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Grading The Cubs Offseason, Theo Speaks, Alfonso Soriano, Mark Grace & Sammy Sosa

By bullpenbrian - January 16, 2013 - 1:30 am Leave a comment.

Theo Epstein

Sports Illustrated’s evaluation of the Cubs’ offseason: Grade B.
Only 2 names under Key Departures: Bryan LaHair & Chris Volstad.
Volstad? Are you freaking serious? (3-12, 6.31) Chris Volstad?
What about Ryan Dempster?
What about Paul Maholm?
Heck, I’d put Geovany Soto, Manny Corpas or Jeff Beliveau before Volstad.

“The rotation additions are a mixed bag, and the outfield remains unsettled, but it’s hard not to like the addition of Fujikawa.”
–SI article

Terry Francona’s book “Francona: The Red Sox Years” comes out on Jan. 22.
Excerpts released by Sports Illustrated:
Theo Epstein traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed Carl Crawford following pressure from Boston Red Sox owners to build a “sexy team.”

“They told us we didn’t have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle, we need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. We’d become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be.” -Epstein

Mark Grace is participating in a Diamondbacks fantasy camp underway in Scottsdale. He’s also on the record for blaming himself, not the team, for his dismissal from the broadcast booth last season following his second DUI in 15 months.

Sammy Sosa purchases distribution rights to a needle-free injection company, Injex21. The former Cub says he sees the potential to help people overcome their difficulties with taking injections.
Laughable, I know.

Three Cubs, including Sosa, are seen in SI.com’s Photo Blog.
Lou Piniella and Alfonso Soriano pose for SI’s baseball preview in 2007.
Sosa and Mark McGwire team up for a shoot during what I assume would be 1999 or 2000.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times spoke with Rays GM Andrew Friedman.

“The team is still looking for another bat, more likely through free agency than trade, either as a primary DH (which sounds like the preference) or with some positional flexibility allowing them to rotate the DH role.” -Friedman

Soriano, eh?

Juan Cruz broke in with the Cubs as a 22 year old in 2001. He went (8-19, 4.43) during his three seasons in Chicago. Cruz, 34, has signed a minor league deal with the Phillies.

Former Cub Michael Wuertz (2004-08) who was traded by Chicago to Oakland in Feb. 2009 for Richie Robnett & Justin Sellers, has signed a minor league deal with the Marlins.

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Cubs Connection: Jamie Moyer, Matt Garza & Big Z

By bullpenbrian - January 8, 2013 - 3:00 am Leave a comment.

Cubs transactions for January 8th:

1992 – Signed Jamie Moyer as a free agent

2011 – Traded Hak-Ju Lee, Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer to Tampa Bay for Zach Rosscup, Fernando Perez and Matt Garza

Would you make the same trade today?

-Carlos Zambrano, Anyone?

Still no takers for Big Z. Not surprising, really.
In years 29, 30 & 31 he’s averaged just 22 starts per season.
Hasn’t pitched more than 200 innings since 2007 (216.1).
Has won fewer than 10-games in 3 of last 4 seasons…(11 in 2010).

Part of Z being a head case wasn’t just his childish behavior and immaturity. It was always a concern of mine Zambrano wasn’t learning how to be a pitcher vs. a thrower.

Miami was suppose to rejuvenate the big right-hander. Instead, he went (7-10, 4.49) while Ozzie, of all managers, demoted him to the bullpen mid-season.

Zambrano had long mentioned he would retire at the end of his 5-year, $90 million contract extension originally signed with the Cubs in 2007. Currently that appears to be his only option.

When Theo shipped Z to the Marlins last January (along with $15 million) it was never a matter of what the Cubs were getting in return. Rather, the Cubs needed to rid the team of a malcontent in favor of revitalizing the clubhouse culture.

Chris Volstad was the return piece of course, but regardless of how poorly Volstad (3-12, 6.31) was last season the Cubs were no doubt better off distancing themselves from El Toro.

My gut feeling, however, is some team will reach out to Z before spring training. What a mistake that will be.

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Should Cubs Give Edwin Jackson Four Years?

By bullpenbrian - December 20, 2012 - 11:45 am 2 comments.

Edwin Jackson’s career has always been an enigma to me.

On one hand his career stats seem to indicate he’s a slightly above average starting pitcher. On the other, Jackson’s been traded six times before he’s turned 30.

Jackson is durable, an innings eater and an All Star. He’s reached two World Series, won one, and pitched for a team with the major’s best regular-season record as recently as last year.

Yet, not a single one of his previous employers locked him up with a long-term contract, or valued him as a franchise player. How come?

Because Jackson isn’t a difference-maker in a competitive rotation. Jackson, it seems, has been more coveted by opposing teams than he has by his very own, and the love fest with Jackson seems to rub off rather quickly.

That’s why I’m surprised to see the Cubs offering something in the neighborhood of the reported 4-year, $52M contract Jackson is seeking this offseason. Has he really been that undervalued?

That’s not to say Jackson wouldn’t improve the Cubs. This is, after all, a 101-loss team. Plus, you can never have too much starting pitching.

Pair Jackson up with the Cubs’ current stock of starting pitching, including the recently signed Carlos Villanueva (2-yr, $10M), and it’s a formidable rotation heading into 2013.

Not to mention, the Cubs still appear to be entertaining the idea of trading one of their best pitchers in Matt Garza; for what we can’t necessarily assume will be major league ready pitcher(s) at the time of arrival.

Jackson could bridge that gap and add real value to the Cubs in the short-term. But four years isn’t a short-term deal. In fact, it’s the additional two years of the contract that actually concerns me more than the money.

From the Cubs’ perspective I’d like to see Jackson on a 2-year deal. A contract which would enable him to help the Cubs during the early stages of the rebuild, but wouldn’t tie up roughly $26M when the team is looking to make hay in 2015.

Fortunately for Jackson, he’s in the position of leverage; not the other way around. The starting pitching market is thin, he’s still in his prime, 29, and it’s likely he’ll get the four-year deal he’s coveting.

That said, is spending roughly $52M over four years on a slightly above average pitcher a wise investment for the Cubs? Couldn’t that money be better spent on a highly-prized hurler through trade or free agency when the Cubs are actually fielding a more competitive team?

I think so, and my gut feeling concurs.

Now, will I be upset if the Cubs land Jackson? Of course not. But interestingly, Jackson would be the first offseason move by the Cubs I wouldn’t fully understand, even though he would arguably be the most talented player the Cubs landed this winter.

Of course given the Cubs’ resistance to including no-trade clauses in contracts, it’s possible the always tradeable Jackson could be dealt after two, or even three seasons on the North Side.

It seems that’s a bridge the Cubs are willing to cross with Jackson. And according to the morning reports via online and Twitter, it appears both sides are coming close to a deal; and a little too close if you ask me.

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Cubs Institutional Problem

By bullpenbrian - December 19, 2012 - 5:00 am 4 comments.

Bullpen Brian

Take a look at what Theo Epstein terms the Cubs’ institutional problem with plate discipline and on-base percentage.

As a quick reference point, the Cubs led the National League in walks in 2008. So it’s easy to see how drastically the number of walks have fallen in just four years.

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ .302 on-base percentage last season was the worst mark in all of baseball, and the fourth consecutive year it dropped from the previous season.

Epstein is trying to right the ship by instilling an organizational-wide focus on ‘grinding-out at-bats’ and developing the bulldog mentality the Red Sox’s lineup became noted for during his reign in Boston. 

The headline move with correcting the problem thus far was Epstein’s decision to replace highly respected hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo with James Rowson midway through last season. Additionally, a newly created position of assistant hitting coach was filled by Rob Deer at the Winter Meetings.

Like most things with the Cubs these days, the turnaround won’t happen in one season. Certainly the club can show improvement in the next couple of years, but reaching the goal will take improved performance from the Cubs’ lowest level minor leagues all the way up through the major leagues.

Epstein is sure to keep a more focused plate approach as a pressing issue throughout the entire organization. It appears to be one of his most strongly held beliefs in creating and maintaining a championship caliber team.

Even the slightest improvement in this area next season could be a keg factor in avoiding consecutive 100-loss seasons, and that’s definitely worth taking a few extra pitches.  

–For a closer year-to-year look at the graph see the bullet points below.

  • A lot was made of Kosuke Fukudome’s patient plate approach upon his arrival in 2008. His keen eye for the strike zone appeared to rub off on his teammates, at least for one year. Four Cubs drew 70 or more walks that season (Fukudome 81, Aramis 74, Theriot 73, D-Lee 71) and Mark DeRosa just missed with 69 free passes.
  • In 2009 only two Cubs topped 70 or more walks: Fukudome 93 and D-Lee 76. Knucklehead Milton Bradley (66) likely would’ve topped the mark had he not been suspended for the final two weeks of the season for acting like a disgruntled clown…reads: conduct detrimental to the team.
  • The real drop off happened the following season when the team’s total plummeted by 113 walks. Fukudome led the team for the third straight season despite playing in 16 fewer games than the season prior. However, not a single Cub eclipsed 70 or more walks. ‘The Fuk’ ended with 64. Geovany Soto was second with 62 and D-Lee’s register just 52 walks while missing significant time due to injuries (109-games).
  • The 2011 season walk totals are somewhat skewed thanks to Carlos Pena. When he wasn’t busy striking out Pena was making headway in setting a new club record for first basemen with 101 walks. But after Pena it was basically hopeless for the rest of the Cubs. Fukudome finished second on the club with 46…and that’s despite playing just 87 games with Chicago before being traded to the Indians on July 28. Soto 45, Aramis 43, and Starlin Castro 35, rounded out the top 5.
    Good heavens.
  • Although there was a slight uptick in walks last season, the Cubs had but one player reach more than 50 walks–David DeJesus with 61. Now the kicker…Soriano was second with 44 and LaHair third with 39. No wonder the Cubs had the worst on-base percentage in baseball (.302).
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One FA Third Baseman Fits Cubs Needs

By bullpenbrian - December 18, 2012 - 9:30 am 2 comments.

One issue, among many, with Ian Stewart and Luis Valbuena platooning at third base is their left-handedness.

Valbuena, interestingly, actually hit better last season vs. lefty starters (.235) than he did vs. righty starters (.215). However, it’s not that much better and Valbuena did have 163 fewer at-bats against southpaw starters.

Nonetheless, I’m suggesting it would be more ideal if the Cubs had a right-handed hitting third baseman to fill out the platoon role with either Stewart or Valbuena, not to mention an available right-handed bat to come off the bench.

For a time that player appeared to be Josh Vitters, but unfortunately the kid was completely over-matched offensively at the big league level last season. Ultimately we had to come to terms with the fact Vitters is still too green for The Show and destined to begin next season with Triple-A Iowa.

Meanwhile, aside from Dave Sappelt (bats R) and Dioner Navarro (bats S), the Cubs’ likely bench/platoon players for 2013 are all left-handed hitters: Tony Campana, Brett Jackson, Nate Schierholtz and David DeJesus.

A right-handed bat at third could help the cause, but an already thin free agent market at the hot corner has dried up rather quickly now that Kevin Youkilis succumbed to the Evil Empire and the White Sox swooped in to land Jeff Keppenger.

Of the few remaining names on the list only one makes much sense for Chicago–Brandon Inge. He’s a good fielder, has power and hits right-handed.
Check, check and check.

Detroit released Inge last April after his slow start but he quickly bounced back with Oakland to hit .226/.286/.389 in 74-games. Not great by any stretch, but there’s value found in his 11 HR, his above average fielding and his right-handedness.

Clearly no longer a full-time player, Inge turns 36 in May and likely wouldn’t bring back more than a bag of peanuts in a July trade. Still, it wouldn’t hurt the Cubs to add a veteran presence on its youthful roster (especially if Soriano and Marmol are both traded) and a guy who could straighten out a lefty-lefty platoon at third.

I’m hard pressed to believe any team offers Inge more than a one-year deal this offseason or anything close to his $5.5M price tag from 2012. In fact, it seems Inge is ripe for the taking if the Cubs care to give him a closer look, which might only require a minor league contract and invite to spring training.

What I do know is Inge is no worse than what the Cubs already have at third to open spring camp, and at worst he’s gone before the end of spring training.

There’s a real uncertainty whether Stewart will work out…or Valbuena…or Vitters for that matter. So with a roster chalked full of stopgaps, what’s one more in 2013?

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Cubs Targets For FA Starting Pitchers

By bullpenbrian - December 17, 2012 - 5:30 pm 2 comments.

The free agent market for starting pitchers takes a steep decline now that Anibal Sanchez has re-signed with Detroit.

Here’s a list of some of the remaining free agent pitchers and where they rank according to Jeff Passan’s (Yahoo! Sports) FA listing. Edwin Jackson, Shaun Marcum, Carlos Villanueva and Francisco Liriano are thought of as possibilities for the Cubs (and no, Big Z is not an option under any circumstance).

  • 12. Edwin Jackson
  • 18. Kyle Lohse
  • 33. Shaun Marcum
  • 39. Carlos Villanueva
  • 45. Francisco Liriano
  • 60. Joe Saunders
  • 76. Carl Pavano
  • 81. Carlos Zambrano
  • 88. Chris Young
  • 99. Kevin Millwood

The pitcher I’d go after is Villanueva. He’s spent the majority of his 7-year career as a swing man with Milwaukee and Toronto. That’s been beneficial in limiting the mileage on his right arm, but leaves some concern over his durability as a starter, which is what Villanueva aspires to be going forward. He’s also one of the more affordable options and could be a ‘flippable asset’ in July.

Jackson is getting a lot of ink as the top pitcher available on the market. He’s durable, in his prime, 29, and coming off a decent season with Washington (10-11, 4.03 ERA, 189.2 IP). However, given the Cubs’ early success this winter in upgrading its rotation (Baker, Feldman) I wouldn’t be fond of adding Jackson at multiple years and the $12-13M price range expected to land his services. The Padres are reportedly the front runner for Jackson offering a 4-5 year deal. That’s too much for my liking.

Marcum, 31, has put together a solid career with Toronto and Milwaukee. In six seasons starting he’s won double digit games three times (12, 13, 13), and has a career (57-36, 3.76 ERA) record. However, Marcum has only twice made 30+ starts (2010-11) and only once pitched more than 200 innings (2011). Most concerning is the fact he battled reoccurring ‘shoulder soreness’ and ‘elbow tightness’ last season. That issue can hardly be overlooked, and one I think the Cubs should steer clear of this winter.

With Liriano it’s all about banking on potential. He’s been terribly inconsistent the past two seasons after finishing 11th in the Cy Young Award in 2010 with Minnesota (14-10, 3.62 ERA). At 29 years old it’s tempting to gamble on Liriano regaining his old form. If he did rebound there’s the chance the Cubs could get quality value in return on a trade. But unless Chicago fails to land one of the three pitchers above, I’d be content with the team investing elsewhere.

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How Many ‘Tommy John’ Pitchers On Cubs Roster?

By bullpenbrian - December 13, 2012 - 1:55 am Leave a comment.
  • Chang-yong Lim
  • Hector Rondon
  • Marcos Mateo
  • Arodys Vizcaino
  • Robert Whitenack
  • Scott Baker
  • Rafael Dolis
  • Scott Feldman

Eight. That’s the current number of Cubs’ pitchers on its 40-man roster who’ve undergone Tommy John surgery during their careers.

It’s far from an official count. But it’s the best list I could manage after scouring Google searches and player bios. If I missed a player, give me a shout and I’ll update the list accordingly (I already had to update it once!).

It wouldn’t surprise me if a pitcher did slip my radar. Finding a complete list of the major leaguers who’ve undergone TJS was more challenging than I anticipated.

You’d think as commonplace as the surgery has become in baseball there would be a TJS listing readily available aside from the two I found here & here.

Both sites provide a very good listing, but are self admittedly incomplete. So, if you’re aware of a Tommy John register that I haven’t mentioned please feel free to share with us in the comment section below.

As for the Cubs’ love affair with the recovering TJS survivors, it’s fair to assume this number will grow as it did on Wednesday with the signing of Chang-Yong Lim, a 36-year-old side arm reliever from Japan, to a 2-year, $5M deal. His recovery from Tommy John surgery is likely to keep him out the entire 2013 season.

With roughly 60-days before spring training I’d bet we’ll see Team Theo sign at least one, if not two, Tommy John add-ons before the end of winter.

It’s hard to fault the Cubs’ approach in becoming a TJS shelter. The pitchers need an opportunity and the Cubs need affordability. If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. It’s little more than low-risk, high-upside on the Cubs’ end, which fits the early stages of the rebuild quite comfortably.

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Why Cubs Are Waiting To Spend Big

By bullpenbrian - December 10, 2012 - 3:30 am 6 comments.

Cubs Pie 5

Here’s a visual reminder that it’s not about how much the Cubs spend, but how they spend that’s important.

Only twice in the past 10 years have the Cubs seen an increase in payroll translate to more wins. However, four times they spent more on player salary than the year prior–only to lose more games.

The result of careless spending ultimately limits roster flexibility. It makes it tougher to acquire players and increasingly difficult to trade underperforming ones signed to gaudy contracts.

Doubling down on payroll can open a small window to win a championship, as it did for the Cubs in 2007-08, but we know it’s no guarantee to winning a ring and the long-term effects makes it virtually impossible to maintain any success.

That’s why Theo Epstein is taking a more careful approach with team payroll than his predecessor Jim Hendry. Building the Cubs into a consistent winner, one that reaches the postseason year-after-year, gives the club its best odds of winning a World Series.

To build that model Epstein has to first relieve the pressure of what became a suffocating team payroll and roster gridlock under Hendry. It means making smarter investments, taking fewer risks and practicing more patience until some roster flexibility returns.

Of course building a core player group won’t come on the cheap. Neither will supplementing the core group with the best available free agents. No doubt Tom Ricketts realizes it’s going to take significant dollars to build a championship roster. It’s just important the payroll and roster talent grow together and not apart.

A staple of smart investing is discipline and patience. It’s understanding there’s no penalty for making smarter, smaller moves. But there are, however, severe consequences for losing sight of the long-term goals with greed and impatience.

What better way to sum up the chart above.

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Will Dale Sveum See Cubs On Right Side Of Rebuild?

By bullpenbrian - December 7, 2012 - 5:15 am 1 comment.

Any idea who’s currently the longest tenured manager with one team in MLB? It’s Mike Scioscia. He’s been at the helm of the Angels the past 13 seasons.

In the long history of the Cubs only one of its managers lasted as long as Scioscia has in Anaheim. Cap Anson skippered Chicago for 19-straight seasons from 1879-1897. Quite awhile ago.

Meanwhile, the present runner-ups to Scioscia include Twins manager Ron Gardenhire who’s lasted 11 seasons in Minnesota, Charlie Manuel with 8 seasons in Philadelphia, Jim Leyland with 7 seasons in Detroit and Joe Maddon with 7 seasons in Tampa Bay.

Outside the Top 5, however, there’s a noticeable decline in manager’s staying power. In fact, the average length of time spent on the job for current managers heading into 2013 is less than 3.5 seasons.

Only five managers exceed that average: Ron Washington in Texas (6), Bruce Bochy in San Francisco (6), Bud Black in San Diego (6), Joe Girardi in New York (5) and Dusty Baker in Cincinnati (5).

Otherwise, two-thirds of the league’s managers have been on the job three seasons or less. Six begin their inaugural season with their respective clubs next spring, half of which are rookie bench bosses: Bo Porter (Houston), Walt Weiss (Colorado) and Mike Redmond (Miami).

I became interested in this topic thinking about how much string Dale Sveum will receive as the Cubs manager? Epstein and Hoyer reiterate they envision Sveum as‘the guy’ when the team finally turns the corner from rebuilding, which still appears several seasons away.

If we project the Cubs to be .500 or better in 2015 Sveum will have already been on the job three years. And if he’s lasted that long there’s reason to believe he’ll be retained with a team poised to compete for the postseason.

That could put Sveum on path to near the head of the class for the league’s current list of longest tenured managers with one team, assuming the Cubs continue to win.

On the other hand, as the Cubs climb closer to being competitive the patience of the rebuild will have worn thin on Team Theo and the fans. Everyone will expect a winner given the talent on the field and the tedious wait to assemble a competitive roster.

Sveum, needless to say, will have little room for error if he’s to become the Cubs’ version of Mike Scioscia vs. the latest quadrennial skipper. Of course, all he needs to do is win a World Series. And how hard can that be?

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Cubs Staying The Course, Sign OF Nate Schierholtz

By bullpenbrian - December 6, 2012 - 10:30 am 2 comments.

Nate Schierholtz? Didn’t see this one coming, but it falls right in line with the Cubs’ course of action this offseason–patching up holes with affordable stop-gap players.

First Scott Baker ($5.5M), then Dioner Navarro ($1.75M), next Scott Feldman ($4.5M) and now Schierholtz ($2.25M).

The upside for Schierholtz is his left-handed bat and ability to play both corner outfield positions. He’s also in his prime, 28, and could stay under team control for a second season if all goes well in 2013…or could be used as trade bait come July.

In the meantime his signing adds outfield depth with the likelihood Soriano is dealt before Opening Day. With David DeJesus moving to center Schierholtz projects as the starting right fielder leaving Brett Jackson, Dave Sappelt, Tony Campana and Bryan Bogusevic filling-in as needed.

Schierholtz is far from a splash signing, but he does fill a need and comes with low-risk, high-reward potential.

Given the Cubs’ track record this offseason it appears we should expect a similar signing for third base and at least one more bullpen arm; the two biggest remaining needs.

Perhaps the relief arm can be filled by RHP Hector Rondon (Indians) who the Cubs selected in the Rule 5 Draft this morning. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of time this winter to find a couple more serviceable players before the spring.

Of course none of the players the Cubs have added this winter can be considered a sure-thing, including Kyugi Fujikawa, but those they have signed should help stop the bleeding of a 101-loss team. That’s an important first order of business and a reminder patience is a virtue.

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