that day a star was born, Bryant attended Bonanza HS in Las Vegas and continued his baseball career there. The Toronto Blue Jays actually drafted Bryant in the 18th round right out of high school in 2010 but Bryant decided to go to college first. Bryant, a 6-foot-5, 215-pounder hit .329 with 80 runs scored, 13 doubles, three triples, 31 home runs and 62 RBIs in 62 games as a junior at the University of San Diego. He also led the nation in home runs, runs scored, walks (66) and slugging percentage (.820). His 54 career home runs are a school record. Pretty sure Bryant made the correct decision on going to school first to harness his ability and become one of the most talked about draft picks this year in the class of 2013.

2013 Season- After Bryant signed his record bonus of 6.7 million this summer he reported to Arizona where he went to shake off the rust of not playing in a month. It was a short stay for Bryant as he only played in two games going 1 for 6 with a double. The Cubs first round draft pick also added two runs batted in during his short stint in Arizona. The next chapter in Bryant’s baseball career was a call-up to Boise, Idaho to play third base for the Boise Hawks of the Southern Division. Through 14 games so far Bryant has hit .294/.362/.627 while putting up an insane OPS of .990. He also has kept up his power surge by hitting four homers this season while driving in 12 runs during only 51 at-bats. Another stat to keep an eye on is his hit streak which has reached eleven games with his 1 for 3 last night where he homered.

Looking Ahead- After two weeks in Boise, Bryant has earned deep consideration for a call-up to A Ball. The problem is that Kane County already has a young third baseman in Jeimer Candelario who might become a great prospect as well. Most people think the Cubs wouldn’t want to move up Candelario to Daytona as he hasn’t fully developed yet at Kane County. In my mind Bryant will play out this season at Boise and then start next season at either High A Daytona or Double A Tennessee. The Cubs don’t want to rush Candelario as he is still a raw prospect at nineteen years old with great potential to be an above average third baseman at the big league level in time.

Sleeper Prospect: Jeimer Candelario

He is one of those names in the Cubs system you don’t hear enough. Candelario was born in New York and at 17 he started play in the Cubs system at the Dominican Summer League. 2011 was a great year for Candelario as it showed us that he was ready to move to Boise after tearing it up in the Dominican Summer League. Candelario’s stats included a line of .337/.443/.478 for a total OPS of .921. To think that Candelario went into the 2012 season only 18 years is mind boggling. He played the whole year at Boise where he hit .281/.345/.396 that also included six homers, 12 doubles and 47 runs batted in. John Arguello who is the Editor in Chief for Cubs Den a prominent blog on the Chicago Now network gives us a great view of Jeimer Candelario’s swing http://www.chicagonow.com/cubs-den/2013/04/photos-and-breakdown-of-jeimer-candelarios-swing/#image/12.

2013 Season- After two years in the Cubs system Candelario has joined the Kane County Cougars of the Low A Midwest league where he has played third base regularly and batted either four or fifth in their lineup. Through 105 games he has 104 hits which 39 of those are for extra base hits. Candelario has shown us the power with 30 doubles and 8 home-runs this year. These stats reflect greatly in his line .256/.343/.394 for a total OPS of .738. In my mind I believe Candelario deserves a call-up next year to Daytona as he has played well every step of the way since age 17. As I mentioned above since third base is one of the positions the Cubs have a lot of depth at there will be a lot of interesting decisions next summer on where Candelario starts.

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Cubs Top 20 Prospects – Midseason Update

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

It’s that time again, time to rank prospects after an influx of talent from the rule 4 draft, international draft, and trade deadline. These rankings are compared to my pre-season rankings.  The Cubs headed into the season with a top 10 farm system and I would be shocked if they’re not top 3 next year after adding some premium talent this summer and seeing some development from the top guys in the system.

Note: To make things easier, If a player is on the major league roster right now he will be excluded from this list. Also, per normal rules if a player has lost rookie status in a previous year (that mean’s he has (a) exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the Major Leagues; or (b) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club or clubs during the period of 25-player limit) they are not being considered for this list either.

Off the list: Junior Lake (Previously 16th, on MLB club would have been #11), Dillon Maples (Previously #19), Duane Underwood (Previously #12), & Ronald Torreyes (Previously #14, traded).

20. Jae-Hoon Ha (Previously #20) – Has struggled since his promotion to AAA. Don’t think he’s going to be much more than a 5th outfielder type.

19. Gioskar Amaya (Previously #17) – Everything has taken a little dip after being promoted to A ball but he has the skills to be a consistent bat at 2B.

18. Brett Jackson (Previously #8) – Swing change didn’t change much and he’s been injured most of the year. Looks like his contact issues will always plague him, and if that’s the case, he’s a bench player.

17. Josh Vitters (Previously #13) – Has performed well at AAA when healthy, but that’s been a rarity this year. Hopefully he gets healthy soon and is called up, there’s not much left for him to prove at AAA.

16. Jeimer Candelario (Previously #7) – Did not take the step forward I expected and his numbers while still good are nothing special. I have some reservations about his defense and ability to make consistent contact against experienced pitching.

15. Christian Villanueva, 3B, Double-A Tennessee Smokies
Previously #10
Grade: B-

Why He’s Here:  One of the pieces we received at last year’s deadline, Villanueva is another one of our prospects that has seen his stock drop this year. A third baseman with power and great defense are still rare these days so he still has potential.

What’s Holding Him Back:
 Contact issues are the major problem but the power is still there and with good defense he’s still a valuable commodity. There’s also no room in Chicago for him as there’s a long list of left-side infielders ahead of him , so I’d expect his value to be used in a trade.

#14. Shawon Dunston Jr., CF, Low-A Boise Hawks
Previously: Not ranked
Grade: B-

Why He’s Here: A legit 4 tool outfielder with good plate discipline, a rarity in the Cubs system. He won’t hit for much power but all of his other tools should be above average, or plus.  He cut down his K% which has seen a huge jump in walks and is currently hitting .328/.411/.422 at Boise. He’s a ways off, only being in Low-A right now,  so he ranks a bit lower but this is one of those highly interesting names to keep an eye, and it’s not because of his pedigree.

What’s Holding Him Back: Time. Dunston Jr. just needs to continue to develop. He’ll start next year at Kane County but I am worried about two things, first he’s a little old for Low-A (turned 20 in February) and second his BB% might not be sustainable as he moves through the system – low power guys have a hard time walking at the major league level.  We won’t get a good feel for him until he hits High-A but he’s a guy that should be on everyone’s radar.

#13. Arodys Vizcaino , SP, 60-Day DL
Previously #4
Grade: B

Why He’s Here: Still the most electric and most advanced major league arm in our farm system.

What’s Holding Him Back: Injuries. After Tommy John Surgery last year, Vizcaino had arthroscopic debridement in his throwing elbow.  He might not pitch at all this year, which has dropped his stock significantly. He’s going to be a good major league pitcher, but with the injuries mounting, I’m less optimistic about him starting than I was last year when we acquired him.

#12. Dan Vogelbach  1B, A-ball Kane County Cougars
Previously #15
Grade: B

Why He’s Here: Can hit, and hit for power with good plate discipline. His numbers aren’t as eye-popping as last season’s limited appearances in rookie ball and low-A, but they’re still good across the board.

What’s Holding Him Back: Lack of athleticism. A lot of Cubs fans want to bring up Prince Fielder or Frank Thomas types when they talk about Vogelbach, but those guys were/are actually athletic for their size. Vogelbach on the other hand shows no agility whatsoever. He’s worked hard to shed weight every year but that hasn’t helped; in fact, it probably sapped some of his plus-plus power. He’s won’t be passable even at first base; his range, stretch, ability to field ground balls and cover the bag are all prohibited by his lack of athleticism. Unless the DH comes to the NL, he’ll be valuable trade bait in the future.

#11. Paul Blackburn, SP, Low-A Boise Hawks
Previously #11
Grade: B

Why He’s Here: Cubs drafted Blackburn last year in the first round at 56th overall. He’s a very athletic pitcher with good command of his 3 pitch repertoire. He throws a low 90s fastball, that usually sits at 92 but can touch 94 with good movement, a curve and a changeup which both project as above average. He’s only 19 and in low A but is more advanced than most pitchers his age.

What’s Holding Him Back: Blackburn just needs to gain experience.  Should be a solid mid-rotation starter once he reaches the bigs, and due to his skill set, I don’t think it will take all that long.

#10. Matt Szczur, CF, Double-A Tennessee
Previously #6
Grade: B

Why He’s Here: Continues to improve plate discipline while hitting for a high average, playing a solid CF and swiping a good number of bases. 

What’s Holding Him Back: Lack of power. Szczur, as noted by Keith Law many times, has a very slappy swing. It’s built to put the ball in play and use his legs to reach base. Against major league defenses, he’s going to see a drop in batting average on balls in play and as I mentioned with Dunston Jr., not having some threat of power, will hurt his OBP at the majors. Pitchers don’t fear singles hitters, and he won’t be able to carry as high of BB% rates as he’s shown these last 2 years. I think he’s at worst a 4th OFer, and if he can maintain a high BABIP, while utilizing his speed on the bases he could be a starting caliber CF.

#9. Juan Carlos Paniagua , SP, A-ball Kane County Cougars
Previously #5
Grade: B+

Why He’s Here: Has the most raw talent out of any pitcher in our system. Has 2 plus pitches already with a mid-90s fastball that can hit 96 and a hard slider with lots of movement. His change-up is solid and he occasionally mixes in a curveball.

What’s Holding Him Back: Uncertainty. Paniagua, finally got his visa to come to the US a few weeks ago, but he’s shown the rust of a guy who hasn’t pitched in a meaningful game in over 2 years. Needs time to shake off the rust and he still has many questions about his age after being turned down for a visa, twice; but he should move very fast through the system, now that he’s finally here.

#8. Mike Olt, 3B, AAA Iowa Cubs
Previously Not ranked
Grade: B+

Why He’s Here:  Olt was rumored to be untouchable last year at the deadline given his combination of plus defense, plus-plus power, and ability to draw a high number of walks.

What’s Holding Him Back: Vision and contact problems. Contact problems have been a problem, but there’s plenty of optimism that with more experience he could fix these issues. This year his numbers have been derailed by vision problems, that may have been concussion related after getting hit in the head during winter ball.

#7. C.J. Edwards, SP, High-A Daytona Cubs
Previously Not ranked
Grade: B+

Why He’s Here:  The real centerpiece of the Garza deal; Edwards has two plus pitches, with a chance for a third. He has plus velocity with late life on a mid-90s fastball. He also utilizes a plus 12-6 curveball, and is working on a changeup that could potentially be above average.  He has dominated the lower minors these past 2 seasons with Texas and the Cubs moved him to High-A Daytona immediately after acquiring him. That puts him on pace to be in Chicago’s opening day rotation for 2015.

What’s Holding Him Back:  Other than developing the changeup, his size is worrisome. Edwards is 6-foot-2 and weighs only 155 pounds so there’s quite a bit of concern he won’t be able to handle the stress of a starting pitcher but he has the potential to be a number 3 starter, and has shown excellent results in the lower minors.

#6. Pierce Johnson, SP,  High-A Daytona Cubs
Previously #9
Grade: B+

Why He’s Here: Johnson has the upside of a #2 starter and is very likely to make it there. Recently promoted to Daytona, Johnson has continued to pitch well showing his advanced command and ability to set up hitters. He’s not going to overwhelm anyone with velocity as his fastball only sits in the lower 90s, but he commands it well keeping it down in the zone where hitters can’t do much with it.  His fastball isn’t an out-pitch as much as a setup pitch for his off-speed especially his hard curve.

What’s Holding Him Back:  His third pitch. Since being drafted Johnson has worked on developing a changeup which he never really used in college. It’s still a work in progress but he’s shown the ability to locate it, and get batters to swing and miss.

#5. Arismendy Alcantara, SS/2B, Double-A Tennessee Smokies
Previously #18
Grade: B+

Why He’s Here:  Alcantara’s stock has skyrocketed this year while at AA and he’s one of my personal favorites in the system. He has a simple repeatable swing that results in a lot of hard contact. He sprays hits to all fields and has much more power than you think despite his smaller size. Also a plus runner, Alcantara is a threat on the bases and could steal 30 bases a year at the majors.

What’s Holding Him Back: Defense and consistency. Alcantara has been playing 2B since Baez moved to Double-A . He’s still a work in progress at short but out of the two, I think Alcantara has the better chance to stay there than Baez. This should figure itself out when Alcantara moves up to AAA (which could be soon) and takes over SS again.  He needs to work on his consistency in each at bat- sometimes he works the count into his favor, takes pitches he shouldn’t swing at, and forces the pitcher to give in to his strengths and others he’s up there to swing as hard as he can at whatever he sees.

#4. Javier Baez, SS, Double-A Tennessee Smokies
Previously #1
Grade: A-

Why He’s Here: Since I wrote an in-depth scouting report recently about Baez, I won’t go too far into specifics. He’s very athletic, has amazing bat speed, huge power potential and a very strong accurate arm.  

What’s Holding Him Back: Defensively, he’s going to have a hard time being an average SS, but it could be passable given his offense. If he moves to 3B, which is what I expect, he’d be a plus defender there, and could turn himself into a gold glover. Offensively, if he can just cut down on his aggressiveness, I’d bet on him being a superstar, but that’s a big if.

#3. Kris Bryant, 3B, Low-A Boise Hawks
Previously: Not ranked
Grade: A

Why He’s Here: The Cubs drafted Bryant #2 overall in this past draft, and paid him the highest bonus of any player.  He has a great approach, knows how to work counts, and this type of plus-plus power from the right side of the plate is a rarity.

What’s Holding Him Back: Questions about his effort defensively. There’s concerns Bryant will have to move to RF but he has the athleticism to stay at 3B, it’s a matter of putting in the work to do so. He should be on the fast track and could see a call up as soon as next year.

#2. Albert Almora, CF A-ball Kane County Cougars
Previously #2
Grade: A

Why He’s Here: If there was one prospect the Cubs would deem untouchable, rumor is, it’s Almora. Almora is quickly showing why the Cubs were so high on him in last year’s draft. He has a quick swing that produces excellent contact and surprising power given his thin frame. He’d be an above average defender in the majors right now, with plus speed and he’s making strides with his plate discipline.

What’s Holding Him Back:  The front office. It seems the Cubs are taking it slow with Almora, who I thought would have been moved up to High-A by now. He’s got all the tools to move quickly through the system, but the organization doesn’t seem to be in a rush with him.

#1. Jorge Soler, RF, High-A Daytona Cubs
Previously #3
Grade: A

Why He’s Here:  I’m a big fan of Soler. He’s got superstar potential and is the most likely to reach it out of all the Cubs prospects.  He’s the prototypical 5-tool outfielder, with quick hands, a smooth swing, plus running speed, should hit for a high average with above average power, and a strong throwing arm. He has an excellent approach at the plate.

What’s Holding Him Back: Injury. He’d be in AA right now if it wasn’t for his injury as he was right there with Baez in terms of production in Daytona. He should be back to get some at-bats in AA before the minor league season ends, and I’d still expect him to be up for good, by the end of next year.  But if the Cubs want to make up for lost time, they could call him up in September since he’s already on the 40-man due to his contract. With his skills at the plate and experience with the Cuban National team, I’m not worried about putting him against MLB pitchers as long as he gets back for a few weeks to face live pitching in the minors beforehand.

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Scouting Javier Baez

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

I saw Javier Baez in person twice earlier this season when he was still with Daytona, and I came away both times thinking the same thing… if he ever minimized his strike zone he’d be something special but he has extremely high bust potential given the nature of his tools.  I feel like there’s no middle ground with Baez, he’s either going to be a superstar or bust. With his recent promotion to AA, I’ve been able to watch every game with milb.tv so here’s a comprehensive scouting report with video analysis.

Grading the Tools

Present/Future
Hit: 40/60
Power: 55/70
Plate Discipline: 30/50
Running: 50/50
Range: 40/45
Glove: 35/50
Arm: 55/60

The Swing

Baez’s swing is very level and smooth and he has the quickest bat I’ve ever seen. When he makes contact, the ball really takes off as seen in this first video below of Baez’s debut at-bat in AA where he launches a ball over 400 feet to deep CF:

Baez has a Gary Sheffield-esque bat waggle pre-pitch to keep his hands back and burst through the zone at the appropriate time. However, Sheffield would stop his waggle during the pitcher’s windup, putting his hands and bat into a solid hitting position; Baez on the other hand, does his waggle as the pitcher is delivering the ball, putting himself out of sync with the pitch.  In the video below you can see how his bat is pointing towards the infield as the pitcher is releasing the ball which results in a weak tapper back to the mound:

He had the bat speed to make up for this in the lower minors, but now that he is in AA, the waggle is throwing off his timing and causing a lot of late swings that produce foul balls, weak contact, or complete whiffs. This is something that can be remedied with a slight swing modification but will take some time for Baez to get accustomed to and will need to be done during an offseason.

Approach at the Plate

Baez has a very hard and violent swing that he never shortens or adjusts for any situation.  His approach leaves a lot to be desired as goes up to the plate to take his cuts and live with the results.  On this swing he’s leaning out over the plate reaching for a pitch off the plate and gets under it. You can see in this video how the ball seems to leap off Baez’s bat, even when he doesn’t square it up. The ball still carries to the warning track in the opposite field despite the poor contact:

Baez tends to get himself out more than the pitcher actually works to get Baez out. His ultra-aggressive approach works against him and he usually falls behind in the count. He goes up to the plate wanting to hit every pitch as hard as he can and that approach will start to prohibit his abilities now that he’s reached advanced levels of the minor league system.

This Season

Baez, like most Cubs prospects, has little-to-no grasp of plate discipline. He is a free swinger and offers at nearly everything around the plate and that really showed at the beginning of this season.  At High-A Daytona, through May 15th he had a 30.3% K% and 3.2% BB%. A very hot stretch starting May 17th until his promotion saw Baez lower his K% to 23.1% and raise his BB% up to 6.2% (a career best).  The improvement in discipline along with his massive power surge was enough evidence for the Cubs front office to promote Baez to AA.

Baez has raw plus-plus power and has showcased it many times this season.  At Daytona he had a SLG% of .535, which was 4th best at the time of his promotion in very pitcher friendly league. He accumulated 17 HRs, 19 doubles, and 4 triples in only 337 plate appearances.  From May 17 through July 5th he held a triple slash line of .308/.352/.602; during that time he crushed 4 homeruns in a single game, becoming only the second player to do so in the Florida State League.

Since his promotion Baez has struggled. After that debut HR, he reeled off an 0-19 slump, including 6 strikeouts; reverting to the tendencies he exhibited at the beginning of the season. Over this past weekend, Baez started to heat up. On Friday he opened up a doubleheader with a 2-4 performance plus a walk, and in the night cap he also went 2-4 adding a solo HR:

On Saturday, Baez went 1-3 with a walk and went deep again:

In 36 plate appearances at AA thus far, he’s accumulated 7 hits, with 3 of them being homeruns.  He’s also struck out 10 times (27.8 K%), and walked twice (5.6 BB%).  His triple slash line is .206/.250/.471 thus far at AA.  While I’ll be the first to scream small sample size, the worry I’ve always had with Baez was advanced pitching would exploit his lack of a defined strike zone and thus far that is what’s happening at AA.  There’s no doubt he’s going to feature his plus-plus power, but that alone is not going to make him a successful big leaguer if he doesn’t work on his approach. The same trends that worried me in April and the first half of May, have come back in July. I would have liked the Cubs to take a more cautious approach and let Baez show the patience he exhibited for 7 weeks was more than just a hot stretch before giving him the promotion; especially given how difficult the move from High-A to AA is.

Defensively

Baez has been an error machine, accumulating 33 errors in only 83 games outpacing even Starlin Castro’s worst season in the minors. Baez’s errors have come in all forms from trying to do too much to airmailing throws over the first baseman. The video below shows Baez botching a routine grounder straight at him over the weekend:

Right now, he has enough athleticism to play shortstop, but I don’t see him staying there as he fills out more.  In the 11 games I’ve watched Baez either in person or online, I’ve seen this one play where his range stood out:

Overall I consider Baez’s range to be below average without much room for improvement.  His glove should be average if he puts the work into it but his current mechanics are very inconsistent- he looks robotic at times where he’s thinking through each step instead of letting his natural instincts take over.  With more reps this should become fluid but right now it’s one of the major causes of his high error count. He does have a very strong and accurate arm which has allowed him to make up for some of the fielding mistakes and it will play well at third base, his eventual landing spot.

Final Thoughts

I’m cautiously optimistic about Baez’s future. He has all the tools to be a superstar but his lack of a developed strike zone is a huge concern and he’s a major boom or bust type prospect.  As we’ve seen with a long list of players that came up through the Cubs system, plate discipline is not something easily learned but I’m – for now – willing to gamble on Baez realizing his potential and building upon that 7 week stretch in Daytona where he cut down his strikeouts, worked hitter’s counts, took his share of walks and exhibited an overall improvement in his approach.

Don’t be surprised though if Baez is the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade this off-season due to our logjam of high end third base prospects with Bryant, Villanueva, and Candelario all in the upper echelon  of Cubs prospects.  With major concerns about his plate discipline, which don’t exactly fit in with the grind-out-every-at-bat type of values the front office is trying to instill, and the high chance he could turn into a bust, the Cubs front office may want to cash in his value to bring in an elite player to immediately bolster our major league team. The Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton and the Rays’ David Price are they type of impact players the Cubs have reportedly already been in contact with their respective teams gauging trade possibilities this past offseason and it would take a prospect like Baez to pry that kind of elite talent away.

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Home Run Derby and Other News

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

News and notes from around the league

  • Yoenis Cespedes won the Homerun Derby last night defeating Bryce Harper in the finals. Cespedes put on a show in the first round with 17 homers and again in the finals when he topped Harper’s 8 homers with 5 outs left.
  • Matt Harvey and Max Scherzer will start the All-Star game for their respective teams.
  • Travis Wood shaved for the All-Star game.

Other Cubs News

With the All-Star Break, there’s not much news around the league. David Kaplan wrote that Garza was likely to be traded this week according to “sources” and then a semi-juicy rumor started by a Texas sports show host out of Dallas (take that for what it’s worth) saying the Cubs, Mets, & Rangers have a deal in place that will send Garza and Byrd to the Rangers, with Olt being the centerpiece involved. I don’t think Olt’s a target for a Cubs system with quite a few high end 3B and there’s no reports confirming this. However, there’s a moratorium on official news from teams during the All Star break so nothing official can happen until later this week and with all the recent debating amongst Cubs fans about trading versus extending Garza I wanted to share my 2 cents before a deal does get done one way or another.

Garza’s going to get at least 5 years, 15-20M per year on the open market, from some team who wants to pay him until he’s 36, maybe 37. If I had to guess I’d say he gets around the 5/80 deal every second tier pitcher seems to get, like Anibal Sanchez, John Lackey, etc.  If Garza was taking a 3 year extension for around 15-18M per year then I’d say yes, or even 4 years with a slightly lower AAV then I’d be willing, but obviously he’s not or the Cubs would have locked him down to a team-friendly deal already. He might want to be a Cub but he wants to get paid like the front line starter Garza  of 2011 (and the first 6 weeks of 2012). Except the Garza pitching for us know is not pitching the same way.

He’s already showing some signs of decline with his injuries and a decrease in velocity (1MPH drop on average fastball this year compared to 2011). The velocity is a major concern because his out pitch is his fastball which he’s throwing 68% of the time this year. He’s returned to using his fastball the amount of his Tampa/Minnesota days when he used to use it nearly 70% of the time. In 2011, his first year with the Cubs and his best season of his career, he only threw it 53% of the time.

Years

ERA

WHIP

SIERA

H/9

K/9

HR/9

FB%

GB%

% of fastballs

Pre-Cubs

3.97

1.32

4.30

8.7

7.1

1.1

40.8%

39.7%

69.8%

2011-2012

3.52

1.23

3.39

8.2

8.7

0.9

32.9%

46.7%

55.1%

This year

3.17

1.14

3.80

7.7

7.9

1.0

38.8%

39.8%

68.0%

 

 

 

I thought his evolution to a front line starter was directly related with his lower usage of the fastball and increased usage of his off-speed repertoire. Due to the injuries, he’s reverted back to his old, lesser productive ways. You can already see the same trends building from his earlier years with this year. His HR/9 is up, his K/9 is down, his groundball percentages (GB%) are down, and his flyball percentages (FB%) are up. He’s been helped by excellent defense from the Cubs and has a career low batting average against and BABIP right now (which was ultra low before last start’s 10 hits). Despite his low ERA, it’s a recipe that will not keep yielding these results. With all the peripherals matching his production of his pre-Cub years, it’s only a matter of time before the hits, and thus runs, catch up to him this year which will show he’s more of a #3 or 4, not a #1 or 2.

I don’t think this front office is going to spend big money on players on the wrong side of 30 which Garza hits this year. History shows the vast majority of pitchers start declining right around 30 and Garza already has some red flags. The only pitchers worth risking big money, long term deals on past the age of 30 are the top 2% of pitchers like Sabathia, Hernandez, Price, Verlander… because when they decline, they slip from aces to mid rotation guys. When a mid rotation guy slips, he’s a back-end starter or worse. The Cubs should and most likely will flip him for prospects while his value is high which will give another shot to an already strong farm system.

If you believe in run differential which has an excellent track record of predicting win/loss records, the Cubs have performed right around a .500 team.  The front office knows this, and the Cubs are much closer to being competitive than the record indicates. That’s why I expect the Cubs are only going to trade a handful of players this year including Garza, Schierholtz, Navarro, Gregg & possibly Soriano with an eye on next year being the first season the Cubs are competing, not rebuilding.

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