Five questions: Chicago Cubs

I have cheery news for you today, Cubs fans. Your team will be better this year. Not a lot better, but worse is beyond imagination. In only three of its 137 seasons has Chicago’s National League franchise had a lower winning percentage than the .377 of last year.

Still, the Cubs have a good shot at finishing finish fifth again in the NL Central, and in 2013 that means last place. The Astros’ move to the American League means the Cubs no longer can point to an even more hapless team in their division. It also means they get to play Carlos Pena and the Nobodies just three times; last year’s Cubs milked their 15 games against Houston for eight of their 61 wins.

The Cubs have been worse each of the past four years than the season before, going from 97 wins in 2008 to 83, 75, 71, and 61. They’ll break that streak. The roster looks a little better, if only because Anthony Rizzo is part of it from the start. Also, they probably won’t use 30 pitchers, as they did in 2012. In Dale Sveum, they’ll have the same Opening Day manager as the year before for the first time since 2010. This is the season the Cubs start trending up.

Still, up is a long way, and there are many questions:

Who will be in the starting rotation … on Aug. 1?

The Cubs began last season with what seemed a respectable, if not awe-inspiring, pitching staff. In their first five games, they started Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm. By season’s end, Dempster and Maholm had been traded for prospects, Garza had been injured, Volstad had been awful and Samardzija had been shut down out of caution and mercy. Most of the last weeks’ meaningless games were started by people who had no business on a big-league mound.

The Cubs were supposed to begin this season with what seems like a respectable, if not awe-inspiring, pitching staff. To Samardzija and a supposedly healthy Garza, they added established major leaguers Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, Scott Baker and Carlos Villanueva. The once-promising Travis Wood is still around, too.

However, Jackson, with the biggest name and the biggest contract among the newcomers, is a consistently inconsistent pitcher with a career ERA+ of 98. Feldman has a lifetime ERA just shy of 5.00 and doesn’t strike out batters. Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery and will be on the disabled list to start the season. So will Garza, who missed the second half of 2012 with an elbow injury, and now has pain in his side. Villanueva is a career swing man. Wood was a big disappointment after coming over from Cincinnati.

That said, these guys will be okay until some people who are better and younger come along—that is, if most of them stay healthy and in Chicago. Likely, though, if the Cubs are 18 games out by the end of July, as they were last year, many in this new crew won’t experience much of the summer on the North Side. The Feldmans and Villanuevas—and high-priced reliever Carlos Marmol—will be exchanged for contending teams’ B-list prospects.

Speaking of Marmol, he had a fine second half last year, but he’s 30 and coming off two wildly inconsistent seasons, with “wildly” being the operative word. He was a 0.3 WAR pitcher while walking 7.2 batters per nine innings pitched, and he’ll make nearly $10 million this year trying to save games for an under-.500 team.

The Cubs looked overseas to get his probable eventual replacement, Kyuji Fujikawa, who saved 202 games in six seasons in Japan’s Central League. (His teammates included former Cub Matt Murton). If nothing else, Fujikawa will lower the collective Wrigley Field blood pressure. In contrast to Marmol, he strikes out five-and-a-half batters for every one he walks.

The closer mess wasn’t all replacement-level Marmol, though. The Cubs replaced him with nine other guys in save situations last year; as a team, they blew more than 40 percent of save chances. That, too, has to be better this year. Doesn’t it?

What’s the matter with Darwin Barney?

Nothing personal here, sir. Barney emerged as the Cubs’ fourth-ever Gold Glove second baseman, following Ken Hubbs, Glenn Beckert and Ryne Sandberg—revered names in Cubs lore. He went 141 straight games without an error, setting an NL record and tying the major league mark. He ran the table in both traditional and advanced defensive stats. And he led the Cubs in WAR (per Baseball-Reference) at 4.6. That is indicative of how far the Cubs have to go.

The point here is that your smooth-fielding, .653-OPSing second baseman ought not be your most-contributing player. On a stronger NL Central team, a good team, your WAR leader is a force like Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Braun or Yadier Molina. On a good team, Barney is a nice complementary player—think Mark Lemke on those perennially winning Braves teams of the mid ’90s. He wasn’t David Justice or Fred McGriff or Ryan Klesko or Chipper Jones or one of those terrific pitchers, but he didn’t have to be.

With a few exceptions—Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Samardzija—Barney defines these place-holder Cubs. For example, when the Cubs become a contender, it’s likely that none of 2013′s Opening Day outfielders will be with them. Alfonso Soriano, 37, will be gone when his massive contract expires after 2014 or when the Cubs can get another team to take him and pay a bit of the $18 million-a-year tab. David DeJesus and newcomers Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston—who will alternate at the other two outfield positions—are competent platoon players but past or near 30 and not players a top team builds around.

So, let’s all root for Barney to have a good career … and not be the best player on the Cubs a couple of years from now.

What’s growing on the farm?

In the year 978, the English reached into the minors for a new king and brought up a very young man named Aethelred. It didn’t go so well; a millennium later, he’s still remembered as “Aethelred the Unready.”

Which puts one in mind of Brett Jackson. He’s a former first-round draft pick who was touted for a while as the unquestioned Cubs center fielder of the future. But as he advanced in the minors, his numbers fell every year. Last season, after a .256/.338/.479 two-thirds of a season in Triple-A, he got his big-league audition. He was, well, unready. If his .175 batting average was unimpressive, 59 strikeouts in 142 plate appearances were more so.

Third baseman Josh Vitters, another first-round pick (and third overall in 2007) got his chance, too. After a promising debut season in Triple-A (.304/.356/.513), he hit .121 in 109 trips to the plate as a Cub and was less than sterling in the field.

The Cubs also reached into their minor league system for numerous pitchers. No need to embarrass them by listing their names and stats here. Let’s just say that most of them made Aethelred look prepared.

People who follow player development say better days are ahead. John Sickels’ widely followed team prospect rankings have the Cubs 11th among the 30 organizations. He writes:

(A) system that has improved quickly. Strengths: hitting at the top: Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Dan Vogelbach is a very impressive quartet, and there is depth beyond them. Good developments with recent Latin American prospects at the lower levels. Weaknesses: pitching is much, much weaker than the hitting. Improving that has to be a priority.

My favorite expert on these matters is a member of the home team, Jeff Moore. I went over to the Prospects Desk here in The Hardball Times Building and asked for his thoughts:

The biggest problem with the Cubs’ farm system is that every one of their prospects comes with one major question mark. Vitters’ best skill has always been his ability to get the barrel on the ball, but it’s also his biggest detriment. Because he thinks he can hit everything, he rarely walks. He also hasn’t grown into the power that was expected from him. It’s all adding up to an extreme out-maker, and he’s not a great defensive player either. Worst-case scenario? He’s the Delmon Young of third basemen. Best case? He hits .280 consistently and gets over the 20-home run mark.

For Brett Jackson, it’s all about strikeouts. Apparently his swing has been re-worked this offseason, but I always wonder why organizations wait until the majors to do these things. I think one of your questions has to be about Jackson’s contact rate. If he gets it under control (I’m talking below 25 percent) he could still be their center fielder of the future. If not, it’s going to be really ugly, and the Rob Deer jokes will come flying.

For Arodys Vizcaino (pitcher who came from the Braves in the Maholm deal), the question is injury-related. We take Tommy John surgery for granted these days because we assume the recovery is just going to happen, but nothing is certain. The question around him is, starter or reliever? I’ll bet the Cubs give him a chance to start, but I’ll also bet he ends up being a reliever.

Their best prospect, by far, is Javier Baez, but even he has questions. His game is pretty solid (although he could end up shifting positions), but the real question is about his maturity. From all accounts, it was part of why they kept him in the rookie league to begin the season even though it didn’t challenge him at all. It doesn’t have much of a factor on this season, but he’s a huge part of their rebuilding project, so if you’re thinking long-term, he’s right in the middle of the discussion.

(Baseball America agrees with Jeff, as it rates Baez the organization’s No. 1 prospect now and the Midwest League’s top prospect in 2012. He finished last season at Class-A Daytona, where he hit .188 in 23 games.)

‘Wait ‘til next year’ is a Cubs cliché. How about this year?

The good stuff: With a full year of Rizzo, they’ll have three-quarters of what should grow into a very good major league infield. The big hope with Castro is that someday soon, the Cubs can stop excusing his flaws with, “He’s still just XX years old.” (He’ll be 23 Opening Day.)

In the outfield, the Cubs figure to give Jackson an extra half-year in Triple-A to find himself, as they did Rizzo. If so, they’ll mix, match and patch.

In case you get your Hairstons mixed up, recent signee Scott Hairston is not the on-base guy his ex-Cub older brother Jerry Jr. was (Scott has a lifetime .302 on-base percentage), but not the banjo hitter their dad, Jerry Sr., was with the White Sox (Scott hit 20 homers in fewer than 400 at-bats with the Mets last year).

Scott Hairston is a lefty-masher (lifetime .825 OPS against southpaws). By contrast, DeJesus has hit .174 and .149 in limited appearances against left-handed pitchers the past two years. (Did you know that “DeJesus” is Starlin Castro’s middle name? Small world, baseball is.)

Manager Sveum can put Hairston and DeJesus anywhere in the outfield. Soriano, who’s not going to play 162 games, isn’t playing anywhere but left field. Winter pickup Schierholtz, a left-handed hitter whose career numbers (with last year an outlier) show no platoon splits, plays right field. That will allow the Cubs to put a workmanlike outfield together as they wait for reinforcements.

In a couple of other spots, though, it’s hard to see even caretaker-quality performance. Third base is a big weakness unless Vitters surprises or Ian Stewart shows a pulse; Stewart was injured most of last year and ineffective when he wasn’t. And the first option behind the plate is the inexperienced Welington Castillo.

Chicago’s 101 losses last year weren’t an accident. The Cubs were 15th out of 16 NL teams in on-base percentage, walks and hits, and 13th in home runs. Not surprisingly, only two NL teams scored fewer runs. Cubs pitchers were 14th in the league in ERA and homers allowed, worst in saves and walks allowed. Only two teams gave up more runs.

Doing better than that isn’t much to ask. But it’ll take much better to keep fans from thinking about “next year” this year.

Is there hope?

Yes. This is one of major league sports’ prize franchises. Unlike the team’s past two proprietors, owner Tom Ricketts apparently cares about baseball and is in this for the long haul. The Cubs have money, and they’re taking steps, inside and outside Wrigley Field, to keep it coming.

The guys minding the store for Ricketts—Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and associates—know what they’re doing. Their remake of the Cubs involves a much broader plan than bringing in this year’s right fielder.

There’s an anecdote in statistician Nate Silver’s new book, The Signal and the Noise, about Dustin Pedroia’s rough start with the Epstein-led Red Sox as a rookie in 2006-2007:

A team like the Cubs, who until recently were notorious for their haphazard decision-making process, might have cut Pedroia at this point. For many clubs, every action is met by an equal and opposite overreaction. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are disciplined by their more systematic approach…

Reading Terry Francona’s account of his and Epstein’s stormy last year in Boston (Francona: The Red Sox Years) you remind yourself that ownership giveth and ownership grabbeth away.

For now, though, hopes are high for the Cubs. Just not in 2013.

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Comments

  1. Jack Weiland said...

    Thoughts!

    My main issue with Moore’s take is that he says “every one of the Cubs’ prospects has a major question mark” and then goes into great length discussing the question marks about guys who are not the Cubs’ top prospects. Virtually every prospect source would say they are (in some order): Baez, Soler, Almora and Vizcaino. You could conceivably leave Vitters out of the Top 10. I certainly would, but I’ve never been a big fan. Two of the Cubs’ consensus top four prospects weren’t even mentioned. Also, “by far”? Soler disagrees. I do, too. The real issue with the Cubs’ farm is the relative dearth of pitching at the upper levels. There’s Vizcaino (who will be a reliever, I agree) and then … well, nothing. But they invested a ton of their picks there last year, and there’s reason to believe that problem is going the right direction.

    Re: Marmol. Granted this is a surface level overview of the Cubs’ but a significant portion of his control issues last year were when we was screwing around with a curveball that was garbage. When he canned it his K/BB was much, much better.

    Other than that … very strong and accurate piece. For reals. The Cubs will be better (they have to be, as you say) but they aren’t there yet. Not even close. It should be another good year for the organization, but another terrible one for the big club.

  2. Paul G. said...

    Minor, basically irrelevant quibble: Under typical Hispanic naming conventions there is no such thing as a middle name.  Names typically are the given name, then the father’s surname, then the mother’s surname.  (Actually it is more complicated, but it isn’t baseball so I won’t delve into it.)  With Starlin Castro, the “DeJesus” is probably his mother’s surname.  Don’t know for sure, but probably.

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