Random Notes – The Winter Meetings

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On Monday, December 9, Major League Baseball will hold their annual winter meetings. Going into the meetings, the Cubs have done very little. They have traded for catcher George Kottaras of Kansas City in exchange for cash. They added several players to minor league contracts including: Casper Wells, Aaron Cunningham, Darnell MacDonald, Jeffry Antigua, Carlos Pimentel, Chris Valaika, Paolo Espsina, Jeudy Valdez, Eli Whiteside, and Walter Ibarra. Those names don’t inspire a lot of confidence.

The team also shipped out several players to Iowa, released three, and added several players to the active 40 man roster including Arodys Vazcaino, Dallas Beeler, and Arismendy Alcantara. And they lost their first round rule 5 pick to the Phillies in a dispute over the length of time Lendy Castillo spent on the DL in 2012. All in all, it has been much ado about nothing. Unless, of course, you want to talk about two pitchers – one, a current Cub, Jeff Samardjiza, and the other, Masahiro Tanaka, a possible free agent from Japan.

Going into the meetings, the plan looks pretty simple; Either the Cubs will trade Samardjiza, or they will not. Unless a team blows the Cubs away with an offer, chances are the Cubs will hang on to him. In recent weeks on the Cub blogs (Cubs Den, Bleed Cubbie Blue, Bleacher Nation, etc.), the message boards have been lit up like Christmas trees with scenarios, trading partners, and complaints about a Samardjiza trade. The Orioles, Blue Jays, Royals, Diamondbacks, Yankees, Braves, and Padres have all been listed as possible suitors for the Shark’s services for the next two years. As a pitcher, Samardjiza brings an intense desire to win, to compete, and to dominate. On those days when he has his stuff, he is amongst the best pitchers in baseball with his mid 90s fastball, and sharp slider. Sometimes, it is just downright unfair what he can do with a baseball. At 29, he still has a young arm because of years spent playing football and is an attractive trade candidate for such reasons. On his worst days, Samardjiza struggles to compete and find the zone. He could pitch four innings of hitless ball followed by a five run fifth. When the wheels come off for Samardjiza, they come off.

For me, here is how I see the Samardjiza scene.
Best Case Scenario
The Cubs resign Samardjiza for three years beyond his current contract which expires in 2015. For the contract, he will still be relatively young (34) when it expires. Samardjiza could anchor the rotation for that time and use his unique leadership skills when the cavalry (the Cubs young prospects) begin to arrive beginning in the summer of 2014. As a pitcher, Samardjiza will still be in his prime years as the team around him improves. If the Cubs can magically get Tanaka, then the two of them, along with Travis Wood, could anchor a solid rotation for the next four to five years with Edwin Jackson at the back end where he belongs.
Worst Case Scenario
A Samardjiza trade sets back the rebuilding two years and 2014 and 2015 both turn into 90-100 loss seasons. Imagine a rotation with Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Chris Rusin, Jake Arrieta, Carlos Villanueva,and/or Justin Grimm; It is not pretty. Help for the rotation in the next two years is going to be slim. The Cubs top pitching prospects (Pierce Johnson and CJ Edwards) will begin the 2014 season at AA. They are a long ways from being major league ready. Dallas Beeler, Barret Loux, Alberto Cabrera, and Brooks Raley are a year away. Aside from Beeler, Johnson, and Edwards, the pitching depth in the Cubs minor leagues is filled with back of the rotation starters. The highlight to trading Samardjiza would be to reload the depth of top of the rotation pitchers in the minors.

However, teams are now reluctant to trade their top prospects for a two-year rental. Archie Bradley of the Diamondbacks, Aaron Sanchez of the Blue Jays, and Kyle Zimmer of the Royals are three perfect examples of pitchers who would be great prospects in a trade. Bradley will have an opportunity to make the D’backs opening day roster this spring and he is not going anywhere. Neither is Sanchez, Zimmer, or Giolito of the Nationals, who stunned everybody with a trade for Doug Fister. At one time, the Cubs had been rumored to be in trade discussions with the Nationals for Samardjiza.

What will likely happen…
The Cubs will continue to make minor moves to bolster their bench and bullpen. Samardjiza will most likely not agree to an extension. The rumors will continue to float until they reach a peak at the trade deadline in July. Even then, I don’t think the Cubs will trade him, even though that is when they could get the most for him. I sometimes think that Edwin Jackson is more likely to get traded than Samardjiza. Even Nate Schierholtz is more likely to be dealt before the Shark as Nate’s contract expires next year and some teams need a left-handed bat.

How 2014 could shake down
I think a lot of things can happen in the next year. A lot of the success of the 2014 season depends on the Cubs signing Tanaka (but they could survive without him), bolstering the bullpen, and Castro and Rizzo producing. Ultimately, the Cubs need offense and bullpen help. With a new manager in place, who also speaks Spanish, I think he will have more of a positive effect on the players than did Dale Sveum. There are just a lot of unknowns. It is going to be fun to see how this week shakes out. It is an exciting time.

Dear Josh Vitters,

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Your 2013 nightmare is just about over. The bad news was you only played 28 games. The good news is you did well at the plate in that small sample size. 5 homers and 12 runs batted in were a nice touch, and additionally, you had a .380 on base percentage. However it still might not be enough to save you from the Cubs scrap heap. Your 2012 debut in the majors with the Cubs was not one that has other teams beating down the Cubs door. There are some in the press who have given up on you just because of that debut. But me, I like you. I take that back. I like your bat and your picture perfect swing. I, for one, still believe you can make it to the major leagues. It might not be at 3B, but it could be in left field of all places.

What you still have going for you
1. The swingIt is still there, despite your inability to lay off pitches the first time around. Scouts still drool over our swing. I admit it, I still drool over your swing.
2. You know where the strike zone is
– Unfortunately, it did not matter to you in 2012. Know, after seeing the Cubs acquire 4 third basemen to replace you (Candelario, Villanueva, Olt, and Bryant), I would hope that you are getting the idea that the front office is not sold on you. I suggest you remember where it is. When you do, you punish the ball.
3. AdjustmentsEvery time you move up in the organization, it takes you a while to adjust. You do adjust. However, at the major league level, that period of adjustment needs to be faster and needs to be constant.
4. Opportunity
– Despite the horrid year being spent injured, you still have the opportunity to go into spring training and compete for a position on the major league team in LF and probably a backup right handed complement to Anthony Rizzo.
5. Your age – 24Those ready to give up on you forget you are only 24. I think that is still young. You won’t reach your peak age for three more years. Whether the Cubs organization can wait that long is another issue. 2014 might be your last year. You, and Brett Jackson, are nearing your last, best hope for success.

What you have going against you.
1. Your belief that you can hit any pitch – Sure, you might be able to get some wood on it, but it is not good wood. Your desire to stick at the big leagues was your undoing as you tried to hard to hit any pitch thrown at you. I hope that you learned your lesson last year and approach 2014 with the proper attitude.
2. DefenseYou make Roger Dorn look like Brooks Robinson. The new regime has placed on emphasis on defense first. So, wherever you play, you should be staying after, coming early, taking extra flies, working on your throws to the cutoff man.
3. Time
You don’t have much left. Lay off the stuff in the dirt. Lay off the breaking ball off the plate. Make the pitcher throw strikes. Remember where the strike zone is. If the pitch is going to end up in there, don’t swing at it.

Ideally, I hope this helps because I like the fact that you could hit all day long and repeat that swing time after time, after time, after time. Make the adjustments, Josh.

Sincerely,
Dr. Johnson

Second Base 2014 – A Pivotal Position

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I do not envy Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer this off-season.  They have a lot of tough choices to make in overhauling the major league roster. From the bullpen to the outfield, to third base and second base, the starting lineup in 2014 will look like nothing from 2013 or 2012. So far, third base and the bullpen received some attention on this blog. Today, second base gets exposed, in more ways than one.

The Incumbent
Let’s be honest. Darwin Barney has a nice glove. That’s it. His bat has become a liability. While he may have a “gold” glove and compete yearly for the award, his bat at age 28, is digressing. After a .276 batting average high in 2011, he has slid drastically the past two years from .254 to an abysmal .208 in 2013. With that average, he will not bring back much value in a trade and would only have an appeal as a utility player/9th inning defensive replacement. His days as a Cub are numbered. It would not surprise me to see the Cubs just waive him.

Plan B
John Arguello over at Cubs Den has suggested on several occasions that the Cubs move the platoon of third basemen Donnie Murphy and Luis Valbuena over to second and plug in Olt, Baez, and/or Bryant at third. I like this idea, if only for the short-term. Murphy’s high-powered offense might even be hard to keep in a platoon. In his short time with the Cubs in 2014 (46 games), Murphy hit 11 home runs with 23 runs batted in. At 30, Murphy is not a long-term fix. Ideally that is what a General Manager and Manager would prefer in this position. Valbuena, while a nice utility player and glove man, does not have the average to be an everyday guy despite Dale Sveum’s man crush the past two years.

The Future – Part One
Arismendy Alcantara made the move to second base to make room for Javy Baez. At 22, Alcantara is slated to move up to AAA Iowa to start the year. He had a great 2013. Coming in to spring training, he is likely to push for a roster spot, but will more than likely head to Iowa as there is no rush. With a surprising 15 home runs and 69 runs batted in for 2013, along with a .271 average, he would be a major upgrade over Barney at the plate in addition to his speed on the basepaths.

The Future – Part Two
Most Cub fans, be they hard core or fly by night, know who Javy Baez is. The fan base would love to see Javy Baez penciled in at second base on opening day, or at the latest, mid June of 2014. I, for one, can wait. There are two reasons why. First, Baez has never played a day of second in the minors. While Baez has all the natural attributes needed to play there, he neither the instincts nor the instruction. The majors are not a place to learn to play the position on the job. Second, there is no rush. When Baez comes to the majors, he needs to be ready not only physically at the plate, but also mentally. He needs to be able to succeed from day one. I think his first month at AA Tennessee is an example of something he might not be able to do. Pitchers were ready for him. It took him two weeks to adjust, and boy did he adjust. I would like to see him do the same at Iowa before he gets the call up.

What Will Most Likely Happen: Here Comes a Regular
This job, if all things are equal, depends on who plays third base. And with all things being equal, it doesn’t matter who starts on day one. It really doesn’t. Come July, someone else will be starting at second who wasn’t there on opening day. It could be Baez or Alcantara or it could be Murphy. Ideally, Baez should own the job come the middle of July. But you never know. The great thing about the rebuilding plan of Epstein and Hoyer is that they have stockpiled enough players as of now to create redundancy and competition at almost every position including second and third base. It’s as if Epstein and Hoyer have plans with plans and contingencies within contingencies when it comes to the future of the big league club. And those designs are extremely close to paying off this summer. Sure, I would love to see Javy Baez in a Cub uniform on opening day. However, I can wait for a few more months. I have a feeling that whoever is at second base on July 1, 2014, will be there for a long time to come, or at least I hope.

The 2014 Bullpen: Rebuilding from Within

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The Rule 5 draft is only a few weeks away. The Cubs currently have 37 men on their 40 man roster. By the middle of the week, that number could reach 40 or even drop depending on who the Cubs protect and do not protect. Regardless, look for the Cubs to do what they have done the last two years and select a pitcher in the Rule 5 draft. Two years ago it was Lendy Castillo who spent 2013 in the Cubs minor league system, but last year Hector Rondon was a big success. He showed flashes of having a power arm late in the season and his selection strengthened the bullpen late in the year. The problem was, however, the bullpen imploded early and often throughout 2013.

In all, the Cubs trotted out 23 relief pitchers in 2013. Five guys would get saves but nobody foresaw Kevin Gregg stabilizing the bullpen. After the Marmol meltdowns, the Fujikawa injury, there was really nowhere else to go and Gregg came in and won the job. In June and July, the Cubs bullpen situation stabilized some as players began to find their roles but more injuries, despite the Marmol trade, began to take its toll. As a team the Cubs only converted only 60% of saves last year. That was 25th in the league! The relief corps blew 26 saves! Heading into 2014, the bullpen, along with strengthening four positions (3B, LF, CF, 2B), are the main areas of concern for the Cubs.

The Candidates from the 40 Man Roster
Daniel Bard
Kyuiji Fujikawa
Justin Grimm
Chang Yong-Lim
Blake Parker
Pedro Strop
Brooks Raley
Zach Rosscucp
Chris Rusin
James Russell
Carlos Villanueva
Arodys Vizcaino
Carlos Villanueva

Candidates from the Minors
Marcos Mateo
Marcus Hatley
Dallas Beeler
Rafael Dolis
Yoanner Negrin
Zach Putnam

Roles to be filled
The Injured – Fujikawa and Vizcaino will likely start the year off either in Iowa or rehabbing their surgeries. Of the two, Vizcaino shows the most promise but needs to build up arm strength after being off for what could be classified as three years. Vizcaino, after pitching a few innings at instructs this fall, will likely be limited to relief duties twice a week at Iowa while he rebuilds his arm strength. In the long run, for 2015, he becomes a viable closer candidate.

Long Relief – Clearly this is Carlos Villanueva’s role from last year. Along with Justin Grimm, the two could fill this role along with the 6th/7th inning setup simultaneously.

6th/7th Inning – Villanueva and Grimm could fill this role as well, but for my money, this is Hector Rondon’s domain. In August and September, he was hitting 95 on the radar gun regularly in this role. Zach Putnam, Mateo, or Hatley could gain a spot here depending on their performance down in Mesa.

Loogy – the odds of the Cubs breaking camp with more than two lefties are slim. Russell has been used a lot in longer stints the past two years because they had no dependable arms. I would like to see Russell have a smaller more dependable role this year. His 8 blown saves led the club in 2013. The other option is Rusin/Rosscup/Raley. One could be a starter (Rusin) while one of the other would aid Russell, and the third would stay stretched at as a starter at Triple A

8th Inning Setup – Ideally, this is where Pedro Strop and Josh Bard belong. They are two power arms who, in the past, have shown they can get the job done. Bard had a horrible conversion to starter and then back again. Whether he can regain his form is yet to be seen. We know that Strop has the potential. Blake Parker, along with Rondon also showed flashes here.

Closer – As of now, the Cubs going out and hitting the free agent market for a closer would be a poor investment. Theo and Jed tend to build from within.

Longshots – Negrin, Hatley, and Mateo showed some flashes in the minors. Negrin at 29 is the oldest and has the best chance of earning of spot. But really, it all depends on their product and arms in spring training. I truly believe they will be given every opportunity to earn a spot just based on how horrible the pen was last year. The Rule 5, if a lefty, has a great chance to make the team as the Cubs are bereft of left-handed relievers, specifically, left-handed power relievers. Soft tossing lefties, the Cubs have that covered.

Free Agency
Grant Balfour would be a nice pickup, but not for a long-term contract. I don’t see the Cubs going this route unless they intend to flip him at the deadline. Balfour would be a stable addition at the back-end and could provide some leadership to what is basically a collection of young pitchers. I would like to see the Cubs also bring back Matt Guerrier in the 6th/7th inning role. He did a nice job after his trade from the Dodgers before injuries derailed his season. It would not surprise me to see both men in Cubbie Blue next season, but the odds are the Cubs front office will build from within, and do it on the cheap for one more year.

What Will Likely Happen
Villanueva, Bard, Rondon, Strop, and Parker will be the right-handed relievers while Russell, for now, will be thee left handed reliever. Ideally, you would like to see two lefties out there, but Rosscup will likely need some more seasoning as a starter at Iowa and Raley will likely join him. Rusin, his situation is still a little unclear. At times, he was the crafty lefty and has earned a shot at the rotation with Samardjiza, Wood, Jackson, Arrieta, Villanueva, Grimm, Scott Baker (if resigned) and Kyle Hendricks. Although compared to the bullpen at the beginning of 2013, this bullpen has a little more heat and more well defined roles.

And Free Agency Begins…

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Now that the Cubs have hired a manager, two searches begin: one to fill out the coaching staff, the other to fill out the team. The next four to six weeks should be very interesting as the direction of the team for 2014 takes shape. This past week also saw Theo, Jed, and Crane Kenney make their pitches to season ticket holders about the direction. They pretty much admitted they jumped the gun on Edwin Jackson in the wake of losing Anibal Sanchez. It was an interesting discussion.

There Is Only One Free Agent?
Despite there be several quality free agents on the market, most are on the wrong side of thirty. There is one who is the biggest prize of all. Masahiro Tanaka is getting ready to turn 25. He is also getting ready to make a lot of money for himself and his former Japanese team. In order to negotiate with Tanaka, a MLB team has to post a fee which goes directly to the . The record is $57 million for Yu Darvish. Tanaka’s posting will likely be over $75 million because of his young age. Then you still have to sign him. The Dodgers and the Yankees could drive up the posting fee to $100 million. Tanaka has been brilliant in the Nippon league and a signing by the Cubs would mark a turning point in the franchise. I just don’t see the Cubs making that kind of bid, I just don’t. The Ricketts family won’t do it.

On the Other Hand…
There are two key free agents who would make nice additions to the Cubs staff.

One is a bit risky after two down years, the other is on a comeback which can only get better. Scott Kazmir had a nice comeback season after not playing major league ball in 2012. He went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA, struck 162 in 158 innings, and more importantly he had good peripherals with a 3.51 FIP and a fangraphs WAR of 2.5. Only 29, the former darling of the Mets and Rays appears to have rebounded from a mid-career crisis.
The other pitcher that would look good in blue pinstripes is Josh Johnson. The former Marlin prodigy had a terrible 2013 going 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA. All is not lost. Only 29, his career could be salvageable. However, his problem is a shoulder injury from 2011 which is much harder to come back from than an elbow injury. He fits the definition of a high risk-high reward signing. If he could regain his 2010 form when he went 11-6 with a 2.30 ERA, that is not wishful thinking. Of the two, Kazmir would be the logical choice. Johnson, if he rebounds on a short team deal, could be flipped for more assets. I think you would to sign Kazmir to a longer deal.

The Big Problem – Who Is Coming and When
For the Cubs, one problem this winter is they have a lot of holes (LF, 3B, CF) and don’t want to trade any of their young assets to fill them. The bigger problem is they have young players like Baez, Almora, Bryant, Soler, and Alcantara coming in the next two years, but will they be coming this June? September? June of 2015? It is still uncertain. What is not uncertain is that those players are close. Therefore, it makes it harder to pursue free agents only to replace them in less than two years. There is no certainty not even for Starlin Castro who has been linked to trades to St. Louis and Seattle.

For example, Darwin Barney has a great glove and a terrible bat. As suggested by Cubs Den, losing Barney and replacing him with the platoon of Murphy and Valbuena would be a good move when Baez or Bryant comes up. Do you then just dump Barney for nothing or do you try to get something for him? The Samardjiza issue is another area. He is signed through 2015. I don’t see him being part of the long-term future if you can get something nice for him from Arizona like Archie Bradley (a beast in my opinion) or Tyler Skaggs. Samardjiza to me has all the talent to be a top of the rotation guy but not the consistency. He has filthy stuff but he can’t go out start after start and get it done. He is an up and down pitcher. When he is good, he is very good. When he is bad….ouch!

In the end…

The pickings are slim this winter for position players in free agency. While Ellsbury, Cano, and Choo are all nice players, they are beyond replicating their past performance of their younger years. When the Cubs are ready to contend, they will acquire free agents. It is just not this winter. Look for them to add nice bench and role players along with bullpen help. I just don’t see the Cubs going out and spending a lot of money. If they could land the great whale of Tanaka, that would be a different story altogether. He would be a Cub during his prime years when the prospects are supposed to arrive. And he is definitely a #1 starter, something the Cubs lack, among other things. But is he worth a $100 million posting fee? He might be.
This next week will see the MLB meetings take place and the wheeling and dealing will begin.

2014 Kane County: Waves of Pitching

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Living only an hour away from Geneva, Illinois has its perks. The ride to Fifth-Third Bank ballpark is filled mostly with corn fields, Sycamore, and a few meandering hills. When I get to the ballpark, I have mentally prepared myself for what I am about to witness. 2013 was the first year of affiliation of the team with the Chicago Cubs. You could feel the energy even on those daily afternoon games with only a smattering of fans.

The 2013 Kane County Cougars were an interesting team. They were a mix of young and talented prospects, and players, who despite undeniable physical tools, were unable to achieve in the win-loss column. Top 5 Cubs prospect Albert Almora lead the parade but he spent most of the year injured off and on. First basemen and DHs Dan Vogelbach and Rock Shoulders provided a lot of the offense while outfielder Bijan Rademacher provided a spark. Young third baseman Jeimer Candelario provided a glimpse of his unique skill set and was one of the youngest players in the Midwest League at 19. Wilson Contreras, the top catching prospect in the Cubs organization showed flashes of what he could be.

But for the most part, the season was a disappointment. The Cougars struggled to get to .500 in the first half and promotions of pitcher Pierce Johnson and Rademacher along with injuries to Albert Almora and others, the Cougars limped to the finish line. Vogelbach would get a promotion in August to Daytona and the Cougars last month was a struggle to survive.

However, there was some relief. The weak point of the team was pitching. Once Pierce Johnson left, there was no ace of the staff. Tayler Scott, the South African, pitched well in spurts. Dillon Maples went back to short season Boise to regain his form. However, Justin Amlung was the only bright spot in long relief. But in August, fortunes began to change and a glimpse of who could be throwing for the Cougars in 2013 emerged.

The 2013 MLB Draft saw the Cubs select several pitchers in the first half of the draft. Most of them wound up playing last year in the Arizona Rookie League and Boise. However, two wound up in Geneva playing at Kane County. Southpaw Rob Zastryzny and Tyler Skulina got some innings in for the Cougars and showed that 2014 could be an interesting year. Along with some other pitchers from Boise, the 2014 Cougars should be loaded and ready to throw strikes.

2014 Kane County Cougars Preview
Waves of Pitching – Early in the Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer regime, the two head honchos talked about waves of pitching flooding the organization. It took two years, but the pitching is starting to flow up the pipeline. While Florida State League champion Daytona had pitching in abundance, the only team with starting pitching depth was short season Boise, who had it in spades. Along with Skulina, Zastryzny, and late season callup to Kane County James Pugliese, Paul Blackburn, Dillon Maples, and Duane Underwood will be throwing some blazing fastballs in Geneva. It is possible that Skulina and Zastryzny wind up in Dayton based on their fall exploits in instructional play; the fact remains that the system is starting to produce pitching. And Underwood, Blackburn, Maples, and Pugliese are not just any prospects, but hard throwing prospects with wicked breaking pitches. Control for most of these guys is an issue, particularly Underwood and Maples. Blackburn and Pugliese were near dominant in the Northwest League. They should be in Geneva. In addition, relief pitchers who should be joining them include Trey Masek, Corbin Hoffner, Matt Iannazzo, and Jacob Hamman.

The Infield
Rock Shoulders and Jeimer Candelario will likely go to Daytona to start 2014. Trevor Gretzky, who came up to Kane County late, will likely begin the year at first base or in left field for the Cougars. Second base will probably be manned by Danny Lockhart and shortstop will likely see Marco Hernandez return for a third season. Recent draft pick Guiseppe Pappacio could come back and play short but he is looking at converting to catcher along with 2013 Cougar second baseman Gioskar Amaya. Third base will likely be a platoon of players led by Jacob Rodgers.

The Outfield
Along with pitching, the outfield should be the strength of the Cougars in 2014. Injured Trey Martin might return along with five players from Boise who could set Geneva on fire. Speedy Shawon Dunston, Jr., Kevin Encarnacion, the returning and seasoned Yasiel Balaguert at age 20, and Jeff Baez will be an exciting group to watch at the plate and on the basepaths. Of particular note is Encanacion. He had a great season at short season Boise and Kane County could be just a pit stop for him as he is clearly could be the most talented position player on the roster. Third round pick Jacob Hannemann could even make an appearance. Like Dunston, Hannemann is quite the table setter but he also has some power. Trevor Gretzky, the son of the great one, will likely return to DH, play some first and some left field. It is unclear if Reggie Golden will return or move on to Daytona despite an unsuccessful season.

Catcher
No one stands out here, but it is likely Cael Brockmeyer and Tyler Alamo could be doing the duties behind the dish. At 6’5”, Brockmeyer is a large presence while Alamo, a recent draft pick, holds a lot of potential.

I am excited to see this team play. It is a different brand of baseball built on strong starting pitching, blazing relief pitchers, speed in the outfield, defense minded infielders, and big, strong catchers. The weak spot could be the left side of the infield. All in all, though, it should be an exciting summer along the bank of the Fox River. The waves of pitching will be the biggest treat.

Position Battles: Third Base – The Hot Corner

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For the Cubs come next spring, there will be a few key position battles taking place:  left field, second base, closer, center field, and most importantly, third base. Only first base, shortstop, catcher, and right field look sewn up with Rizzo, Castro, Castillo, and Schierholtz holding those positions down. Over the next month, these position battles will be examined and possible solutions will be analyzed. This week, the hot corner, third base, is up.

In 2013, the Cubs got good production in some aspects of the game. Luis Valbuena was the primary third baseman. With a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 1.6, Valbuena was valued more for his glove than his bat. In 94 games at the hot corner, he played 760 innings with a fielding percentage of .967. His bat, on the other hand, accounted for 12 home runs and 37 rbis with an underwhelming .218 batting average combined with a modest .331 on base percentage. His original platoon partner, Cody Ransom, hit 9 home runs with 20 runs batted and .208/.304 batting line. Ransom’s glove provided a .944 fielding percentage. All combined, his WAR was 0.9. While these numbers were not good by any means, they weren’t horrid. The WAR points to a slightly above normal platoon, but not a good platoon.

Things changed for the Cubs late in the year when Donnie Murphy arrived. Murphy’s production was so good Cody Ransom was let go. In 46 games, Murphy hit 11 home runs with 23 rbis, a .255 average, and .319 on base average. He fielded at .956 clip and WAR of 1.0. Projected for a season, Murphy’s power would come close to 40 home runs. However, the small sample size of September baseball would not likely hold for a whole season. Comparatively, Murphy still has to be the front-runner to man the hot corner between him and Valbuena heading in to the 2014 season. But there are other options…

5 Prospects could vie for the starting position.

  • Javy Baez – while a shortstop in the minors, Baez’s bat could play anywhere. The worry is that he has never played at third in the minors. Cubs Scouting Director Jason McLeod believes Baez could play anywhere. Baez turns 21 in December. While still young, he still has time to season himself. In his short stint at AA Tennessee, Baez destroyed the league even after a shaky start. Odds are Baez will be in Chicago next summer. The chances of him coming out of spring training are better for him at second base, as it would make an easier transition athletically and defensively.

 

  • Kris Bryant – he has yet to play above A ball. Never the less, at 21, he is having a great fall in the Arizona Fall League. Like Baez, he close to making his debut in the show. 200-300 at bats at AA Tennessee should most likely to happen in 2014 and then in June he would arrive to take over third, or he could wind up in LF. When he was drafted last summer, Bryant declared he was ready to play in the majors now. It would be something if he did win the job next spring, but I don’t think Theo and Jed will rush him. When he does come, he is going to be something special, just like Baez.

 

  • Christian Villanueva – the Ryan Depmster trade to Texas is providing a windfall of talent for the Cubs. Out of all the candidates for the hot corner, Villanueva has a major league glove now – better than both Valbuena and Bryant. A solid arm and improving bat make his arrival eventual, the question becomes whether he could be traded or will he play for the Cubs. It is likely Villanueva starts 2014 at Iowa. He did get a brief look last year in spring training. His glove did not disappoint but his bat was not ready. However, after a year at AA Tennessee where Villanueva hit 19 home runs with 72 runs batted in, his bat is getting close. The Cubs could use a guy like him even if it means using Bryant in LF. Villanueva, even at 22 years old, would be a steady presence in the infield defense. Pitchers would love him for years to come.
  • Josh Vitters – it has been noted that Vitters will be given a chance to compete for LF position this spring, his appearance on this list is a side. Vitters just turned 24 and is far from a waste. However, 2013 was a terrible year for him with injury after injury. His short “cup of tea” in 2012 with the Cubs did not endear him to the front office as he showed he never met a pitch he did not think he could not hit. His wild, sweet swinging bat proved to be a detriment. However, all is not lost. His sweet swing doesn’t need adjusting, it is his mind.
  • Mike Olt – I could write, see Josh Vitters. Similar career paths with terrible 2013s plagued both players. For Olt, vision problems derailed him in 2013. While Vitters lacks the pop, he does have the high average. Olt, lacks a high average, but could hit for pop. Similar to Villanueva, Olt has a reputation of a good glove man. It is likely that Olt will be given an opportunity to compete for the starting position as the Cubs really have nothing to lose in the spring. His vision issues need to be in the past.

 

When it comes down to it, what Theo and Jed value defense at the position. Villanueva, Bryant, Olt, and Valbuena have that in spades. Theo and Jed also want some pop. Bryant, Baez, Murphy, and Olt have it now, while Villanueva is gaining it.  When it comes time to make a decision, I think the job is Murphy’s to lose to begin spring training. I don’t see Bryant, Baez, or Villanueva making a case in March for the position. But come June, it will be a fun question to consider who is going to playing there. I would love to see Bryant as I think he would transform the lineup. Ultimately, I don’t think Bryant will stay there. His bat will be more needed in left field. Come 2015, I think Villanueva will be at third, Bryant in left, and Baez at second. But these are good problems to have for Theo and Jed. Every major league organization wants redundancy at every position. The Cubs, in just two short years, have done that at a primary power position.