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 Backup Catcher Debate: Just a Week Left – For Now

By Todd Johnson

Every off-season, I rank every position in the Cubs system. This year was no different. Six years ago, catching was a major weakness in the system and now is one of the strongest positions in the organization. This goes for both major and minor league levels. With an All-Star and possible MVP candidate in Willson Contreras, the Cubs are trying find a backup for Contreras for the upcoming season. This spring training has seen prospect Victor Caratini battle with journeyman catcher Chris Gimenez for that spot for this season. With a week to go, there is still uncertainty about who is going to make the club.

When I start to think about who would be best for the spot, my mind starts to wander in a variety of ways. There’s the concept of what is best for the team versus what is best for the individual. Going in that direction, you have to think about whether playing once a rotation would be best for Victor Caratini and his development, or would he need to play two or three times a week. I think Gimenez might actually be more suited to that type of arrangement where he only has to play once every five days.

Then again, come the playoffs, do you want Gimenez exposed in a key situation/game or would you rather have Victor’s bat? This is an important way to look at the position for later in the year. In fact, this dilemma might not be solved until then. Who knows, maybe all three will be on the playoff roster. .

One could look at Victor as a high-value prospect to include in a trade. That he is. But what if something happens (God forbid) to Wilson or Gimenez this year. What does that leave you with. I don’t think Joe Maddon wants to pencil in journeymen every day. Joe’s going to want Victor to play as much as Wilson did. I like the idea of having Caratini around as an insurance plan. However,  when you have that kind of bat with improving defensive skills, someone is going to want to acquire those talents in one player. The Cubs can probably hold them off for another year, but it’s not doing Victor any good just to use him as insurance in the prime of his career.

The Cubs do have some prospects in the minor leagues that might be better suited to be back up catchers in the long run. The problem is they are not ready yet. PJ Higgins will be at Tennessee this summer. He is very good defensively but he is still working to improve his offensive side of the game. Will Remillard might be the best hitting catcher but he missed 2 and 1/2 years after two Tommy John surgeries. He looked great on a rehab assignment in Eugene last fall and has been outstanding catching runners this spring according to the box scores by Arizona Phil at The Cub Reporter. Remillard should be at Myrtle Beach this spring.

In the end, the catcher that everybody’s going to be looking at in two-three years is going to be Miguel Amaya. He’s got a rifle for an arm and a potential power bat. Then again, Amaya’s not destined to be a backup either.

It should be interesting to see what the Cubs do here in the next week for the near future and how they deal with this issue this summer. My guess would be Victor goes down to Iowa, for the time being, until his talents are needed.

In the end, it’s a good problem to have. You know your team is doing well when you spend 626 words discussing the backup catcher and the implications for it years down the road.

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

Cubs 2018 Spring Training Preview: Just a Few Answers Still Left

By Todd Johnson

Heading into spring training, there are a few things that still need answered. Some are about roster positions, some are about roles, and some are just glimpses into the future. Considering how sloth-like the off-season went, I was finding it hard to get pumped up for spring training until Saturday’s signing. However, these answers could be very different in June and July than they are now.

1. The Yu Effect on the Bullpen
With Darvish in the rotation and Mike Montgomery heading back to the bullpen, there will be an odd man out. It could by Justin Grimm. It could be Dillon Maples. Although, Grimm’s long term future as a Cub might just a synonym for his last name and his outlook as a Cub. Clearly, Maples has MLB stuff and he’s ready to be ready. He was the minor league star of the convention. Dillon was all over the place that weekend, giving interviews, signing autographs, and taking questions. I would love to see Maples break camp and head off to Miami. He has the pitches needed to succeed. Now, he just needs the opportunity.

2. Is the backup catcher position Victor Caratini’s to lose?
At first, yes. Now with Yu in tow, I wonder if Chris Gimenez will get the roster spot. Caratini’s bat is going to play well enough for him to make the team. The only questions about Victor’s game are on the defensive end. At Iowa last year, he caught 15 out of 40 baserunners and 2 out of 6 in the majors. Those are decent enough numbers to get him the backup job.  However, the Yu signing changes things.

There just aren’t enough at-bats for three guys considering Contreras’ brilliance at the plate and behind it. I doubt if the Cubs carry both Gimenez and Caratini. It is likely one or the other. You can also add in the fact that the Cubs may need to carry an extra pitcher until arms are stretched out a bit. As a result, I think the Cubs break camp with 13 pitchers and only 2 catchers.

3. Are there going to be any kind of defined roles coming out of the pen?
This is not going to be answered for quite a while and most certainly not in spring training. In fact, the bullpen on Opening Day could be drastically different in August depending on their ability to throw strikes. Right now, Brandon Morrow is the closer. Whether he can do that on a regular basis is up in the air, but Theo Epstein is extremely confident that Morrow can. I really don’t care about who is closing games in spring training as it not a realistic setting to establish roles.

Still, a lot of the roles are going to be fluid this year. With the addition of Cishek and Morrow, Maddon can mix and match on a daily basis depending on the situation and hitter. As the summer goes on, the pen could have a new cast of characters depending on who can throw strikes.

4. Who is going to bat leadoff?
I would like to see someone consistently in that position that can get on at a decent pace for Bryant and Rizzo to drive in. Right now, I am not opposed to most of the team in that spot except for Bryant and Rizzo. In a perfect world, I would like to go with Willson at the top. Ideally, though, you want a left-handed bat to balance Bryant and Rizzo. If Willson leads off, that would require Rizzo batting second and Bryant third. I am not sure if I would like that. As a result, I am sure Maddon will go with Schwarber at several points this spring as well as Happ, Heyward, Almora, Bryant, and Baez. If you watch Joe speak, you can tell he wants Schwarber there. As well as the Cubs hit, it shouldn’t be an issue. But, it’s the issue that is not going to die.

5. Which minor-league starting pitchers are going to shine in the major league Spring Training games?
There will be several minor league arms that will get a chance this spring. Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills, Duane Underwood, Eddie Butler, Luke Farrell, Rob Zastryzny, and Oscar de la Cruz could all take a couple of turns on the bump. However, the arm everyone wants to see out there is Adbert Alzolay. While Alzolay has no shot of breaking camp with the big leaguers, his spring will tell the Cubs how close he is and what he needs to work on (changeup).

As spring training goes on, I am sure more answers will be needed as events will unfold that change how the complexion of how the team looks and feels heading into the season. Who knows? There might be more answers needed at the end of spring training than at the beginning.

Position Breakdown Series – Catchers Now the Strength of the System

By Todd Johnson

Six years ago, when Theo took over, the Cubs’ system was bereft of catchers. It is now a position of strength at almost every level. This year saw two catchers promoted to Chicago and fill in at the major league level very admirably. Victor Caratini and Taylor Davis both provided support in a time of need. Although neither made the playoff roster, both helped the Cubs make the playoffs.

With Willson Contreras entrenched as the main catcher, and Alex Avila and René Rivera both free agents. Caratini could earn a job next spring in Mesa. However, I think Joe Maddon would be more comfortable with a veteran backup catcher on the roster. Still, the job could be Caratini’s to win.

Last year’s catcher rankings:
1. PJ Higgins
2. Victor Caratini
3. Ian Rice
4. Cael Brockmeyer
5. Michael Cruz

Here are this year’s top five catchers currently in the system.

1. Victor Caratini
It’s time. There is nothing left for him to prove at AAA Iowa. His bat is more than ready, it’s more about improving his defense. And that can be done at the MLB level just as well as it can at Iowa.

2. Miguel Amaya
Even though he will be 19 next year, he shoots up to number two on this list just based upon his arm. He still needs to improve on blocking pitches and settling down whoever is on the mound. His bat improved greatly last summer, especially when he moved down in the order to the seventh spot. In August, he hit almost .300 for the month.

3. Ian Rice
You have to love his bat! You just have to. However, I am beginning to wonder where that bat is going to play. He will be at AAA in 2018, or at least he should be. It does depend on what the Cubs are going to do with Caratini. I would love to see him hit 25 home runs in the PCL next summer. He is more than capable of doing that and getting on base at a .350 to .375 clip. He is one of three or four hitters that I look forward to seeing most in 2018. I love his power and approach at the plate. I just don’t know how much longer he’s going to be a catcher with that kind of production and discipline.

4. PJ Higgins
Currently, he is the best all-around defensive catcher in the system, but last year his offense deteriorated at Myrtle Beach, as it does for many players in the Carolina League. He should rebound and hit better at AA Tennessee in the more hitter friendly Southern League.

5. Will Remillard
I was so happy to see him back playing last year. The fact that he did so well after being gone for almost 3 full seasons is a testament to his work ethic and his natural skills as a hitter and catcher. When I first saw him at Kane County in 2014, I was extremely impressed with his natural leadership skills. He played at Eugene the last month of the season in 2017 in what amounted to a rehab outing where he hit .474. I have no idea where he is going to go next season. He could be at South Bend, or he could be all the way up to Tennessee. Now 25 years old, I think the higher the class, the better. One thing is for sure, his bat is going to make some noise wherever he goes.

Two to watch in 2018
Alexander Guerra

Guerra is a 21-year-old catcher who played in the Series Nacional in Cuba. He’s a little bit more advanced than your average draft pick or international free agent. It would not surprise me to see him stay in extended spring or break camp with either South Bend or Myrtle Beach. He has some pretty good size and I wonder if that translates into power in the United States.

Don’t sleep on Marcus Mastrobuoni. He may have been playing above his level last year. As a result, 2018 will be more predictive of his talents. Right now, his hit skill is more advanced than previously thought.

First base will be up next week.

It Is Real and It Is Fabulous! Cubs Win the Pennant!

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By Todd Johnson

At 53 years of age, it has been a long time coming. The subtitle of the website this year has been “Dreaming of October 2016.” I am dreaming no more. Four more wins are needed and the Cubs will be World Series Champions! It felt so strange to type those words. But the moment is close, very close. With the way the Cubs are pitching, I feel good heading into 2016’s fall classic.

When the moment came, it was unexpected. I squeaked. I did not expect Yasiel Puig to hit into a double play. I was waiting for strikeouts as I sat about three feet away from the screen. I kissed and hugged my wife and tried to keep our dogs from jumping on us during the celebration.

As I sat down to watch the celebration, my thoughts began to turn to my father. He was a Cubs fan. He took me to games from the time I was five until I turned 26. The last game we went to together was in 1989, ironically, versus the Dodgers. He stopped watching games on TV in 2004 because his blood pressure couldn’t take it. Yet, he still checked the box scores in the paper every day. Five years ago, my father was diagnosed with dementia. His short term memory shriveled away slowly. In February of this year, we placed him in a memory care center in Sycamore and on June 29, he passed away.

I didn’t say much publicly about my father’s passing as the man I knew had been gone long before his body passed. I just immersed myself into the Cubs on this site and Cubs Insider. It might have been a defense mechanism, but it helped me take my mind off of things and it gave my some sense of normalcy and purpose this summer.

He would have enjoyed last night.

Hendricks 77He would have liked the early cushion where the Cubs scored two runs in the first off the best pitcher in the western hemisphere in Kershaw. He would have loved the homers by Contreras and Rizzo. He would have just eaten his peanuts and cashews while drinking his Pepsi as Hendricks set them up and set them back down. He would have just shaken his head at Javy Baez’s defense.

After the celebration had gone on for an hour, I sent my mom a text around 11 p.m. I said that Dad would have enjoyed that if his blood pressure would have been able to withstand it. Surprisingly, she texted me right back. I won’t reveal that, but it was a nice moment.

Today, I will be just basking in the moment. I will do some research on the Indians and be back with a World Series preview tomorrow along with predictions from Clark and myself.

As the sun begins to pour into the house this morning, the dogs begin their daily ritual of laying on the floor wherever the sun hits the carpet. That’s kind of how I feel right now. The sun is a little brighter, the grass a little greener, the trees a little more colorful, and it’s a just good day to be a Cubs fan.

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Cubs Stun Everyone with One for the Ages

By Todd Johnson

Wow! I am still stunned. When I think about the Cubs 6-5 win, the hair on my arms literally stands up. I don’t want that feeling to leave!

baez 78 2016 iowaI don’t think anybody saw the Cubs stringing together enough hits and a walk to score 4 runs in the ninth inning to beat the Giants In San Francisco. Throughout the series, the offense at the top of the order had been lethargic, specifically Rizzo and Russell.  I remember saying a prayer and I was sort of resigned to the fact that game five was going to be in Chicago on Thursday. Still, I liked the odds of the Cubs at home. It was a reason why they had home-field advantage. Thankfully, they are not going to need it now. I don’t know if it was the greatest comeback in postseason history, but it was the greatest comeback for the Cubs. Now, they await the winner between the Dodgers and the Nationals.

The comeback reminded me of 2015 regular season when the Cubs seemed to come back virtually every other game in the spring. If you were still hopeful, if you said a prayer like me, we just hung on last night…just in case, just in case.

NLDS MVP: Javier Baez – there’s nothing he can’t do on a baseball field. This series has shown his ability with the bat, glove, arm, speed, you name it, he’s shown he’s the best all-around player on the Cubs.

NLDS Cy Young – Travis Wood – Who knew that one of Theo’s first acquisitions would pay such big dividends in a big way this series. His bat and arm in game two saved the day, and last night, he came in and stopped the bleeding again.

willson 73 2016 chiThe Wow Factor – Both Albert Almora and Willson Contreras paid Joe Maddon back in spades for his confidence in them. Almora showed why I thought he should be on the 25 man roster with his game saving catch in game three. Willson came in last night and was amazing with a two RBI single to tie the game.

FYI – The Cubs did this all without Rizzo and Russell providing  much pop in the lineup. It was basically the bottom of the order, Bryant, and the pitchers that provided the  little offense the Cubs needed to win the series. If the Cubs can get anything out of Rizzo and Russell in the next round, it is going to be over quickly for the other team.

Despite Lackey’s lackluster start last night, the bullpen saved the game for the second time in the series. After Baez, the biggest star of this whole series was the bullpen. I just loved the way they came in and dominated San Francisco lineup.

I’ll be back on Friday with the post about the upcoming series. I hope my hair is still standing up on my arms then.