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.

Random Thoughts: October 19

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There are a lot of little things going on this week for the Cubs. There is still no manager and I do not foresee one for a while. Cubs baseball is being played in the Arizona Fall League and some prospects are getting great press. At the other end of the spectrum, some forgotten prospects are using the winter to get healthy.

The Managerial Search
Joe Girardi pretty much stiffed the Cubs and left Theo and Jed holding the bag. In the meantime, the Cubs have officially interviewed four candidates: Manny Acta, AJ Hinch, Dave Martinez, and Rick Renteria. None of those four sound enticing. And they don’t sound enticing to the brass either. Today, John Arguello at Cubs Den specualted that the Cubs are interested in Red Sox coach Torey Lovullo. That name is much better than the first round of interviews. The name that excites me is Jason Varitek. The former Red Sox catcher would make a great manager! Much like Mike Matheny did not have managerial experience, Varitek has none as well. However, for his entire career, Varitek acted like a manager on the field. More interviews will likely take place in the next two weeks. Look for more Red Sox affiliated choices coming.

The Arizona Fall League
At its current pace, the league might be renamed the Kris Bryant League. His fall stint seems to involve ripping the ball all the time. On Friday, after being named Player of the Week in the league, he hit 2 home runs and a double. His play is making Theo and Jed reconsider their plan for him. Could he be up with the big league club to start the year? Fans are clamoring for it. However, logic dictates Bryant will likely start out at AA Tennessee and skip Iowa altogether. This could put him on a mid June arrival. Bryant’s fall league team mates include Jorge Soler and Almora. Almora cooled off a little but is still hitting over .400. Jorge, after missing a large part of the regular season, is2 starting to heat up in the desert.

Cubs Instructional Play
In instructs, young Cub players are getting some much needed work in. Many of those players will likely find their way to Kane County including pitchers Rob Zastryzny, Tyler Skulina, Scott Frazier, Sam Wilson and Trey Masek; all were drafted by the Cubs in 2013. No batter has stood out but appearances by Jacob Hannemann, Shawon Dunston, Jr., and Yasiel Balaguert mean they could be headed to Illinois in the spring to be Cougars. Most encouraging has been the debut in a Cub uniform by Arodys Vazcaino. Acquired in the Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson trade from the Braves, Arodys has spent 1 and 1/2 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has often been rated one of the Cubs top prospects since his acquisition in 2012. Next year, he is likely going to be used as reliever as he builds up strength in the arm. He is still only 22.

Getting Healthy
Two Cubs prospects spent most of the year dealing with healthy issues. One, Josh Vitters, will be given the opportunity to compete for the left field position. Many people have given up on Vitters (and Brett Jackson), but at 24, Vitters still is far from a wash out. Mike Olt spent the summer dealing with eye issues and seems to have rebounded well in Arizona. Carrie Muskat wrote a nice piece on Olt here. If healthy, Olt could compete for a starting position in the infield in spring training.

Imagine this lineup by the middle of June 2014:
LF: Bryant
CF: Sweeney
RF: Scheirholtz/Lake
3B: Olt
SS: Castro
2B: Javy Baez
1B: Anthony Rizzo
C: Castillo

That could be a much more productive lineup than what we saw all last summer!!!  The best part is this is just the first wave.

Albert Almora: Man Amongst Boys

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With Joe Girardi resigning with the Yankees, the Cubs’ hunt for a manager has begun in earnest. Manny Acta and A.J. Hinch both allegedly came in for interviews and more are scheduled. The Cubs also brought back Ryan Sweeney for a nice two-year price. But for me, the best news of the week is that minor league prospects are playing again…in two places…in Arizona!

The first place is instructs. In instructs, low level rookie league, short season class A, and low class A players get some additional tutelage, change positions, and stretch out their arms and bats to the rigor of a longer playing season. So far, 2013 3rd round pick Jacob Hannemann and Catcher Tyler Alamo have been doing well along with Gioskar Amaya who has switched from 2B/SS to catcher.

For me, the key action in Arizona is the prestigious Arizona Fall League (AFL). The AFL is filled with some of the best minor league prospects (mostly high A and AA) including Byron Buxton of the Twins. The Cubs have three key future position players on the Mesa Solar Sox – Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Albert Almora. The first week has seen Bryant just ripping at .566 clip. Soler has struggled in his first few games. Almora, at the ripe age of 19, is hitting right along with Bryant at .600 with 6 rbis, albeit a small sample, but it is against some of the best minor leaguers – most of them 2 levels above him.

One of the treats of my 2013 summer was going to Kane County to see Almora play. The problem was he missed about half the year with a broken hammate bone to start and sore hamstring to finish. In between he only played 61 games but raked hitting .329. He only hit 3 home runs but at 6’2 and 180, there is some room on his big frame to grow. On Sundays at Kane County, they have autograph sessions and I got his. He is an imposing figure standing right next to him and he also came across as a very nice young man. However, there is just something about him. When he is out in center field, he gets unbelievable jumps on any ball hit. He glides through the outfield like a panther. He is not blessed with great speed, but he gets to balls which most players don’t even come close. It is almost as if he can tell where the ball is going as soon as it comes off the bat. Almora said this of his playing style in an interview with Jonathon Mayo:

“Going 110 percent every day, leave it all on the field. Not having any regrets after the game is over, or saying, ‘I could have done more.’ Go out there and do everything you can to help the team and let them see that. That makes everybody better.”

There were several good prospects at Kane County including Dan Vogelbach, Jeimer Candelario, and Pierce Johnson. Almora though, he looks like a man among boys. Get this: at 19, he was one of the youngest players in the Midwest League! At the plate, he has a nice smooth stroke. When he first came to Kane County, he got off to a torrid start and then began to press. He started to try to do something with every pitch rather than wait for a pitch he could do something with. When the hamstring injury came, he was still batting .329.

Cubs scouting director Jason Macleod said this of Almora’s game:

He’s a performer. You go watch this guy play and he always performs,” McLeod said. “You just show up, and he’s always in the middle of what’s going on, on both sides of the ball. He’s always hit, hit for some power, driving gaps, very balanced approach and smooth swings. Defensively he makes plays look easy that should be hard, because of his jumps and just knowing where he is on the field. He’s not the blazing runner, but he plays like he is. He does it in a way that just looks so natural.

Playing only half the games his first full year was a concern, but that could be just a fluke. Despite the lack of experience in 2013, Almora is ticketed for great things. By playing in the AFL this fall, it is hoped that he can makeup for some of what he missed this summer. By playing in the AFL this fall, he can play against better pitchers and accelerate his development. However, for Almora, he was already accelerated having played for the 18 under Team USA for several years against some of the best players in the world his age. When 2014 rolls around, more than likely he will start at Daytona, the Cubs high A affiliate, but don’t expect his stay to be long there. He should spend most of the season at AA Tennessee – the same track and speed as Javy Baez. Almora could be in Chicago by mid 2015.

The prognosis is good for Almora, if he stays healthy. 2014 will be key to his future and the Cubs. I truly think the Cubs have struck gold with Almora, Baez, and Bryant. With Almora, he could play a major league center field today!, He is that good in the field! His instincts in center, which are some of the best I have seen, allow him to get great jumps and angles and change the game on both sides of the ball. Ryan Sweeney, whom the Cubs just resigned, is nothing more than a place holder for Almora. While Sweeney does have power, a good arm, and a nice bat, he does not have Almora’s instincts in the field. Now, Sweeney is a good fielder, Almora is that much better.

Almora also needs to be more consistent at the plate in his approach, which is quite good right now. To be a major leaguer, Almora still needs to get better. While a great hitter for average now, Almora’s frame could allow him to also develop into a power hitter. Some project him hitting 15-20 home runs. I see him hitting close to 25. For a premium position, that is outstanding. Right now, he hits the ball hard every time. The first game I saw him this summer, he practically tore the cover of the ball and went 3-4. The next game he tried to do much with every pitch and went 1-4.  For this kid (he is still only 19 and will be when 2014 starts) there aren’t too many limits to his game. He already has what scouts call a high floor based on his present skills. His ceiling, I tend to think it is quite high. It’s not Javy Baez or Kris Bryant high, but it is close.

What I hear most about Almora though is his mental makeup and leadership. He is tough as nails mentally, focused beyond belief, and driven to win. Every team needs great players who are physically talented. They also need players who get other players to play better or who do the little things to win. I think Almora fits in the last category. Although Kane County was not a good team (lack of starting pitching) this summer, they were a team who could hit and score runs in bunches. If they got past the first inning without giving up 3-4 runs, the odds were good they would be in the game. They spent most of the summer playing from behind. Despite that fact, Almora was up there grinding out every bat. It’s hard to always play from behind. For Almora, he showed a lot of what he is made of by doing so. If he goes to Tennessee in the spring, he will not have that issue playing with the likes of pitchers Pierce Johnson, CJ Edwards, Corey Black, and Ivan Pinyero – four of the cups top starting pitching prospects. Almora could be playing with the lead and we might even see more of what Almora is capable of doing. That would be spectacular!

Quotes from Jonathon Mayo

Kris Bryant – Mr. Dependable, Mr. Versatile, or Mr. Consistency?

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As the speculation about Joe Girardi becoming the manager of the Cubs begins its second week, there are other pressing matters awaiting the franchise. This week instructs began in the Arizona Fall League. Several of the Cubs top prospects will be playing including Jorge Soler and Albert Almora along with several other young prospects including who I think is the Cubs top prospect, Kris Bryant. Most prospect lists for the Cubs have Javy Baez listed as the Cubs top prospect and rightly so. Baez easily has the most talent. There are other factors besides talent that I have taken into consideration as listing Bryant as my top Cubs prospect.

1. Consistency of performance– Kris Bryant oozes consistency. After Bryant struck out five times in his debut, he went on a steady tear. The most impressive parts of his stat line for 36 games were his .390 on-base percentage, .688 slugging percentage and 36 runs batted in. Bryant did this despite going from short season Class A Boise to High Class A Daytona, bypassing low A Kane County, and depriving me an opportunity to see his swing a few times.

Baez put up huge numbers at high A Daytona and AA Tennessee including 37 home runs and 111 rbis in 130 games. Stretched to a 162 game season, that would equal 46 home runs and 138 runs batted in. Baez struggled his first two weeks in Tennessee. He made a few adjustments and went on a tear unlike anything I have seen in a minor league player over his last 40 games. Bryant’s projections are similar. Bryant’s 9 homers and 32 runs batted in translate to 40 homers with 144 runs batted in.

2. Filling out – Baez at 6’0” and 195 pounds has little room to fill out. He is what he is and his vicious bat speed is his greatest talent. Bryant, at 6’5” and 215 pounds still looks like a stick figure in a uniform. Bryant could easily hide 20 more pounds and gain additional power. Yes, that is scary!

3. Batting Order – Defensive Psitioning – I think Bryant is the prototypical #3 hitter. He hits for power, he hits for average, he drives in runs, he walks, and sometimes he even sacrifices himself by just going to right side. Baez is more of a pull hitter, especially in the infield, but he is working on driving it to all fields. Bryant will not see too many shifts in his day. He sprays the ball to all parts of the park.

4. Closeness to the Majors – Baez finished the year at Tennessee and he will most likely get to show before Bryant. Bryant could start anywhere from Daytona to Tennessee to Iowa. He is so polished in every aspect although he may not be as good a fielder as Christian Villanueva, a prospect Bryant will likely skip over. Bryant also doesn’t really need to do anything structurally or approach wise other than just to face better and better pitching. I tend to think he could arrive in August or September of 2014. Javy should be in Wrigley in the middle of June. The question for both is where are they going to play?

5. Fielding Positions – Baez could play shortstop but his replacing Darwin Barney at second base is more logical to Cub fans. Bryant could play left field but will more likely play third base. However, imagine Soler and Almora lined up along beside him in the grass and it would make for a powerful outfield if Villanueva is instead manning the hot corner. Bryant’s ability to switch positions creates many options for management and creates plans with plans, something Theo likes.

Despite how close Baez and Bryant are in many categories, I think with Bryant, you are going to get pretty much the same thing every day, a consistency that is hard find. With Baez, I think you are never going to know who will show up from day-to-day. Some days, Baez could go 4-4 with 2 homers and 7 rbis. The next day he could 0-5 with 3 strikeouts. With Bryant, he projects more to have pretty much the same type of game every day. Some days he will hit a homer, some days he won’t. But he will not hit anything he can’t do something with. He knows his limits and he knows what he can do well. And that, in the end, is why I think Bryant’s dependability makes him a more valuable prospect.

As the Manager Turns: The Free Agent Lure

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Dale Sveum is, was, and always has been, in a no-win situation. He took the position of manager of the Chicago Cubs with no hope of winning. It was team designed to lose. In July of 2012, the Cubs began selling off the best pieces of the team during a hot streak. Sure the Cubs acquired assets that might not pay off until 2015-2016. The team wound up losing 101 games. 2013 was eerily similar and the Cubs sold off key everyday players and 40% of the starting rotation in June, July, and August. Somehow Sveum managed to avoid another 100 loss season. As of today, they are on their way to loss #95 and pick 4 or 5 in the 2014 MLB draft. This past week saw Sveum’s head put on a platter by local media and bloggers over comments by Theo Epstein and the regression of Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, and supposedly Jeff Samardjiza. Some critics have been fair in pointing out the development of Travis Wood, the bullpen arms of Hector Rondon, Blake Parker, and catcher Wellington Castillo.

For me, this is still a team that regardless of who the manager is, in 2014 needs major changes on the offensive side of the ball. To blame Sveum for the regressions is a time honored and stupid tradition. The player is the one who should take most of the blame. If I had to choose a first baseman of the future, it would not be Anthony Rizzo. Rather, it would be Dan Vogelbach who has much better bat control, hits for a better average, and has more power but it still probably 2-3 years away. So, Rizzo stays for now. As for Castro, I don’t think too many Cub fans would be too upset to see Javier Baez replace Castro. However, I am not one who is ready to give up on the kid. His problem is more mental than physical. Barney, on the other hand, I might be the first one to push him out the door. He can field, but his hitting is atrocious.

Here’s the thing though, neither you or I are running this team.

This is clearly Theo’s rebuild. And in that rebuilding, he might have seen something he did not like about Rizzo’s inability to hit any low and inside pitch and blamed it on Sveum. However, it is more likely that Sveum is the fall guy for Theo and Jed’s personnel decisions of the last 24 months. In fact, if it weren’t for a poor bullpen this spring (April and May), the Cubs could have been buyers rather than sellers.

Ultimately, Epstein might see a better option in Joe Girardi. If Joe is available, a Girardi hire might be a chance for Theo to get back in the game to attract the free agents. The team now has money sans the Soriano, Zambrano, Graza, Marmol, DeJesus, and Dempster contracts. There is more money on the way with signage and the jumbotron advertising. I for one would love to see Shin Soo-Choo in Cubbie blue at the top of the lineup , Japanese pitcher Tanaka in the rotation, and maybe even Chase Headley at the hot corner in a trade. Would they come here is Sveum is here in 2014? Or is Girardi the better the lure? If I was a free agent, I would say Joe, hands down.

Girardi, a World Series winning manager would be an essential part of the team going forward in not only attracting free agents and bringing fans but also molding the young players the Cubs will surely have more of in 2014. His hire could mark a rebirth of the franchise across many levels, but most importantly, at the major league level. However, if Girardi doesn’t come in 2014, there is no sense hanging Sveum out to dry.

Trying to Figure out the Offense

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Abysmal. Anemic. Apathetic. These three words pretty much define the Cubs offense in 2013. Aside from Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus, the lack of production has been lifeless. Starlin Castro has been in the .240s most of the year while Anthony Rizzo has been stuck near the Mendoza line most of the year in the .220s. Wellington Castillo has shown some life and some promise. Overall, it has been a horrible experience to watch the offense. However, there is hope. And that hope comes in the guise of three or four young players who could make their debuts at some point next year.

The Outfield
Since Soriano left the Cubs have used a patchwork collection on what most teams would be fourth and fifth outfielders. For the Cubs, they start. Therein lies the rub. Ryan Sweeney has some pop but his offense does not insure any return to normalcy. He would make a great fourth outfielder, but a starter? The same is true for Brian Bogusevic and Junior Lake. Lake, while an exciting player, is not an everyday player as of yet and lacks the power or the plate discipline needed at the major league level from a corner outfielder. The Cubs have also seen Dave Sappelt, Julio Borbon, Darnell McDonald, Cole Gillespie, Thomas Neal, and the mainstay, Nate Schierholtz. The names do not inspire confidence save Nate.

The free agent landscape does not bode well either. The Cubs could make a run at Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds on-base machine. While he could play center or right, at age 30 he is a bit of a gamble but he would bring stability to the top of the order and provide some one to drive in. For a team that is 14th in walks in the National League, Choo would be a breath of fresh air and revitalize the lineup. Jacoby Ellsbury is also available but his injury history precludes any long term or big payout signing.

The Infield
The Cubs started Luis Valbuena at third most of the year. He can field, but he is not even an average hitter. Starlin Castro had his worst year as a pro, Rizzo’s sophomore slump was atrocious as pitchers threw anything down and in and there was nothing Rizzo could do. He has to be able to hit those pitches. Castro played well in August but after having such a horrible first half of the year, there was nothing he could do in the second half to make up for it. Barney provided little offense, if at all. His days are numbered along with Valbuena. New life is needed and fast

Catcher
The lone bright spot on offense until his recent knee injury, Wellington Castillo showed a propensity to get hits along with his backup, Dioner Navarro.

2014 – The Hope
It was announced this week that former Cubs 3B phenom, Josh Vitters, would be given the chance to come and earn the LF spot next year. While Vitters has nothing left to prove at the AAA level, his short major league stint in 2012 did nothing to inspire confidence. Neither did the announcement. Vitters hit .121 in 36 games. While 2013 saw him battling injuries, at only 24, he is still young enough to make adjustments.

The true hope lies in players Cub fans hope to make debuts next year.
1. Javy Baez – The minor league organizational player of the year hit a combined 37 home runs and 111 rbis at High Class A Daytona and AA Tennessee. At Tennessee, Baez struggled the first couple weeks then just destroyed the league in August. The hope for me is that he sticks at second to begin the year. The hope for me is that he has a great spring training and makes the decision to keep him on the roster a certainty. Worst case scenario for Baez next year – he goes to Iowa and debuts in September. However, I would like to see his wicked bat speed playing every day.

2. Kris Bryant – The number two pick in the 2013 MLB draft began his brief Cubs debut season in short season Class A Boise. After a five strikeout performance Bryant shook off the rust of two months of not playing and went on an on-base tear. The brass of Cubs management was so impressed that Bryant skipped low A Kane County and was part of the Florida State League championship High Class A Daytona Cubs. Ideally, Bryant could play third base but he may shift to the outfield, preferably left, as the Cubs system is stacked with third baseman Christian Villanueva and Jeimer Cadelario. Villanueva can defensively play 3B now in the majors – his hitting is still a year away. Cadelario had a good year at age 19 for Kane County. It would be a steep learning curve if Bryant were to debut at Wrigley in 2014. His performance in the Arizona Fall League should tell where he begins next year (Tennessee or Iowa) so that he could end the year in Wrigley.

3. Jorge Soler – An injury plagued year has kept Soler from fulfilling his potential along with an ugly bat wielding incident. Soler, like Baez, has an impressive bat. Combined with a cannon for an arm, he would look good in right field. Like Bryant, Soler will play in the fall league to recoup some at-bats. The potential and talent are there for Soler. The question is whether he can stay healthy enough to get to Wrigley.

4. There are other options besides Baez, Bryant, and Soler to invigorate the Cubs offense. Matt Szczur had a good year at AA Tennessee and could push for a roster spot come spring. Maybe Brett Jackson finally figures it out – that’s a big maybe. Even Arismendy Alcantara could push for 2B spot in the spring and move Baez over to third. Add in the fact that the Cubs will be picking fourth in the 2014 MLB draft, Troy Tulowitzki clone Trea Turner out of North Carolina State could be sitting there at number four. Like Braynt, Turner could make a quick spin through the system. The possibilities are endless for the offense in 2014.

In the end, Cub fans that are on board with the rebuild support the decisions of the front office, but they just will not do so as paying customers at Wrigley. It has been sad to see half to two-thirds of the ballpark empty the past month. I truly think that emptiness will have an impact on what the Cubs do this winter. That could mean they get rid of manager Dale Sveum, but ultimately I think he stays and finishes out his contract. Rizzo’s and Castro’s lack of development cannot be fully pinned on Dale. The two players share the brunt of their failure. As many as 4-5 new position players could be starting the 2014 opening day for the Cubs. The organization knows it needs to make changes at the major league level. They have addressed pitching this past year. This winter, hitting gets its due. It has to or next year could be unbearable.

Trying to Figure Out Starting Pitching

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As I have done over 140 times this year, I sat and watched Cubs last night. They got off to an early lead against the Pirates. Then, I watched Scott Baker settle in and pitch fly ball after fly ball; nine, in fact, through the first five innings. Baker looked sharped and crisp as the speed on his fastball rose from 86 in the first inning to 90-91 later in the game. It was a good outing for him. He located his pitches, worked fast, and got through six innings with 75 pitches only giving up a 6th inning home run to Jose Tabata. It was a performance good enough to win. It was until James Russell gave up a 7th inning homer to former Cub Marlon Byrd.

 

Looking at the Cubs organizational depth chart is an interesting task and one I will do off and on through out the off-season. Baker’s performance this September has created two problems. One, should they resign him, and two, how does it affect the rest of the organization?

If one were to look at who was likely to be on the big league rotation in 2014, you start with Samardjiza, Wood, and Jackson and throw in Rusin and Arrieta based on their glimmers of hope here late in the season. Now with Baker making it six starters, it is a good problem. Add in the Cubs pursuit of Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka and that makes seven. You could even make cases for Justin Grimm, Arodys Vizcaino (more of a reliever after coming off of Tommy John surgery), Kyle Hendricks, and Barret Loux with Alberto Cabrera being given an outside shot after his very successful year at Double A Tennessee. Resigning Baker has a trickle down effect on who pitches where next year. I could see the Cubs re-upping Baker with an incentive laden deal. One more start against the Braves and I think we will have a pretty good idea about Baker’s chances.

The ripple of Baker’s signing could slow up the advancement of several pitchers – and that might be a good thing for the organization. Another year at Double A might be the best thing for Tony Zych. But then again, will Pierce Johnson, CJ Edwards, Corey Black, and Ivan Pinyero leave Zych a place? Will Matt Loosen have a job there as well? Who will move from Tennessee to Iowa? It creates a logjam. After seeing several games at Kane County this year, that might not be a bad thing as the Cougars had the worst pitching in the organization this year (aside from Pierce Johnson’s brief but brilliant tenure). Imagine a young group of 20 year olds in Pugliese, Blackburn, Underwood, and Dillon Maples all throwing gas in Geneva next summer. I think my one hour and 10 minute trip to the ballpark would get a lot shorter going to watch them pitch.

In the end, it all starts with Baker. Unlike the other pitchers in the Cub organization, he has a track record for pitching at or near the top of a rotation. That is what the Cubs need more than anything. They have a lot of holes, but it all starts with pitching. They need depth. To have 10 pitchers who could start in the big leagues would be a luxury most teams don’t have and could allow the Cubs to then seek help for their woeful offense.