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It’s Time to Stop Comparing Javier Baez to Gary Sheffield

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Javier Baez has truly amazing, turn the wind around with the power of his wrists, bat speed. I saw him live for the first time last Wednesday, when he sent a screaming line drive on to Waveland for his first Wrigley Field home run. His bat speed led to comparisons with the king of elite bat speed from the prior generation of players: Gary Sheffield. You heard the comparisons when Baez was drafted. You heard them as he sped through the minors. You heard them when he was promoted to the Majors, and over the past two weeks numerous outlets have shown side by side swings of Baez and Sheffield.

But is Sheffield actually a good comparison Baez?

In short, no, he is not. Sheffield had elite bat speed that went along with an advanced approach at the plate not only from the day he hit the Majors Leagues that led to him walking more than he struck out over his career (13% walk rate, 11% strikeout rate), but also in his short time as a prospect in the Minor Leagues, where Sheffield struck out in just 8.5 % of his plate appearances and walked more than he struck out. On the other hand, Sheffield was a very poor defender both as a shortstop very early in his career, and as an outfielder after that. Despite his defensive issues, the primary reason Sheffield is a fringe Hall of Famer as opposed to a sure fire one is time missed due to injuries, particularly in his prime.

Aside from the bat speed, Baez has nothing in common with Sheffield aside from being drafted and moving through the Minors as a shortstop. Baez has an approach at the plate that needs a lot of work, with a 38.7% strikeout rate and a 3.1% walk rate in his brief Major League career. His similar issues in his minor league career, particularly a high strikeout rate (26% for his minor league career), were also widely reported. On the plus side, Baez should be at least an average defensive second baseman, with good odds of ending up as above average to plus at the position.

In other words, aside from the bat speed and some bat waggle, Baez and Sheffield have nothing in common as Major League baseball players. If you want a better comparison for Baez, look to recent Cub Alfonso Soriano, who had elite power but also tallied a lot of strikeouts. Baez won’t steal nearly as many bases as Soriano did through his prime (Soriano stole at least 30 bases in 4 of 5 seasons before joining the Cubs), but should play far superior defense to Soriano at second base, where Soriano was terrible. And if Javier Baez ends up being Alfonso Soriano with better defense, that would be a great result for the Cubs. Well, as long as they don’t decide to lock him up to an 8 year, $138 million contract starting his age 31 season.

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What to Expect from Javier Baez

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Nearly a month ago, the first fruits of the Cubs’ elite farm system reached Wrigley Field when the team recalled Arismendy Alcantara. Tonight, Javier Baez, one of the Cubs’ top three prospects and one of the top ten prospects in baseball, makes his Chicago Cubs debut at second base against the Rockies at Coors Field.

Whereas most Cub fans felt that Alcantara was ready for the call up, Baez is a bit more controversial due to an extremely slow start in Iowa and season numbers (.260/.323/.510, 23 HRs, 8% walk rate, 30% strikeout rate) that are good, but not indicative of destroying the PCL. In particular, the high strikeout rate concerns many Cub fans and prospect analysts.

However, Baez’s season is probably best described in three separate portions. The first is from Opening Day to May 16, when he was terrible. The second is from May 17 to June 30, when he was much better. The third is from July 1 to August 3, when he was flat out awesome.

Opening Day to May 16: 122 PAs, .145/.230/.255, 36.9 K%, 8.2 BB%, 3 HRs

May 17 to June 30: 176 PAs, .310/.358/.563, 29.5 K%, 7.4 BB%, 8 HRs

July 1 to August 3: 136 PAs, .300/.360/.675, 24.3 K%, 8.1 BB%, 12 HRs

This type of progression is not out of the ordinary for Baez. Since moving up from the Low A Peoria Chiefs to the High A Daytona Cubs in 2012, Baez has struggled upon reaching each new level before, eventually, dominating enough that he spent no more than four months at any level of the minors.

The Cubs have been fairly aggressive in promoting Baez, moving him up a level once he showed a month or so of consistent performance demonstrating improvement on his problems upon each promotion, typically dealing with his overaggressive approach leading to struggles with improved breaking pitches he saw as he moved up. This call up is right in line with that approach.

But what should we expect from Baez in his first stint in the Majors?

I’d caution not to set expectations too high. As I stated above, Baez struggled at each of the three highest levels of the Minor Leagues before adjusting, and he will consistently face pitchers with better stuff and control than at any prior point in his career. Nor would Baez be the first elite prospect to struggle in his first stint in the Majors and have a bright career soon thereafter. Antony Rizzo’s struggles in his first call up to San Diego in 2011 were widely reported, hitting just .141/.281/.242 in 153 plate appearances. Rizzo has emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball this season. Mike Trout, who has a meaningful chance of being the best baseball player many of us have ever seen when his career is finished, hit just .220/.281/.390 in his first 135 plate appearances in the Show.

If Baez hits .250/.300/.400 and keeps his strikeout rate below 30%, I’ll be fairly pleased. If the slugging percentage is .450, meaning he’s making solid enough contact to get to his power, I’ll be quite happy. Anything beyond that from a 21 year old middle infielder with historical troubles upon moving up to a new level making him MLB debut? Well, my wife may need to tell me stop doing my ridiculous happy dance a few times over the rest of the season.

But if Baez does struggle, people should hold off on the Felix Pie/Gary Scott/etc. comparisons. When your worst case scenario is sending a 22 year old player back to Triple A for a half season to work on a pitch recognition and plate approach refinement, you’re in pretty good shape.

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Who Is the Real Travis Wood?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Travis Wood was one of the few bright spots for the 2013 Chicago Cubs. Wood was the Cubs’ lone All Star in 2013, when he posted a 3.11 ERA in 200 innings over 32 starts, good for 4.4 rWAR, Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculation. Wood was also the Cubs’ most consistently good pitcher by a significant margin, particularly after the trades of Scot Feldman and Matt Garza. This led to some talking about Wood as a potential rotation cornerstone, maybe a solid 2 behind whomever the Cubs find to be their ace in 2015 or 2016. It was hard to find a Cubs fan who didn’t think Wood was at least a very good 3 in most rotations.

Unfortunately, 2014 has not been as kind to Wood. In 116 innings over 20 starts he pitched to a 5.12 ERA, a below replacement level performance (-0.4 rWAR on the mound). So which is the real Travis Wood? The one who looked like a potential near piece to build a rotation around in 2013, or the one who has provided more value in the batter’s box than on the mound and looks like he perhaps should face competition heading into 2015 to earn a spot in the starting rotation?

The answer is neither. A pitcher’s ERA correlates highly with 6 peripheral statistics: strikeout rate, walk rate, ground ball rate, home runs per fly ball, bating average on balls in play (BABIP), and left on base rate (LOB%). A pitcher with high strikeout, ground ball and left on base rates, along with low walk and HR/FB rates and a low BABIP will have a very, very good ERA. But the ability of these statistics to provide information regarding what to expect from a pitcher going forward varies greatly.

Strikeout. walk, and ground ball rates are the most predictive of these peripherals. Unless a pitcher’s stuff improves or declines, or if a pitcher meaningfully changes the way he pitches (which few do successfully), the variation in these peripherals tends to stay fairly small on a season to season basis. The predictability of HR/FB seems to depend on the pitcher. Some pitchers have an ability to control whether their fly balls leave the park, although a majority do not. BABIP and LOB% tend to not be predictive season to season, although some pitchers do have lower natural BABIPs than others.

The sabermetrics community developed two statistics to use the more predictable peripherals to determine, given an average BABIP and left on base rate and a neural ballpark environment and defense, what a pitcher’s expected ERA is. The first, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) looks at K/9, BB/9, and HR/FB. FanGraphs later developed xFIP, on the basis that most pitchers exert greater control on whether ball are hit on the ground or in the air than they do on whether the balls that are hit in the air clear the outfield fence or not. The question of whether FIP or xFIP is more predictive for any particular pitcher rests on the question of if the pitcher has that ability to induce fly balls that do not become home runs at a reduced rate, or if he is allows balls to fly out of the ballpark with abandon.

In 2013, Wood’s FIP was 3.89, and his xFIP was 4.50. So Wood outperformed his FIP by more than 3/4 of a run, and outperformed his xFIP by over 1.25 runs. As Wood’s BB/9 is a a full walk higher in 2014 than it was in 2013, those numbers have gone up in 2014, but not drastically so: his FIP is 4.29 and his xFIP is 4.69.

So what’s causing the 2 run difference between Wood’s 2013 ERA and his 2014 ERA? BABIP and LOB%. In 2013, Wood posted well batter than average in both of those peripheral statistics, putting up a .248 BABIP (league average hovers around .300) and stranding 77.4% of base runners (league average hovers around 70%, with a few percentage points making a big difference in ERA).

To this point in 2014 Wood has a .315 BABIP and stranded just 66.2% of men who get on base. With 7% more of the runners he faces getting on base, and 11% more of the runners who get on base reaching home plate, Wood’s ERA has ballooned.

It’s not all bad news, though. Wood continues to show an ability, like many left handed pitchers who induce more fly balls than average, to limit the number of home runs he gives up on fly balls, consistently keeping that number between 6.3% and 7.4% (league average is around 10%, with, again, small changes resulting in big ERA differences). This means that Wood’s FIP, which for his career is about 1/3 of a run lower than his xFIP, is a better indication Wood’s true talent.

In other words, Wood’s expected ERA is between the high 3s and low 4s, not the low 3s  ERA he posted in 2013 or the low 5s ERA he currently has.. That turns Wood into a solid, innings eating, 3/4 type in a starting rotation… just like the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed Edwin Jackson prior to 2013. But he’s not a 2, and no one should expect him to be.

So what does this mean for the long term with Wood? Well, if he is willing to sign a long term extension well below market value for a pitcher like him (say $10 million per year in the free agent seasons he would give up), it would like still be worth it for the Cubs to do so. But if he’s looking for a big payday, the Cubs should go year to year with him through arbitration and let him leave via free agency or trade him if they have better options.

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What to do with Edwin Jackson?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Heading into the winter of 2012, the Cubs’ biggest free agency target was right handed starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, offering him a 5 year, $75 million deal. Unfortunately for the Cubs and their fans, Sanchez made it clear that he wanted to stay with the Detroit Tigers, the team he was traded to the previous summer, and gave the Tigers the opportunity to match or beat any offer he received from other teams. When the Tigers offered Sanchez a 5 year, $80 million deal, the Cubs moved on to plan B: Edwin Jackson, on a 4 year, $52 million contract.

While no one ever thought Jackson was as good as Sanchez, evidenced by the nearly $30 million difference between their contracts, Jackson had been a solid mid-rotation starter who could eat innings from 2009 to 2012. Yet while Sanchez found the next gear in his career since the start of the 2013 season,  progressing from a solid 2/3 to an ace caliber pitcher in 2013, Jackson took several steps back. While he’s eaten up innings, he’s done it at well below replacement value according the Baseball-Reference’s WAR.

There was an argument last season that it was just bad luck or random variation. His FIP and xFIP have been better than his ERA as a Cub (4.98 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 3.86 xFIP in 2013; 5.64 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 4.04 xFIP in 2014) and his strikeout and walk rates were close to his more successful stretch from 2009-2012, particularly last season. But we’re nearly 300 innings in, he has not been able to get consistent results (except when they’re consistently bad), and nearly 27% of batted balls against him in 2014 have been line drives (league average is 20%), leading credence to the argument that he’s being squared up by opposing hitters this season.

The real question, with nearly two and a half years and approximately $27 million left on Jackson’s deal and the Cubs likely looking to be more competitive next season, what can the Cubs do with Jackson?

The all the stars aligning answer is some fringe contender thinking they can fix what ails Jackson and offering to take a fair amount of the money off the Cubs hands for some lottery ticket prospect.  But is there a team that desperate, or a general manager that dumb with the Phillies being terrible? Probably not. The best target may actually be the Yankees, who just need arms to throw innings with all the injuries they’ve dealt with, and are always capable of adding payroll, but I’d be surprised if Cashman would take on a struggling 30 year old starter with a contract that long this month.

Should Jackson not be tradeable, as presumed, the Cubs really have no choice but to keep pitching Edwin Jackson for the remainder of 2014 to see if Jackson can turn it around. If he can’t? Can the Cubs really go into 2015 planning on Edwin Jackson throwing 180 innings or more? I don’t think so. It would mean admitting an expensive mistake, but not as expensive as continuing to throw Jackson as is out there every fifth game, particularly considering the Cubs’ ability to find solid mid-rotation arms on short term deals. The next two and a half months, though, are going to be very important for the future of Edwin Jackson’s career, and the construction of the 2015 starting rotation.

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What the Samardzija and Hammel Trade Means for the Rebuild

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Following the Cubs’ sweep of the Red Sox last week, I planned on writing about how the Cubs could be legitimate competitors in 2015 without blowing up the farm system or spending insane amounts of money. So late on the Fourth of July, I hopped on MLB Trade Rumors on my phone, intending to check which catchers are scheduled to hit free agency after this season. There, right on the top of screen, I saw that the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for a package headlined by shortstop and top ten prospect in baseball Addison Russell. The Cubs also received the A’s second best prospect, outfielder Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily, a fairly successful starting pitcher with the A’s last season before struggling this year. The big prize, however, was undoubtedly Russell. Suddenly, I knew the post on the Cubs competing in 2015 would be delayed.

I know a fair number of Cubs’ fans were hoping, expecting, whatever verb is appropriate, to get high ceiling, near MLB ready pitching for Samardzija at the least. The rub, however, is that teams generally don’t trade high ceiling, close to the Majors pitching prospects mid-season for established MLB pitchers, even for very good pitchers like Samardzija. Instead, they promote those prospects to the Majors mid-season, if they’re contending.

Beyond that, even if they Cubs had been able to pick up two Aaraon Sanchez types (top 30 prospects in baseball), that’s not as good of a return as one top ten prospect like Addison Russell. Also, the abundance of fantastic Cubs’ hitting prospects, which includes three top ten prospects (Russell, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant), along with four other position player prospects who would fall into many top fifty lists (Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler), gives the Cubs a host of options to complete the rebuild, and in relatively short order.

Trade Prospects for Elite Starting Pitching

Joe hit on this one in his write up of the trade on July 5. The Cubs could put a package of position player prospects together better than what any other team could offer on any starting pitcher who might become available via trade, including David Price.

Yet I don’t think the Cubs are going this route. There are too many pitchers like Price, top of the rotation arms right around age 30, hitting free agency for the Cubs to send a load of prospects for one of them. If someone like Chris Sale, who is signed long term to a fairly team friendly deal, became available, that would change my opinion. However, the odds of someone like Sale becoming available anytime soon are somewhere between the odds of me winning the lottery and my son becoming the King of England.

Keeping All The Prospects

Yes, this is a legitimate possibility, particularly if the Cubs think Kris Bryant is a better long term fit in an outfield corner than the hot corner. If this route was taken, there’s a high likelihood that the line up in mid-2015, and by early 2016 at the latest, would include some combination of Starlin Castro, Russell, and Baez at shortstop, second base, and third base, Anthony Rizzo at first base, Arismendy Alcantara in center field, and Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant in the outfield corners. That is a lineup with a ton of potential that would cost a grand total of approximately $17 million for seven starting position players, and allows Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber to continue progressing in the minors.

With that much cost savings on position players, including top prospect insurance in the minor leagues, the Cubs could open the flood gates on pitching spending without mortgaging their ability to compete. They could easily sign a Max Scherzer or Jon Lester while having plenty of money available to pick up a second tier starter like Justin Masterson or Ervin Santana.

Trading for Giancarlo Stanton 

The Cubs have been very clear about the type of veterans they will target as they become competitive: in prime (e.g., still in their 20s, preferably as far away from 30 as possible) star caliber players. Unfortunately, these types of players rarely make it to free agency, and get $200 million-plus contracts when they do. This off season, though, the Miami Marlins are fairly likely to shop Giancarlo Stanton, one of the best hitters, and arguably the best pure power hitter, in baseball. Stanton does not turn 25 until November.

If the Marlins shop Stanton, the Cubs would be in a great position to make a deal for the power hitting outfielder. While the Marlins have a lot of young, elite pitching talent in their system, much of which is already in the Majors, their offensive prospects are more solid starter types or role players than potential stars. The Cubs could offer Javier Baez, who has a big boom or bust potential, Albert Almora, a Christian Villanueva or Dan Vogelbach type, and a Pierce Johnson type of pitching prospect while still maintaining a very solid farm system.

This move makes sense for the Cubs if they think that Bryant can handle third base long term. Looking at the same late 2015/early 2016 lineup time frame, the Cubs would have Rizzo at first base, Russell and Castro in the middle infield, Bryant at 3B, Stanton and Soler in the outfield corners, and Alcantara in center field. 

Stanton could particularly appeal to the Cubs because his offensive performance is already the best case scenario for any of the Cubs’ top prospects. Stanton is hitting .308/.406/.566 with 21 home runs through Sunday, July , which are MVP contender numbers. 

A couple of concerns would accompany any deal for Stanton. Stanton has dealt with knee issues in the past, but they’ve been more of the nagging variety than skill eroding injuries. An injury history like Stanton’s is a risk a team just has to take to sometimes to obtain a player like Stanton, and a discount shouldn’t be expected because of it if he remains healthy through the last half of 2014. The Cubs could also shift Stanton to left field, which is a bit less demanding than right field. 

Also, Stanton will enter his second of three years of arbitration in 2015. The Cubs would likely require an agreement on an extension with Stanton prior to any trade becoming official, and even with a pre-free agency extension discount any free agent eligible years covered by the extension would likely, and should, cost the Cubs at least $20 million per season, and probably $25 million or above. Would that be worth it for a middle of the order containing Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant? Only time would tell, but I think that would be one fun middle of the order to watch.

Odds are we won’t know what the Cubs plan to do with their brigade of position player prospects until the offseason. Whichever route the Cubs take, though, the Cubs are on the cusp of building what very well could be the best Cubs offense of my nearly 33 year lifetime without signing a single free agent starting position player.

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The Best Option for Cubs Ace of the Future May Not Be Who You Think

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Off the top of your head, name the Cubs’ starter with the most strikeouts per nine innings and best ERA? No, it’s not Jeff Samardzija. He also has the best ground ball rate among Cubs’ starters, and the second lowest walks per nine innings? Not Jason Hammel either. He has the lowest FIP and xFIP of any Cubs’ starter by more than half a run too. Travis Wood? Nope.

It’s Jake Arrieta, the pitcher who many groaned to see be the biggest piece the Cubs received in return for Scott Feldman early last July. Sure, Arrieta was a highly regarded prospect in the Orioles organization, where he was named a Top 100 prospect in both 2009 and 2010. But he never converted his plus stuff into results, and for the most part was unable to even convert it to consistent strikeouts, at least not without also giving up far too many walks.

Some adjustments to his pitches and pitch selection, though, have given the 2014 the Cubs a decent sized look at the dominance many thought Arrieta could achieve. Through his first nine starts, Arrieta sports a 1.98 ERA, 2.31 FIP, 2.66 xFIP, 9.90 K/9 and 53% ground ball rate, besting all other Cubs’ starters on those rates. On top of that, only Jason Hammel has allowed less walks per nine innings (1.87) than Arrieta (2.70).

The only negative to Arrieta’s 2014 is his average of less than 6 innings per start, compiling 50 innings in his 9 starts to date. The Cubs, however, heavily influenced that rate by being extremely cautious with Arrieta during his first three starts of the season after he missed the first month of the season due to minor shoulder soreness. After averaging under 4 and a half innings per start over those first three games, Arrieta averaged just over 6 innings in his most recent half dozen starts, throwing less than six innings only once.

The small sample size caution should be noted because Arrieta has only pitched about a quarter of a season’s worth of innings, but the peripheral statistics pointing to a meaningful possibility of sustainable success (strikeout rate and walk rate in particular) are among the first statistics to stabilize.

Quite simply, no one would have guessed Jake Arrieta would do what he is doing this season. Just as many people in the industry thought the Cubs should have converted Arrieta into a reliever. But if he can keep performing like this all season, the “will this pitcher be extended” talk won’t focus on Samardzija or Wood. Instead, the discussion will be if the Cubs should try to lock up Arrieta through his early 30s just as he enters arbitration.

Q: Who is the only Cub to steal at least 20 bases in a season at age 40 or above?

A: Click Here

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Prospect Watch: Closest to the Majors Edition

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

 Two weeks ago, we explored the top of the Cubs’ system, who conveniently have continued to perform the similarly over the past two weeks, giving that piece at least a big of longevity. But the Cubs’ system wasn’t viewed as special heading into the season just because it had four of the top 50 position player prospects in baseball. It is also a deep system.

While Javier Baez’s and the Chicago Cubs’ poor starts make it much less likely we’ll see any of the Cubs’ top five prospects in Wrigley this season, several other legitimate prospects could make their Major League debuts with the Cubs this season. As a note, all statistics are through Sunday, June 8.

 Arismendy Alcantara (2B/SS) – Triple A Iowa Cubs – Age 22
.269/.307/.519, .351 wOBA, 107 wRC+, 8 HRs, 5.6% BB rate, 25.2% K rate, .331 BABIP, 10 SBs, 2 CSs

Outside of the Core Four position players and C.J. Edwards, Arismendy Alcantara is generally viewed as the Cubs’ best prospect, as well as a top 100 prospect in his own right, and Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks described Alcantara’s ceiling as Jose Reyes-lite. He showed an ability to get on base in Double A Tennessee last season, has above average power for a middle infielder, can steal bases, and should be at least a plus defensive second baseman, with gold glove ceiling as far as talent is concerned. Alcantara played shortstop through the Cubs’ system until Baez joined the Smokies in the middle of 2013.

Alcantara has shown good power in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League, but has not forced the issue of his promotion due to a .306 OBP. He has been a level a year type of player throughout the minors, and I would not be surprised to see the Cubs prefer Alcantara play almost all of, if not the entire, Triple A season in Iowa. However, since he is already on the 40 man roster, I also would not at all be surprised to see Alcantara make his debut when rosters expand in September, with his Major League debut being no later than late April 2015.

Kyle Hendricks (RHP) – Iowa Cubs – Age 24
11 GS, 67 IP, 3.90 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 8.60 K/9, 2.55 BB/9, .347 BABIP against

At the start of training camp, Hendricks was the Cubs plus control/command, average at best stuff pitcher of the year. Nearly every team in baseball has one of these guys every season. Unfortunately, few become more than back end of the rotation starters.

Hendricks has shown some good signs this season, though, particularly an increased strikeout rate. He is essentially a finished product, and with his fairly limited ceiling service time concerns are unlikely to come into play. Hendricks will likely be one of the first three Iowa pitchers called up, along with Tsuyoshi Wada and Chris Rusin, upon either injury or trade of a pitcher currently in the Cubs’ starting rotation. As such, he could make his MLB debut tomorrow, or he could end up waiting until early 2015.

Christian Villanueva (3B) – Iowa Cubs – Age 22
.222/.279/.384, .289 wOBA, 67 wRC+, 5 HRs, 7% BB rate, 26% K rate, .283 BABIP, 2 SBs, 1 CS

While Kris Bryant and Mike Olt got the lion’s share of the media attention (let’s be honest, they got ALL the media attention) at third base during spring training, Villanueva is a solid prospect in his own right, rated higher than Olt coming into this season by all publications and more likely to stay at the hot corner than Bryant.

 Villanueva’s bat has been disappointing for the Iowa Cubs this season, but his defense at third, which rates as plus-plus and been called the best in all of the minor leagues, means that if he can be a league average bat he’ll provide great value while he is cheap and under team control.

Villanueva, however, could end up the odd man out of the Cubs’ game of third base prospect musical chairs. If the Cubs decide Mike Olt is not the answer (and it sure doesn’t look like he is) AND the Cubs trade Luis Valbuena this season, Villanueva could get the call up in July, particularly if he starts hitting more consistently. But I don’t think the Cubs trade Valbuena, arguably their second best offensive player who is only in his first year of arbitration.

By next year, Kris Bryant could bang down the door to Wrigley and claim third base for at least the next 6 plus seasons… or the Cubs could move Bryant to a corner outfield spot. I would not be shocked to see Villanueva get a cup of coffee in the show with Alcantara in September, but, unlike Alcantara, I am not convinced Villanueva will be on the Major League active roster early in 2015. He could end up as trade bait as much as anything, where he would be a solid second or third piece in a trade for a bigger name on the trading block.

Arodys Vizcaino (RHP) – High A Daytona Cubs, Double A Tennessee Smokies – Age 23
At Daytona: 9 G, 9 IP, 1.00 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 10 K/9, 4 BB/9, .286 BABIP against
At Tennessee: 11 G, 11 IP, 2.38 ERA, 1.93 FIP, 10.32 K/9, 2.38 BB/9, .231 BABIP against

Vizcaino is the only prospect not currently on the Iowa Cubs in this list, although he has been pitching in the High A Florida State and Double A Southern Leagues to start the season due to their friendlier weather than Iowa in April and May, not because he could not handle Triple A hittersg. Aside from one bad outing with the Smokies a couple of weeks ago where he allowed 3 earned runs in one inning, Vizcaino has been lights out this season, not allowing a run in his other 10 appearances in the Southern League. You know how good Hector Rondon and Neil Ramirez have been for the Cubs this season? Vizcaino’s ceiling as a late innings reliever is higher.

 The questions regarding Vizcaino’s arrival in Wrigley are: (1) when are the Cubs comfortable that he’s ready for the rigors of MLB bullpen usage? (2) Are the Cubs planning on trying to convert Vizcaino back to a starter? And (3) how are the Cubs viewing his service time issues? This is a bit more complicated for Vizcaino than most, since time on the disabled list (where Vizcaino spent 2012 and 2013) counts as service time towards arbitration, not minor league option years. As such, Vizcaino already has more than 2 years of MLB service time.

So we could see Vizcaino very soon. But, if the Cubs decide to convert Vizcaino back to a starter, which is viewed as unlikely but possible, he might not hit Wrigley until 2016. My guess is we see Vizcaino very late this season, once the Cubs will be sure he will not be a Super 2 player entering arbitration in 2015.

My guess on the order of call ups for these four: Hendricks, Vizcaino, Alcantara, Villanueva, with Villanueva having the highest odds of never suiting up as a Chicago Cub.

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How Are the Top 5 Prospects Doing?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Heading into the season, near unanimity existed regarding the identities of the Cubs’ top prospects: shortstop Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant, center fielder Albert Almora, right fielder Jorge Soler, and right handed pitcher C.J. Edwards. Some publications put Edwards higher than Soler, some put Edwards behind all the position player prospects, but these were the Cubs’ top five prospects. Now, with nearly two months of play, behind us, how are they doing, and when can we expect to see them in Wrigley Field? Just as a note, all of my estimated times of arrival for theses prospects presume that the Cubs do not do something crazy like win 20 of 25 games to get back into contention. Of course, should the Cubs miraculously end up competing for a postseason spot, the timelines for at least some of these prospects, particularly Baez and Bryant, could speed up to improve the Major League team for a stretch run.

Javier Baez
Triple A Iowa Cubs, Age 21.
.225/.287/.437, 7 HRs, 33.5% K rate, 7.2% walk rate, 4 SB, 1 CS

Had this posted prior to May 17, just ten days ago, Javier Baez’s 2014 season would have been an unmitigated disaster. Through May 16, Baez was batting .145/.230/.255 with just 3 home runs and a 36.9% strikeout rate, looking wholly over matched as the youngest player in the Pacific Coast League. In the past ten days, on the other hand, Baez hit .439/.444/.927 with four home runs and a much more manageable 24.4% strikeout rate.

It’s possible Baez’s struggles were due in part to an early season injury. After struggling in his first few games of the season, Baez appeared to be turning it around early before going on the disabled list due to a badly rolled ankle, and struggled even more greatly upon his return. On the other hand, Baez may have been destined for a fairly extended struggle in his first season in Triple A. He had starts upon his promotions to both High A and Double A before making the adjustments that eventually allowed him to dominate the Florida State and Southern Leagues, and his approach, which involved swinging as hard as he could at any pitch he thought he could make contact with, was one that more advanced Triple A pitchers could take advantage of. There’s also the distinct possibility that this is just a hot streak, as opposed to Baez making real adjustments.

Either way, Baez’s extended early season struggles lead me to believe that Baez will not see the Majors until early to mid-2015. The extremely elevated strikeout rate, plus the extreme extent of Baez’s struggles through mid-May, give the front office more than enough reasons (or excuses, if you’d prefer to phrase it that way) to leave Baez in Iowa to get a full season of playing time at Triple A, and it’s unlikely the Cubs’ would add Baez to the 40 man roster in September, in turn removing someone else, to burn MLB service time in games that, for the Cubs, have a strong chance of being rather meaningless.

Kris Bryant
Double A Tennesse Smokies, Age 22.
.337/.431/.641, 14 HRs, 27.9% strikeout rate, 11.8% walk rate, 6 SB, 2 CS

If any prospect in the Cubs’ system has been close to a complete success, it’s Bryant. Not much could be said about Bryant beyond what the statistics already show you. Bryant is tied for the Southern League lead in on base percentage, leads the Southern League in home runs by 4, leads the Southern League in slugging percentage by more than 100 points, and leads the Southern League in OPS by nearly 130 points.

Bryant’s sole issues in his first full professional season have been an elevated strikeout rate and defensive issues at 3B. Bryant will always strike out a fairly high amount, but is a more complete hitter who can get around that issue as opposed to Baez, who has a greater chance of striking out too much to every reach his power. While prospect comparisons are dubious, I have been thinking something along the lines of a right handed Jim Thome as far as the contact/walks/power are concerned. Bryant has also made far too many errors at 3B, and the Cubs may be looking to move him to an outfield corner.

Which is precisely what I think the Cubs will do when they promote Bryant to Triple A in the next 45 days or so. As with Baez, I do not think the Cubs will promote Bryant to the Big League club this season, but he will an every day player in Wrigley Field sometime early of mid-season 2015. Meanwhile, I’d expect to see Bryant manning right field in the Pacific Coast League over the last two months of the season or so.

Albert Almora
High A Daytona Cubs, Age 20
.266/.287/.364, 2 HRs, 10.5% K rate, 2.2% BB rate, 3 SB, 3 CS

No one’s start has me more concerned than Almora’s. His offensive struggles in  the extremely pitcher friendly Florida State League is not exactly a surprise because Almora lacks elite power, but precisely due to that lack of power Almora needs to be able to get on base to succeed offensively. It’s not that Almora is Emilio Bonifacio as far as power is concerned, but he’s more a guy that will top out around 15 home runs at his peak.

A 2.2% walk rate is not going to allow Almora to get on base enough, even with the extremely low strikeout rate. The word on Almora when he was drafted in 2012 was that he had an extremely advanced approach at the plate. At some point, that approach will have to lead to Almora getting on base much more than he is now, or Almora will no longer be a top prospect.

I find it unlikely that Almora will get a mid-season promotion to Double A Tennessee this season. As such, best case scenario is likely an early to mid-2016 debut in the Majors, and that is dependent on Almora getting on base at a much higher clip than he currently is.

Jorge Soler
Double A Tennessee Smokies, Age 22
.333/.407/.625, 0 HRs, 18.5% K rate, 11.1% BB rate, 0 SB, 0 CS

That batting line on Soler looks really nice, right? The problem is that he compiled it in only seven games due to a couple of leg injuries leading to a pair of disabled list stints, including one he is on right now due to a hamstring pull. The injuries are of the minor variety, but his career to this point has been hampered by such relatively minor injures. He needs to show he can stay on the field.

If Soler can get healthy, stay healthy, and produce, he could still be looking at a mid-2015 promotion to the Majors.

C.J. Edwards
Double A Tennessee Smokies, Age 22
4 GS, 20.2 IP, 2.61 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 8.71 K/9, 3.48 BB/9

Heading into the season, no one questioned Edwards’ stuff, which is top of the rotation quality. However, they did question whether his extremely thin frame could hold up to a starter’s work load. He started the season pitching quite well. Not as well as he pitched in 2013, but quite well nonetheless. Unfortunately, Edwards then felt some tightness in his right shoulder, and has been shut down since April 20.

The good news is that Edwards’ issues are not structural (in other words, they’re muscle related instead of joint and/or ligament related) , and Cubs’ brass indicated that, had Edwards been an MLB veteran as opposed to a young prospect, this is the sort of discomfort he likely would have pitched through. The bad news is that this adds fuel to the fire that Edwards’ future is in the bullpen, reducing his value in any trade, and that Edwards will not be back with the team until after the All Star Break (although it’s unclear whether the team was referring to the Southern League break in mid-June or the MLB break in mid-July).

Edwards was a pitcher some thought could see some time in the Cubs’ bullpen later this season. That is likely out the window at this point. Edwards could see the big league club as a reliever sometime in 2015, though, and potentially move into the rotation in 2016, if all else goes well.

Next time, we’ll look at a handful of the Cubs’ less known and less heralded prospects, including the two prospects most likely to make meaningful contributions on the Major League roster in 2014: right handed starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and switch hitting second baseman Arismendy Alcantara.

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The Cubs’ Future Number 1 Pitching Prospect

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Two weeks ago, we discussed how the Cubs’ pitching prospects are underrated, as the system has a significant amount of depth in pitchers with mid-rotation and late innings bullpen upside. However, the Cubs’ system lacks the type of prospects who project into ace and number 2 roles in Major League rotations. That likely changes on June 5, when the Cubs will have the chance to select one of a deep crop of pitching prospects with the fourth pick in the Rule 4 draft.

Carlos Rodon (LHP, NC State): Three months ago the odds that Rodon could fall to the Cubs at number four were all but nonexistent, as he was viewed as likely the biggest lock to go at number 1 since Bryce Harper in 2010. Last season, Rodon showed a 93-95 mph fastball with an elite slider and fantastic command. Neither the breaking ball or the command have been as strong this season, and his status has fallen a bit. Both Keith Law’s rankings (last updated on March 21) and Perfect Game‘s (last updated on April 16), now place Rodon behind a pair of high school arms. As such, it’s distinctly possible Rodon could be available when the Cubs pick at number 4.

Brady Aiken (LHP, High School): Aiken is the new pitcher in the number one slot for both Law and Perfect Game, with a mid-90s fastball and a plus curveball. Law also reports that his change up could be a plus pitcher in the future, and describes him as a “pretty good version of the [Clayton] Kershaw starter kit.” However, if Aiken’s status as the essentially consensus number 1 continues, the odds that he’ll get past the Astros, Marlins and White Sox are very slim.

Tyler Kolek (RHP, High School): Both Law and Perfect Game currently list Kolek as their number 2 prospect. He’s got the big body MLB teams want in starting pitching prospects (6’5″, 230  pounds) and throws 100 mph.

Tyler Beede (RHP, Vanderbilt): Like Rodon, Beede’s draft status has taken a bit of a hit this season, particularly with inconsistent performances in his last several starts. Law ranked him at number 4 in March (when he was pitching better), and Perfect Game listed him at number 6 in mid-April. Ideally, he has three plus pitches, which he showed with plus command early in the season, but hasn’t been able to continue.

Jeff Hoffman (RHP, East Carolina): Last year’s Cape Cod League darling can throw 97 and, at least in the Cape Cod League last season, showed a very good breaking ball. Law listed him at 6, while Perfect Game has him at 4.

Grant Holmes (RHP, High School): Holmes is a high school arm who throws 98 with a projectable body for a starter, although not one that is ready right now like Kolek. Law ranked him at 5, and Perfect Game at 8.

This is just a preliminary look, as a lot can change in the 40 days before the draft. Some of these names will peel off this list because they either solidify themselves as a top 1 or 2 pick, or because their performance falls off. Others will join this list, and we will reexamine the few players who the Cubs are most likely to pick as the draft approaches. With no Kris Bryant on the horizon among this year’s draft class, though, odd are strong that the Cubs will draft their most promising pitcher since Mark Prior this season.

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