Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cubs thinking big with little right hander

The Cubs raised quite a few eyebrows with their first round selection of a dimunitive righthander from a diminutive school in an area with a diminutive population. While Baseball America had him ranked as the 191st best prospect, the Cubs felt he was good enough to pick with their top selection, number 16 overall. The pick was such a surprise that MLB officials scrambled to put together a name plate to put up on their draft board. The website Fangraphs had no analysis on him, saying the "only person in the world that knows anything about this guy is Jim Callis..."

"This guy" is Hayden Simpson and Callis isn't the only guy in the world who knows his name. There is Tim Wilken and all his scouts, and according to the Cubs staff, a team or two picking behind the Cubs were making googley eyes at Simpson as well.

So...who is Hayden Simpson then? We can start with the basics. Simpson was 35-2 in his collegiate career at Southern Arkansas with a 2.39 career ERA. Last year he was 13-1 with a 1.81 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 99 1/3 innings. As his strikeout numbers would indicate, he has good stuff, a fastball that's been clocked as high as 97 mph, a hard curve, a changeup, and a slider which Simpson calls his best pitch. Scouts are more partial to his curveball but believe all 4 pitches could be average or better in the majors.

With those kind of credentials, how does a guy like this go relatively unnoticed? Here are some possible reasons:

1) He is pitching in Southern Arkansas. It doesn't get much more rural and out of the way than that.
2) He is pitching against Division II hitters, so his level of competition may have contributed to his outstanding numbers.
3) He's only 6'0" tall and 175 lbs. That is pretty much toward the bottom of the scale when it comes to major league pitchers.

But we have seen pitchers succeed from out of the way places. We have seen Division II guys make an impact. His size is similar to many pitchers who have been successful, most notably our own Greg Maddux. The answer is that it's the combinaton of these factors that made Simpson an unconventional prospect.

Enter Tim Wilken.

Wilken is the Cubs Scouting Director and he is as unconventional as they come. His visions of players are different from most. He's been criticized for picks like Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, and Tyler Colvin -- all of whom, by conventional wisdom, were taken way too early but all of whom have found success in the major leagues. His track record of selecting pitchers includes Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter. Cub fans are crossing their fingers that Andrew Cashner will become that good too. While we can be skeptical about this pick, Wilken deserves the benefit of the doubt. He sees a major league starter in Simpson with 4 above average pitches. And while many of us look at Simpson and think small, Wilken sees Tim Lincecum and Roy Oswalt, another couple of small guys with big time talent.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Tale of Two Shortstops

For Starlin Castro, it has been the best of times but for Junior Lake, well...let's just say things could be better.

Scouting is an inexact science. Two years ago, these two shortstops were spoken in the same breath. Today, one is thriving in the majors while the other is struggling in Class A ball. I don't need to tell you which is which.

That wouldn't have been the case in 2007 or 2008, for that matter. For starters, let's look at the tale of the tape.

Starlin Castro
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 175 lbs.
Place of Birth: Dominican Republic
Date of Birth: March 24, 1990
Cubs pro debut: DSL 2007 (Dominican Summer League)
Signed by: Jose Serra, scout

Junior Lake
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 200 lbs.
Place of Birth Dominican Republic
Date of Birth: March 27, 1990
Cubs pro debut: DSL 2007
Signed by: Jose Serra, scout

Looks pretty even with a slight edge to Lake so far based on size. Let's look at year one:

2007 DSL
Starlin Castro .299/.371/.371
Junior Lake .274/.341/.404

A slight edge to Lake in Power while Castro showed better on-base skills. Overall, Castro had an OPS of .742. Lake's OPS was .745.

2008 Arizona Rookie League
Castro .311/.364/.464
Lake .286/.335/.414

Here we see Castro start to separate himself a little. But Baseball America still sees a lot of potential in Lake. They rank Starlin Castro as the Cubs #7 prospect while Lake isn't far behind at #13. Both are shortstops. Castro is thought to be the better all-around player while Lake has the better power potential.

The Cubs surprisingly promoted Castro from the AZL all the way to full season, High Class A Daytona. A huge leap. But again, Lake isn't far behind. They skip Short Season A ball and promote Lake to full season Class A Peoria.

Now comes the fork in the road...

While the Cubs expected Castro to tread water and would have been happy if he hit .260, he instead made a great leap forward. He broke out at Daytona, made the All-Star team, got promoted up to AA as a 19 year old and actually improved his numbers at Tennessee, going from a .731 OPS to a .743 OPS. Not a huge jump, but this is a 19 year old kid who jumped into a league where he was playing with 22-23 year olds. The fact that he improved at all was impressive. After another impressive stint in the Arizona Fall League, he became the Cubs #1 prospect and you know the rest.

Lake, meanwhile, struggled at Peoria. His OPS was just .642. He was plagued by poor plate discipline, walking only 18 times and striking out a whopping 138 times. For some reason, the Cubs felt they needed to promote him again. Those reasons were probably Hak Ju Lee and Logan Watkins, highly rated shortstops themselves, who were more than ready for full-season ball. So instead of repeating the league, Lake was bumped to High Class A Daytona where he has an OPS of .448 due largely to a .189 batting average. The power, once considered a strength, has all but evaporated thus far. Only 2 of his 17 hits have gone for extra bases. Both extra base hits are doubles. To top it all off, Lake is no longer considered to be capable of playing SS long term. He'll probably have to move to 3b, where the offensive expectations will only increase.

There was a time where both were considered equals. Some went as far to say that Lake had more upside than Castro. While that may have been true in 2007 and maybe even 2008, it's obvious who the better player is today. It shows how tricky player evaluation can be. It also shows that there is no cookie cutter player development plan. If anything, though it's been Castro who was pushed much more aggressively, it's been Lake who has looked "rushed". Castro has continued to adapt and make adjustments at the highest levels while Lake has continued to regress at the lower levels of the minor leagues.

While scouting has advanced in that past 100 years, it's still a hit or miss game. You never know what you really have until you get that player on the field, until he faces challenges...some will adapt and thrive, others fall behind then fade off into oblivion. When it comes to scouting and development of two seemingly equal talents, Castro represents the best of times, while Lake represents the worst of times.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Next Cubs phenom to get the call? How about Jay Jackson?

The Cubs farm system is beginnng to bear fruit. First it was Tyler Colvin, then it was Starlin Castro, and the next one will likely be Jay Jackson.

Jackson is the Cubs best pitching prospect this side of Andrew Cashner and the Cubs have been scouting him in Iowa recently. Jackson carries a 2.41 ERA this year and a 0.94 WHIP built largely on good control - 1.9 BB/9 rate - and pretty good stuff. He's been hard to hit, yielding just 27 hits in 37.1 innings, though some of it has been luck. Jackson's BABIP has been around .200, which is unsustainable. If there is one thing I'd like to see him improve upon is his strikeout rate. His K/9 rate of 5.8 is mediocre, especially considering Jackson has very good stuff. Jackson has a fastball that can touch 95 mph, though he has more success working at 91-93 mph, a mid 80s slider, a curveball, and a changeup. The K rate should improve a bit in a relief role but the Cubs are probably most impressed with that sparkling walk rate - something they haven't gotten from the bullpen as a whole this year. He has already pitched a few games in relief recently in what is, by my speculation, a preparation for his role with the big league club.

You may remember earlier that there was speculation that Andrew Cashner would be called up to try and plug the gaping hole in relief. Instead, they used Carlos Zambrano in the 8th inning role and promoted Cashner to AAA, where he continues to be a starter. I was against bringing him up to Chicago at the time because I was afraid it would interrupt his development. Where once people were concerned Cashner would end up a reliever, this year he's left little doubt that he can be a major league starter, and probably a very good one. So kudos to the Cubs for showing some restraint with Cashner.

So does the same caveat apply with Jackson? I don't think so. Jackson is more polished than Cashner. He's been a starter longer. He has 4 solid pitches that are already major league average or better, and this year he has shown excellent command. It'd be interesting to see which pitch or pitches he eliminates in his relief role. My guess is that since he'd be coming in for an inning or two, he'll got with the hard stuff - the fastball and the slider while occasionally showing the changeup, particularly to lefties. To me, Jackson can pitch in relief, get his feet wet in the majors, then return to a starting role next year without losing as much as Cashner would. He may actually benefit, as relievers turned starters like Pedro Martinez and Johann Santana did (assist to reader Scott on that one)...not that he's at that talent level, but Jackson could be a #3 starter down the road, maybe even a #2 if he can improve his strikeout rate. Another way he benefits is by keeping his innings down. Anytime you can limit a pitchers innings prior to his 25th birthday it increases the odds that he will have a healthy career.

One thing about the Cubs this year, they seem willing to transition from a veteran team to a more youthful, homegrown team, though they are doing it slowly. If Jackson is called up, he will be the 5th homegrown rookie player the Cubs have used this year (Esmailin Caridad, James Russell, Tyler Colvin, and Starlin Castro were the first 4 - Jeff Berg and Jeff Gray were also rookies, though they got their start in other organizations). And it's only May. Players like Andrew Cashner, Darwin Barney, and Robinson Chirinos may not be far behind. The Cubs are rebuilding on the sly. The first phase is bringing in rookies one at a time and mixing them in with veterans. The next phase will be trading some big contract veterans,that is, if the Cubs do indeed fall out of the race by the trade deadline...but that's a subject for next time.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Starlin Castro arrives

We've heard about him, we've seen him hold his own in the Arizona Fall league, Major League Spring Training, and now at AA Tennessee. There's little question by now that Starlin Castro can hit. So is this a good move? Let's look at the players involved:

Ryan Theriot - Theriot moves to 2b where his arm should play a lot better defensively. Theriot can get to balls in the hole but often can't make the throw. The Cubs can keep his valuable leadoff bat in the lineup and improve the defense.

Mike Fontenot - The player most hurt by this move in terms of playing time. Theriot takes his job and relegates Fontenot to a guy who comes in and gives an occasional breather to Theriot at 2b or Castro (with Theriot subbing at SS). He becomes another lefty off the bench to go with Chad Tracy, Tyler Colvin and Koyie Hill. Fontenot is hitting a respectable .296, but it's a soft .296 and a good example of why average isn't a telling statistic. His OBP is only .333 as his walk rate has gone down. His power is absent. He only has 3 extra base hits all year -- all doubles. Overall, he's a below average offensive player.

Jeff Baker - His future with the Cubs is clouded. The Cubs may try to dump him off for a player to be named later, minor leaguer, or just cash. He'll have a hard time finding playing time behind Theriot, Castro, and Fontenot. He'll probably have to fill in at 3b.

Chad Tracy - He gets sent down to AAA. He and Colvin were the only players with options but Tracy was most likely to see his playing time affected by the move. He's been struggling to get ABs as it is. The Cubs still have their A-Ram insurance policy, he'll just be at Iowa for now.

Starlin Castro - The star attraction. Castro is expected to upgrade the range at SS significantly while anything the provides on offense will be a bonus. Don't expect him to carry the load. He'll bat 8th and the Cubs will be happy if he hits .260-.270 with more pop than Fontenot has showed so far. If you are an advanced stat guy, the Cubs will need about a .330 wOBA and a +5 UZR rating for this move to help the Cubs overall.

There's a lot to digest right now but I know that I'll be watching closely tonight. We'll probably have a more in-depth profile on this move once we see how Castro handles the promotion.

In related news, the Cubs promoted Josh Vitters to AA and Andrew Cashner to AAA. We've talked about Cashner a lot and we'll address Vitters soon, whom I think has made some strides at the plate albeit in a small sample size.

Cubs call up Starlin Castro?

Per MLB TradeRumors via ESPN's Enrique Rojas, the Cubs have called up their top prospect, Starlin Castro. It's probably also no coincidence that Castro was pulled from the Tenessee lineup last night. I'll have more on this once it is confirmed...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Can Milton Bradley change?

I'm not into calling guys "good" or "bad". I leave that to preachers and politicians. What Milton Bradley does show is a narcissistic streak -- and what I mean by that is that in his eyes, he is at the center of the world. Umpires are out to get him. The media are out to get him. Everything is personal. Everything, in other words, is about him -- except when it comes to personal responsibility. He is unable to accept personal responsibility because it would mean that mistakes are somehow his fault. Given his inflated views of himself and his importance ("I'm the Kanye West of baseball"), taking the blame is not an option. It's the fans' fault. It's racism. It's pressure. It's unfair expectations.

The "positive" things you hear about Bradley also stem from this narcissm. You always hear how "he just wants to win". And he probably does. Narcissists are often ultra-competitive. And he lets everyone know just how hard he's trying and how badly he wants to win. He needs people to know. And because it seems like he's only being competitive, he can appear to be one of the guys when things are going well -- but when the team doesn't win, it cannot be his fault. So who's fault is it when the team loses? Everybody else's. He feels like he's trying but nobody else is -- or at least, nobody is trying as hard as he is. Eventually that kind of thing is going to alienate his teammates. If you follow Seattle, pay attention to Bradley's hyper-senstiveness to criticism, whether it's real or perceived (i.e. his reaction at getting taken out of the ballgame after striking out). Note his sense of entitlement. The Seattle organization has gone out of it's way to protect him. Yet he doesn't believe this is extraordinary. He believes (for now, anyway) that Seattle is the only team that has treated him "right". As if he somehow deserves this special attention. He's a handful, and in my opinion those kind of personalities are a drain on any organization they are a part of -- including, of course, a baseball team. This is true even when they are producing. And when they aren't producing, as the Cubs and other teams have had the misfortune to witness firsthand, they become a destructive force for the entire team.

Now Milton Bradley has finally asked for help. The temptation is to see hope that he has taken that first step but, given his narcissm, you have to be skeptical. Is he only doing this for his self-survival? He's an intelligent guy. Surely he realizes this may be his last chance. Is he sincerely asking for help or is he buying time? Is he just trying to give the impression that he is trying to change? My guess is that Bradley is only interested in seeking help because he wants to keep playing baseball. Sadly, it's not help he's seeking but, once again, he seeks the image of a guy who's "trying"; he seeks to let everyone know that once again he's "doing his best" -- and that, in my opinon, will be enough for him. Narcissm cannot be cured. At best, it can be managed. But given Bradley's history I have doubts as to whether he'll be able to manage himself effectively. And if he should fail once again, don't expect him to take the blame.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Early surprises and disappointments: A baker's dozen


1. Carlos Silva - Who would have thunk? Silva's resurgence has been a combination of a few factors: better health, a change in his approach, a little bit of luck, and pitching in a league that scores less runs. Silva was struggling to hit 85 on the gun this offseason, now he's consistently hitting 91 mph with his sinker. He's also throwing his changeup a lot more to lefties. That new found confidence in his changeup is helping limit the damage to a startling .111 average with no home runs vs. lefties -- a group that has plagued him even in his good years. There has been some luck. Hitters only have a .240 BABIP against him so far and that should go up. We did see Silva have his toughest outing last time out, though in fairness, 2 of the homeruns were windblown flyballs that reached the basket. Silva will regress a little more but there's no compelling reason to expect he'll become the slouch he was in Seattle.

2. Alfonso Soriano - He's been on hot streaks before but he looks to have a different approach over the past 8 games or so. He has a 9% walk rate, which is where it was when he had that monster year in Washington. Just as importantly, he's swinging at strikes. He no longer has the bat speed he used to, but he seems to have made some adjustments at the plate. Maybe Soriano is older and wiser. Maybe that talk with Lou (coincidentally about 8 games ago) got him re-focused. Maybe Rudy Jaramillo has corrected some flaws and kept him better balanced at the plate. Maybe the threat of Tyler Colvin stealing his job helped. Maybe it's just better health. My best guess? All of the above.

3. Kosuke Fukudome - Another player who seems more balanced at the plate. We always knew Kosuke had the plate discipline, but now he seems to be hitting the ball with authority. Balance will do that for you. Does Jaramillo get some of the credit here too? Possibly. But we've seen fast starts from Kosuke before only to see him fade as the season went on.

4. Tyler Colvin - Increased patience at the plate (noticing a theme, here?)has made him a more professional hitter. Since his resurgence at AA during the second half last season, Colvin has begun to answer questions about his power. This April, he has begun to address questions about his pitch recognition. Colvin was Soriano-esque in his pitch selection in the past and it led some to question whether he had any idea if the pitch coming was a strike up the middle or a slider low and away. He has allayed some of those concerns by showing he can be patient and swing at good pitches. That, better health, 25lbs of muscle, and better coaching at the big league level is turning Colvin into a legitimate major league outfielder. Right now he's the 4th outfielder in a very good outfield. He could probably start on more than a few teams.

5. Marlon Byrd - He has hit even better than Jim Hendry could have expected. He also breaks the mold of players on this list as he is someone who has had less patience, not more. 2 walks in one month is going to catch up eventually when NL pitchers figure him out. But for right now, Byrd has injected energy, leadership, solid hitting, and solid centerfield defense to the team.

6. Geovanny Soto - An overweight physique, a stint with the wacky weed, and a low BABIP contributed to Soto's precipitous fall last season but he appears to be a changed man. He lost 40 pounds and is dedicated to a healthier lifestyle. His best years have come when he's carried less weight, even since his minor league days, so that part of the equation bodes well. The other part, the BABIP, was mostly attributed to bad luck, though some of it was attributed to hitting less line drives and more groundballs last year. Soto seems to have corrected the problem. In addition he has been (you guesssed it) even more patient than usual. He and Fukudome are the Cubs best when it comes to waiting for a good pitch to hit -- and if not, they're happy to take the walk.

7. Tom Gorzelanny - The wins aren't there but he's arguably been the Cubs best starter so far. He has the highest K rate and the best ERA, or FIP, if you prefer advanced statistics. He may make Ted Lilly expendable by the trade deadline.

8. The Cubs Farm System - Starlin Castro and Andrew Cashner are pushing their way into elite prospect category and most of the top prospects have been holding their own. They've even had some sleepers like Brandon Guyer and Robinson Chirinos enter the talk as guys who can possibly help the Cubs soon. Solid year so far down on the farm.


1. Aramis Ramirez - He and Alfonso Soriano are staging the Cubs version of Freaky Friday. It's been A-Ram who has been eager at the plate at times while Soriano has waited for his pitch. Yes, they both have an equal number of walks, but A-Ram has been inconsistent, taking his old approach at times, but, more often than not this year, he has struggled with the strike zone. He's been a slow starter in the past so we shouldn't expect this poor performance to continue.

2. Derrek Lee - How's that? The Cubs two best hitters are top two on this list. Like Ramirez, Lee's timing seems off but unlike A-Ram, he hasn't let it affect his strike zone discipline. Lee is a candidate to turn things around before Ramirez does.

3. The Bullpen - would have been first on this list but Marmol, Marshall and Zambrano have minimized the damage of late. Though you have to question whether an 18M set up man is the best solution. Grabow is turning from an expensive set-up man to a very expensive mop-up man. Lou need to take note on this and use Grabow as a LOOGY. Lefties are hitting just .167 while righties are hitting a robust .419. Lou has to come to terms that he is a highly paid specialist and the sooner the better. Personally I'm also disappointed in Esmalin Cardidad. Normally a guy with decent control, he wilted under the pressure of filling that 8th inning void. He's coming off of injury and heading to AAA. Maybe he'll get things straightened out and return as a much needed 7th inning guy.

4. Xavier Nady - He has been slow to come off of injury and his bat has yet to catch up. He was supposed to be the guy who kept Soriano fresh and protected Fukudome against lefties. So far, it's been Tyler Colvin who has snatched his role as 4th outfielder. Right now, it looks like the Cubs have paid a decent amount of money (3.3M) for a fifth outfielder. You have to wonder if the Cubs shouldn't consider trading him and replacing him with a cheaper, defensive minded right-hand hitting OF'er (someone like Reed Johnson, perhaps?). But it's still to early to tell. If Soriano gets hurt, the Cubs are going to need a proven bat to fill in that RBI slot in the middle of the lineup.

5. Ted Lilly - The first start was good but the velocity was down in his second start. Lilly isn't a guy who's going to overpower you, but he's sneaky fast. He's deceptive and mixes his pitches well - but he has to throw around 90 mph for that fastball to sneak by people. Let's just hope it was a one game blip.