With Spring Training less than two months away, the Cubs have a lot of questions that need answered at both the major league and minor league levels. Some of the questions could be answered soon, others much later, but they will have to be answered.
Major League Level
1. The Adjustment Capitulation: How will four players, still in their first year of big league play, make adjustments to big league pitching?
Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant all have to learn to make adjustments. While Baez and Alcantara got a lot of playing time last year, pitchers quickly adjusted to them after fast starts. Soler was solid (.903 OPS) in his only one month of play. Bryant will likely be up in the beginning of May 2015. For Bryant, he has a hole near his hands on the inside plane of his swing. That was one reason he was alright with not coming up last fall. For Baez and Alcantara, they both are working on things in winter ball. For them, it is about approach and pitch selection. Can they both lay off pitches at any point in the count. What the Cubs are trying to get both of them to learn is when to be aggressive and what types of pitches to be aggressive towards. In other words, look for certain pitches in certain zones and hit those – lay off others, especially curveballs and sliders off the plate.
2. The Starting Pitcher Saturation: Who will be the number 5 starter in the Cubs rotation, and who might the Cubs trade of the ones who don’t make it?
It is pretty clear that as of today who the first four starters in the Cubs rotation are: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks. Currently there are six legitimate arms and one prospect competing for the fifth spot. Tsuyoshi Wada, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Dan Straily, Felix DuBront, and Jacob Turner along with AAA pitcher Dallas Beeler are all vying for that one position. For Wada, Wood, and DuBront, if they don’t make the rotation, they can easily slide to the bullpen as left handed relievers. Wood and Jackson are possible candidates to be traded. I think the Cubs will hang on to Straily, DuBront, and Turner because of their financial flexibility and years left. Most teams would kill to have eleven starters to pick from. I really like the high end talent that Turner possesses. However, I think the Cubs brass would like to have a second lefty in the rotation.
I will let you in on a little secret: in July, there will be three more arms in Corey Black, CJ Edwards, and Pierce Johnson to add to the mix – although Edwards and Johnson have never pitched over 130 innings so they will be relegated to the bullpen for this year if they advance. For Edwards and Johnson, they have a legitimate chance to compete for a spot in 2016. Black has a better chance at sticking at reliever with his smaller frame. And if Black does make it as a reliever, he could easily add a couple of ticks and his mid 90s heater becomes an upper 90s heater.
3. The Castillo Crystallization: What is going to happen with Wellington Castillo?
Wellington Castillo is bound to be traded. The question for me is when. However, there is no rush to do so. I think the Cubs will use time to get the best deal they can for Castillo and whatever pitcher they decide to keep. Castillo could play all through Spring Training before he is traded to maximize his value. I cannot foresee any scenario in which the Cubs keep 3 catchers on the 25 man roster.
Minor League Level
1. The Advancement Acceleration: With 4 top prospects coming up to the big league club from Iowa in the past year, who will be filling the void at AAA Iowa this year?
The Golden Ticket, Addison Russell will be there and he will be the only top 10 hitting prospect. I think Stephen Bruno will be there too after a decent year last year at Tennessee. 3B and gold glove caliber 3B Christian Villanueva will be there too. For Villanueva, his glove is ready, but the former doubles machine did not have a good first half of the year at Iowa hitting .211 in 64 games. Upon his return to Tennessee where had great success in 2013, he only managed to hit .248 in 62 games. Villanueva is easily the best defender in the Cubs system at 3B far outpacing Bryant. It will be interesting to see how he does to start off the year. Dustin Geiger had an off year in AA (.223 average) after two good years at low A and high A where he jacked 17 HRs each year. He will likely get the bump to Iowa to start off the year. Geiger’s problem is strikeouts. He had over 100 last year. On the other hand, Geiger is being pushed from behind by Dan Vogelbach, and if Geiger does do well, the road ahead is blocked by Rizzo. There is literally no one else who might be on the roster at Iowa who could help. This might one reason why Theo and Jed tried to sneak Lavernway and Pederson through waivers this week. It might be another reason that Kyle Schwarber could advance quickly to Iowa because of his bat. Schwarber will likely be at AA Tennessee to start the year. And with Montero and Ross ahead of him, there is absolutely no reason to rush him now. He could play the outfield, but if he caught, he would be taking away from Montero. I don’t think that is something the Cubs want to do…yet. With Bijan Rademacher, Jacob Hannemann, and Billy McKinney coming on strong as outfielders at Daytona last year, they will start out at Tennessee this year. A lot of players are coming, and they are coming quickly.
2. The Albert Almora Algorithm: What will happen with Albert Almora this year?
The thing to understand about Albert Almora is this – he is only 20 and there is no one blocking his path to the big leagues. The problem for him in 2013 was he couldn’t stay healthy. In 2014, he was working on some swing adjustments to generate more power. Almora can already field the CF position better than anyone in the organization. The problem for him is he just doesn’t walk. When I saw him in 2013 at Kane County, his ability as a hitter was outstanding, However, he is such a good hitter that he tries to do stuff with every pitch. He could get by with that at low A. He could not do that at AA where he hit only .243 but in a limited stint (36 games). If he can return to the .283 form he hit at Daytona, he could be a top of the order hitter who hits .280 and clubs 20 HRs and plays gold glove centerfield. I’d be OK with that.
3. The Vogelbach Uncertainty: Will Dan Vogelbach be traded by the middle of the summer?
The odds of Dan Vogelbach being traded are high. With Anthony Rizzo ahead of him and playing at an all-star level, there is little room for Vogelbach in the system. I like his bat. I like his bat a lot. At Kane County, he spent most of June and July of 2013 just toying with pitchers. He did not hit for as much power as I thought he would, but he hit .268 after a rough start in 2014. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and did OK. He hit .261 with no home runs. Here’s the thing about Vogelbach most people don’t understand. He lost a lot of weight between 2013 and 2014. His swing took some time to adjust. If he can regain his 2013 form, I think he could be part of a deal to help the Cubs go forward. If the NL only had a DH, he would be perfect in the role. Maybe Theo can get the DH in the National League by 2017 because that is likely when Vogelbach will be ready if he isn’t traded. I doubt the NL will get the DH, but you never know.
4. The Catcher Conundrum: What are the Cubs going to do with all these catchers at South Bend and Myrtle Beach?
When Theo Epstein took over, the Cubs system was devoid of any kind of talent or depth at 3B and C. Now both positions are areas of strength. With addition of Kyle Schwarber and Mark Zagunis, two of the top bats in the system now reside at C. I don’t know what is going to happen with them. Zagunis can play other positions as can Schwarber, but the best defensive receiver, Will Remillard, does not. Cael Brockmeyer saw some time at 1B and DH at Kane County last year. Throw in the recently acquired Victor Caratini and there really is a conundrum about who will play and what level they will play at.
5. The Draft Displacement: Will the Cubs really take a pitcher at #9 in the MLB draft?
The odds are in favor of the Cubs doing so this year, but don’t bet against Jason McLeod taking a hitter. The Cubs have shown a trend to take hitters in round one the last four years. The Cubs do so because hitters project better while a lot can happen to a pitcher taken in a high round (see Dillon Maples). However, a lot can happen between now and the draft. There might be somebody out there who makes it impossible for the Cubs not to take them. However, the same can be said if Virginia’s Joe McCarthy or Florida State’s DJ Stewart have great years or maybe Kyler Murray decides to play baseball instead of going to Texas Tech to play QB. You just never know this far out, and when draft night comes, you still don’t know.
When it comes to pitchers in the draft, right now there are two clear cut number one type starters in Brady Aiken and Mike Matuella. There are, however, a lot of pitchers who could develop into a #1 type starter. One of the other questions the Cubs have to consider is, “Do they feel comfortable in taking that risk with their first round pick?”
6. The Signing Ramification: How much will the Cubs blow by their international spending limits this summer?
Currently, Yoan Moncada is still out there waiting to be signed. The longer the Cuban Shortstop stays out there, the odds of the Cubs signing the International Free Agent (IFA) increases by the day. It will take $30-40 million to sign the young 19 year old. If the Cubs sign him after July 2, the price doubles with MLB penalties for going over their spending limit. With OF Starling Heredia available along with OF Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. available, the Cubs will be big spenders in the IFA market this summer. I can only imagine what would happen if the Cubs sign all three youngsters but the odds of that happening are slim. I am just saying… there’s a chance…
7. The Injury Juxtaposition: What will happen with all the pitchers coming off Tommy John Surgery and other injuries?
Anthony Prieto, Brad Renner, Marcello Carreno, Barret Loux, and Dillon Maples, to name a few, are all coming off injuries from 2013 and 2014. Additionally, Josh Conway will not have innings limit this year. Add in the fact that 2014 draftee Dylan Cease might be returning at the end of the year, the Cubs have a lot arms to nurture and get back to strength. I love Maples but it just hasn’t worked out for him. A broken rib was the just the start of a disastrous for him in 2014. He has seen his draft class ascend to the top of the prospect list while he languishes lower in the system. I feel for the kid, I really do.
Last year at Boise, Josh Conway was the ace of the staff but was limited to three innings an outing. He had a 1.96 ERA in 13 starts and 36.2 innings. Loux, who was part of the Geo Soto trade, spent all of last year on the DL after reaching AAA Iowa. Carreno, who came over in the Jeff Baker trade to Detroit, was an all-star at low Michigan in 2012. He did make a few appearances in rookie league in Arizona last year. Prieto, who is still only 21, has been in the organization for four years now but injuries have kept him down the past two. His starting days are over, but he can still be a valuable lefty out of the pen.
I expect Prieto to go to Boise, Carreno to Myrtle Beach or Tennessee, Loux to Iowa, and Maples and Renner to South Bend. I think it will be interesting to see the restrictions, if any, placed on them and whether they will start or be in the pen.
With all of these questions, the Cubs need to find answers. Some answers will come quickly; other questions may not be answered this year. In the end, these questions are important to answer for the growth of the organization this year and next year. For me, these questions are like dominoes. Starting with how Bryant, Baez, Alcantara, and Soler adjust, those four affect everything else up and down the line. While it may wise to consider those four the core of the prospects, I would say that they are the beginning of a new corps of players that will make the Cubs contenders year in and year out.
With the rebuild taking a new direction this winter with the signing of Jon Lester, I think the Cubs are a year ahead of where they thought they should be. I did not expect to see any of the prospects come up last year except for Baez. If you asked Kris Bryant where he thought he was, he would say he expected to be in Tennessee all last year. So with the Cubs ahead of schedule, these questions are the ones that need answered this year.