After a second straight season of 75-or-fewer wins, the Cubs did some long overdue housecleaning, sending GM Jim Hendry and manager Mike Quade packing. In their place, the team hired former Red Sox savior Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations, Jed Hoyer, former Padres GM, as its general manager and Dale Sveum, former Brewers hitting coach and Red Sox third base coach, as its manager. The new regime has made several significant moves already, first declining Aramis Ramirez's $16 million option and trading for Ian Stewart to compete for the third base job, second dealing Carlos Zambrano to the Marlins for former first-rounder Chris Volstad and finally trading fireballer Andrew Cashner for former Red Sox prospect Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs are probably a year or two away from contention, but with more data-driven management in place and a new VP of scouting and player development (Jason McLeod), they're very likely headed in the right direction.
Traded RHP Andrew Cashner for 1B Anthony Rizzo.
The Cubs moved the hard-throwing but recently injured Cashner for the prize acquisition in the Adrian Gonzalez trade a year ago. Rizzo was awful during his debut in San Diego last year, but a 128 at-bat sample from a 21-year old left-handed hitter at Petco is not probative of much. Rizzo mashed at Triple-A last year and should be the Cubs' first baseman of the future. When that happens depends on how well starter Bryan LaHair fares in 2012 and whether Rizzo picks up where he left off at Triple-A Tuscon a year ago. Should LaHair falter and Rizzo hit, the latter could be up as soon as mid-June.
Traded LHP Sean Marshall for LHP Travis Wood, OF David Sappelt and 2B Ronald Torreyes.
Marshall's loss will be felt as he was one of the best set-up men in baseball the past two years. But with the team rebuilding, Wood is a worthwhile gamble, given his strong debut in 2010 and that he didn't lose any velocity despite a poor showing last season. Sappelt has hit well in the high minors the last two years, though as a 23- and 24-year old. He could earn playing time at a corner outfield spot, especially if Alfonso Soriano falters. Torreyes is an 18-year old infielder with excellent speed and a good batting eye, but he's 5-foot-5, 140 pounds, so he'll probably need to grow more literally than most prospects over the next few years.
Traded RHP Carlos Zambrano to the Marlins for RHP Chris Volstad.
This trade looks great on paper until you consider the Cubs are eating $15 million of the $18 million Zambrano's owed for 2012. But getting $3 million back and a former first-round pick who's still only 25 years old is still a decent score, especially as Volstad showed some positive signs last year - 2:1 GB:FB ratio and 49 walks in 165.2 innings. Expect Volstad to compete for a spot in the rotation this spring.
Signed OF David DeJesus to a two-year, $10 million contract.
DeJesus has had problems staying healthy (has played 145 games only once in his seven-year career), but he's a lifetime .356 OBP outfielder who's a plus defender in the corners and can also handle center field on occasion. He'll likely begin the year as the team's starting right fielder and should supply double-digit homers playing his home games in Wrigley.
Traded OF Tyler Colvin and INF D.J. LeMahieu to the Rockies for 3B Ian Stewart and RHP Casey Weathers.
Colvin for Stewart was a classic "my problem for your problem" move, but it should favor the Cubs as Stewart can handle third base and he's also able to draw a walk, something anathema to Colvin. With Aramis Ramirez gone, Stewart is the favorite to open the season as the team's starting third baseman. Weathers has a good arm, but struggled last year coming back from Tommy John surgery. He'll likely begin the year as a reliever at Double-A.
Re-signed OF Reed Johnson to a one-year deal.
Johnson's a passable fourth outfielder who plays solid defense at the corners and can man center field when needed. He hits for average, but doesn't draw a walk, hit for power or run very much.
Signed LHP Paul Maholm to a one-year deal.
Another former first-round pick, Maholm pitched well last year before a shoulder strain ended his season in August. Maholm's a groundballer with good control, but needs to rely on his defense as he's not going to generate a lot of strikeouts. Assuming he's 100 percent healthy for spring training, he'll compete for a spot in the team's rotation.
Re-signed RHP Kerry Wood to a one-year $3 million deal.
Wood is coming off knee surgery, but is expected to be ready for the start of the year. He still averages 94.5 mph on his fastball and strikes out more than a batter per inning. Should Carlos Marmol struggle, Wood is probably next in line to close.
Lost 3B Aramis Ramirez and 1B Carlos Pena to free agency.
Both are good players, but Ramirez would have cost $16 million this year on a rebuilding team, and Pena, too, would have been far more expensive ($7.25 million to the Rays) than their alternative (Bryan LaHair). As a result, Ian Stewart is probaby the front runner for the third-base job, while LaHair will hold down first base until prospect Anthony Rizzo is ready.
Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)
1. David DeJesus, RF
2. Marlon Byrd, CF
3. Starlin Castro, SS
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Bryan LaHair, 1B
6. Geovany Soto, C
7. Ian Stewart/Jeff Baker/Blake DeWitt, 3B
8. Darwin Barney/Blake DeWitt/Jeff Baker, 2B
With a new regime and some new players on the team (DeJesus, LaHair, Stewart), this lineup is pretty speculative. DeJesus' OBP probably makes him the favorite to lead off, while Castro's overall hitting ability and developing power likely land him in the three-hole. Beyond that, Soriano/Soto/LaHair could be flopped in any order, and Byrd is no lock to hit second. And it's unclear who will start at second base as incumbent Darwin Barney faded badly down the stretch.
1. Matt Garza
2. Ryan Dempster
3. Randy Wells/Paul Maholm/Chris Volstad/Travis Wood
4. Randy Wells/Paul Maholm/Chris Volstad/Travis Wood
5. Randy Wells/Paul Maholm/Chris Volstad/Travis Wood
Garza and Dempster are set, while the next four will likely compete for the remaining three slots. Garza had elite peripherals last year, and while his name has surfaced in trade rumors, he's the staff ace for now. Dempster's cosmetic numbers suffered a year ago, but his peripherals were solidly in line with his four-year body of work since returning to a starting role. Wood and Volstad probably have the most upside of the other four.
CL: Carlos Marmol
After showing ungodly dominance (16.0 K/9IP) in 2010, Marmol crashed to earth last year. The problem for Marmol, as always, was the walk rate - still nearly 6.0 BB/9IP - but he could no longer get away with it as his strikeout rate plummeted to a merely elite 12.0 K/9IP. The lesson here is you don't have to worry about walks if your pitcher is striking out batters at a historically high rate. But such rates are unsustainable for any pitcher, and walks do matter even with normal elite strikeout rates. Another reason for the dropoff was a significant velocity decline (from 94 to 92 mph on his average fastball), perhaps as a result of his major-league high 313 relief appearances since 2008. Marmol lost his closer job to Sean Marshall briefly last year, but for now he's still the incumbent. Should Marmol falter (or get dealt), Kerry Wood is probably the best bet for the job.
Notes of import, fantasy and otherwise
Will the new regime tolerate Alfonso Soriano?
Soriano still has three years and $54 million left on his deal, but that's a sunk cost and not one of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's making. Soriano's defense in left field is poor, and his .305 on-base percentage last year is terrible for that of a corner outfielder. Soriano still has excellent power, and at 36 could have another productive year in him. But don't expect the new regime to tolerate 2011's .251/.305/.463 line with poor defense for very long, especially with prospect Brett Jackson and even recently acquired David Sappelt in need of developmental at-bats. Either Soriano will improve, or we could see him getting cut a la Gary Sheffield despite the massive amount owed on his deal.
Will the Cubs deal anyone else?
Both Matt Garza and Carlos Marmol's names have come up in trade rumors, and it's possible Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd could also find new homes at some point, too. Were Marmol to be dealt, Kerry Wood is the best bet to close, though Jeff Samardzija, who has great stuff and made major strides in 2011, could also be in the mix. If Byrd were dealt, Brett Jackson could get the call sooner rather than later. If either top starter were dealt, it would have to be for prospects (good ones in Garza's case), opening up rotation slots for any number of candidates.
Who's going to play second base?
Darwin Barney's the incumbent, but posted a .238/.286/.328 line after the All-Star break. Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt are better hitters, but not very good defensively. There are no great options, but DeWitt, who has shown a propensity to draw a walk in the past and despite being left-handed killed lefties last year, could be the best choice.
Which Geovany Soto will show up in 2012?
Soto's last four years' OPS are as follows: 2008 - .868, 2009 - .702, 2010 - .890, 2011 - .721. The good Soto would go a long way toward solidifying a below-average lineup, while the bad one would leave LaHair and DeJesus as the odds-on favorites to be the team's best hitters other than Starlin Castro, himself just a .773 OPS player last year.
Strengths: Good management and a brighter future. Rizzo and Jackson should be lineup regulars by next year, joining Starlin Castro as the foundation of the franchise. The bullpen is also a strength with Marmol, Wood, Samardzija and James Russell all proving themselves capable in the past.
Weaknesses: On-base percentage/offense. OBP is a major issue as Soriano, Byrd and Castro don't walk, while Stewart and Soto can hit for low averages. And that's not counting second base (below-average hitters there) and the unproven LaHair, a 29-year old career minor leaguer.
Rising: Anthony Rizzo - Forget about the poor showing at Petco in 128 at-bats, it means nothing. Rizzo is still a top prospect, and it's only a matter of time before he becomes the team's regular first baseman. If Bryan LaHair hits, that might not be until 2013, but in keeper leagues, Rizzo is certainly worth stashing.
Falling: Carlos Marmol - Marmol's velocity and strikeout rate dipped last year, a major problem given all of the free passes he issues. Moreover, he's had four straight years of 75-plus appearances and relies so heavily on his slider (64 percent last year) that he's at risk of an arm injury.
Sleeper: Ian Stewart - Stewart's career home/road splits are fairly mild (.767/.737) given his home park was Coors Field, and don't forget he hit 25 homers as a 24-year old in 425 at-bats. He's 27 now and has some upside if he can get past a wrist injury.
Supersleeper: Travis Wood - Wood was fantastic as a rookie with excellent command and 7.5 K/9IP. He struggled with balls in play and command last year, but leaving Cincinnati and pitching in a more neutral park should help as should another year of experience.
Brett Jackson, OF - Jackson hit well in the high minors last year, posting a .297/.388/.551 line in 185 Triple-A at-bats. Jackson's got good plate discipline, can play all three outfield spots and isn't averse to stealing a base (20 in 27 attempts at two levels last year). In short, he's the team's best hitting prospect and should have a chance to win the center-field job in camp. But incumbent Marlon Byrd is still under contract through 2012, the team recently signed David DeJesus and Alfonso Soriano is still carrying an almost unmovable contract. Moreover, unless Jackson forces the issue with a huge spring, the team might want to keep him at Triple-A until June to delay his arbitration clock.
Trey McNutt, RHP - After an outstanding 2010 in the low minors, McNutt got off to a fast start at Double-A before having his season derailed by a rib injury that limited his effectiveness. McNutt also had a hard time in the Arizona Fall League, striking out just eight batters in 18 innings pitched. McNutt has a good fastball and breaking ball and is still just 22 years old, so he has time to right the ship. Barring a monster showing this spring, expect him to start the year in Double-A.
Javier Baez, SS - The ninth overall pick in last year's draft, Baez projects as a power-hitting infielder who can steal a base and hit for average. With Starlin Castro presumably having the shortstop position locked down in Chicago for years to come, Baez is likely to shift over to third base. Expect the 19-year-old to get a taste of Low-A this year and move through the team's system rapidly if he's up to the task.
Josh Vitters, 3B - The third overall pick in 2007, Vitters showed growth as a 21-year-old at Double-A, posting a .283/.322/.448 line. He didn't draw a lot of walks, but he made better contact and hit for substantially more power than during his previous go-around. He also tore up the Arizona Fall League, hitting .360 with six doubles and four homers in 17 games. Vitters is still probably a year away from the majors at least, but with only the newly acquired Ian Stewart standing in his way, Vitters has a clear path to the job should he continue to develop.
Matt Szczur, OF - Szczur is a terrific all-around athlete, makes good contact and steals bases, but as a 21-year-old he struggled in 173 High-A at-bats. Nonetheless, he had a strong showing at Low-A and was placed on the team's 40-man roster in November. He's still raw, but a strong showing in 2012 could put him in the mix for an outfield job sometime in 2013.
Christopher Carpenter, RHP - Carpenter has a good arm (he averaged 97 mph on his fastball in 9.2 major league innings), but injuries (two elbow surgeries in previous years, a strained oblique in 2011) have derailed his career so far. He's also had control problems at virtually every level. Barring a breakthrough in spring training, expect him to begin the year in the high minors where he'll try to hone his command. If he does, he could find himself in a high-leverage relief role at some point this season.
Dillon Maples, RHP - A power righty with a nasty breaking ball, Maples fell to the 14th round due to signability issues last year, but the Cubs offered him a $2.5 million bonus and landed the would-be first or second rounder. He'll start the year in the low minors, but his ascent could be rapid.
Casey Weathers, RHP - Weathers is still trying to rediscover his control after losing his 2009 season to Tommy John surgery and unfortunately, he wasn't showing signs of righting the ship at Double-A Tulsa as the season progressed. Once hailed as a future closer in the Rockies' system, Weathers is now just trying to resurrect his career and he'll get to do it in Chicago after being acquired by the Cubs as part of the Ian Stewart deal. Even after the operation, Weathers has struck out at least a batter per inning at every minor league stop, so there's a very good arm here if the walk rate ever comes down.
David Sappelt, OF - Sappelt was a late bloomer in the minors beginning midway through the 2010 season and earned his promotion to the majors halfway through last season. The Reds traded him to the Cubs as part of the Sean Marshall deal in December, but he's likely in position for a bench role in Chicago especially given how he didn't hit for power at the big league level, doesn't walk that much and can't really play center field.
Wellington Castillo, C - Known for his defense, Castillo put together a strong season at Triple-A, slashing .286/.351/.524 in 227 Triple-A at-bats. Keep in mind he did that as a 24-year-old, so he's not considered an upper-echelon prospect. Unless the team elects to move Geovany Soto - due a decent raise in arbitration - Castillo likely to fill a backup role at best. He's worth a look in two-catcher NL-only leagues, as he did show some signs of offensive life, unlike most backstops.