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Top 20 Cubs Prospects List

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

What a difference a few months make. The Cubs farm was ranked one of the worst heading into the season, and after one draft, international signing period, and trade deadline Theo and Co. have turned the farm around. The organization lacks pitching depth but has an abundance of up the middle type players and still has the Garza trade chip on the table this summer – if he can return from injury this year. This week we are taking an in-depth look at the 10 Cubs prospects I like the most, plus I’ll rank the next 10 guys, and update a few guys who used to be on this list.

The Top 10

1. Javier Baez, SS – High A, Daytona Cubs

Age: 19, Height: 6′ 1″, Weight: 205
Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Grade: A

Why He’s Here – He’s a monster at the plate with elite bat speed and a ton of power potential. Baez had 10 doubles, 5 triples, 12 homers, and 20 stolen bases in only 235 plate appearances for Peoria before being promoted to High A. Recent scouting reports say he’s been much better defensively at shortstop than expected with a legitimate shot at staying there, but if he has to move he will be a very good defensive 3B. He’s shown great instincts on the base paths but only has average speed.

What’s Holding Him Back – Lack of plate discipline and a aggressive, showboat attitude. His OBP% looks better than it should because other teams keep hitting him due to his shenanigans on the field. He was hit by more pitches (10) than he walked (9) for Peoria.

2. Jorge Soler, CF – Arizona Rookie Ball
Age: 20, Height: 6′ 3″, Weight: 205
Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Grade: A-

Why He’s Here – The 5-tool player term is thrown around too much, but Soler has a legitimate shot at developing into one. He has elite bat speed, strong hands, with the ability to spray balls to all fields. He showed a patient approach in the World Junior Showcase in 2010 and has reinforced that in limited plate appearances in rookie ball this year. Currently he’s a plus runner – that could downgrade to above average if he bulks up – with a plus arm that should make him a good defensive outfielder – the question is will he fill out too much and be forced to a corner instead of centerfield. In CF he should be good, but in RF he’d be gold glove caliber.

What’s Holding Him Back – Very raw with quite a bit of rust. Soler basically didn’t play baseball for 2 years while defecting from Cuba and (finally) establishing residency in Haiti. He has some holes in his swing but all the tools for a good player are there, he just needs the time to put them together.

3. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP – Disabled List
Age: 21, Height 6′ 0″, Weight: 190
Bats: Right, Throws: Right

Grade: A-

Why He’s Here – Has top rotation stuff featuring a mid 92-96 fastball, a filthy curveball that has a lot of hard, downward movement, and a solid changeup that he utilizes versus lefties, with plus control of all 3 pitches.

What’s Holding Him Back – Injuries. A ligament injury from 2010 returned forcing Vizcaino to undergo Tommy John Surgery before the season. TJS should not affect his velocity, but command and control will be a concern. Durability issues could also force him into the BP where he could be an elite late innings pitcher.

4. Albert Almora, CF – Arizona Rookie Ball

Age: 18, Height: 6′ 2″, Weight: 180
Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Grade: A-

Why He’s Here – The Cubs top pick in the 2012 draft has lots of above average tools with a very high floor. Almora is a potential 4-tool player that will lack power with his smaller frame. He should play elite defense at a premium position as he’s shown great instincts and speed to more than hold his own in centerfield. He has a very advanced approach for his age and should hit for very high average. He’s as close to a sure thing major leaguer as you can get from selecting a high school player in the MLB draft.

What’s Holding Him Back – Just turned 18 in April so he’s a long way off, but he should move quickly as most of his tools are very advanced for his age. While he has a high floor he also has a lower ceiling without much power potential.

5. Matt Szczur, CF – AA, Tennessee Smokies
Age: 23, Height: 6’1, Weight: 195
Bats: Right, Throws: Right

Grade: B

Why He’s Here – Having a breakout season at Daytona and before being promoted to AA. Szczur has more than doubled his BB% from last year and was 7th in the FSL in OBP% despite a very slow start and a minor injury that sidelined him for two weeks. Szczur shows the ability to hit for high average with plus speed and good defense in centerfield.

What’s Holding Him Back – Football and a lack of power. Playing football full time at Villanova has Szczur behind the curve. He’s just now getting to AA where he will be put to the test by players of his same age. His “slap-hitting” approach has many viewing him as a 4th outfielder but if he keeps showing the plate discipline we’ve seen this year and with his speed and good defense in CF, he should be a solid everyday lead-off hitter who will steal a ton of bases.

6. Brett Jackson, CF – Chicago Cubs
Age: 24, Height: 6′ 2″, Weight: 210
Bats: Left, Throws: Right
Grade: B

Why He’s Here – Above average secondary tools across the board at a premium position. Jackson, like Almora, has a bunch of above average tools but no elite skills. He won’t be the defender Almora will be but Jackson has shown great plate discipline and projects as a 20/20 guy.

What’s Holding Him Back – His bat is subpar. While he has great secondary tools, the most important tool is lacking. He doesn’t have any holes in his swing nor does he chase bad pitches very often – he just swings and misses the ball a lot. He’s going to strike out a ton, and was doing so at an alarming rate at AAA before being called up a couple days ago, but given everything else he brings to the table, he should still be very valuable as a starting centerfielder.

7. Josh Vitters, 3B – Chicago Cubs
Age: 22, Height: 6’2″, Weight: 200
Bats: Right, Throws: Right

Grade: B-

Why He’s Here – Stellar year that has put him back on the radar as he’s still only 22 and ready for the majors. He’s always been able to hit, but now he’s showing some of that power that was expected when the Cubs drafted him third overall in 2007. He set a career high for doubles, walks and was one shy of his career high HR total, with a month left to go.

What’s Holding Him Back – Despite the improvements, he still hasn’t defined the strike zone. He swings at too many pitches out of the zone and his developing power could just be due to the heavily offensive PCL. His defense at 3B needs a lot of work and he may have to move to LF or 1B where his bat does not profile as well.

8. Christian Villanueva, 3B – High A, Daytona Cubs
Age: 23, Height: 6’1″, Weight: 220
Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Grade: B-

Why He’s Here – Hits for high average, good plate discipline, and plays good defense at the hot corner after being converted from shortstop. He should be a solid everyday player with the potential for something more if he can develop power.

What’s Holding Him Back -Needs more time to develop after being signed out of Mexico but he is old for his league. Time will tell if his skills will hold up when he progresses to higher levels and faces advanced pitching.

9. Welington Castillo, C – Chicago Cubs
Age: 25, Height: 5’10″, Weight: 210

Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Grade: B-

Why He’s Here – Strong armed catcher with big power. Rarely can you find an offensive threat behind the plate that will be good defensively but we’ve had Castillo waiting in the wings for a few years now.

What’s Holding Him Back – Lack of consistency with the bat and durability questions. He had a couple down years at AA and AAA that was worrisome but the main concern is he just can’t stay on the field.

10. Jeimer Candelario, 3B – Low A, Boise Hawks
Age: 18, Height: 6′ 1″, Weight: 180
Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Grade: B-

Why He’s Here -Advanced approach for his age. He works counts, can hit for high for average and is a switch hitter who has shown power from both sides of the plate.

What’s Holding Him Back – His lack of athleticism could force him off 3B even before considering he still has a long way to go before he is done growing.

The Next 10

11. Pierce Johnson, RHP – No. 2 type potential who would have gone higher in the 2012 draft if it wasn’t for a forearm injury. Has two plus pitches, a mid 90s fastball and a nasty slider. Also uses a changeup that needs work for the majors but has shown solid command of all 3 pitches.

12. Gioskar Amaya, 2B – Amaya has shown an elite hit tool with good power in the low minors. Looks as though the Cubs have already relegated him to second base this year after he split time at SS, 3B and 2B last season. Being stuck at 2B already drops his value as there’s nowhere else to move to.

13. Ronald Torreyes, 2B – Similar to Amaya but without the power potential. Small guy with a big bat, he has to keep hitting at an elite rate if he’s going to make it to the majors as he’s already a marginal defensive player. He had a terrible start to the year but he’s posted over a .900 OPS since June to bring his numbers back to respectability.

14. Paul Blackburn, RHP – The other supplemental first round 2012 pick, Blackburn utilizes a fastball that sits at 92 and has two effective secondary pitches in a curve and changeup that should continue to develop. Has a repeatable delivery and he’s very athletic that keeps him in or around the zone. Potential No. 3 starter.

15. Junior Lake, SS – Super tools but very raw still. It seems as every year he’s mentioned as a major prospect due to his ceiling but he’s made very little progress to get there.

16. Duane Underwood, RHP – 2012 second round pick out of high school, has a large frame and projects as a mid-rotation starter. Very athletic with a quick arm. Hit 97 on his fastball going into the draft but never had the need to work on secondary pitches.

17. Dillon Maples, RHP – Above average FB that sits 92-94 and a good hard curveball but health is a major concern for the 2011 14th round pick that the Cubs paid 2.5M to lure away from UNC. He’s been very wild (4 BBs, 2 WPs, 2 HBPs) in only 2.2 innings pitched at rookie ball after returning from an arm injury earlier in the season.

18. Arismendy Alcantara, SS – Slick fielding SS who showed significant power in the pitcher friendly FSL this year. He needs to work on his throwing mechanics but he has the glove to stay at short long-term. Like pretty much every Cubs prospect his weakness is his aggressive approach. He’s only walked 19 times in 359 plate appearances for Daytona (5.2%). A leg injury has shelved him for the rest of the season but he should start at AA next season now that Baez has been promoted to A+.

19. Dan Vogelbach, 1B – Huge power – most in the Cubs entire system – but he has the body and defensive ability of a DH.

20. Austin Kirk, LHP – Lacks raw stuff but has good command and control of his pitches. In High A this year he’s carrying a 3.13 ERA with a 3.52 FIP and has drastically reduced his HR/9 from 1.01 last season to 0.21 this year. However, his K/9 has also dropped down to 5.43 (7.27 last year) while his BB/9 has gone up to 3.34 (2.26 last year). Should be in AA to start next season where we will see if his lack of raw stuff will start to hurt him versus more seasoned hitters.

Where Are They Now?

Trey McNutt, RHP – His numbers don’t look that bad but they do not match the results. Inconsistent control, and a penchant for giving up the HR has forced McNutt into pitching long relief out of the bullpen. He has the arm but is further away from putting it all together than he was to start the season. Given the Cubs lack of starting pitching in the upper minors, he should get another shot at being a starter next season.

Ben Wells, RHP – High ceiling arm but had to undergo Tommy John Surgery after only 40IP this season. Before the injury he was showing better command of his secondary pitches and that showed in his results as he was posting a much higher K/9 with a lower BB/9 and HR/9. Potentially a #2 or 3 starter before the injury.

Jae-Hoon Ha, CF – On the bright side he’s starting to take walks which he has never done in the past however he’s also increased his K%, his average has dipped (despite a higher BABIP), and the little power he had shown in high A has disappeared… and that was before he crashed head first into a cement wall that has landed him on the disabled list.

Our best prospects are still in the low minors and have a loooong way to go before contributing to the big league team but we are bristling with up-the-middle position players who should be filling out the lineup in 2015. My biggest concern is the lack of plate discipline throughout the organization. As we’ve seen with Vitters and Castro, aggressive young hitters rarely develop a patient approach. On the pitching front, the system needs an injection of pitching prospects, which hopefully a Garza trade would bring premium pitching in return. I don’t mind the lack of elite pitching prospects as it’s a smarter bet to stock up on position players than pitchers as the risks are less and the chance that position players reach their ceiling is greater. However, the organization needs enough arms fill out the back of the rotation and bullpen which the Cubs cannot do currently. The team should have an abundance of position prospects that we can flip for pitching and a fat wallet we can open up to lure the front-line pitching we lack, once the team is ready to compete.

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Cubs Trade Deadline Report Card

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Cubs trade Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson plus cash considerations to Atlanta for SP Arodys Vizcaino and RP Jaye Chapman

Paul Maholm was the hottest pitcher in baseball during the last month plus, holding a 1.00 ERA over his last 6 starts and a relief appearance (45IP).  With a club option for next year, Maholm was one of the few controllable pitchers on the market.  Reed Johnson is the perfect outfielder off the bench for a contending team, he won’t disrupt a locker room, he hits lefties very well, holds his own versus righties, and plays average to above average defense at all three outfield positions.  The combination of the two yielded two of the Braves pitching prospects.

Jaye Chapman is a throw in type with a future of a middle reliever.  The centerpiece of the deal was Arodys Vizcaino, who was ranked as the 14th best prospect in all of baseball going into the season by Keith Law.  However, an elbow injury that occurred in 2010 flared up again during Spring Training forcing Vizcaino to have Tommy John Surgery.  TJS is not the arm-killer it once was but there is still considerable risk.  With the Cubs lacking any type of starting pitching depth in the minors, Theo and Co. decided it was worth the gamble.  When healthy, Vizcaino has ace potential – he features a mid 90s fastball, a dominant curveball, and a solid changeup.   Health has been the major concern with him, and ultimately Vizcaino could end up a closer.  He will be slotted as the Cubs top pitching prospect, most likely still in the top 50 or 75 best prospects in all of baseball, and is expected to be ready for Spring Training next year.

Conclusion:  The Cubs flipped two guys they signed in the off-season for a 21 year old potential frontline starting pitcher plus bullpen depth.  Great move even before Reed declared he wanted to return to Chicago next year.

Grade:  A-

Cubs trade Geovany Soto plus cash considerations to Texas for SP Jacob Brigham

Soto has been up and down during his Cubs career. He came out of nowhere to win rookie of the year in 2008.  He followed that up with a very disappointing 2009 to only bounce back in 2010 with a .280/.393/.497 line that was the top offensive performance among all regular catchers. He cashed in on the year during arbitration getting a raise up to 3 million.   Since then, he’s been pretty bad to put it kindly.  Last year, he posted a .228/.310/.411 line and so far this year he followed it up with a .199/.284/.347.  On top of his inconsistency, he’s been unable to stay healthy.  Since playing in 141 games in 08′, he played in only 102 games in 09′, 105 games in 10′, 125 games last year, and had already missed 38 games out of 92 this year.  While his production and health have declined, his price continued to rise.  He’s making 4.2M this year with another potential raise coming in his final year of arbitration next year.  Instead of overpaying Soto and hoping he regains his 2008/2010 form or non-tendering him during the off-season the Cubs found a team willing to take a chance on Soto as a back up in Texas. Even more importantly, Texas’ own under-performing starting catcher Mike Napoli, is a free agent after this season, which gives Soto a chance to become their starter next year.  For Soto, I think that’s a great move as he will artificially inflate his offensive numbers in Arlington and could setup himself up nicely for a large payday in free agency… you know, if he can stay healthy.

The Cubs in return received Jacob Brigham a 24 year old right handed pitcher in AA.  Brigham has a lively arm, with a fastball that can reach 97. He also throws a good-but-inconsistent curve ball and has a work-in-progress changeup.  Command of his off-speed pitches is holding him back and the changeup may never be good enough to rely on at the major league level.  He has back end starter potential but is most likely another bullpen arm.  His stuff is good enough that he could end up a setup pitcher or closer.

Conclusion:  Barring a resurgence at the end of this year, I would have bet Soto would have been non-tendered this off-season as he makes far more than he is worth.  Moving Soto opened the door for Welington Castillo who has been waiting for his opportunity.  The Cubs did well to find a team willing to offer a prospect of some value.

Grade: B

Cubs trade Dempster to Texas for 3B Christian Villanueva and SP Kyle Hendricks

I wrote recently about Ryan Dempster here, so I will just focus on the trade; but first, the trade that didn’t happen.  The Cubs had a deal in place to land Randall Delgado from the Braves but Dempster wanted to give the Dodgers more time to meet the Cubs’ asking price. Dempster never formally rejected the Braves trade, but he did delay his decision past the window thus killing the trade.  Delgado, a potential #3 starter, would have been a steal for the Cubs but also would have nixed the Maholm/Johnson trade that yielded Vizcaino.  I’d prefer Vizcaino because he has a higher ceiling but there’s a lot more risk there as Delgado is healthy and would have slid right into our rotation this season.

As for the trade the Cubs did pull off, they received two players in A-ball, a third baseman blocked by Adrian Beltre and stud prospect Mike Olt plus another throw-in type pitcher.  Kyle Hendricks, 22, lacks raw stuff but has good command of his pitches.  He sits 87-89 with his fastball and he also throws a changeup, cutter, slider, and curveball.  None of his pitches are “plus” but he can locate all 5 in the strike zone.  He’s been a consistent overachiever when you look at his numbers in the minors.  His ceiling is a fringy 5th starter/middle reliever.  When I read up on him, Casey Coleman jumped to mind. If he continues to outperform his stuff, he’s a good bet to be a useful backend starter.

The real prospect of the deal is Christian Villanueva, a converted SS that has a plus glove at third. He is ranked #100 in BA’s top 100.  He is expected to hit for average but at this point has minimal power.  He has the chance to grow into some power and should develop into a solid everyday major leaguer.  Kevin Goldstein said he’s not as good as a prospect as Josh Vitters currently is, but Keith Law seemed to prefer Villanueva during an interview on ESPN1000 yesterday.

Conclusion: Dempster killed the Cubs leverage and a much better trade but the Cubs did well getting a decent return from Texas for what is still a two month rental in the middle of a career year.  The Delgado trade would have easily been an A, this trade without context is probably a B-, but knowing the circumstances…

Grade:  B+

Cubs keep Alfonso Soriano for the time being…

At some point on Tuesday morning, rumors swirled that Soriano would not go to San Francisco and the Cubs fans’ hatred for him started spewing on forums and twitter.  There was never a deal attached to Soriano to the Giants, just that Soriano blocked that team specifically.  After the deadline passed, it came out that Soriano would only go to one west coast team – the Dodgers – because of the distance away from his family. He was willing to go to multiple east coast contenders but no deal was made.

The Cubs will continue shopping Soriano this month as he will clear waivers.  I still don’t think they should trade him and pay all of his contract if we do not get a good prospect in return as he’s still not blocking anyone and is a far better option in LF than Bryan LaHair, which by now should be pretty clear (more on LaHair below).  If Soriano can produce the first half of next season, the Cubs should have a lot more teams interested in his services with only one year left on his deal instead of two.

One other interesting tidbit.  As of today, Soriano has produced 18.5 WAR.  Using Fangraph’s 5M/WAR value on free agent signings, Soriano’s production has been worth 92.5M, while he has been paid exactly 92M.  For the Soriano contract to break even he would need to produce another 9 WAR over the last 2+ years he’s under contract.  Highly unlikely, but the contract has not been the albatross it’s always made out to be.

Grade: C+

Matt Garza, too

Despite the injury, both the Blue Jays and D’Backs tried to acquire Garza at the deadline but neither was willing to meet the Cubs asking price.  Considering the Cubs and Garza’s agent have not had any negotiations at all since the Spring, it’s pretty clear they are dead set on trading him.  His value should still be pretty high in the offseason as long as he pitches well and stays healthy the rest of the year.  It’s a shame that the injury sprung up when it did as Garza would have had many suitors at the deadline and quickened the rebuilding process the Cubs are in.

Grade: C

Cubs other keepers

There’s three guys specifically that I wanted to see moved who weren’t:  Bryan LaHair, Jeff Baker, and Darwin Barney.  We will start with LaHair.  I was hoping the Cubs could cash in on his early success but when you hit .209/.278/.321 over the last 60 games you’re not going to be all that valuable.  At this point the Cubs are probably better off hoping he gets hot at the end of the year and try to move him for something in the offseason.

Grade: C

Jeff Baker is a curious case.  Every season you hear how teams are interested because he crushes lefties, plays multiple positions, and is a cheap contract but every year he’s still with the Cubs after the deadline.  I expected Baker to be used as a “sweetener” to add to a deal and get a better prospect but that didn’t happen.  Baker is a free agent after this season, so I am not sure why the Cubs did not go out of their way to move him before we risk losing him for nothing.

Grade: F

Barney is what he is.  A good defensive 2B with a very weak bat.  His defense has improved greatly this year.  Early in the season I was critical of Barney’s ability to go to his right and turn the double play, but since May I have noticed large improvements in both of these areas.  Offensively however, I see only minor improvement that I do not believe he can maintain.  His .268 average and .310 OBP are right around what you should expect, but his SLG% is up to .390 from last year’s .353 (his career minors SLG% is only .376 despite playing in the offensive heavy PCL for 2+ seasons). I don’t believe the minor power surge we’ve seen this year is sustainable.  Even with it, his Weighted Runs Created (wRC+) was 79 last year, and only up to 86 for this season.  As 100 is average, every point above or below is 1% better or worse at creating runs than league average.  That means Barney is 14% worse than league average offensively.  It’s not that I don’t like Darwin Barney, I just don’t like him being a franchise building block  (sorry Matt).  Barney’s a fine utility player and would have more value as full time SS, his natural position, but since there’s some guy named Starlin Castro there already, he’s forced to a position his bat just does not play.  You don’t need offensive from every position, but I would have liked to see the Cubs cash in on Barney when multiple contenders were looking for a middle infielder.  However, Barney is under control for 4 more seasons so there is no real urgency to move him.

Grade: C-

Overall, the Cubs did well at the deadline.  We turned a rental, two recent signings, and an underperforming overpaid player into useful prospects for the future.  I would have liked to see a few more moves but I’m happy with the trades the team did make.  As always let me know what you guys think in the comments.

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Alfonso Soriano’s Elite Defense

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

There’s three significant factors to being a good defensive outfielder.  First, you must have good instincts.  Quickly figuring out the trajectory of the ball off the bat can buy a good defender a few steps over an average defender who is slower to respond.  Second, and most obvious is, speed matters.  The ability to get to spots that slower players cannot get to is imperative to be strong defensively.  The third, and most undervalued is the arm.  Stopping hitters from trying to snag an extra bag or scoring on hits into the outfield saves runs and can potentially wins games but you don’t see this unless the runner is thrown out.  It’s difficult to quantify these factors but strides have been made with Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone (TZ) stats. Defensive metrics still have a ways to go, but you can get a good picture on a player’s defensive abilities by looking at the aggregate of the past few years of UZR and TZR.

As for Alfonso Soriano’s defense the narrative has been something like he’s horrible out there and he’s better off being a DH in the American League.  However, the advanced metrics paint an entirely different picture:

 

 

Ultimate Zone Rating

 

Year

UZR

Best defender

Worst Defender

2007

32

Alfonso Soriano, 32

Pat Burrell, -20.9

2008

16.2

Carl Crawford, 16.4

Delmon Young, -19.4

2009

-2.9

Carl Crawford, 17.5

Ryan Braun, -13.4

2010

5.1

Brett Gardner, 25.7

Jonny Gomes, -17.7

2011

3.4

Brett Gardner, 25.2

Raul Ibanez, -18.9

2012

10.7

Alex Gordon, 11.2

Carlos Gonzalez, -17.9

 

 

Total Zone Runs Above Replacement

 

Year

TZ

Best defender

Worst Defender

2007

18

Alfonso Soriano, 18

Jason Bay, -17

2008

3

Carl Crawford, 18

Delmon Young, -20

2009

-6

David DeJesus, 15

Carlos Lee, -14

2010

-3

Brett Gardner, 21

Jonny Gomes, -24

2011

9

Brett Gardner, 31

Raul Ibanez, -23

2012

19

Alfonso Soriano, 19

Carlos Gonzalez, -14

*qualified players only
Looking at these charts, you can see Soriano has been far better than average (which is represented as zero) most of the time. Only once has his UZR dipped below average and only twice did his TZ. Never has he been horrible or even close to the worst defensive LFer in baseball.   Placing him against his contemporaries Soriano ranks as the best defensive LFer since 2007 using UZR. This year he ranks second trailing only Kansas City’s Alex Gordon.  According to TZR he ranks as the 4th best defensive LFer among active players trailing only Carl Crawford, Brett Gardner, and Johnny Damon.  He is also tied for the 24th best LFer since 1954.  Even more intriguing is Soriano has the best UZR since 2007 out of every player in baseball at their respective positions. All signs point to a good-great defensive left fielder.

When trying to figure out why the narrative contradicts the stats I can come up with two explanations.  First, Cubs fans just don’t like him. For some reason as if Soriano is bullying children for their lunch money to get every last cent of Chicago as possible, fans have given Soriano a short leash.  I completely acknowledge there is merit in the arguments that he’s overpaid, was the best player on 2 teams that got swept straight out of the playoffs, and is the poster boy for the failures of the previous regime.  But I also acknowledge that his contract was a byproduct of Sam Zell trying to squeeze every cent out of the sale of the team as he used back loaded overpriced contracts that left the new ownership with the bill; he was on pace to be worth every cent of that deal until a guy who never got injured had a freak injury that left a baseball sized hole in his leg; he’s been a mentor to young players his entire tenure here in Chicago; he’s well liked among all of his teammates; and everyday he goes out there and plays as hard as he is physically capable of despite the criticism.  How easily could he have pulled a Milton Bradley (the real poster boy for the failures of Hendry), flipped the middle finger and said I have 136M reasons to not care what you people think…?

My second and better explanation is his defense is just plain ugly.  He had that hop, he doesn’t look very fluid while running, he has the ugliest slides/dives I’ve ever seen, and then there’s those times he dropped routine fly balls for errors which seemed to come in bunches.  But I don’t think the stats lie, the overall numbers say he’s been barely below average at his very worst and one of the best defensive LFers the rest of the time. As for my litmus test of good defenders, Soriano makes great reads off the bat, has enough speed left to get to most balls, and still has that really great arm. He shouldn’t be playing right or center, but as far as left fielders go, he’s definitely near the top of my personal list of active players.

I’ve always been a Soriano defender though so maybe I am biased in support of him.   Are you guys believers of Soriano’s D or do you think there’s something wrong with the advanced defensive metrics? Do you have a better explanation for the difference between the narrative and the stats? Leave your comments below and I’ll check back in to see your opinions.

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Placing Dempster’s Streak in Historical Context

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

By now you know, Ryan Dempster has pitched 33 straight scoreless innings, an incredible feat for any pitcher.  What you probably don’t know is that this is actually the second time he’s pitched over 30 straight innings without allowing a run for the Cubs.  He also had a 30.1 scoreless innings streak end that spanned 31 games in 2 seasons from August 16, 2005 through April 19, 2006.  Even more interesting is where this streak will be placed historically; according to Elias Sports Bureau Inc., this is only the fifth time in the last century that a starting pitcher has won five straight games while allowing zero runs:

Pitcher

Year

Team

# of games

# of scoreless innings

Orel Hershiser

1988

Dodgers

6

55

Don Drysdale

1968

Dodgers

6

54

Bob Gibson

1968

Cardinals

5

45

Brandon Webb

2007

Diamondbacks

5

41

Ryan Dempster

2012

Cubs

5

33

 

I know it was not all that uncommon to go all 9 innings back then, but I was still amazed that all 3 guys on the top of the list pitched every inning during these streaks, and Hershiser even had to go 10 innings for one of those wins.  Webb also pitched 3 straight CGs during his streak which is just as impressive given the era he pitched in.  While Dempster’s inning count during this streak is much more modest, you have to remember it spanned a  DL stint that sidelined him for 23 days and he has been relegated to a pitch count since returning.

Another fun fact about Dempster’s streak is he is one of 3 Cubs starting pitchers since 1938 to have scoreless innings streaks of at least 30.  The most recent was Ken Holtzman who also had 33 straight scoreless inning stretch in 1969.  Holtzman’s streak spanned 4 starts, including 3 CG shutouts, and another 1-run CG.   The other Cub pitcher to accomplish such a feat was Bill Lee who did it twice in the same season in 1938, with streaks of 37 and 35.

In any case, Dempster’s streak is still impressive but all signs point to it not continuing with the Cubs.  Rumors are the Cubs are determined to trade Dempster this week, to clear the way to focus on Garza heading into the deadline.  The Dodgers are the rumored frontrunners for Dempster’s services, and word as of yesterday, is the Tigers are out on Dempster because the Cubs’ asking price is too steep.

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5 Things to Watch for the Cubs in the Second Half

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

With the first half in the books, there’s still plenty of reasons to pay attention to this team… here’s what intrigues me the most.

Starlin Castro – The development of the team’s most important player is one reason I still watch every game.  For the rest of the season I will be keying in on the same things you continually hear mentioned with Castro.  Defensive improvement tops my list as the Cubs need to know if they have a shortstop or if he will have to move to a new position.  I’ll be watching to see if the improvement to his throwing mechanics and footwork continue into the second half.  Other things to keep an eye on include his walk rate (abysmal thus far), the development of his baserunning ability and power, and Castro’s chase for his third straight .300 hitting season.

Samardzija and Wood’s Development – Probably the two most surprising developments this season have been a couple of the performances out of the rotation.  There’s a chance the Cubs have found 40% of a starting rotation they can build around moving forward.  After Samardzija’s revelation during the off-season he has been up and down as he tries to develop another out-pitch, a curveball.  Wood, on the other hand, has been one of the best lefty starters in the NL since being called up from the minors.  His peripherals would say regression is coming, but no one is expecting him to be an ace.  The Cubs would be happy with just finding another cheap, controllable SP would speed up the rebuilding process or give the team another asset to trade.

The Minors Matter- There’s a bunch of interesting plots to watch with the Cubs younger players.  The questions I am looking for answers include: Is Anthony Rizzo’s fast start legit?  Will Brett Jackson or Josh Vitters get called up? What players will get promoted a level? How long will Matt Szczur’s hot streak continue? Will we continue to see a Jekyll & Hide version of Trey McNutt?  How will Soler, Almora, and the rest of the recent signings perform in their professional debuts?
 
Spoiler Alert – Never a position you want to be in but the Cubs will have a chance to play the role of spoilers again this year.  They’ll face the Cardinals 9 more times, the Pirates 13 times, the Reds 11 times, and the Brewers 7 more times in the second half. Those games could end up deciding the division and/or wild card races.  If I have to choose a lesser evil, let it be the Pirates since their fans have suffered quite a bit recently.

Trades - For me, this is the most anticipated trade deadline I can remember.  Cubs fans are going to find out which players Theo and Co. see as part of the future and which they do not.  We will find out if the Cubs can find takers for Soriano or Marmol; if there will be any surprising moves; and most importantly, what prospects/players are we getting back? I’m expecting an extremely active month for the Cubs and no one is ever completely off-limits in my book.

Cyan Dempster – OK this is a sixth thing but he won’t be on the Cubs if he does it.   That does not mean I won’t be paying attention to (and rooting for) Ryan Dempster’s shot at a Cy Young Award. Dempster is not going to be the favorite amid a group including Greinke, Dickey, Cain, Strasburg, and Kershaw plus others but if he remains in the NL and can stay healthy the rest of the season, he should be in consideration for the award.  He currently leads all SPs in the NL in ERA, is 7th in FIP, 5th in WHIP, 12th in WAR and is working on 27 straight scoreless innings.  However, pitching for a non-contender, his mediocre win-loss record (yes some voters still care about wins), and his lack of innings pitched will all work against him.

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A Phone Call Away: The Next Call Up For the Cubs

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

by Michael Jimenez

The arrival of Anthony Rizzo marked the first step in the evolution of the roster.   While the Cubs farm is lacking at the higher levels, we do have three position prospects at AAA that could make the major league team sometime this year.

Welington Castillo, C:  Castillo is hitting .343/.489/.582 so far this year in the minors after hitting .287/.359/.516 last year at AAA.  He has very little left to prove at AAA.  We have already seen Castillo this season when a barrage of injuries decimated our catchers last month but Castillo also ended up on the DL with a sprained MCL in his right knee.  He is no stranger to the disabled list, as he has found his way on it six times in the past 5 seasons in the minors.  My largest reservation for Castillo is inability to stay healthy.  Ironically, he shares that trait with the guy blocking him, Geovany Soto.  It’s one of the reasons I do not think Soto has much trade value considering his rising salary and disappearing bat act. I am expecting the Cubs to move Soto for the best offer available by the deadline and Castillo to assume the everyday catching duties.

Josh Vitters , 3B:  Vitters, if you remember, was the 3rd overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft directly out of Cypress High School in California.  He was ranked in Baseball America’s top 100 in 2008 (43), 2009 (51), & 2010 (70) based on one of the sweetest swings in all of baseball, plus bat speed, and a ton of raw power.  This season Vitters was dropped from the top 100 list and was only considered the organization’s 9th best prospect according to BA.  He has come under scrutiny for poor defense that may force him to move to first-base and a lack of plate discipline, although his swing is still there, the lack of development defensively and at the plate caused his stock to drop considerably.

This year he has reestablished some of that value with solid numbers and an increase in power.  He is currently hitting .291/.341/.493 with a significant increase in his isolated power.  His ISO is currently at .202 a nearly 40 point jump over his ISO last year at AA. Part of that increase is his move from the Southern League to the ultra-offensive Pacific Coast League, but another reason for his developing power is due to an improved approach at the plate.  His BB% is only 5.7% but that is the highest he’s ever held a walk rate for this many plate appearances at any level in the minors.  He’s walked 16 times so far this season in comparison to only 22 walks all of last year. He’s still suspect defensively but many think he should at least be serviceable at 3B.

Valbuena got the call when Ian Stewart went down with a wrist injury but since then Vitters is on fire hitting .488/.757/1.245 with 3 double and 3 homers.  He may soon force his way on the major league team and I think Vitters at least sees a cup of coffee in September.

Brett Jackson, CF:  Many believed Jackson would make it onto the team out of spring training but that did not happen.  Even after the Marlon Byrd trade, Jackson remained at AAA. He has the tools to be an above average center fielder at the major league level but his contact rate is hampering his development.   At each minor league level, Jackson’s K% has increased.  At A ball he struck out 20.2% of the time, at AA it increased to 24.2%, and now at AAA it’s up to 31.9%.  He’s also seen his BB% drop at each level from 13.8% at A ball, to 13.2% at AA,  and now at AAA it’s down to 11.4%. This year his K% is up to an alarming 33.3% and his BB% is down to 9.8%.

This trend is a cause for concern as major league pitching will exploit his inability to make contact and that’s why Jackson is still sitting in AAA despite an opening in CF.  A second reason for Jackson being over looked is the Cubs knew they were going to call up Rizzo once his arbitration clock pushed back on June 23rd, forcing LaHair to the outfield which would have then created a logjam between Soriano, DeJesus, LaHair, Jackson, Johnson, and Campana.

Despite his shortcomings this year, Jackson is still hitting .259/.338/.493 after a .297/.388/.551 campaign last year.  I expect the Cubs will find trade partners for Johnson and LaHair or DeJesus clearing the way for Jackson to play CF every day.

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We Stinks

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

by Michael Jimenez

“We played like a triple-A team. This is embarrassing. Embarrassing for the team, for the owners, embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassing. That’s the word here for this team. We should know better than this. … We stinks.” ~ Carlos Zambrano, former Cubs pitcher, June 5, 2011

What held true last June still holds true today… this team stinks.  The only difference is this year’s team is playing like a AAA team because  the roster is full of players who should be playing at Iowa, not in the confines of Wrigley Field.  It’s also only going to get worse this summer after the team makes the trades many of us expect.  Sure, Anthony Rizzo is coming up within the next few days as his arbitration clock pushes back after June 22nd and we will probably see Brett Jackson at some point this year too, but neither are saviors. Especially not with this team being as bad as it is.

In all of baseball the Cubs offense ranks 3rd to last in WAR, 9th to last in batting average, 3rd to last in on-base percentage, 7th to last in slugging percentage, and 2nd to last in wRC+. The pitching staff has not been much better.  Anchored by Dempster’s Cy Young caliber season thus far the team’s starting pitching is in the middle of the pack.  Our starters rank 15th in WAR, 15th in SIERA, 10th worst in ERA, 16th worst in FIP, 12th worst walk rate and have accumulated the 11th worst strike out percentage.  The bullpen has been horrendous as the Cubs’ relievers rank last in SIERA, 5th worst in ERA, last in FIP, last in BB%, last in K%, and collectively have blown the 4th most saves.

A few seasons of bad baseball is a small price to pay to rebuild the organization for the sustained success Theo and Co. envision.  Developing prospects and stockpiling high draft picks – or assets as Theo likes to call them – is a higher priority than trying to win, with this team, right now.  The Cubs currently sit a half game ahead of the Padres for the worst record in baseball.  In fact, this team is constructed so well to accomplish its goal,  the team is actually on pace for the worst single-season record in the club’s 137 year history.

Year

Winning %

Record

2012

.348

24-45

1962

.364

59-103

1966

.364

59-103

1981

.369

38-65

1901

.381

53-86

It is not all that surprising the 1901 team and the 1981 strike-shortened team did not perform very well, however, those 1960s teams that are currently are atop this list are.  The 1962 club featured four future Hall of Famers including Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo and the 1966 Cubs had Banks, Santo, Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Robin Roberts, and a Hall of Fame manager in Leo Durocher.  I did not expect some of the most talented teams this franchise has ever seen to be associated with the worst teams in franchise history.

As for this year’s team  they are destined for the basement of the NL Central and most likely a record they do not want to be associated with, but we won’t remember the 2012 Cubs for their futility.  No, instead, we will remember it as the first step in the right direction.  It’s not the year we are all waiting for, but it is the year that got us to that year.

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