2022 Not That Far Away…

By Todd Johnson

2022. It doesn’t seem like a big year. However, it is. Yesterday, Baseball America released a projection (Subscription Required) of what they think the Cubs lineup is going to look like in 2022. My friend Cory suggested that I do my own projection on what I think the Cubs could look like in just three years. In reality, that scenario is not that far away.

Catcher – Willson Contreras is still signed through the 2022 season. He should still be with the Cubs unless there’s some dramatic drop off between now and then. However, if Miguel Amaya puts it all together in the next couple years, he could be there before and Willson could end up at another position which might improve Mr. Contreras’ bat and sustainability.

First Base– I can’t see anyone in this position other than Anthony Rizzo. He will be a free agent after 2021, but I do see the Cubs re-signing him to a short-term deal.

Second Base – I only see one person playing this position and that is 2018 first round pick Nico Hoerner. Currently, he is moving quickly through the system and could be as ready as early as late this summer or early spring 2020.

Shortstop – I think the Cubs can re-sign Javy Baez so that he can continue his career in Chicago. The hope is that the player we saw in 2018 is going to be the same player in 2022 at the age of 29.

Third Base – Kris Bryant is going to test the free-agent market at the end of the 2021 season. Even if the Cubs do sign Bryce Harper, I just don’t see Bryant sticking with the club if he gets something that’s going to better his life and his family for generations. If the Cubs do not sign Bryce Harper this off-season, maybe the team will sign Nolan Arenado next winter and Kris would move to the outfield.

Outfield – This is the most unpredictable of the everyday positions three years out. Right now, the Cubs have Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, and Albert Almora signed through 2022 and 2023. I don’t know if two or three of them are even going to be on the team when Spring Training starts this year. I can see 2018 draft picks Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis pushing for two of the spots by then. Hopefully, Harper will be in the other spot. Kyle Schwarber could be around as well. My crystal ball is little foggy here.

Starting Pitching – Yu Darvish is the only Cubs starting pitcher signed through 2022, although he can opt out after 2019. Considering the depth of starting pitching they now have in the majors and minors, the Cubs are going to try and draw from that as much as possible. I would love to see Kyle Hendricks re-signed but even that will be somewhat costly. Then again, Adbert Alzolay could be penciled in as soon as 2020 and lefty Brailyn Marquez could arrive in a couple more years. Mike Montgomery could be an arm as could the Cubs number one international free-agent signing last year, Richard Gallardo, who is polished beyond his years. Justin Steele is a thought along with Trevor Clifton, Alec Mills, Duncan Robinson, Matt Swarmer, Cory Abbott,….OK I need to stop as I could list ten more possibilities.

It was hard to project what the Cubs will look like in three years, but they will look a lot different, especially when it comes to pitching. The Cubs have shown a propensity to go out and purchase arms rather than wait for them to be developed. It’s a proven strategy considering you’re buying known quantities. But it’s also an expensive one that is curtailing their offseason efforts this year.

The Cubs still have three more drafts in which to  sign more young talent, hopefully position players who could have an impact at the major league level. Considering the Cubs don’t have much money budgeted for the roster in 2022, they can spend as much or as as little as they want to build up that roster. Right now, they have $62 million allocated for that season and 2/3 of that is Heyward and Darvish. They have a lot of money and time to budget that out.

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The Weekly: Hot and Cold Stove, Fall Awards, AFL News, Lists, and Things to Come

By Todd Johnson

The “MLB Hot Stove” is just not very hot this week during the GM Meetings. The Cubs have not signed any free agents nor have they have made any trades. The only thing coming out of the meeting is that it appears pitching coach Jim Hickey will also not be returning in 2019. I thought he was outstanding in keeping the rotation afloat and the young bullpen arms productive last summer. Theo also said that he was not going to comment at this time as it was not appropriate. So, it looks like more information will be coming down the pike later.

On Friday, Buster Olney of ESPN floated that the Cubs were open to trading Kris Bryant based on comments Theo made that there were no untouchables. Buster made a bit of a stretch putting Kris Bryant on the block. Kris is going to be a Cubs through 2020 and into 2021 and hopefully beyond.

In the awards section, Anthony Rizzo won his second Gold Glove and Mr. Javier Baez won his first Silver Slugger award. I doubt if Javy wins MVP, but it was such a thrilling season to watch him day in and day out.

AFL Action
While Nico continues to hit well along with Trent Giambrone, pitcher Erick Leal is beginning to draw praise as he is the only starting pitcher in the Arizona Fall League who has yet to allow an earned run. Leal’s streak reached 17 innings this week and his curveball has been getting rave reviews for its ability to miss baseball bats. Erick should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2019. Unless the Cubs put them on the 40 man roster by November 20, he is eligible to be selected in the next month’s Rule V Draft. I will have a full fledged post on him for Tuesday.

In addition, catcher Johnny Pereda is trending upwards as this AFL season comes to a close. It’s hard to believe that next week is the sixth week and final week of the season. Pereda’s average at one point hit .273 this week. On the other hand, pitcher Bailey Clark has struggled a little bit in the second half. He gave up a monster home run to White Sox product Louis Robert the other day. However, he is still looking good sitting around 95 most days. Last night, he was in trouble as he gave up 4 hits in 2 innings but did not allow a run. This has been a great experience for him going up against some of the top talent in MILB. Bailey’s ERA is at 2.45 in 11 innings.

Then there’s this guy…

Lists Are Coming
Baseball America it’s getting closer to putting out their draft grade on the Cubs and their latest top 10 prospect list. I will analyze that list as soon as it arrives sometime in the next two weeks. As well, John Sickel’s Minor League Ball began releasing their prospect lists this week but have yet to get to the Cubs.

The 5 Series
Starting the day after Turkey Day, my two offseason series will officially begin. As per usual, the position breakdown series will begin with catchers that day. And then I’m going to do something a little bit different this year in my offseason look at prospects. Rather than do a whole historical write up and talent evaluation of prospects, this year’s series is going to be brief and to the point. It is called the “Five Series” and each profile contains five things and the theme will change for each prospect.

In addition, it’s going to be class A centric. Not too many players above either Eugene, South Bend or Myrtle Beach are going to get examined. The first prospect on the clock is shortstop Levi Jordan, the Cubs 29th round pick out of the University of Washington in 2018 who played at Eugene after signing with the Cubs. After that, third round pick OF Jimmy Herron out of Duke has been piquing my interest.

Mailbag
I want to do a few mailbag posts like I did last year. So, send me your Cub MiLB questions you have this offseason about next year. It can be about any level, the draft, international free agency, the AFL, or trades. You can do it on Twitter or you can email me at CubsCentral2016@gmail.com. I advertised for some on Twitter yesterday and a few of the Qs I am thinking about actually turning into full fledged posts about Erick Leal, South Bend’s OF in 2019, Adbert Alzolay’s future (Probably at BPW), and Trent Giambrone’s amazing AFL experience (at Cubs Insider).

Acquisitions This Week
MiLB Free Agents – Corey Black
IFA – Edwin Castillo, INF , Darling Grullon, P,  Orlando Guzman, OF – That brings their 2018/19 total to 11.
MiLB Re-signed to 6th year/Successor contract (per Arizona Phil)– Erick Leal, Roberto Caro, Gioskar Amaya, Anderson Acevedo, James Buckelew, Yan de la Cruz, Dalton Geekie, Danny Hultzen, Ryan Lawlor, Yasiel Balaguert, Erick Castillo, and Chris Pieters

Card of the Week

That’ll Do Cubs, That’ll Do

By Todd Johnson

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. The Cubs beat the Marlins 8-4 to win the first game of the year. There was a time where it was nip and tuck for a few innings, but the bullpen held the Marlins scoreless for over five innings and Kyle Schwarber and Tommy La Stella gave the club some much-needed insurance in the late innings.

Stars of the Day
Ian Happ – He had a nice little leadoff home run.

Anthony Rizzo – A two-run dinger was gone quick.

Jason Heyward – He had an RBI, got on base a couple times, and made a couple nice plays in the field.

Kyle Schwarber – His home run gave the Cubs a little breathing room and it was a no doubter.

Tommy La Stella – His nickname has been changed to “Bounce House” per the Twitterverse (aka Randall Sanders). His 2 run double sealed things.

Steve Cishek – He came in and stopped the bleeding and even got out of his own trouble.

The rest of the bullpen – They were a lot of fun to watch as they did what Theo wanted – they threw strikes. 5.2 scoreless innings will do.


There are a couple things to take away from today’s game.

One – Although Miami is probably not very good, they came out and competed. They took advantage of Jon Lester not being able to control the strike zone and to score four runs. Teams are not going to lay down and die against the Cubs. The Cubs are going to have to keep the pedal pushed down.

Two – All in all, it was a good day. It was exciting. The Cubs hit three homeruns and they came away flying the W.

Spring Training News and Notes: Baseball Is Back and Glorious!

By Todd Johnson

Big things are happening…sort of. Games are now being played. College baseball is in full swing and international players are doing showcases. The sights and sounds of spring are everywhere. With that, I enter into my so-called busy season at school. Yesterday, I had 62 students participate in the regional history fair at NIU in DeKalb. 28 of them received a superior rating and now advance to Illinois History Day in Springfield in early May. It was a good day! 

Yesterday, the Cubs announced that they signed pitcher Danny Hultzen. The former first round of Seattle is now 28 but has not pitched since a second arm surgery in 2016. In fact, the left-handed Hultzen has only pitched 10 innings since his first surgery in 2013. The deal is for a minor league contract only.

Back to spring training…

On Friday, the Cubs began playing games. Most of the players came from Iowa’s roster except for Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber. On Saturday, most of the everyday position players got some work in with Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras hitting home runs. Luke Farrell was most impressive with 2 scoreless innings and 3 strikeouts in relief. It was also good to see Duane Underwood and Oscar de la Cruz each work a scoreless inning.

They’re only three things that need to be decided in Mesa. The first one is whether the Cubs are going to go with Chris Gimenez or Victor Caratini as the backup catcher. If it’s Gimenez, I am not so sure I like that decision. I know what Victor can do and I know that Victor is improving on the defensive side of the ball.

The second decision will be about whether Justin Grimm makes the roster or Dillon Maples. Farrell could even work his way into the conversation. Part of me wants to see Maples make it just because he has incredible nasty stuff. Even though Grimm makes $2.5 million a year, his contract is no longer guaranteed after losing his arbitration case a couple of weeks ago.

As for the “Leadoff Question,” that is not going to be solved for a while. And in all reality, it might be a yearlong thing with a variety of leadoff hitters. Ian Happ got the nod on Friday and Albert Almora stepped up first on Saturday.

International free agency

While the July 2 signing date is still three months away, there was an international showcase held in the Dominican Republic earlier in the week. With new rules in place beginning this year, every team is pretty much on a level playing field as a team cannot go over their bonus pool at all. The Cubs have been linked to a couple of high profile prospects so far.

One is a pitcher and the other is a shortstop and both have been profiled by Ben Badler of Baseball America. Due to proprietary restrictions, I can’t really go into a lot of detail because they are both subscription articles. Still, the Cubs have never really been linked to a high profile pitcher since Jen-Ho Tseng back in 2013. This might be an interesting IFA season, even if the kids are 16.

Earlier this week…

Sometimes I am perplexed by certain prospects rankings and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. That held true this week when MLB.com’s Pipeline released their top 30 Cubs prospect listI was pleased to see Michael Rucker move all the way up to number 21. He made the backend of the top 30 list near the end of the season in 2017. What I like most about Michael is that he throws strikes. The former BYU standout started out 2017 as a reliever at South Bend and morphed into a starter at Myrtle Beach when Oscar de la Cruz went on the DL. He should be at Tennessee in 2018.

At some point in the next week, John Sickles of Minor League Ball will release his top 175 MiLB prospects. I feel pretty comfortable in saying there will be at least two Cubs on that list. If there’s more, that would be great. However, I just don’t see it happening this spring. Next year that’ll be a different story.

Coming Up on Cubs Central

With History Fair over for a while, I now have 5 Scholastic Bowl meets over the next ten days. So, I have pre written a few profiles and draft pieces. All I have to do is hit the “publish” button. Once the 8th of March gets here, my schedule becomes free and clear to keep up with the everyday happenings in the system.  Tomorrow, I have a draft piece about possible high school pitching prospects. The “Leveling Up” series continues with a look at Jonathan Sierra on Wednesday and Jared Young on Friday. And as usual, “Spring Training News and Notes” will be back next Sunday.

Baseball Card of the Week

NLDS Game Two: Bullpen Blows Up But Cubs Still Have Homefield Advantage

By Todd Johnson

For 7.5 innings, it was a wonderful game to watch as the Cubs led 3 to 1 heading into the bottom of the eighth. Jon Lester pitched in and out of jams, Anthony Rizzo homered, and the Cubs looked primed to sweep the Nats out of their own building. Then the bullpen threw up all over Nationals Park. Between Carl Edwards and Mike Montgomery, the Nationals destroyed two baseballs to score 5 runs in the eighth to take a 6 to 3 victory.

I’m not going to belabor any point of the game other than to say the Cubs had this in hand and lost it. Being a big picture guy, the Cubs head home with a split. Had you asked me on Friday morning, I would’ve taken that outcome before arriving in Washington. It would’ve been nice, though, to sweep in Washington as the Cubs and Cub fans have to feel like they let one get away.

I hope that doesn’t happen again. I am not into this losing thing.

I will be back in the morning with “The Weekly.”

 

NLDS Game One: Precision, Patience, and Destroying Some Narratives

By Todd Johnson

Kyle Hendricks was the man.

Last night, for five innings, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was the man. He looked like the best pitcher on the planet with 8 Ks and he had not allowed a hit when the sixth inning rolled around. After Javy Baez reached on an error, the Cubs capitalized two batters later when Kris Bryant got the Cubs’ first hit of the night to drive in Baez from second. Strasburg hung a breaker on a two strike count and the Bryant made him pay. Otherwise, Strasburg was near perfect.

The Cubs tacked on a second run on a hit by Rizzo, who also added another RBI in the 8th.

The star of the night for the Cubs was Kyle Hendricks. He kept the Cubs in the game with 7 innings of two hit ball. Hendricks used 6 Ks and a double play to shut out the Nats. Every pitch had a lot of movement and he moved the ball around the zone. In the post-game press conference, Hendricks complimented catcher Willson Contreras about how the two were on the same page in executing the gameplan for each hitter.

Carl Edwards struck out two in the eighth in relief and Wade Davis was Wade Davis in the ninth to get the save.

What I liked most about last night’s victory was that it smashed some narratives.
1. Cubs can’t hit good pitching. They beat the second best right handed starter in the NL  by waiting him out and capitalizing on his only mistake.
2. Joe won’t let Kyle Hendricks go deep in the playoffs. Hendricks went seven and looked like he could go nine as he looked so relaxed. He only threw 106 pitches and I liked that Joe let him go that long.
3. Kris Bryant is not clutch. Yeah, his hit was everything and his baserunning was even better than his hitting to get in scoring position for Rizzo to drive him in.

I can’t wait for game two at 4:30 Saturday afternoon. Jon Lester will be dueling Gio Gonzalez. Look for Albert Almora to play a key role in the game.

A Regular Season Review by the Numbers

By Todd Johnson

92-70 was a good enough record to earn the label National League Central Division Champions in 2017. The Cubs finished six games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and nine ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was strange year numerically as Kyle Schwarber struggled in the leadoff spot yet wound up with 30 HRs and people fixated on Kris Bryant’s RBI from the number two spot in the lineup. Still, in spite of all the pressure to repeat a division title, the Cubs did.

The strength of their record came at home as the Cubs went 48-33. While they were 44-37 on the road, they went 4-11 on the road against the National League West. Otherwise, the road record was 40-26 against everyone else. The Cubs also struggled against the Phillies going 2-4. Against the whole National League East, the Cubs were 21-13 including 3-4 against their upcoming opponent in the NLDS. That means that they were 16-5 against the Mets, Braves, and Marlins.

Another key to the Central Division championship was the Cubs record against the Central at 46–30. The Cubs feasted against St. Louis going 15–4. The Cubs were 12-6 against the Reds, 10-9 vs Milwaukee, and they bested the Pirates 10-9 on the season.

In interleague play, the Cubs went 12-8 this year. Against right-handers, the Cubs were 71-56, and against lefties, the Cubs put up a 21–14 mark.

The Cubs struggled in the first half of the year. At the All-Star break, the Cubs were 43-45. After the break the Cubs caught fire going 49-27. That included a 13-3 record in July right after the break, 17-12 in August, and 19-9 in September.

Hitting Stats

As for individual statistics, most of the hitting stats we’re dominated by Kris Bryant. In addition to a 6.0 WAR, he also led the Cubs in weighted runs created plus at 172, weighted on base at .399, and on-base percentage with an outstanding .409 thanks in part to 95 walks. Anthony Rizzo led the team in home runs with 32 and RBIs with 109. Even though Albert Almora probably won’t qualify with enough at-bats, he did lead the team with a .298 average. John Jay, who had over 400 at bats, was next at 295. Ian Happ lead the team in isolated power at .261 and Alex Avila pleased the BABIP Gods at .388.

The thing that I was most surprised about was not that the Cubs had six guys who could hit over 20 home runs, because they’ve always had potential. Rather, I was surprised that they actually went out and did it. To have Rizzo and Schwarber hit over 30 home runs is a nice capstone to their power, but when Happ, Bryant, Baez, and Contreras crank out 20+ homers, that was quite remarkable. Where do they go from there? They are all so young.

 

My two favorite player performances this year were Javy Baez hitting .273 with 23 HRs and 75 RBI. For a second baseman, that is phenomenal production. Then there was Ian Happ who just shocked everybody a year ahead of schedule. Happ hit 24 HRs with 62 RBIs and hit .253. He did strike out over 30% of the time, but he will be even better next year. The fact that Happ just turned 23 is amazing.

Pitching Stats

As next weekend’s playoffs loom, my only concern is how the starting pitching is going to hold up. Over the last month, Hendricks and Quintana pitched well along with Lackey while Jake Arrieta struggled with an injury and Jon Lester looked tired. 

For the first half of the year, all the pitchers looked tired. I don’t think they began to look normal until after the All-Star break. Kyle Hendricks struggled with velocity early in the year and the Cubs relied on Eddie Butler for most of the first half in tandem with Mike Montgomery when free agent Brett Anderson did not work out. I liked the fact that management did not panic in their pursuit of starting pitching at that point in the year. When the deal came in for Quintana, I liked it as Jose is going to be a Cub for a while.

For the year, Lester lead the team in innings pitched with 180.2 in strikeouts with 180. Hendricks led the team in ERA at 3.03 while Quintana lead the team in FIP (3.15), xFIP (3.23), batting average against (.228), and WHIP (1.10). When it came to WAR, Lester had the best one on the staff at 2.7.

There were times this year when I didn’t think the bullpen was ever going to pull it together. However, they looked pretty good in the second half thanks in part to Carl Edwards, Jr., Wade Davis, and Brian Duensing. Edwards led the team in appearances with 73 and also had the most strikeouts out of the pen with 94 and a 1.01 WHIP. Wade Davis had the lowest bullpen ERA at 2.30 to go along with his 32 saves.

I’m interested to see how this relief corps shakes down in the playoffs and just exactly who makes the roster for the bullpen. Right now, I tend to think they are leaning towards bringing John Lackey out of the pen in the postseason while Justin Grimm could be left off the roster.

My favorite number of the year, though, is three. This will be the third season in a row that the Cubs are in the playoffs. I am starting to get used to it. Only 11 more wins to go for back-to-back titles. It’s not going to be easy – quite the contrary. It should be exciting to watch it unfold. For some reason, I don’t feel so stressed about it this year…then again, it’s not November.