June 29, 2012


‘‘It’s really about collecting a lot of players like this and putting them on the field together,’’ Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said with the arrival of Anthony Rizzo. ‘‘Not just one, but along with [shortstop Starlin] Castro and hopefully a lot of other guys that we can get on the field at the same time and really create a really great, young organization.’’

So Cub management infers that only two real pieces of their blueprint are in place: Castro at short and Rizzo at first.  Everyone else is up for position filling, trade bait or the dreaded "designated for assignment."

It appears to be a long re-building process. The Cubs web site shows the team's Top 10 prospects (Rizzo was #1 before call up):

1. Brett Jackson, of, AAA .253 BA, 11 HR, 31 RBI, 32 BB 113K 14 SB .332 OBP
High hopes that Jackson would be called up this year and patrol center field. He was touted as a five tool player, with speed and power. However, his massive strike out total this season is quite disturbing. At present, there is no need to call him up this season.

2. Javier Baez, ss, A .284 BA. 1 HR, 11 RBI, 7BB, 22K, 11 SB, .381 OBP
Baez has moving up in fan consciousness as a top prospect. But he is still young and at A ball. It will take at least three more years of development time, and a possible change of position by Baez or Castro to open a roster spot.

3. Matt Szczur, of, A .290, 2HR, 20 RBI, 31 BB, 34 K, 26 SB, .389 OBP
He was another of past GM Hendry's overpay to sign college football players. At high A ball, he seems to be putting up numbers that would show lead-off potential. But like Baez, he is at least three seasons in development.

4. Dillon Maples, rhp
In April, went to extended spring training. No reports on development.

5. Trey McNutt, rhp, AA 4-7, 4.68 ERA 10 HR, 26 BB, 34 K, 1.53 WHIP
His progression up the system has been stymied this season. 

6. Robert Whitenack, rhp, A 0-2 4.68 ERA 2 HR 5 BB 11 K 1.59 WHIP
He has been moving up the prospect board, but may be by default as more touted prospects like Hayden Simpson have fallen off the map. Like McNutt, his performance has not been up to par this year.

7. Reggie Golden, of, A disabled list
He was another fast and slick outfield candidate who has been stuck in the mud.

8. Junior Lake, ss, AA .303 BA, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 14 BB, 41K, 8 SB, .356 OBP
Scouts believe Lake is the real deal. He has a big body and projects now to be a third baseman in the future. He has power, but with it a high strike out ratio. Maybe two years away from big league debut.

9. Josh Vitters, 3b, AAA .289 BA, 12 HR 40 RBI, 17 BB, 45 K, 1 SB, .340 OBP
The top prospect for many years, Vitters is finally gaining his offensive stroke in Iowa. Scouts still believe he is a below average defender at the hot corner. However, the Cubs are devoid of third base talent in the minor league system, and the "bust" label on Ian Stewart this season means that Vitters will probably get a call up late in the season.

10. Ronald Torreyes, 2b, A 232 BA 3 HR, 19 RBI, 17 BB, 17 K,  6 SB .289 OBP
He came in the Marshall trade as a exciting middle infield prospect. However, his offense has stagnated this season in A ball. He could have been on a fast track to AA this year, and Iowa in the next, but it appears his development has slowed. Like third base, the system does not contain high second base prospects.

So when Hoyer says he needs to put in more pieces around Rizzo and Castro, it is a signal that next spring at least 2 more rookies need to earn starting jobs, and at least 2 more prospects be promoted in 2013 to start the major league roster turnover in earnest. Without such turnover, the Cubs time table to compete moves from 2015 to 2017, which unacceptable to ownership and the fans.

The best chance of players being called up this season, and compete for a 2013 starting position are Jackson and Vitters. Management wants their position players to play 162 games at AAA, so Lake would appear to be a late 2013 call up at best. The pitching prospects already in the system seem to be a long way off from developing the necessary control to be pieces for even a revamped bullpen.

The next step appears to trade veterans for more major league ready quality prospect this July.

June 28, 2012


SP Samardzija cemented himself in Cub lore by having an awful outing against the Mets. He gave up 9 earned runs in less than five innings. His replacement, Coleman, gave up 7 more in the Mets 17-1 rout at Wrigley Field. The last time two Cub pitchers gave up more than 7 runs each in a game: the mighty combo of Steve Traschel and Willie Banks.

The Cubs blew up the 2011 bullpen to shore up the starting rotation and now the starting rotation is falling a part.  Wells has been designated for assignment by the Cubs after his last awful outing. Dempster is still on the disabled list. Garza is driving people nuts in the dugout. It is time to really blow up the roster because things can't get much better (even in this new Rizzo Era).

The Yankees have placed starters Sabathia and Pettitte on the disabled list. The Yanks have a sudden need for at least one, maybe two, good starting pitchers to shore up their rotation. Garza has pitched well in the AL East so the Yanks would be an obvious landing spot. But the Cubs will not be able to acquire 5 prospects as the Rays did when the Cubs got Garza. Other teams are aware that the Cubs are in rebuilding mode and want to trade high cost players who don't fit into a long term plan. Dempster would also work for the Yankees as a "rent a player" for the remainder of the season. We just don't know if Dempster wants to go into the media pressure cooker of NYC in a pennant race. That would be the opposite of the cozy Cubs club house that he has been used to since becoming a Cub.

But the Yankees don't have much to trade. Three of their top seven prospects are on the disabled list. Others are struggling (one demoted).

Manny Banuelos, LHP is on the DL at AAA. His stuff has not progressed this year from last.
Dellin Betances, RHP, was demoted to AA with control issues.
Gary Sanchez is a power hitting catcher in A ball.
Mason Williams is A outfielder with potential.
Jose Campos is another pitcher on the DL from A ball.
Slade Heathcott is a struggling OF in A ball.
Austin Romine has been on the disabled list all year with back issues, was slated for ML service this year.

This prospects don't fit into the Cubs blueprint. Theo has signed so many outfielders (like Soler) and drafted young pitchers that there may be a logjam of prospects in the system. Besides, you don't trade a work horse starter in Garza for disabled prospects. Even though the Yankees have a need, they do not have the assets to make a Garza trade, like a major league ready third baseman or second baseman.

So it is possible that the Cubs will not be able to find a trading partner for either Dempster or Garza, and will ride out the season with them.

June 26, 2012


Anthony Rizzo makes his Cubs debut tonight against the Mets. Rizzo, the centerpiece in an off-season trade to build the farm system under new management, is the latest "can't miss" prospect to wear the Cubs uniform (remember, Felix Pie and Corey Patterson). Some moderate observers wondered at the time of the trade whether if Rizzo was such a great prospect, did the Padres trade him away in order to get the Reds top first base prospect in the Latos deal?

Rizzo only had a short taste of the majors in San Diego. He did not do well. The expectation balloon burst on that short trip to the Bigs. In 49 games, he hit only .141, 1 HR, 9 RBI, .281 OBP.

But Rizzo has nothing more to prove in the minors.

At Iowa, his numbers were giant: .342 BA, .405 OBP, 23 HR, 62 RBI in 70 games.
In his 6 minor league seasons (445 GP),  he has a career .303 BA, 87 HR, 343 RBI, 23 SB, .372 OBP and fielding percentage of .989.

In an unscientific newspaper poll, the expectations for Rizzo's major league career broke down as follows:

43% believed he would have an All-Star type career
42% believed he would be a decent major league ball players
8% believed that he would have a Hall of Fame career
7% thought he would be a bust.

Optimists project that Rizzo in a full major league season could hit .297 24 HR, 97 RBI 6 SB.
That would be a very good offensive player. But if he cannot adjust to major league pitching like in his San Diego experience, realistic projections would be tempered by 15 to 50 percent.

With the Cubs on a record pace for losses in a season, the idea of promoting Rizzo to be The Franchise, the cornerstone of the Epstein team of the future is a huge burden to place on a 22 year old. His presence in the line up is not going to lift the team into competing for the NL Central title this year. All it does is give season ticket holders "hope" for the future and a reason to show up at Wrigley and spend money to fill Ricketts coffers.

June 25, 2012


The White Sox filled their worm hole of bad at third base. GM Kenny Williams pulled the trigger with Boston to acquire disgruntled and displaced 33 year old Kevin Youkilis and cash in exchange for pitcher Zach Stewart and utility player Brent Lillibridge. The cash component was the key for Boston to receive two major league ready players in exchange for an aging veteran with a history of back issues. Reports have the White Sox only taking on $2.5 to $3 in new salary with Youkilis.

Several local columnists have been on the Youkilis bandwagon for weeks  before the trade. The tarot cards were clear: Youkilis was not getting along with new manager Bobby Valentine; the Red Sox club house was a mess; the Red Sox were losing; and a rookie had earned the starting third base job.

Youkilis, who is hitting .233 with four homers in 42 games, is leaving Boston with a chip on his shoulder — "he wants to prove some people wrong,'' Williams said.

The question remains whether Youkilis a) can stay healthy and b) perform better than the collective .167 BA, 1 HR 18 RBI third base corps the White Sox have had to patch together since Brent Morel's back injury.  The White Sox 3b position ranked dead last in every offensive category. The pick up of middle infielder Orlando Hudson was a Hail Mary solution to the problem. It did not work.

So the White Sox had a desperate need at third and the Red Sox had a desperate need to get rid of potential problem in Youkilis.  This deal makes sense.

The White Sox must know that they are getting a player on the downward slide of his career. Will he be like a Ron Cey or a Gary Gaetti, past Cub caretakers who ended their careers quietly in Chicago?

Zach Stewart could become a #5 starter if given a real chance. The White Sox had enough starting pitching at the beginning of the season to put Stewart in long relief. But with the emergence of rookie Quintana as the #6 starter, Stewart was ticketed back to AAA, even though the White Sox rotation is down two (Danks, Humber).

This transaction is one of those "it had hurt" deals. Neither side is expecting a gold mine result, but it has to be better than the status quo.

June 21, 2012


There has been a mountain of press recently after Mets' R.A. Dickey threw back to back one hitters. It is quite the accomplishment for a journeyman pitcher. But what hit the press the most was that he was a knuckleball pitcher.

Most teams draft and develop fast ball pitchers as starters. The understanding is that fast ball strike out pitchers (power pitchers) have better command of a game and can get more outs than pitchers who must rely upon speed changes or gimmick pitches.

The universal mechanics of pitching is gripping the ball with one's fingers on certain areas (on or off the seams) and in the release motion, torque one's wrist action to put more spin on the ball's rotation. Added spin creates more movement and at times the ball nose diving near the plate. The knuckleball toss is different. One does not throw the ball with wrist action, but "push" release it from the hand to allow nearly no spin on the ball. This creates a more erratic path towards the plate, as its velocity is less than a normal pitch.

Deception is the key to quality pitching. Most starters have three pitches; most relievers have a fastball and an "out" pitch.  For starters, the fast ball is still the number one pitch (by percentage thrown). A starter than has an off-speed pitch (curve or change up) and a drop pitch (slider or sinker).  How a catcher (manager or veteran pitcher) "calls" a game (the sequence of pitches to a batter) is the chess game between the teams.

It is a simplification used by many broadcasters that a pitcher is limited to his one or two types of pitches. In reality, a pitcher who may only throw a fast ball and a change up can effectively have more than just two weapons. First, a pitcher has a wind up to gather momentum for the release point of his pitch. His arm motion creates a "slot" toward the release point. Pitching coaches monitor slot position to determine whether a pitcher is having mechanical issues (which create control issues). A range of slot positions can be directly over the shoulder (for a 12-to-6 curve ball motion) down to a near underhand submarine style throw. There may be a dozen slot angles a pitcher can choose on any given pitch. However, pitching coaches train their players to keep one under the view that it is more important to have a consistent slot position to have consistent pitch location.

A pure fast ball pitcher could grip and throw the ball at the same speed, but create "three" different pitches by arm releases at the 3/4, side arm and submarine slots. Why would that be important? Because the batter is trying to pick up the ball as quickly as possible. A fraction of a second early increases the eye to hand coordination of the batter, which equates to more contact with the ball.  A pitcher with multiple arm angles conceals the ball more from a batter's eye perspective.

The same fast ball pitcher with three arm angles can also add "three" more pitches to his arsenal. For each release point, he can be throwing with the seams or off the seams, which means the ball may have more spin or movement. A four seam fastball with velocity appears to rise to a batter, while a two seam fastball appears to have more movement to a batter.

Different pitching styles, from velocity, pitch type, movement and location are all the weapons a manager has at this disposal during a game, especially when managing bullpen match ups later in games.

Scouting batters has become a thick statistical report. With video on every game, and detailed at bat pitching location charting, every team has a break down of every batter's tendencies and weak spots. Teams chart batters into hitting zones.

The batting zone grid is simple from the strike zone of letters to knees: instead, middle and outside crossed by high, center and low.  Every batter has a sweet spot, the zone where he sees the ball the best and has most contact (hits).  There are also dead zones where the batter has a difficult time handling pitches in that area. Hot and cold zones are a reflection of various factors, including batting stance, eye lines to the pitcher, and the mechanics of the swing (from loopy, choppy, fluid, or drop contact.)  A recent trend has been that many power hitters prefer low balls, and they drop the bat down and "golf" balls out of the park.  

A batter knows his own weak spots. He goes up to the plate looking for pitches in his hot zones. He is also looking for pitches to foul off in his weak zones.  Even though the average major league hitter is batting only .250, plate management and waiting for a pitcher to "make a mistake" and groove one into the batter's personal hitting zone, can make an average hitter into a .300 hitter.

In many respects, it does not matter what speed a pitch lands within a zone, it is more important if it a hot or cold zone for the batter to make contact.  In order to "entice" outs, a pitcher will set up a batter with a series of pitches. One approach is "going up the ladder," throwing consecutive fast balls first low, middle and high.  Another approach is to throw pitches in a location to create a result. Throwing a ball outside to a pull hitter will produce a ground ball. 

So the cat and mouse game is between pitcher and batter. The one advantage is to the pitcher, who knows in advance what he will be throwing to home. 

Back to the fastball pitcher in our example. Even if the coaches have him in a single arm slot release, he still has a dozen locations in which to throw the ball: he nine zones within the strike zone chart, plus high, outside and in the dirt outside the strike zone.

Many pitchers have a fear of throwing pitches within the strike zone. They are nibblers: they want to have their pitches nip around the inside or outside corners of the plate. But that philosophy turns a pitcher's advantage into a batter's advantage since the hitter now can concentrate on three or four locations instead of the dozen possible areas. There are also throwers; they rely on the type of pitches more than control. Marmol is a classic example of that: he throws a slider or a fastball, and where they wind up, nobody knows. Then there are the outsiders, pitchers who refuse to pitch inside to batters because they don't believe they can control their pitches well enough so they won't drift to the middle of the plate and be easy hits. But by not throwing inside, these pitchers effectively take away half of the pitching zones available to them. (Most batters have difficulty with inside pitches. They cannot extend quickly enough to get full power on their swings.)

An excellent training method to increase pitching zone control would be to have a cage above home plate the size of a hitting strike zone with nine nets sewn together to catch pitches.  A coach would stand beside the pitcher and call out the location.  Once the pitcher gets used to throwing called locations at the cage, the coach then use actual hitting charts to simulate a game situation. This could train the pitcher on how to attack an opponent by using pitching zones instead of just relying on the types of his pitches. Example, the hitter's chart shows a cross: he hits all middle and across the belt boxes.  A pitching coach could train the pitcher to attack this hitter as follows: inside high, inside low, outside high, inside middle, outside low.  A pitcher learns to tempt a hitter near one of his hitting zones in order to set him up for the third strike in a zone outside the hitter's comfort level.

Deception in delivery and location of pitches are the most effective weapons of a pitcher.

June 19, 2012


A quick view of the standings will show who will most likely be Sellers at the trade deadline.

The Blue Jays have been traders, but roster builders. The Red Sox are traders as contenders, but are pretenders this season. The Royals, Brewers and Diamondbacks are on the fence. The Phillies may be surprise sellers because of their lost season. The Twins are sellers in rebuild mode around a core of aging and injured veterans. The A's are perennial sellers looking more at the new stadium than roster moves. The Mariners are catch and release sellers (with teams like the Cubs making waiver claims off their roster). The Astros could be reluctant sellers because they have little to trade. The Rockies are probable sellers. The Padres as team is literally still for sale. And the Cubs are in full fire sale, garage sale mode.

The teams that are most likely sellers are Twins, A's, Mariners, Phils, Astros, Rockies and Cubs. Each team's likely trade bait (current salaries included in millions):

The Twins could have a pitching swap meet. Starters Pavano (9), Baker (6.5), Liriano (5.5), reliever Capps (4.5) and possibly utility-catcher Doumit (3.5).

The A's could unload relievers Balfour (4) and Fuentes (5) but more likely Inge (5.5) or Suzuki (5).

The Mariners could possibly salary dump Figgins (9.5), Guiterrez (5.8), League (5) and Vargas (4.8).

The Rockies have already shopped starter Guthrie (8.2) and have no long term need for Giambi (1).

The Astros also could dump salary in Carlos Lee (19), reliever Myers (12) or starter Wandy Rodriguez (10.5), a consistent lefty on a bad team.

The Phils could either hold pat for next season or play mega-dealer. Hamels (15) is heading for free agency so he is a rent-a-player candidate. Veterans Polanco (6) and Wiggington (4) could command interest for a team rounding up a strong bench.

As set forth earlier in this blog, the Cubs block includes Dempster, Garza, LaHair, Soriano and Barney. So the Cubs are probably in the middle of the pack as buyers evaluate the available talent pool.

If you look at all the trade candidates above, it is not really a strong talent market. Either the players are expensive or on the downside of their careers. But that is partially negated by the moment; some teams need to win now and will overlook those concerns.


The temperature in Chicago will remain in the mid 90s all week. That means a blast furnace of hot stove speculation is beginning for current Cub players.

The most tradable Cub, Ryan Dempster, is now on the disabled list with a lat muscle issue. It is unclear the nature or extent of the problem. Dempster said he has played through the pain before, but the team decided to rest him on the DL to preserve whatever trade value he has to the rebuilding process.  A disabled player or one with an injury question will dramatically decrease the value in trade talks.  Dempster will have to return from the DL and return to his excellent form in order to get any trade offers.

The complexity of trading Dempster is that he has full trade veto rights. If the Cubs want to trade Dempster, the team needs his permission. So Dempster will control where he winds up. In addition, Dempster is playing for another contract. His current deal expires at the end of this season. He is a "rent a player" for the rest of the year, or he may want an extension from his new team in order to complete a deal.

The Cubs have been showcasing Soriano to anyone with a set of eyeballs.  The Cubs have made it clear that they will pick up a substantial amount of Soriano's remaining contract in order to cut a deal. Soriano is resigned to the fate of a possible trade, but wants to go to a contender. But most contenders already have a full outfield (and DH in the AL). Most contenders are looking for adding bench strength, bullpen help or temporary replacements until regulars get off the disabled list. Soriano really does not fit into those need categories. And even if the Cubs eat 95% of Soriano's contract, they may get nothing in return.

In the rumor mills, the Dodgers were interested in Dempster before his DL. It was reported that the Indians were scouting Soriano. The Indians find themselves in the hunt in the AL Central race, and need a power hitter to fill out their line up. The Dodgers are trying to make a statement under new ownership, and bringing in a front line pitcher would be a coup.

Matt Garza appears to be the new front line trade piece since Dempster is now on the DL. Several teams have indicated interest in Garza (Yankees, Tigers).  Since being with the Cubs, Garza has been inconsistent in his starts. He has had good outings, followed by bad outings. But he has a track record of winning in the AL East, which is probably where he would wind up.  Garza also has contract issues to deal with; he is arbitration eligible but wants to have a long term, guaranteed deal. That may turn off some teams. But some teams desperate for a starter at the trade deadline will pay the price for Garza.

Today, Ken Rosenthal writes that several teams have inquired about Darwin Barney. This is a little surprising, considering that Barney would really project as a bench player on a contender. But as we have said before, contenders are usually looking for scrappy utility players to upgrade their benches around trade time. These are not high profile, high value deals. If Barney is dealt, the Cubs will fill his position with one of Hoyer's AAA waiver claims that have been going back and forth from Iowa the last month.

When the Dodgers were scouting Dempster, the local press determined that LA was not interested in Bryan LaHair. LaHair was on the block because it is clear that the Cubs' future, Anthony Rizzo, would be called up soon to play first base. That would leave LaHair without a position.  However, last night in a bold move in high winds on the South Side, manager Sveum put LaHair out in RF. The gamble paid off with a good first inning defensive play and a solid night at the plate (with a HR). So if LaHair can play RF, the need to trade him lessens.  However, if he can play RF and 1B, some rival teams may consider him more valuable. The question for management is whether LaHair is a better long term solution in RF than David DeJesus (who played CF last night). It is a classic trade off of more offensive potential or less defensive tools with LaHair over DeJesus.

June 16, 2012


An out-of-town sportswriter proclaimed, "the Cubs only have ten players who deserve to be on a major league roster, and most of them would be bench players, like Campana."

Harsh words for a person who has not seen the last place Cubs play. But sometimes the truth contains harsh words.

Who could be the ten major leaguers currently on the Cub roster?

The Cubs current active roster:

37Jairo AsencioR-R6'2"180May 5, 1984
54Shawn CampR-R6'0"205Nov 18, 1975
27Casey ColemanL-R6'0"185Jul 3, 1987
60Manuel CorpasR-R6'3"210Dec 3, 1982
46Ryan DempsterR-R6'2"215May 3, 1977
22Matt GarzaR-R6'4"215Nov 26, 1983
28Paul MaholmL-L6'2"220Jun 25, 1982
49Carlos MarmolR-R6'2"215Oct 14, 1982
40James RussellL-L6'4"200Jan 8, 1986
29Jeff SamardzijaR-R6'5"225Jan 23, 1985
36Randy WellsR-R6'5"230Aug 28, 1982
30Travis WoodR-L5'11"175Feb 6, 1987
53Welington CastilloR-R5'10"210Apr 24, 1987
51Steve ClevengerL-R6'0"195Apr 5, 1986
3Jeff BakerR-R6'2"210Jun 21, 1981
15Darwin BarneyR-R5'10"185Nov 8, 1985
45Adrian CardenasL-R6'0"205Oct 10, 1987
13Starlin CastroR-R6'0"190Mar 24, 1990
6Bryan LaHairL-R6'5"240Nov 5, 1982
24Luis ValbuenaL-R5'10"195Nov 30, 1985
1Tony CampanaL-L5'8"165May 30, 1986
9David DeJesusL-L5'11"190Dec 20, 1979
5Reed JohnsonR-R5'10"180Dec 8, 1976
16Joe MatherR-R6'4"215Jul 23, 1982
12Alfonso SorianoR-R6'1"195Jan 7, 1976

Who makes the 10 Man Team?

Pitchers:  Dempster, Garza, Samardzija
Infielders: Castro, LaHair
Outfielders: Soriano, DeJesus and Campana (because he was mentioned)

That is only Eight Men Out.
Probably starting second baseman Barney and reserve outfielder Reed Johnson round out the team.

Now, to subgroup the ten to those players who would be bench players on a "good" team.
A "good" team meaning a club that is contending for first place, like the Braves, Yankees, White Sox or Dodgers.

Under that criteria, LaHair, DeJesus, Barney and Johnson would all be back-up, bench players. Soriano would probably be a DH at best. Samardzija either a 5th starter or long reliever.

This is a good exercise for another reason.  It shows you what your trade "assets" are when dealing with other clubs.  Some contenders are only looking to "tweak" their team by adding a reserve player (Johnson has been coveted for the last two seasons as OF insurance and bench support).

If the Cubs really are true to their new vision of building from within, objective evidence would be trading about half of these 10 assets prior to the trade deadline in July.