Sveum’s approach with prospects

Dale Sveum told ESPNChicago.com that if Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters are called up, it’ll be so they can play everyday.

“Whenever you bring guys like (Jackson and Vitters) up to the big leagues, it’s gotta be to play every day,” said manager Dale Sveum, who admitted that he could use another outfielder on the roster with the departure of Johnson. “You don’t bring them here to mix and match or try to put them in against weaker starting pitchers. You bring them here and they have to play every day.”

This could just be Sveum tempering the expectations of a fan base whose sole source of excitement the rest of way will be the play of younger players, and not a progression up the standings. It certainly is a pseudo-excuse as to why Jackson and Vitters aren’t here right now. But, at least in Vitters case, it doesn’t make sense because with Luis Valbuena‘s average holding steady below the Mendoza line, nothing is standing in his way.

Taking Sveum at his word, however, that he’ll play Jackson and Vitters full-time once they are up, is encouraging. And it conflicts, in a good way, with how Lou Piniella/Jim Hendry dealt with Felix Pie

Pie was probably the Cubs most highly-touted position before Anthony Rizzo, and won the starting centerfield job in Spring Training 2008. He started regularly until May 12, but struggled at the plate (.222/.286/.286). Hendry signed Jim Edmonds and Pie was sent to Iowa and not heard from until September. The following offseason he was traded to Baltimore.

From a short-term perspective in 2008 the Edmonds for Pie swap was a good move. Edmonds hit well with the Cubs (.256/.369/.568, 19 HR), and gave the lineup a much needed left-handed power bat. But sticking with Pie and living with the loss of production at the plate (but better defense) might have been the better long-term decision.

Edmonds was a productive player, but that Cubs would have had a good chance of making the playoffs had they stuck with Pie. When Pie was sent down on May 12, the team was 23-15 and was in first with a one game lead. It is true Edmonds diversified a predominately right-handed lineup. But it was a lineup that featured career years from Mark DeRosaRyan Theriot and (sadly) Geovany Soto having career years, and steady production from Alfonso SorianoDerrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.

It’s a crude statement, but by the estimation in my mind, the team would probably have still been able to hold off Milwaukee for the division crown with Pie and not Edmonds. In the long- term, sticking with Pie might have been better. Had he improved, we would have avoided the mess that was Kosuke Fukudome in center in 2009.

But Piniella/Hendry were not patient with Pie and that was that for him as a Cub. There is no guarantee had they let him work through his struggles at the plate that year he would have stuck. He did, however, improve incrementally at the plate in 2009 and 2010 in Baltimore. But, the counter-argument would be that he regressed in 2011 and is currently out of the majors.

My point is that hopefully Sveum stays true to his word, and lets Vitters and Jackson work through the struggles they’ll likely have with the bat. The Pie comparison is not ideal; he is just the last “big-time” position player prospect I can remember the Cubs bringing up before Rizzo. Obviously, having patience with young player over the last few months of a lost season is much different than having patience with a competitive team in May. Nonetheless, patience is the most important thing, because the Cubs desperately need to figure out what they have.

UPDATE: I wrote this post a few days ago and didn’t get around to putting it up. Clearly since then Jackson and Vitters have been called up, and as we speak Jackson has had a decent debut: (thus far in the 6th) 1-2 with a single and walk.

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A look at the Soto era in Chicago

The Geovany Soto era finally came to an end as the Cubs traded him to the Texas Rangers for 24 year old Double A pitcher Jacob Brigham last Monday night.

Geovany Soto, Texas-bound. Image courtesy graphicshunt.com.

The lasting impression I have of Soto is not the All-Star start in 2008, the general greatness of 2008, the struggles (’09, ’11, ’12), or the brief resurgence in 2010. What will be etched foremost in my mind is the 2-run home run he hit off of Doug Davis in Game 2 of the 2007 NLDS.

Remember the Cubs catching situation that year? It was a mess that included a declining (and eventually traded) Michael BarrettJason Kendall‘s Cub stop of his trip around the majors, Henry Blanco and the first appearance of Koyie Hill. Soto played 18 games towards the end of the year and provided a ton of hope (.389/.433/.667, 3 HR).

And then came that home run. I can still remember how energized I was by it. The Cubs had been shut down in Game 1 by Brandon Webb. When Soto found the seats in the second inning of Game 2 to put the Cubs up 2-0 it was the first bit of momentum they had all series. In typical Cub fashion, Ted Lilly gave up four runs in the bottom half of the inning, threw his glove, and the Diamondbacks didn’t look back.

As I think about it, that home run, and what followed that inning, sum up Soto’s career with the Cubs: a lot of hope (and very exciting hope at that) but in the end disappointment.

During 2008, I remember smugly thinking that the Cubs had a better catcher for the long haul than the Cardinals did with Yadier Molina (whoops). And though he couldn’t continue that success in 2009 the hope resurfaced in 2010. He walked a ridiculous amount that year (.393 OBP) and showed some power again (17 HR, .497 SLG). But in 2011 he regressed again, and that point, at least to me, the hope that he’d fulfill the expectations he’d created in 2008 disappeared.

But now he heads to Texas, and with how anemic his bat has looked this year I can’t be disappointed with Brigham as the return. At least the Cubs were able to pick up a “live arm” (Brigham supposedly can hit 97 mph) that might become bullpen fodder.

So where does Soto rank among catchers in Cub history? His 12.4 career WAR puts him 7th all-time (Gabby Hartnett is first with 55, but it drops off after that). On teams that seemed allergic to  being patient and taking walks, Soto’s signature was that he did just that. His final walk rate with the Cubs was 11.6 percent, and this puts him first all-time. And though he was only a “full-time” Cub from 2008-2012 (he played 18 games in ’07, ’11 in ’06, and 1 in ’05), he caught the 12th most games (555) of any Cub catcher, ever.

For lack of a better term, an “interesting” career is over in Chicago. The Cubs will now turn to Steve Clevenger and Wellington Castillo the rest of the way, in the hopes that one will seize the job for next season.

 

 

Zack Greinke: Worth it for the Brewers?

The Milwaukee Brewers got bold and more or less went all in prior to 2011 by dealing a good chunk of their farm system for starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. In the process they lost a number of prospects, including Alcides Escobar (Royals) and Brett Lawrie (Blue Jays) who are having good 2012 seasons.

The Brewers went for broke, and it nearly worked. Image courtesy bleacherreport.com.

Now, just a season and a half later, Greinke is an Angel. So was it worth for the Brewers?

In getting Greinke the Brewers gave up a major league ready shortstop in Escobar, who had shown a great glove but uncertain bat in his lone full season in Milwaukee (.235/.288/.326 in 2010). Escobar now has paired that still excellent glove with a solid bat, and is turning in a fringe All-Star type season in 2012 (.301/.341/.414, 4 HR, 23 2B). Would he be an upgrade over Alex GonzalezCody Ransom and Cesar Izturis? Absolutely.

But that doesn’t mean the Brewers made the wrong choice, even if Jake Odorizzi and Lorenzo Cain (the other players in that trade that remain with the Royals) turn into productive big leaguers.

Doug Melvin and the Brewers front office knew they had a rare opportunity with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun both on the roster. After locking up Braun the writing was on the wall that despite Milwakuee’s best efforts, Fielder would almost certainly leave after the 2011 season. Knowing they’d have at least one season with two MVP-caliber bats in the lineup, the Brewers went for broke in dealing for starting pitching to round out the team.

In the end it worked out for Milwaukee, even if they didn’t end up with a World Series title in 2011. They were able to win the Central Division behind an excellent season from Greinke in which he pitched 170 innings and  posted a 2.98 FIP and ridiculous 10.54 K/9 rate. This got them into the crapshoot that is the MLB playoffs, and they even won the NLDS (even if he himself didn’t have a good postseason).

The Brewers had a rare shot to field a complete team that was actually capable of winning the World Series, and they took a shot. You can’t fault them for that, even if they lost a few potential starters for a season and a half of Greinke. The haul they got for Greinke is considered solid but not spectacular, and they still can recoup some of their losses if one or more of those players becomes a contributor.

 

Travis Wood is officially broken

Barring an improbable run from 14.5 back from the second Wild Card spot, the wins and losses don’t matter for the Cubs the rest of this season. So the Cubs 9-6 loss to the Cardinals yesterday is disheartening but not devastating.

What does matter are signs that the foundation pieces are doing well. And when you look at yesterday’s game from that perspective you get a mixed bag. Good on Antony Rizzo (2-4, 3-run HR) and Starlin Castro, and bad on Travis Wood.

The good: Castro has been miserable during July, hitting .222/.267/.370. He’s seen his average dip down into the low .280’s, which as strange as it sounds is odd to see. But maybe yesterday will be a jumping off point for him to get hot again. He went 3-4 with a triple. Being aggressive is in Castro’s baseball DNA and considering what he’s already accomplished in the majors he shouldn’t completely change it. But developing some more plate discipline would be huge, and it wouldn’t hurt to see his OBP not mirror his average.

That being said, in the “incredibly small, positive signs” category falls his first at bat yesterday. With a man on third and no out (a situation the Cubs seemingly always squander) Castro took five straight pitches to put himself in a 3-2 count. He then fouled off two Lance Lynn pitches and  hit a RBI single on the eighth pitch of the at bat. That kind of patience in an important, run-scoring situation is encouraging. And yes, I realize how pathetic it is to fixate on a first inning at bat of a loss, but that’s what we have to work with right now.

The bad: Wood, on the other hand, continued a downward spiral, allowing 8 earned runs over five innings. I’m not going to claim to be a pitching expert, but I can point out that according to Fangraphs, Wood has been throwing his slider much less, and his fastball much more during this bad streak (for whatever that is worth). He’s allowing more balls to leave the park, as he’s given up 9 home runs over his last three starts (including 5 yesterday).

He’s definitely looked the part of at worst a five starter thus far, especially since he’s left-handed. But that great four start stretch from the middle of June to the beginning of July has me wanting more. It’ll be something to follow as the season drones on.

 

Cubs-Cardinals weekend preview

Game 1 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.): Lance Lynn (12-4, 3.10) v. Travis Wood (4-5, 4.33)

Game 2 (Saturday, 12:05 p.m.): Joe Kelly (1-3, 2.78) v. Jeff Samardzija (7-8, 4.25)

Game 3 (Sunday, 1:05 p.m.): Adam Wainwright (8-10, 4.31) v. Paul Maholm (9-6, 3.88)

Season series: Cardinals lead 7-4, outscoring the Cubs 63 to 33 in the process.

Overall: It’s odd to have two Cub-Cardinal weekend series in a row with no Sunday night game. But such is life when the Cubs aren’t holding up their end of the competitive bargain.

The Cubs recent string of good play at home has vaulted them above .500 at Wrigley (24-21). But should they repeat the 23-1 shellacking they took last weekend in St. Louis they’ll find themselves right back at .500.

It’s interesting that the Cardinals have outscored the Cubs by 30 this year, yet have “only” won 7 of the 11 games. With a run differential like that you’d figure they’d have won nearly all the games. But the 12-0 and 7-0 blowouts last weekend amount to a good chunk of that differential.

The Cardinals offense has been their strength this year, as they lead the majors in  team OBP (.342) and are second in BA (.274). The strength of their pitching staff has been the All-Star and former Ole Miss Rebel Lynn, who has rebounded from a rough stretch. From the middle to end of June he had three starts in which he gave up 5, 6, and 6 runs, and didn’t go more than 5 innings in any of those games.

Wood needs to rebound. Image courtesy zimbio.com.

But unfortunately for the Cubs he has bounced back nicely. In his past three games he has gone 19 innings giving up only one run (including 6 shutout innings against the Cubs last Sunday). In fact this season Lynn is 3-0 with a 0.94 ERA against the Cubs. He’ll be opposed by Wood, who is taking Matt Garza‘s spot in the rotation. Wood has had two bad outings in a row, and this will be a big start to see if he can stabilize and continue what otherwise has been a fine first year in Chicago.

Samardzija has been better at home this season (3-3, 3.68 ERA, 3.29 K/BB as opposed to 4-5, 4.71, 2.42 K/BB on the road), so it’ll be nice to see him back at Wrigley. He’ll be opposed by Kelly, who has been very effective in the first eight starts of his career. Of course the Cardinals have a call-up contributing immediately, right? No matter how much their system gets slammed they always pull productive players out of thin air. It’s infuriating.

Anthony Rizzo is my player to watch for the Cubs (but isn’t he always?). This will be the second team he’s seen for the second time (the Mets were the first), and he did okay in St. Louis last weekend, going 3-12 with a walk. He’d been in a power slump since the break, but broke out of that with a home run on Wednesday in Pittsburgh. I’ll be interested in this series, and the rest of the year, to see how he fares as teams see him more and more. Can he stay one step ahead of the league, so that he adjusts to it before it adjusts to him?

For the Cardinals my player to watch is Allen CraigMatt HollidayYadier Molina, and Carlos Beltran are big names, and so is David Freese after last October. All are having good seasons, but so is the semi-unheralded Craig. Mike Matheny has had trouble getting him in the lineup, because he’s basically a corner outfield/first base guy, and thus a challenge is presented with Holliday, Beltran and Lance Berkman on the roster.

But when Craig has gotten in games he has hit, and hit well (.299/.365/.570). He’s also hit it hard with 14 HR’s and 18 2B’s in 249 plate appearances. His .936 OPS is tied with Holliday for the team lead. Matheny will need to channel some of that maddening Tony La Russa creativity to get Craig more playing time.

As The(o’s) World Turns: The Dempster saga continues

The Ryan Dempster trade saga has become a tough situation to stomach as the Los Angeles Dodgers can completely dictate any deal that might be made. Ned Colleti isn’t stupid, he knows that if the Cubs want any return for Dempster it can only come from the Dodger system.

“What’s that Theo, you’ve got someone else calling about Dempster? Go ahead and take the call, I’ll wait.” – Ned Colleti. Image courtesy insidesocial.com

But even with the Dodgers virtually calling all the shots, it is still in the Cubs’ best interests to trade him. It has surfaced that the Cubs are considering keeping him and making him a 1-year/$12 million qualifying offer in the hope that he’ll decline and the Cubs will end up with a draft pick.

But this is most likely the team trying to drum up some leverage out of thin air. Ken Rosenthal writes that it is unlikely they’d ever make such an offer because they don’t want to risk being on the hook for $12 million.

Holding on to Dempster to then extend him doesn’t make any sense either. To begin with, he can simply resign with the Cubs even if he is traded. But even so, I’d say the Harry Caray statue is more likely to pitch for the Cubs in 2013 than Dempster. A pitcher close to being on the wrong side of 30 is not the type of guy Theo and Jed will be interested in. And what has transpired this week has probably soured both sides towards another. Dempster still has value, but not to a team like the Cubs at his current market price.

So that leaves us back where we started: the Cubs need to trade Dempster because it’s the only safe way to get something for him. And something is better than nothing, right?

Zach Lee, the highest rated Dodger prospect on MLB.com and Fangraphs.com, is the ultimate prize and his name had, quite obviously, surfaced as the Cubs main target. But given the Cubs’ current bargaining position it’ll be tough to land him. I have no clue if the Marlins were interested in him, but if they were and couldn’t get him for a former batting champ under contract for multiple seasons (Hanley Ramirez), then the Cubs have no chance. This is especially given the Dodgers need offense far more than starting pitching.

Still, Theo and Jed can add value to the system. If you look at those Dodger prospect lists you’ll see they are full of pitchers. While many of those guys likely won’t end up starting in the majors, there might be some effective future bullpen pieces in there.

The last few seasons there has been a parade of ineffective relievers shuttling back and forth from Iowa (think Scott Maine, Casey Coleman, etc.). And despite some recent success, the bullpen, and especially its depth, could use a major upgrade. Simply adding, semi well-regarded arms to the system would help, even if they never end up in the rotation.

I’m not going to pretend like I know anything about the Dodgers system. But given the situation, if the Cubs could get a package for Dempster which includes one or more of the pitchers on either list I’d be thrilled. Allen Webster‘s name popped up on Twitter yesterday, and based on the rankings a package centered around him would  be a solid return at this point.

This is mainly so because the alternative looks like Dempster signing elsewhere next season and leaving nothing but memories.

Mr. Clutch, also known as Luis Valbuena

Late in the Cardinals 12-run seventh inning last Saturday night (or inning from hell if you prefer), Dale Sveum took out Darwin Barney and moved Luis Valbuena over to second base. The conspiracy theorist in me (already active due to the Matt Garza injury-or-trade situation that evening) thought perhaps this was an audition should Barney be traded.

The Detroit Tigers were the only team I’d seen reported as being interested in Barney and  have since dealt for Omar Infante. So at this point it looks like Barney will be the Cubs second baseman for the foreseeable future. But has Valbuena played well enough to be in the Cubs’ plans past this season?

Valbuena has hit well with men on base. Image courtesy zimbio.com.

On a recent WGN pregame show (I can’t remember what day it was) Keith Moreland and Judd Sirott mentioned that Valbuena’s poor numbers (.204/.248/.354) are deceiving.

The crux of the conversation was that he hasn’t seen much to hit because he’s primarily hit eighth, and that when given a chance with men on base he has excelled.

To their credit, the stats back up (in part) what they said:

  • Bases empty (70 plate appearances): .171/.205/.271, 1 HR, 4 2B
  • Men on (48 plate appearances): .256/.313/.488, 2 HR, 4 2B
  • RISP (31 plate appearances): .346/.419/.692, 2 HR, 3 2B

Is Valbuena a sleeping giant buried at the bottom of the Cub lineup? His OPS is ridiculously higher with RISP (1.112) and men on (.801) than it is with the bases empty (.477). However, it’s probably safe to put talk of displacing Anthony Rizzo from the 3-spot on hold. That would be the sane thing to do considering his OPS over his career with both men on and RISP is under .680.

But these numbers, at least this season, suggest that Valbuena might be better than his numbers suggest. At 26 he is the same age as Barney, and has thus far looked good defensively at third. He’s spent the majority of his short career at second (173 games) and has some experience at short as well (32 games). So he has versatility to go along with that solid glove.

Valbuena is likely not long for third after this year because you want more power there. But I wouldn’t mind seeing him brought back to possibly compete with Barney for the second base job next Spring. Certainly he should be brought back to be a utility player off the bench. Third base will likely still be unsettled and it’d that much more valuable to have a guy who can play there as well as the middle infield positions effectively.

Should the Cubs find a decent bench player for the future out of Ian Stewart‘s wrist injury then that would be one of the few things Stewart contributed this season.