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Minor League Update: The Next Great Prospect

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

In 2013, the Cubs were on the forefront of a strategy that pretty much every large market team in baseball has since copied: blowing past their international amateur free agent spending limit. While this greatly limited the Cubs’ ability to add similar prospects in 2014 and resulted in a significant taxes, it so meant the Cubs were able to acquire much of the best talent in that class. The Cubs added two of the best prospects in that class that season in shortstop Gleyber Torres and outfielder Eloy Jimenez.

Torres in particular has excelled in the early phase of his professional baseball career. Before we get into Torres’s particulars, it’s worth noting the risk and reward of signing these young international free agents out of countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela: teams get to sign them at age 16. The advantage to this is that MLB teams get to put players in their farm systems with professional coaching at age 16. The disadvantage is that teams have to pay the best prospects a considerable sum of money when they’re still in the midst of puberty. If a team projects a lot of power from a 16 year old who just stops growing, odds are that prospect will be a bust.

Torres tore through rookie ball and the short season Northwest League last season. Torres playing in those two leagues as opposed to the one of the Cubs’ Dominican or Venezuelan Summer League teams as a 17 year old last season was already aggressive. This season, just four months after turning 18 (a.k.a. the age of a high school senior), Torres was sent to full season A ball in South Bend. He is nearly three and a half years younger than the average player in the Midwest League.

Despite the age gap, Torres is destroying Midwest League pitching this season, batting .349/.443/.434, good for a 168+ wRC+ (68% better overall offensive performance than league average). He is walking in 13.4% of his plate appearances, and striking out in only 17.5%. Plus, he’s a true shortstop with the realistic potential of being plus defensively, and has stolen 8 bases while being caught just once.

If Torres has one downside, it’s that he hasn’t shown much power this season, and projects to have average at best power in the Majors. However, the Midwest League is not only known to play as a pitcher’s league, but that can be especially true in the cold weather Aprils of a league entirely encompassed in the upper Midwest. Additionally, most players are not done growing, especially strength-wise, at age 18.

Even if Torres tops out as more of a double hitters offensively, though, a plus defensive shortstop who can get on base and then cause havoc once he’s there? Yes please.

Torres’s excellent play so far has likely already propelled him into midseason top 100 prospect lists, and he might be forcing a promotion to the High A Carolina League sooner rather than later. If he keeps this up, the Cubs will soon have a new top 25 middle infield prospect everyone is talking about.

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Minor League Update: The Retreads

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Early disclosure: after Memorial Day, I’m going to have to leave writing for VFTB for at least a few months while my family and I move to Seattle for me to start a new job. I hope to be settled enough to be back for the stretch run in September. However, with my imminent hiatus in mind, we’re going to spend the next few weeks of minor league updates looking at some of the more interesting players in the Cubs minor league system, including guys whose names you might start hearing soon and an updated top prospects list.

Today, though, we look at a host of players who aren’t technically prospects anymore because they’ve lost rookie eligibility. These are, for lack of a better term, the retreads: players who have already been up to the Show with the Cubs, but are now back in the minors. As a note, I am not including players on rehab assignments, so you won’t see the likes of Tsuyoshi Wada on this list. Also, Junior Lake’s promotion yesterday disqualifies him, although I expect to see Lake bounce between Chicago and Iowa a few times this season.

Javier Baez (SS) and Arismendy Alcantara (Utility): The two most obvious players on the list, and the two most “prospectish”, as they aren’t that many plates appearances beyond losing their rookie eligibility, are young, and are considered to have high ceilings. Baez and Alcantara will both get legitimate chances to become stars in the Big Leagues again, whether it’s with the Cubs or other teams. They’ve also primarily struggled with the same issue, strikeouts, albeit for different reasons.

Baez, who has not played at Iowa yet due to the death of his 21 year old sister Noely, has two issues at the plate: first, he does a poor job of recognizing pitches out of the pitcher’s hand. Second, he has a poor general plate approach, including a poor understanding of how pitchers are attacking him. It’s really unknown whether pitch recognition is a teachable skill as opposed to something hitters either do or do not pick up as they see more pitches and gain experience. Understanding how pitchers are attacking him, however, is just a matter of study, and Baez is currently falling for some of the oldest tricks in the book. Was Baez behind a fastball for strike one? Throw something offspeed that drops out of the zone next. He’ll almost always swing way in front of it. Baez’s ceiling is still sky high, but he’ll have to become a better student to come close to reaching it. Baez reported to extended spring training following his bereavement league at the end of last week, and should be joining the I-Cubs within a week or two.

I saw more of what looked like a mechanical problem in limited looks at Alcantara this season. Alcantara’s strikeout problems didn’t stretch into his minor league career the same way Baez’s did, although Alcantara did struggle with a high K rate after his call up last season (31%). After a strong winter league performance and spring training, however, I was hopeful that Alcantara would put those problems behind him and be more in the low to mid-20% range this season. While Alcantara did draw a lot of walks in his brief stint with the Cubs to start this season (15.6% walk rate), the strikeout rate spiked to just under 35% as well. My concern with mechanical problems is based upon seeing Alcantara swing through some fastballs in the zone that he had timed correctly. He also had a hellishly bad BABIP in the Majors this season (.133), so I do wonder if that ended up leading to Alcantara trying to cheat for power a bit, which led to more swing and miss, which led to higher strikeouts. If Alcantara can right the ship in Iowa, I’d expect him to see him back at Wrigley Field pretty quickly.

Blake Parker (RP): In the back half of 2013, Blake Parker was one of the best pitchers in the Cubs bullpen after posting a 2.72 ERA, 2.90 FIP, and 3.54 xFIP over 46.2 innings on the strength of an excellent 10.68 K/9 and solid, especially for a reliever, 2.91 BB/9. Last season despite a similar 10.29 K/9 and superior 1.29 BB/9, Parker’s ERA ballooned to 5.14 over 21 innings. As his solid peripherals would indicate, Parker’s FIP and xFIP were a far superior 3.28 and 3.12. A big part of the reason for the ERA spike was, of course, BABIP. After being right around leave average at .294 in 2013, hitters posted a very high .350 BABIP against Parker in 2013. That should come down, as most outliers do. My one concern with Parker is that he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, and there are some games in the summer at Wrigley where that’s just dangerous. Parker is currently on the minor league disabled list, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get another shot in middle relief in Chicago as the season wears on.

James Russell (RP): In 2012, it looked like James Russell could be turning into an adequate Sean Marshall replacement as one of those rare left handed relievers without elite velocity who can get out both left and right handed hitters. In 2013 and 2014, however, Russell looked a lot more like a LOOGY than anything else. If either Phil Coke or Zac Rosscup go down, Russell could be the next man up as a lefty specialist out of the pen.

Matt Szczur (OF): Szczur has long been a fan favorite, based largely on an overly positive early ranking from Baseball America and the fact that he’s the sort of guy who goes through a painful medical procedure to help a complete stranger. He has also, however, been a guy whose upside has been limited by a slappy swing that leads to limited power. Following a power surge in spring training, there was some hope that he may have shown some real improvements. This far, though, it just looks like a small sample size aberration in the hitter friendly Cactus League. Through 36 plate appearances between MLB and Iowa, Szczur has just one extra base hit, a double. His athleticism and versatility, though, likely mean he’ll be up and down throughout the season depending on team needs and injuries.

Dallas Beeler (SP): Beeler performed yeoman’s work as an emergency starter last year for the planned double header and following the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trades, but that’s really all he is. If Wada and Turner are entrenched in the bullpen and the Cubs need a 26th man as a starter for the second game of a double header, he might grab a start or two, but that’s about it.

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The Opening Day Roster Is Coming Together

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Shortly before yesterday’s game against the Giants, the Cubs waived über prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to Triple A Iowa, and optioned Javier Baez to Iowa along with them. Following the game, the Cubs added left handed relief pitcher Phil Coke, who they signed to a minor league free agent contract early this spring training, to the 40 man roster. With these moves, the Cubs’ Opening Day roster has really come into focus.

Guaranteed on Opening Day Roster:

Starting Pitchers: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks

Relief Pitchers: Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Jason Motte

Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross

Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Mike Olt, Arismendy Alcantara, Tommy La Stella

Outfielders: Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, Chris Coghlan

There isn’t much to say about this bunch, although there are questions about who will play at second base and third base among Alcantara, Olt, and La Stella. My bet is that the Cubs will prioritize playing Alcantara, who has the highest ceiling of the bunch, with Olt and La Stella splitting time at the hot corner for a couple of weeks until Bryant is called up.

Guaranteed on Opening Day Roster if not Traded:

Pitchers: Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson

Catcher: Welington Castillo

I should initially note that I don’t think any of these three will be traded before Sunday. I debated whether to put Travis Wood in the first category following the injuries to Tsuyoshi Wada and Jacob Turner, but I think the Cubs would still trade Wood if they were absolutely blown away by an offer. That is unlikely to happen. As far as Jackson is concerned, excluding the day he couldn’t find Ho Ho Kam he has been competent enough and continues to be expensive enough to likely get a spot as a long man in the bullpen.

The Cubs reportedly turned down a trade with Orioles to swap Castillo with relief pitcher and former top prospect Brian Matusz, and the Red Sox filled their catching hole resulting from Christian Vasquez‘s injury in a trade with the Nationals. It’s always possible the Cubs and Orioles put together a trade for pieces the Cubs want more, but I find it unlikely that move will happen before Sunday. As such, the Cubs will likely start the season with three catchers on the active roster.

Almost Guaranteed on Opening Day Roster:

Pitcher: Phil Coke

Coke has been excellent this spring, and I doubt the Cubs would have added him to the 40 man roster this late in the spring if they didn’t intend on him starting the season on the north side.

The Question Marks:

Infield: Jonathan Herrera

Outfield: Matt Szczur, Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney

Only two of these four can make the active roster. One of Szczur or Lake are guaranteed to make it as the right handed caddy to Chris Coghlan in left field until Chris Denorfia returns from injury. I’d give the inside track to Szczur, who has shown more pop this spring than in prior seasons and can handle all three outfield positions defensively. Also, Lake has shown enough improvements in terms of plate discipline over the course of winter ball and spring training that the Cubs may want to prioritize him playing every day, considering Junior’s still considerable ceiling.

Sweeney and Herrera will come down to whether the Cubs would prefer using Alcantara as an emergency fifth outfielder, presuming he’s playing most games at second base to start the season, or an emergency shortstop. If the prior, Herrera will get the roster spot, and if the latter it will be Sweeney. Both primarily provide defensive value, and would be rightly viewed as the 25th man on the roster. I’d lean towards Sweeney since he has at least shown on base skills in spurts in the past, whereas Herrera is an outright offensive negative.

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Prospect Watch: C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

While the top of the Cubs’ farm system is loaded primarily with position players, and the majority of the most exciting Cubs’ pitching prospects will be in High A or below next season, the system does have a couple of legitimate starting rotation prospects who should pitch in Triple A Iowa as the season starts, and could contribute to the MLB team later this season: C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson.

C.J. Edwards (RHP, 23 years old)

2014 Stats

Tennessee (Double A): 10 GS, 48 IP, 2.44 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 8.63 K/9, 3.94 BB/9, .234 BABIP

Analysis

Among Cubs pitching prospects in the upper levels of the Cubs’ farm system, C.J. Edwards has the highest ceiling. Edwards’ fastball sits 91-95 with solid movement, and he also throws a curveball that could be plus consistently with continued work to go along with an average change up. Two plus pitches and an average third pitch is solid middle of the rotation stuff, and if Edwards can get the change up to even a fringe plus pitch you’re looking at number 2 in a rotation type of stuff.

The big question with Edwards is his durability. He’s listed at 155 pounds, which means he weighs the same amount as me despite being five inches taller. And I do not exactly have a build you’d look at and say “that’s a MLB pitching prospect”. With Edwards, this isn’t a young Tim Lincecum who is throwing 180-plus innings a year with analysts saying the wheels are going to fall off because he’s too small to maintain this type of performance for more than a handful of seasons. Edwards has never thrown more than 116.1 innings in a professional season, which he did in 2013, and was limited to 68.2 innings (20.2 of which were rehabbing a shoulder injury that kept him out much of the season) in 2014.

This has led to a big disparity in prospect gurus rankings of Edwards. While both MLB.com and Baseball America continue to view Edwards as a potential starter and rank him as a top 50 starter, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN’s Keith Law see Edwards as a reliever only, and as such don’t have him in their top 100 lists.

Edwards was quite good when he pitched in 2014, but 2015 will likely be a year for him to prove he can hold up to a starter’s workload, or a year where he’ll show his long term future is in the bullpen. If Edwards cannot start, I’d be curious if he could fit into a role similar to the role Dellin Betances filled with the Yankees in 2014: a high leverage, multi-inning reliever. But there would even be questions if Edwards could hold up to that workload. At worst, though, Edwards should slot in as a solid late inning reliever along with Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Neil Ramirez by 2016.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa (Triple A)

Likely MLB Debut: Mid-2015 to early 2016

Pierce Johnson (RHP, 23 years old)

2014 Stats

Kane County (Single A): 2 GS, 11 IP, 2.45 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 6.55 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, .115 BABIP
Tennessee: 18 G, 17 GS, 91.2 IP, 2.55 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 8.93 K/9, 5.30 BB/9, .242 BABIP

Analysis

When the Cubs picked Pierce Johnson with their sandwich pick they received in free agent compensation for Aramis Ramirez in 2012, many thought the Cubs could have gotten a steal. Johnson’s draft stock dropped from a mid-first round grade primarily due to a forearm strain in his final college season, combined with arm action that led scouts to believe more arm injuries could be in his future. The stuff, though, was considered solidly mid-rotation, and many thought the Missouri State product could be a fast riser.

Johnson hasn’t exactly been a disappointment, but he hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations either. He’s generally pitched pretty well, but he hasn’t moved as quickly as hoped and the arm action remains troubling to some, both from health and control standpoints.

In regards to Johnson’s 2014 statistics in Double A, I do think he needs to be looked at pre-injury and post injury. Prior to hitting the DL with a hamstring injury in mid-May, Johnson put up a 4.39 ERA and posted a BB/9 rate of 8.10. When he returned, Johnson posted a 1.80 ERA and a 4.15 BB/9. That walk rate is still too high, but it’s at least not epically terrible and indicates to me that Johnson wasn’t right in his first stretch of 2014.

While Johnson doesn’t have quite the same durability questions as Edwards, this is a big year for him to prove that he deserves a spot in the Cubs’ long term rotation plans as well. To do so, he’ll have to stay healthy and limit walks in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa

Likely MLB Debut: Mid-2015 to mid-2016.

As a final note, the Cubs have another pitching prospect, Armando Rivero, in Iowa who could be a big time contributor to the bullpen. As a bullpen only guy, he’s not considered a big time prospect, but he could be the first guy up if one of Rondon/Strop/Ramirez/Grimm/Motte struggle or get hurt, and I’d suggest checking out his stat line on your website of choice.

 

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Prospect Watch: Addison Russell and Billy McKinney

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

The Cubs’ farm system was already arguably the strongest in baseball as July 2014 started. When the Cubs traded starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for the Oakland Athletics’ two best prospect, shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney, that “arguably” part disappeared.

Addison Russell (SS, 21 years old):

2014 Stats:

Mesa (Rookie): 50 PAs, .196/.260/.348, 2 HRs, 6% BB rate, 26% K rate, .152 ISO, .226 BABIP, 66 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS
Stockton (High A): 18 PAs, .188/.278/.188,0 HRs, 11.1% BB rate, 33.3% K rate, .000 ISO, .300 BABIP, 31 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS
Midland (Double A): 57 PAs, .333/.439/.500,1 HR, 14% BB rate, 14 % K rate, .167 ISO, .385 BABIP, 173 wRC+, 3 SB, 2 CS
Tennessee (Double A): 205 PAs, .294/.332/.536, 4.4% BB rate, 17.1% K rate, .242 ISO, .305 BABIP, 141 wRC+, 2 SB, 2 CS

Analysis:

When the Cubs obtained Addison Russell, they gained one of the most difficult to acquire and valuable pieces in baseball: a top ten overall prospect. Russell fell to Oakland at the eleventh pick in the 2012 draft after he bulked up before his senior season of high school. Scouts who saw him that season saw 70 raw power, but also saw a guy who was unlikely to stick at shortstop. In response, Russell lost the weight  after the draft and quickly established himself as an at least average defensive shortstop, likely better, with plus arm strength.

Russell missed much of the first half of the 2014 season with a hamstring injury, which is why he had stops in High A with the A’s and rookie ball after his trade to the Cubs. He showed the solid power and ability to hit for average that was expected following his return to Double A after the trade, although a higher walk rate would be more in line with his career numbers.

The most interesting question with Russell is what the Cubs will do with him when he’s ready? He’s arguably the best defensive shortstop above A Ball for the Cubs, with most scouts seeing him as a better shortstop right now than Starlin Castro. But, if the Cubs succeed this season, I think it would be unlikely that the Cubs would try to cause any issues by moving Castro off the position as long as he continues to be serviceable there. Russell could also replace Javier Baez at second base if Baez continues to strike out too much to get to his power, or he could move to third base if Bryant struggles there defensively, where Russell could bulk up and potentially reach bigger power numbers.

This could also mean that Russell’s MLB debut waits until 2016. In any case, once Russell debuts he is expected to be a mainstay in the Cubs’ infield for years to come.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot:  Triple A Iowa

MLB Debut:  Mid-2015 to early 2016

Billy McKinney (OF, 20 years old)

2014 Stats:

Stockton: 333 PAs, .241/.330/.400, 10 HRs, 10.8% BB rate, 17.4$% K rate, .159 ISO, .267 BABIP, 92 wRC+, 5 SB, 3 CS
Daytona (High A): 210 PAs, .301/.390/.432, 1 HR, 11.9% BB rate, 20.0% K rate, .131 ISO, .377 BABIPO, 136 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS

Analysis:

In many, if not most, systems, McKinney would be a top five prospect. Indeed, he was widely considered the A’s second best prospect prior to the July 4 trade after only Russell. In the Cubs’ incredibly deep system, on the other hand, McKinney is more a back end of the top ten type of prospect.

McKinney’s biggest issue is that he only has one plus tool. The good thing for him is that it’s his hit tool. Aside from that, however, McKinney is corner outfield only with limited power, meaning he might project better as a second division starter or fourth outfielder.

This is not to say there isn’t a lot to like about McKinney. There’s a ton to like about him, especially his work ethic. Every single tool of his is thought of higher by scouts today than it was when he was drafted, and that’s solely due to hard work and coachability. But with the Cubs’ stacked hitting prospects, the Cubs might get the most value out of someone like McKinney by trading him as he approaches MLB readiness, which could be as soon as this summer depending on how he performs in his Double A debut.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot:  Tennessee

Likely MLB Debut: Late 2016 to mid-2017.

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Prospect Watch: Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

As the unanimous, at least as far as I’ve seen, opinion that the Cubs have the best farm system in baseball indicates, the Cubs have a number of talents in their minor league system who project as quality Major Leaguers. Two of these players with elite prospect status are likely to get the opportunity to make big impacts in the Majors early in 2015: Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler.

Kris Bryant (3B, 23 years old)

2014 Stats:
Tennessee (Double A): 297 PAs, .355/.458/.702, 22 HRs, 26% K rate, 14% BB rate, .347 ISO, .440 BABIP, 220 wRC+, 8 SB, 2 CS
Iowa (Triple A): 297 PAs, .295/.418/.619, 21 HRs, 29% K rate, 14% BB rate, .324 ISO, .367 BABIP, 164 wRC+, 7 SBs, 2 CS

Analysis:

Along with Twins CF Byron Buxton, Bryant has been one of two players mentioned in the top prospect slot in top 100 lists this winter. Bryant has an elite power bat, with at least 70 power on the scouting scale, and a strong ability to get on base.

Bryant’s only offensive concern is a high strikeout rate, but Bryant does not show the concerns that Javier Baez does. Baez incurs a high strikeout rate because of a poor approach and an inability to read breaking balls early enough. Bryant has a typical high power/high walks/high strikeouts approach. He’s going to look for a pitch he can crush, will take pitches until he gets one, and won’t cheat to contact much with two strikes. It’s a Giancarlo Stanton like approach, and Bryant has similar offensive gifts as the Marlins’ slugger.

There are also defensive questions about Bryant, although most scouts I’ve seen have said he should be able to at least be acceptable, if not average, at the hot corner for now. The bigger concern is if, at his size (he’s listed at 6’5”, 215 pounds), his body can hold up to the demands of the position long term. While he’s likely to at least start his career at 3B, he could be moving to an outfield corner based on the success of players like Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Addison Russell, and in any case will likely be headed to the outfield meaningfully before his 30th birthday.

A comp I’ve heard frequently for Bryant is Troy Glaus. And before you say “ugh, Troy Glaus?!”, just go ahead and look at Glaus’s early career numbers before the injuries started piling up. If Bryant can avoid injuries and maintain that type of offensive production throughout the next seven season, Cubs fans will be very, very happy.

Bryant will almost certainly start the season in Iowa under some pretense to gain an extra year of service time before he hits free agency. He will be up once that extra year accrues, which should happen on April 15. So it might be a very happy tax day for Cubs fans.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa.

MLB Debut: Mid-April to early May 2015.

Jorge Soler (RF, 23 years old)

2014 Stats:
Tennessee: 79 PAs, .415/.494/.862, 6 HRs, 19% K rate, 15% BB rate, .447 ISO, .457 BABIP, 265 wRC+, 0 SBs, 0 CS
Iowa: 127 PAs, .282/.378/.618, 8 HRs, 20% K rate, 13% BB rate, .336 ISO, .303 BABIP, 149 wRC+, 0 SBs, 1 CS
MLB: 97 PAs, .262/.318/.470, 5 HRs, 25% K rate, 6 % walk rate, .208 ISO, .295 BABIP, 146 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS

Soler entered 2014 as the prospect Cubs fans were most wary about due to a somewhat down 2013 season heavily affected by injuries. While he continued to struggle through a couple of hamstring injuries over the first half of the season, Soler’s production when healthy answered any questions of whether he could play at an elite level.

Soler tore up the Southern League so masterfully the Cubs sent him up to Triple A after just 79 plate apperancess, and then beat up the Pacific Coast League to nearly the same extent as Bryant did before Soler received his MLB call up. In both minor league stops, Soler showed an ability to hit for power, get on base, and limit strikeouts to a respectable level.

I think some Cub fans are overrating Soler’s MLB debut based upon their first looks at him because he had such an amazing first five games (.526/.550/1.211, 3 HRs, 391 wRC+ in 20 PAs).  Soler struggled for his remaining 19 games of the season (.229/.273/.400, 2 HRs, 82 wRC+ in 77 PAs). By no means, however, does this mean I’m down on Soler. He has elite tools, and is very refined for both his age and amount of professional experience. He should continue to hit for power, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it take a couple of seasons for the walk and strikeout rates to return to his dominant minor league levels. If not for Bryant, he’d likely be the front runner for NL Rookie of the Year.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Chicago. The only way Soler won’t start the season as the right fielder in Wrigley is if he isn’t healthy on Opening Day.

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The Most Overrated Teams in Baseball

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

At the start of spring training every year, two big questions cycle through baseball media: First, who won the offseason? Second, what teams are contenders in the coming season? These lists tend to have a significant overlap. Inevitably, certain teams look quite overrated by mid-season. These are the three teams that I think are the most overrated heading into spring training.

San Diego Padres

Overrated By: Traditional baseball media.

Reason the Padres Are Overrated: The sum of their new pieces is less than their parts.

The Padres were probably the most active team in baseball this off season, making numerous trades before concluding the winter by signing starting pitcher James Shields to a 4 year deal. Individually, I liked some of these trades. I thought both the Wil Myers and Justin Upton trades were good ones. To me, though, the Matt Kemp trade is going to cause the Padres a lot of trouble, and I don’t think the Padres will get the value out of Shields that a team that doesn’t play half its games in Petco would.

Kemp can still hit, as he showed in the back half of last season, but should be left field only these days, if he should be playing the outfield at all. Considering Kemp’s negative defensive value, I thought the Padres vastly overpaid for Kemp. At their current contracts, including the amount of Kemp’s contract that Dodgers are covering, I would not have traded Yasmani Grandal, a young catcher with excellent receiving and on base skills, straight up for Kemp. Despite my belief the Padres overpaid for Kemp, had they JUST traded for him and Myers, they could have hid Kemp in left field and it would have been an overall offensive upgrade.

Then, however, the Padres signed Justin Upton, another left field only player. Reports indicate that the Padres intend on playing Upton in left, Myers in center, and Kemp in right. That is going to be an epically terrible defensive outfield playing in one of the most spacious outfields in baseball. It will also put two players who have been injury prone, Myers and Kemp, in situations where they will be more likely to get injured because they will be playing more demanding positions. The Padres could fix this by convincing Kemp to play first base and using a combination of Cameron Maybin and Wil Venable in center, but they don’t seem inclined to do this.

On Shields, my one question is if the Padres, who are able to turn a host of mediocre pitchers into guys with results that make them look like solid number 2 starters because of their home park, should spend money on free agent pitching. I have no issue with the length or dollars in the Shields contract, but just don’t know how much better his numbers will be in Petco. Clearly, if he ends up with an ERA in the low 2s with the move to the NL West and Petco, it will be a great move independent of any advantage Petco delivers.

I just have a feeling that outfield defense is just going to hurt the Padres too much, and they’ll hover around .500, which would be a huge disappointment considering the hype around the Padres seems to have them hanging with the Dodgers at the top of NL West.

Chicago White Sox

Overrated by: Traditional baseball media.

Reason the White Sox Are Overrated: Lack of depth.

I’ll admit it: I have loved what the White Sox have done since Rick Hahn became their GM following the 2012 season. In two short seasons, he’s improved the MLB product while getting rid of dead money on overpriced players and improving the farm system. And I really liked the White Sox’s moves this off season. It made the South Siders more competitive this year while not giving up any prospects who project as above average regulars. I even kind of liked the David Robertson signing, despite the fact that I pretty much never like giving big multi-year deals to relievers. The White Sox desperately needed a bullpen upgrade, and Robertson was the best reliever available with a significant track record of success.

But I just think the team is too shallow to really hang with the Royals, Tigers, and Indians for a full season. They could get essentially no value from at least second and third base, and I’m not an Avisail Garcia believer in right field either, although Garcia is definitely young enough to surprise me with some good health.

They just need so much good health, though. They don’t have good enough replacements if Adam Eaton or Melky Cabrera go down. While the front 3 pitchers in their rotation, Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, and Jose Quintana, are among the best front 3 starting groups in baseball, it’s not clear they have decent 4/5 starters, much less anyone who could fill in if one of those top 3 guys miss significant time on the DL, if Carlos Rodon isn’t ready for a starting pitcher’s workload.

The White Sox are definitely moving in the right direction, but in a tough division I see them winning just shy of 80 games, and not truly contending in 2015.

Chicago Cubs

Overrated by: Segments of the fandom.

Reason the Cubs are Overrated: Expecting too much from young players.

And here we are. Cubs fans are rightly excited for the 2015 season. Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta were two of the best players in the NL in 2014. Starlin Castro returned to his career norms as a very good offensive shortstop, and perhaps a bit beyond them in the power department. Jorge Soler had a solid debut in September. The bullpen looks as well setup as anyone to be awesome. The Cubs signed Jon Lester and Jason Hammel to shore up the rotation, and vastly improved the receiving skills of their catchers. They traded for Dexter Fowler, who should put up the best numbers for a Cubs leadoff hitter since Kenny Lofton’s half season with the Cubs in 2003. The waves of young position players coming to Wrigley has begun, with uber hitting prospect Kris Bryant likely to debut at the Friendly Confines in 2015.

I expect the Cubs to be significantly improved in 2015, with a prediction of an 82 win season. But I have seen a lot of Cubs fans (significantly less so at this site than others) with playoff dreams in their comments. And I by no means want to discourage that sort of excitement, but for the Cubs to be a playoff team in 2015 a lot has to go right with a high percentage of Bryant, Soler, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Arismendy Alcantara. That just can’t be predicted at this juncture.

However, I do feel my prediction on the Cubs are subject to the widest error bars of these three teams without a surprisingly high number of injuries or a big time mid-season trade occurring. That’s a good news/bad news scenario because it means I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs won 90 games this season and made the playoffs, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs lost 90.

Unsurprisingly, if you peek around at the “who won the off season” lists, you’ll see these three teams at the top. Which is a solid reminder that, to win the off season, odds are you had a lot of holes to fill and might not be that good despite spending a boatload of money or trading a lot of prospects.

One side note: Within a few days of my late piece on my view on baseball’s demographics issue posting here, Andrew McCutchen, arguably both the best current African American player and player who grew up poor in America, on a very similar issue, which can be found here and I feel is worth a read: http://www.theplayerstribune.com/left-out/

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Baseball’s Misunderstood Demographics Problem

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

My car has an odd feature on it where WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, gets a lot of static when my rear defroster is on. As such, on cold winter mornings I spend my brief drive to the train station flipping between ESPN Radio and the Score, typically deciding whether I can tolerate Mike & Mike talk about football generally or Mully and Hanley complain about the Bears particularly more. This morning, however, the Score featured a conversation about baseball, meaning Mully and Hanley won. Unfortunately, their topic of choice was how baseball fans are too old, so the game needs to be sped up to attract the young ‘uns.

There are legitimate reasons to institute things like a pitch clock. I’m not necessarily in favor of a pitch clock, but there are arguments to be made for it. However, I’m not writing about that today. Today, my focus turns to the misunderstood demographic problem in baseball.

Baseball has a demographic problem, although it’s not the one that everyone thinks it is: that the fans are too old. Nor, even if that was the real problem, is there any legitimate solution for 8 year olds not watching baseball games.

I, along with many of my peers, did not have cable in 1989. I turned 8 late that summer, and that was the first year I fell in love with the Cubs. I would get home from school or camp and catch the last few innings of the game, thankfully being unaware that a closer who walked nearly 6 batters per 9 innings was a bad thing. Of course, I essentially had no options of anything else to watch. I had 4 or 5 channels: it was baseball or bust. Sure, I had an NES, but I had either beaten all my games, or their status as Nintendo hard got me to give up on them.

Kids these days have more entertainment options than I could have imagined. Look, they’re just not going to choose turning on a live sporting event of any type over their iPad, or their Xbox, or Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.

And teams, including the Cubs, know this. The Cubs have been moving as many day games to night games as possible for nearly three decades because weekday day games just don’t draw the ratings they used to, or the ratings of night games.

Yet baseball is financially as healthy as ever. Team revenues and team values are skyrocketing. Teams that go on sale are being bought by very successful businessmen at these high values. These teams are not being bought with the idea that they will lose value 10 or 20 years down the line as the old guard of fans die out.

My inclination is that this misunderstanding comes from comparing baseball to football when, really, no sport should be compared to football. Football gets a massive boost from two things: First, each team plays only once a week, with the vast majority of them all playing on one day. This helped turn football Sundays into a social event, where friends and families will get together to just watch the game. No one is getting together on a Tuesday night to watch every baseball game on television.

Second, and even more importantly, fantasy football is by far the easiest fantasy sport to play. Whereas fantasy baseball and basketball remain relative niche endeavors that require daily attention, nearly everyone I know is in at least one fantasy football league involving a meaningful monetary award. Whereas baseball fandom remains regional, this has turned football fandom national. The Bears may have been terrible last season, but if I needed 18 points from DeMarco Murray on Monday night to win my fantasy matchup, you could bet that I’d be watching the Dallas Cowboys once my kids went to bed despite the fact that I don’t care about the Cowboys. Or really much anything from Dallas.

Baseball should be compared to basketball and hockey, and, on a fan basis, it’s doing just fine. Like basketball teams, good baseball teams generally draw strong attendance while poor teams don’t, with a few franchises buoyed by history and a few hampered by poor arenas.

Baseball’s actual demographic problem comes not from the fandom, though, but from the demographics of its best young players. Baseball is a very expensive sport, especially compared to basketball. A baseball field requires several times the space of a basketball court, and requires exponentially more maintenance.

Also, of all the major sports in the US, baseball is the one where pure athletic talent, size, strength and speed, isn’t enough to succeed. Sure, many of the greatest players, the Mike Trouts and Andrew McCutchens, are phenomenal athletes. But there are plenty of guys who are as big, strong, and fast as Trout and McCutchen that just can’t tell a slider in the dirt from a fastball on the outer third. This need to not just be a gifted athlete but to have advanced baseball skills to draw scouts’ attention has led many with MLB aspirations for their kids to obtain private lessons, or send their children to private schools with superior baseball programs.

Most often this has been cast as an issue of a the diminishing numbers of African American baseball players, but I think it’s a larger issue than that. For American kids and teenagers with legitimate aspirations to play either a college or professional sport, baseball has become a game for rich kids. While poor, athletically talented Dominican and Venezuelan kids are being brought to baseball academies at age 14 to catch up to their American peers, American kids are stuck with their random parental assignment through high school. If you take two kids with the exact same athletic ability, drive, and desire, but one has upper middle class parents and the others are just scraping above the poverty line, the prior would have had access to training and coaching the latter could only have dreamed of.

And this is what MLB should work on: getting these resources, in some manner, to our poorer urban and rural areas. The MLB shouldn’t focus on the fact that these kids aren’t watching baseball. That’s not going to change unless we go back to four channels and a radio. What they should really worry about is that a lot of kids aren’t playing the game, and especially that a lot of talented athletes aren’t playing the game into their high school years.

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Why Jon Lester Should Not Get David Ross as His Personal Catcher

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

As with most who will be writing about the Cubs this week, I’m going to start with something brief on the great Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. I am too young to have watched Ernie play, but he has been a constant presence in Cubdom for so long, that it just seems… wrong… that he no longer will be a physical presence with the team. I really have nothing to say that others have not said more eloquently in the last several days. I am, however, grateful that I work right around the corner from Daley Plaza, where the statute of Banks will be placed from Wednesday through Saturday, so I will be able to pay my respects to Mr. Cub.

On that note, though, we all know what Ernie would want more than anything else: a World Series championship on the North Side in 2015, so we’ll turn to my topic of the week on something that could affect the Cubs’ results in the coming season: Jon Lester and his catcher. When the Cubs signed Lester, a lot of people thought that the Cubs would make a run at his personal catcher in Boston in 2013 and the first half of 2014, David Ross.

While it made sense for Lester to have Ross as his personal catcher in Boston, it would not in Chicago. In 2013, the Red Sox’s primary catcher was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, an offense first catcher with somewhere between below average (in 2013) and utterly terrible (in 2014) pitch framing skills. In 2014, the Red Sox brought in A.J. Pierzynski, a terrible defensive catcher as well as a poor framer, to the start the season as their primary catcher. As a defender and a receiver, Ross was a huge upgrade over the regular starter.

This was an upgrade worth giving Boston’s ace pitcher, even with Ross being terrible offensively against right handed pitchers. While Lester has very good stuff, he is not an overpowering pitcher, with fastball velocity averaging just under 92 miles per hour last season. He succeeds as much on excellent control, especially over the past couple of seasons, as anything else. And when you rely on control, getting those strikes on the edges, or just outside the edges, called as strikes is vital.

Moreover, Lester’s biggest weakness is controlling the running game. His pickoff move is essentially non-existent, and we saw in the AL wild card game what could happen to him without a competent battery mate when Geovany Soto went down with injury midway through the game.

Yet all these reasons present in Boston to give Lester the defensive minded backup catcher are not present in Chicago. The Cubs have two excellent defensive catchers and pitch framers in Ross and Miguel Montero. Montero hits right handed pitching, but struggles against left handed pitching, while Ross does the opposite. However, there is not a meaningful difference in defensive and receiving prowess between the two: they are both very good in both skills. Lester doesn’t need the defensive minded backup here because the primary starter is also defensively strong, and the Cubs will be a lot better offensively running a straight platoon with Montero and Ross whenever possible. Since playing to Montero’s and Ross’s offensive strengths is what is most likely to improve the team, that should be the Cubs’ priority in choosing who starts on a day to day basis.

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