Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cubs walk their way to a victory

The Cubs drew 8 walks last night. And it wasn't just the usual suspects like Fukudome, Lee, Ramirez, Soto, and Theriot. This time Soriano, Colvin, and even Carlos Silva got into the act.

We talked about Colvin yesterday but Soriano? 3 walks? Really? Could it be that after all these years that Soriano is finally making an adjustment? If so, it would be a remarkable turnabout for a player who has always relied on his tremendous athletic ability to get by. I'm hoping that the patience he has displayed over the past few days is an admission of sorts by Soriano that he can no longer hit everything in the 773 area code. It's a natural part of aging, part of which has probably been accelerated by injuries in Soriano's case, that things start to slow down. We know he doesn't run as well, it also appears the bat speed has slowed and he struggles to keep up with harder fastballs. The plate coverage is also diminished.

He has shown that he is still more than capable of hitting pitches within the strike zone, however. And if he can make up for some of his shortcomings by 1) swinging only at pitches he can catch up to and 2) get on base by drawing an occasional walk in the process, then he can still be an asset to this team. He won't ever be that 18M player, but he can help this team on offense.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tyler Colvin: He must be doing something right...

A country singer waxes patriotic in the opening scene of the excellent movie Nashville by Robert Altman. The refrain concludes with the great line, "We must be doing something right to last 200 years!"

I don't know what makes me laugh more, is it the uncertainty of the sentence or is it that 200 years is an infancy when you compare to the longevity of many other countries around the world? It is, we can say, a small sample size and, even still, according to the song, we're not sure what we did to get this far.

The same thing can be said of Tyler Colvin and his 33 ABs this year. For the most part, he's looked pretty good so far. So how did he get here? And will it last? It is still early but I'm going to say that I like what I've seen of Tyler Colvin in just 33 ABs. In fact, I really like what he did in his last 3 ABs yesterday. I think he's gotten better since spring training. Here's why in terms of a pitch-by-pitch analysis of his 3rd at bat.

AB# 3:

Pitch 1: Fastball outside, taken for a ball

Pitch 2: Low changeup...a pitch he usually swings at and gets out in front of. This time he takes it. Ball 2.

Pitch 3: A slider on the inside corner. A strike, but not the pitch he wanted. 2-1

Pitch 4: A fastball low and outside, the kind of pitch he sometimes chases. Not this time. 3-1

Pitch 5: A fastball just below his knees that should have been called a ball. But since Colvin's a rookie, he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. The ump calls it a strike. Full count.

Pitch 6: An 83 mph changeup, up in the strike zone. Even though he was probably expecting a 3-2 fastball, Colvin kept his hands back and hit a sharp groundball that gets past Prince Fielder for a single.

I love that AB. Probably my favorite of the day. That is the kind of AB that gives me hope about Colvin more than the 2b or the Hr. I already know he can hit pitcher's mistakes. I'm more excited about him working the count, laying off tempting pitches (even when they are pitcher's strikes), then keeping his hands back and staying on a changeup - a pitch that would have fooled many rookies - and hitting it hard enough to get through for a single.

In his 4th AB, Colvin walked on 4 pitches. It is his 4th walk in his 37th plate appearance. It's early but that makes for about an 11% walk rate. If Colvin can keep that up, we should see him continue to get even better.

In his 5th AB, Colvin saw a total of 7 pitches before lining out sharply to Fielder.

All 3 of those ABs could have ended in walks had Colvin gotten some borderline calls, but the important thing for him is that he continues to take more and more pitches -- a departure from his minor league days - even his Spring Training days. Here's hoping Colvin keeps that approach: Some will result in walks and some will result in better swings and sharply hit balls, all will result in good ABs and better pitches to hit. Maybe it's Rudy Jaramillo, maybe it's the veteran presence of hitters like Lee and Byrd, maybe Colvin had an epiphany.

One things for sure, even though it's only been a month, Colvin must be doing something right...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Farm Report:

Starlin Castro is in a rut. He has been caught stealing in his last 3 attempts. Other than that, he's been an absolute beast. Here are the numbers on Castro and some of the other Cubs prospects:

I'm expanding the list to 10...oh, make that 11, players to watch...


Starlin Castro- AA: .426 average, .705 Slugging pct., and an 1.160 OPS. It's early but those numbers are incredible. It didn't seem possible that Castro could continue to improve on the numbers from his hot start, but he has. The question now is how long before he gets the call.

Robinson Chirinos- AA: I'm no longer putting him in the sleeper category. This guy is going to be a major league catcher. Right now, Piniella seems to have a bit of a mancrush on Koyie Hill, so Chirinos is stuck until someone gets hurt. But for now he has passed Chris Robinson, Welington Castillo, and Steve Clevenger on the Cubs catching depth chart. His numbers are nearly as good as Castro's: .341 Avg., 4 homeruns, .396 OBP, .707 Slugging, and a 1.103 OPS.

Brandon Guyer- AA: He has joined Hak Ju Lee and Logan Watkins as legitimate leadoff prospects in the Cubs system. He looks to be translating his great athleticism into useable baseball skills. He is hitting .314 with 11 walks, giving him an OBP of .453. He also has 7 steals in 7 attempts.

Brett Jackson- High A
: He's hitting .302 and he's walked 14 times for a .436 OBP. His strikeout rate is still about about 1 in every 6 ABs. All good. The bad? Still just 2 extra base hits. Jackson is supposed to be a power hitter, but working on his contact skills continues to have a negative effect on his slugging, which is at a paltry .396.

Josh Vitters- High A: He's at .279 with 6 doubles and 2 HRs, giving him a slugging pct. of .456. Better than his bad start but he still has a ways to go. He has walked 4 times in 68 ABs, which for him can be considered an improvement - but it's still inadequate. A mediocre start for Vitters, but I look for him to continue improving.

Keep your eye on:

Brandon Snyder, AAA. He's a former first round pick of the Cleveland Indians. They gave up on him early and the Cubs snatched him up. They really like this kid and over the past 2 years, he has begun to pay some dividends. He's athletic, has an arm that'll play in RF, and some good power. He's at .339 with 3 Hrs, and a .990 OPS. While Sam Fuld is the name we all knowm, he is no longer even starting at AAA. Jim Adducci is also struggling. If something happens to an outfielder, Snyder is positioning himself to get the call.

Matt Spencer- High A: Injured at the beginning of the year, Spencer has come out swinging. He's hitting .375 with 2 2Bs and a HR. That gives him a slugging pct. of .583 and an OPS of .958. Acquired with Jeff Gray in the Jake Fox deal, Spencer is in the mold of Brett Jackson, Brandon Guyer, Tyler Colvin and Brandon Snyder. All of them are the kinds of athletic, toolsy outfielders that scouting director Tim Wilken covets.


Andrew Cashner- AA: Has not pitched since last week, so nothing new to update there. He isn't hurt. There's just been some rainouts in Tennessee.

Jay Jackson - AAA: He's 2-1, with a 2.00 ERA. Importantly for him, he's only walked 3 and given up in 9 hits in 18 innings while striking out 12. I'd like the strikeout ratio to come up but, overall, I'll take it.

Keep your eye on:

Dae Un Rhee- High A: Could join Cashner and Jackson as top of the rotation type starters if he can bounce back from his injury. He got off to a slow start but in his last start he gave just 1 hit in 6 innings.

Trey McNutt- Low A: Considered a poor man's Andrew Cashner, McNutt has been dominating low A ball hitters with a 1.29 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings. He probably won't be in low A ball much longer.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Zambrano move more fodder for the sabermetric faithful

Let's just say the Zambrano move was very unpopular with the numerically inclined. The numbers have been crunched and the verdict is...Off with Hendry's head! For a look into what everyone is screaming about, here's a link...


So, does this mean this is an absolute horrible idea?

Here's a very brief recap of what people are saying...

*18M for a set-up man is a pretty inefficient use of funds in which the Cubs cannot possibly see a positive return on investment.

*Zambrano is a better pitcher than Silva per FIP and xFIP

*Silva cannot continue this torrid pace. His BABIP rate of .178 is unsustainable. He will "regress to the mean" over the course of the season.

You could go on and on. And, you know what? It's all true.

So...did the Cubs just really dash their playoff chances with one swift stroke?


When you look at sabermetric analysis, consider that it pretty much boils down to betting on the most likely outcome based on historical trends. But it isn't a black and white solution. This isn't irrefutable proof. This is like betting on the favorite at the race track. But you know what? If you always bet on the favorite, you will eventually go broke. Despite having the best odds, the odds of the favorite losing are often greater. If you really want to come out ahead, you have to buck the trend and beat the odds every once in a while. That is what the Cubs are trying to do -- and relax, everyone,they are not betting the whole farm on this one.

The odds are that over the course of the season with an equal number of starts, Zambrano will be a better pitcher than Silva by the year's end. However, analysis that uses FIP is using the most favorable argument. It deliberately eschews xFIP, which is more respected in most circles. Using xFIP, the gap between Zambrano and Silva is closer than you might think. And with Silva healthy and trending in one direction and Zambrano becoming less and less dependable and with some pretty mediocre xFIPs in the past few years, I'm inclined to believe the distance between Z and Silva has been greatly exaggerated.

And no one is expecting Carlos Silva to continue his current trend. We know he's going to regress. The Cubs know he's going to regress. Carlos Silva probably knows he's going to regress. We all know! The question is to what point? Since he is healthy for the first time in 3 years, is it possible that he can return to his 2007 numbers? Certainly. Silva's xFIP that year was 4.57. And it's not an outlier. In fact his career xFIP, including the horrid years in Seattle, is 4.47. For comparison's sake, Carlos Zambrano's xFIP in 2007 when he won 18 games was 4.62 -- higher than Silva's that year. Zambrano's xFIP numbers over the last three years: 4.62, 4.45, and an upward spike of 4.27 last season, though he didn't pitch deep into games and wasn't the workhorse the Cubs had come to depend on. Anyone who watched the Cubs last year couldn't seriously call Zambrano valuable last year, xFIP spike notwithstanding. And by the way, when you weight the averages for innings pitched, Carlos Zambrano's xFIP over the past 3 years is 4.47. The same as Silva's career xFIP. So taken into perspective, are those numbers really something to lose sleep over? I think if the Carlos Silva of 2010 can be as good (per xFIP) as the Carlos Zambrano of the past 3 years, the Cubs will take it. All it would take is for a return to his career average. That's what they're betting on. He doesn't need to sustain his current pace for this move to work.

As for spending 18M on a reliever, whoopie doo. That's overcompartmetalizing things. Let's look at the big picture. They're spending 18M whether he starts or whether he relieves. They are going to spend 25M between a starter and a set-up man anyway you slice it. If he can help the Cubs main weakness, the high leverage bullpen innings and Silva can at least approach Zambrano's numbers as a starter, then it may just be the best allocation of resources under the circumstances. The question it boils down to isn't whether Zambrano is a better starter than Silva. The question is this: Are the Cubs better off with Zambrano starting and Silva setting up games or a they better off with Silva starting and Zambrano setting up Marmol? The Cubs are betting that Zambrano will make a much better reliever than Silva and I'm inclined to agree on this one. Not only do all the stats we've talked about back that up, but you have to consider Zambrano's aggressive mentality, his power arsenal, and the fact that statisitically in his career, he has been much better the first time through the lineup. And it's less of a strain on the staff if the Cubs have to yank him early because of temper tantrums or crampy forearms.

So you get a possible major upgrade in the bullpen and a probable (but exaggerated) downgrade in the starting rotation. The overall payroll doesn't change one cent. It's the Cubs thinking outside the box. It may not work, but things weren't exactly working with Z in the rotation, and no one truly expected the Cubs to get much better. It's a move that took some guts. It's easy to recite the trends, salaries and numbers that most baseball people (including the Cubs who do have an advanced statistical analyst on the payroll) are already aware of.

Here's hoping the Cubs beat the odds and bet on a winner this time. It may not be the favorite, but it doesn't mean it doesn't stand a decent chance. And if it turns out to be the also-ran everybody thinks it will be, there's still plenty of time left in the season for the Cubs to hedge their bet and change their horse.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Zambrano to Bullpen

The Cubs are moving Zambrano to the bullpen. A little bit of a shocker but I raised this possibility a few days ago.


What does it mean? Call it a trial run for a Zambrano-less rotation. The Cubs will see if Lilly can stay healthy and if Silva is for real. If this works in the short term, I predict the Cubs will look for someone to take Zambrano and his huge contract off their hands, preferably for a veteran reliever. I broached the possibility of a deal with the Mets involving Francisco Rodriguez in a swap of bad contracts.

The Cubs have to be thinking about opening roster spots for Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson as well. Jackson is doing well at AAA. He's at a 2.00 ERA with only 9 hits and 3 walks in 18 innings. And Cashner has been dominant in AA with 25 strikeouts and 4 walks in 17 innings. Double A hitters have only managed to hit for a .119 average in 3 starts. It won't be long before both pitchers are in Chicago and moving Zambrano makes the Cubs rotation a lot more flexible.

If all goes well for the rotation in the next month or two, look for the next news about Zambrano to revolve around trade rumors. He surely can't be happy pitching out of the bullpen. Something tells me the no-trade clause will become much less of an obstacle now.

The infallible umpire

Every time I watch a game with my dad, the conversation is inevitable.

“These umpires suck. They should use one of those electronic eyes instead of the umpire”

I immediately think of the ominous words of HAL-9000 from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (amended for baseball, of course).

Let me put it this way, Mr. Selig. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

Most of the time, I dismiss the idea as impractical. My dad is always extolling the virtues of technology. He doesn't know quite how it works but he's more than willing to trust it and let it make his life easier. I, on the other hand, am more like Don Quixote brandishing his sword in a futile, and often comical, battle against the march of progress.

But yesterday after watching umpire Todd Tichenor redefine the strike zone at his whim throughout the game, I began to warm up to the idea of baseball’s version of the HAL-9000 computer calling balls and strikes. One thing’s for sure, HAL would be impartial. He would only call what he was programmed to call and he wouldn’t change the paramaters of his strike zone from one inning to the next, or as Tichenor did last night, from one pitch to the next. That kind of inconsistency just shouldn’t happen.

As HAL would put it, “It can only be attributable to human error.”

I do understand it will take the human element out of the game, but really, do we need it if it’s going to make errors and change the nature of the game and possibly it’s outcome? I saw pitches 6 inches off the plate called as strikes in this last game. Hitters like Kosuke Fukudome were forced to swing at pitches they would normally let go by. While at other times, a pitch seemingly down the middle of the plate would be called a ball. Who knows which pitch was going to catch Tichenor’s fancy that night? The human element took some of the humans, the ones we pay to watch, out of their element today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the loss on the umpiring. I’m just saying it’d be nice to give the players a consistent idea of what the strike zone is.

What’s more, you could still technically argue balls and strikes. Can you imagine an argument between Milton Bradley and the HAL-900?

Milton Bradley
: What? That pitch was outside! You’ve got to call that a ball!

HAL: I'm sorry, Milton. I'm afraid I can't do that.

Milton Bradley: You’ve got to be kidding me! Are you blind or something?!

HAL: Look Milton, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

Milton Bradley: &#@^!! *&$%@!

HAL: Milton, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

(Bradley then gets escorted off the field after a failed attempt to disconnect HAL)

It works for me. Or maybe I’m just frustrated after losing 4 out of the last 5 to two of the worst teams in baseball. Maybe having HAL umpire the games would have hurt the Cubs as much as it would have helped them. Maybe it wouldn’t have affected how I enjoyed the game. But I don’t think so. I think an infallible umpire would allow me to place the blame right back where it belongs: on the very fallible players, on the human element of the game who we expect to be prone to occasional errors. Those are the kinds of mistakes that should affect the outcome of the game. Let’s let the players decide who wins.

Or as HAL would put it, “This (game) is too important for me to allow you (umpires) to jeopardize it.”

Maybe my dad is right. We've been replacing factory workers with robots for years. We have GPS systems telling us how to find the nearest restaurant. We have ATMs to dispense us money. Maybe it's time baseball and I got with the program.

Still, as we know, HAL eventually tried to hijack the mission. Could it happen in baseball? Could we see technology hijack the game we all love? The truth is I don't know the answer to that question. But if it doesn't work out, we can always pull the plug...right?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

As Lilly blooms, Zambrano move looms?

Ted Lilly made what was probably his last rehab start in Peoria and pitched 7 shutout innings. He only gave up 3 hits, walked one and struck out 9. It would appear that, even though they were just A ball hitters, Lilly has his good stuff back.

It raises the question of how to rearrange a bullpen that desperately needs a shot in the arm. The two obvious candidates to move are Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva and each has their pros and cons.

Gorzelanny has better stuff and has pitched out of the bullpen more. He made 15 appearances out of the pen in 2009. He is younger and should be able to make the adjustment easier than Silva. The cons are that he is lefty and the Cubs have Grabow, Marshall, and Russell all playing significant roles from the left side. It would seem his move would mean that the Cubs would use 4 lefties. More likely, however, a Gorzelanny move to the bullpen would signal that Russell will draw the short straw and head back to AAA. The net gain, since Russell has done well for the most part, would be insignificant.

Silva is righty and has good control -- two areas where the Cubs have struggled. Samardzija and Berg have not been good thus far and neither has shown great command. This is not a good thing when your closer, Carlos Marmol, struggles with control too. Too many people on the basepaths late in the game isn't really a good idea if you're trying to win close ballgames. Silva would help curb that problem and his shift to the bullpen would signal bad news for either Smardzija or Berg. On the other hand, Silva, Dempster and Wells have been the Cubs best starters so far and breaking up the rotation - which has been the Cubs strength so far - may not be the best way to go. And the reality is that teams don't like putting big salaries in the bullpen unless they are closing games.

The Cubs could think outside the box and move Zambrano to the bullpen where he can channel his aggressiveness and energy into one or two innings. We'd still have some control issues, but there is no question Zambrano would be a shot in the arm for our bullpen. The question is what would Z think about it? Should we even care? He hasn't pitched out of the bullpen since 2002 and entered the season as the Cubs "ace" and highest paid pitcher, though you could make a good argument that Dempster and Lilly have been better pitchers over the past 2+ years. I kind of like this idea, but it may not be practical in today's game of big dollars and big egos.

The last option is a trade. The Cubs could deal one of their starters for some bullpen help. Of course, the guy everyone will ask for is probably Randy Wells since he is the youngest, makes the least money, and would be under a team's control over the next several years before he hits free agency. Dempster and Lilly might draw interest but they are probably our best pitchers at this point. Silva has been good but he makes a lot of money for a bottom of the rotation starter and I doubt most teams have been convinced 2 starts into the season that he is anything more than that.

That leaves us back to Zambrano again. He has the big name and the big talent to draw some interest, particularly from New York and possibly from some west coast teams. Unfortunately, he has a big contract with a no-trade clause that makes moving him difficult. The Cubs would undoubtedly have to pay a large portion of his contract and receive little in return -- or they can trade him for another big contract to help defray the cost. It's unlikely, but it's not impossible.

Could the Cubs obtain an overpaid reliever such as Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets? Rodriguez may be a luxury on a team that is probably an also-ran in the NL East. He is still good, but he is becoming less dominant. His K rate has been in steady decline:

2007: 12.03 K/9
2008: 10.14
2009: 9.66

It's still good, but coupled with a rising walk rate - up over 5 last year and early this year, it spells trouble. Moreoever, he would bring the same control issues that our relievers already have. The positives? We get out from under Z's huge contract, we get a veteran reliever who can slip in the closer role should Marmol falter, and his K rate, while down, still indicates his stuff is top of the line and should help him overcome his walk rates to some degree. The relievers the Cubs have now have been walking people but also pitch more to contact -- a bad combination late in the game. I think it's a deal that makes some sense for both sides. The Mets would have an intriguing Venezuelan 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation in Santana and Zambrano to go with the rising Mike Pelfrey and future star Jenrry Mejia. That would give them something to build on. If you subtract Rodriguez's contract from Zambranos, the Mets would be getting Zambrano for about 5 years and about 45M (including a 2012 buyout**) -- which is a lot more reasonable. They could even throw in Luis Castillo (while we'd probably have to throw in Fontenot) and reduce Zambrano's cost to about 5 years and about 40 millon. That is a pretty good price for a pitcher of Zambrano's caliber. The Cubs, in the meantime, would get veteran bullpen help and, just as importantly, get out of a huge contract in the process.

** Note: Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, Rodriguez has a vesting option in 2012 that could be worth a whopping 17.5M/yr in 2012 guaranteed if...

55 games finished in 2011, and

100 games finished in 2010-11, and
doctors declare Rodriguez healthy after 2011

If he doesn't meet this criteria, the Mets can buy his last year out for 3.5M

However, if he's setting up for Carlos Marmol it'd be difficult for him to finish that many games, so the Cubs should be safe...I hope. The Mets, on the other hand, are far more likely to get stuck paying him the 17.5M at his current pace...seems to me like they should be motivated to get rid of him before this happens. If you factor in the probability that his 2012 option will vest, the Mets could get Zambrano at a net cost of about 20M over 5 years. However, Z also has a vesting option, which would bring that total back up around 40M over 5 years again. Confused? So am I. Still a pitcher of Zambrano's caliber at 8-9M a year may be enticing enough for the Mets to make a deal.

So will it happen? I can say with almost 100% certaintly that it will not, but it makes some sense if you ask me. The Mets get a potential #2 starter for as low as 4-5M/yr and the Cubs would save anywhere from 23M to 51.5M and get a bullpen arm. Win-win, right? Well, maybe. You'd be taking a risk that Silva can continue to pitch well and that Lilly stays healthy. But you'd also be creating future flexibility for Andrew Cashner who, by the way, had another great performance at AA last night. He now stands at 1-0, 2.60 ERA, 4 walks, 25 Ks in 17 innings. Hitters are batting .119 against him in 3 starts(and no, that's not a typo). Jay Jackson the Cubs second best starting pitching prospect is doing well at AAA as well. So my feeling is take the chance and, in the worst case scenario, you've at least created room in the rotation for our two top pitching prospects and save about 23M. Best case scenario, you save 50M+ and patch our bullpen hole for 2010-2011.

What do you all think?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Farm Report

Top Prospects...

Andrew Cashner - See previous entry. Cashner has dominated AA hitters in his first two starts.

Starlin Castro
- Castro continues to hit. He's at .342 and slugging at an even .500 with 2 doubles and 2 triples. He has only walked once, leaving his OBP at .350...good, but we can't expect Castro to keep hitting .342 forever, can we? He's going to have to find other ways to get on base to increase his offensive value. He also has 4 steals in 4 attempts.

Josh Vitters - Vitters is beginning to heat up and is up to .273 after a miserable start. He has 5 doubles but no homeruns yet. Not surprisingly he was only walked twice. He's still nowhere close to where he needs to be, but he looks like he's starting to turn things around.

Brett Jackson - Jackson has an outstanding .429 OBP on the strength of a .300 average and 9 walks (among the most in the minors). Most impressively, he continues to keep his strikeout rate relatively low. He has struck out just 6 times in 40 ABs or roughly once every 6 to 7 ABs. You have to wonder if working on his contact skills has affected his power, however, as he only has 2 doubles on the year with no triples or homeruns.

Keep your eye on...

Robinson Chirinos - He's one of my favorite under the radar prospects on the Cubs. He started as an infielder and has since been switched to catcher. In less than 2 years he has become the Cubs best defensive catcher in the minors. Not only that, he can also hit a little. He's currently at .400 in AA with 3 Hrs giving him a slugging pct. of .840. He's also patient at the plate, though he only has two walks so far this year. He's not going to be a star, and maybe not even a starter, but considering he can still play all 4 infield positions, he's going to make a great 25th man on the roster when the Cubs let Koyie Hill go. The Cubs are lucky to still have him as they left him off the 40 man roster to protect the overrated Welington Castillo instead. If he keeps playing like this, he'll not only get added to the 40 man roster, but may be the Cubs backup catcher as soon as next year.

Thomas Diamond - A former first round pick of the Texas Rangers. Diamond was initially a disappointment but has continued to get better since the Cubs snatched him up. He impressed in spring training and continues to pitch well at Iowa. He's given up just 6 hits in 10 innings, walked 4, and struck out 10. A 9.0 K/9 ratio is good, but the 3.6 walks/9 innings needs some improvement. The Cubs like him and I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a shot to help shore up the bullpen at some point.

Jeff Stevens - A 2.70 ERA out of the bullpen with a 14.54 K/9 ratio is impressive, but the bugaboo with Stevens has been the walks. He is sitting at over 10 W/9 innings right now. Stevens has decent stuff that should play well at Wrigley but he's not going to make it if he continues to walk people. If he can harness his control, he could be an internal option for the Cubs out of the major league bullpen or could serve as trade bait to use in acquiring a veteran reliever.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Something wicked this way comes...What should the Cubs do with Andrew Cashner?

Andrew Cashner is just plain nasty.

Prior to this year, Cashner got some mixed reviews. Many thought he'd eventually land in the bullpen and, because of this, some considered him a very good, but not elite prospect. In 2 starts this year, though, Cashner is beginning to turn some heads.

At first glance, his numbers don't look so impressive: 1-0, 4.35 ERA after 2 starts. But those aren't the kind of numbers to look for to see if Cashner can carry over his success in the big leagues. A deeper look reveals these numbers in 2 starts covering 10 1/3 innings:

2 Walks
5 Hits
20 Strikeouts
10/1 K/BB ratio

His W/9 ratio is 1.74 - well above average and his k/9 ratio is 17.42 which is downright malevolent.

Oh..And did I mention he had a no-hitter going into the 7th inning his last time out?

Unless your name is Greg Maddux, a 10 to 1 strikeout ratio is likely unsustainable over a larger sample size but, even early on, it's an indicator that Cashner's stuff is simply overwhelming the competition. He showed flashes last year with a mid 90's fastball that was clocked as high as 98, an 81-85 mph slider which is the best in this organization per Baseball America, and a changeup that began to show signs of promise. In his first two starts this year, Cashner has put all 3 pitches together and is displaying the top of the rotation stuff the Cubs have been predicting all along.

Ahh but here's the rub: The big league team needs bullpen help, particularly from the right side after Caridad suddenly developed control issues and then a sore right forearm, while Jeff Gray showed better control, but quickly proved to be somewhat hittable. The temptation is to call up Cashner and fill that 8th inning void; where he and Marmol have the potential to cause nightmares for opposing hitters. But is it the right thing to do?

In a word. No.

Andrew Cashner is the Cubs best pitching prospect since the days of Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, and Angel Guzman. Fangraphs considers Cashner the best Cubs prospect (yes, even better than Starlin Castro)...but only under the assumption that he remains a starter. Frontline starters don't come along everyday and Cashner is showing he has a chance to be that type of pitcher. In order to do that, however, he needs to keep working on that 3rd pitch and maintaining the excellent command he's shown early on. As good as Cashner's fastball/slider combination is, he'll get lit up as a starter if he doesn't have a 3rd pitch and solid command. He needs to continue working on his changeup and working ahead in the count to keep hitters from gearing up for the hard stuff.

The Cubs shouldn't be tempted for the quick fix. Don't stall Cashner's development just to patch a hole in the bullpen. This is the Cubs prospect who has the chance to have the biggest long-term impact of all. If you leave him alone, he just may become that #1 starter we've been missing since Prior's meteoric rise and fall. If Cashner can't make it as a starter, you can always make him a reliever later as he already has the 2 dominant pitches needed for that role. But if the Cubs can resist the impulse to use Cashner in the major league bullpen and let him continue his development in the minors, they may just have something really special on their hands.

So, please, Mr. Hendry... I implore you. Don't give in to your wildest bullpen fantasies. Cashner may indeed make a nasty set-up man this year, but think how more wicked he could be at the top of your rotation in the years to come.

Update: Lou Piniella stated that while they are aware of Cashner's hot start, they have had no discussions about bringing him to Wrigley to this point.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The 12 Step Milton Bradley Program

Yes, yes...I know. Milton Bradley is gone and good riddance. Why must we ever speak of him again? I don't know. Why do people feel the need to look at train wrecks? Why do people watch soap operas and read tabloids? Despite ourselves, we can't avert our eyes. And no matter how much we're glad he's gone, the intrigue of Bradley's personality and his surrounding environment is difficult to ignore. It isn't even a week into the season in Seattle and we are seeing the same cycle repeat itself. Seattle has been going through the same song and dance that the Cubs did -- and continues to do -- as we speak. I'm quoting Seattle GM Jack Zdurencik and Manager Don Wakamatsu throughout this post (as well as Seattle baseball writers), but you'd be hard pressed to find much difference between what they have said and what Hendry and Piniella said at similar points last season.

The Milton Bradley Steps are all too eerily familiar...

1. He's the hitter we need - This stage revolves around Milton Bradley's on-the-field skills, particularly at the plate.

"We were in search of a middle-of-the-lineup guy for quite some time," (Seattle GM Jack) Zduriencik said.

2. He's not such a bad guy, he's just misunderstood. - Every team that acquires Bradley claims to have looked into his background and seem to come to the conclusion that he's okay.

From The Oregonian's Aaron Fentress: Seattle's GM characterized Bradley's fire as a passion to win. He said he got nothing but good reports on Bradley going back his minor-league career a decade ago. Zduriencik specifically relied upon the input from two former coaches of Bradley: current Mariners bench coach Ty Van Burkleo, who was with Bradley in Oakland in 2007, and performance coach Steve Hecht, who had the outfielder in Texas in 2008.

3. This time it will be different.

"It's a new day, new way for this guy. What we know is that he is a good person, that he is a very intelligent guy, that he has a strong desire to win" Zduriencik said.

4. Bradley professes love for his new city and team

Again, from Fentriss: Zduriencik said Bradley told him Friday morning, "When I saw the Seattle thing I said, 'OK, this would be fun.He realizes where we're headed here, and he wants to be a part of it"

5. The Trouble Starts

As you are probably aware, Milton Bradley has been ejected from 2 spring training games and recently gave some Texas fan the bird. He is also off to a 1-22 start. Coincidentally, he started 1-25 with the Cubs.

6. The enablement: It's not his fault.

"To me, it's almost like a witch hunt," Wakamatsu said. "It's almost embarrassing to me that egos get in the way and [Bradley] doesn't even get a chance."

...which is sometimes combined with...

7. Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil

From Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times regarding Bradley's alleged gesture toward a Texas fan: I asked manager Don Wakamatsu about it this morning. He said he hadn't seen a video of the incident, but would speak to Bradley about it once he did. GM Jack Zduriencik, when shown the photo, said he had no comment.

8. The excuses

From Jim Street of MLB.com: Wakamatsu thinks Bradley is trying too hard, putting pressure on himself to carry the team, which lost five of the seven games on the road trip.


From Baker: The bottom line is, Bradley is being constantly baited by the fans in these opening games.

9. The Band-Aid Solution

Again from MLB.com's Street: In a move that might reduce some of the self-imposed pressure Milton Bradley has been experiencing, manager Don Wakamatsu dropped the struggling switch-hitter down a few notches in the lineup for Monday afternoon's regular-season home opener against the Athletics.

10. The False Hope

"We talked a lot about him relying on us to alleviate some of that pressure he's putting himself," Wakamatsu said. "I think he is starting to trust people in this clubhouse and he'll be fine."

There are two steps left...

11. The Last Straw and the Unceremonious Dumping...

The Cubs dumped Milton Bradley for a guy Seattle was so eager to get rid of, Carlos Silva, that they even pitched in $9M to seal the deal. That's a net gain of $5M for the Cubs. How long before Seattle pulls the plug and finds a sucker...er..taker for Bradley.

12. The Truth Comes Out

Haven't heard the honest truth (yet) from Seattle but since the steps and quotes are so similar anyway, here's one from Jim Hendry to give you a sneak preview of what's to come from Seattle...

"It's time for Milton Bradley to look in the mirror and accept responsibility for his unsuccessful season."

It's only April but Seattle is almost near the end of the Milton Bradley Cycle. But the allure of Milton Bradley's numbers and promise; coupled with human nature and it's compulsion to forgive and believe that they can be the ones to "fix" him and provide him with a better home, may just mean the cycle is doomed to repeat itself. One thing for sure, we'll probably still keep watching.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Understanding the New Statistics - Part I: The HItters

Stats are the big thing in baseball nowadays. Maybe you're thinking, "Sure, I follow stats all the time" and maybe you do, but if you are not among the sabermetrically inclined you may be behind the times a little. These aren't the stats that are on the back of your old baseball cards. These stats try to go a lot deeper and explain the true value of a player by isolating the kinds of numbers he has the most control over. This isn't intended to be an exhaustive look as much as a brief intro. This post isn't intended for the advanced stat guy.

Stats to look for in hitters:

Walk rate - This is important in two ways 1) People who walk more tend to get on base more, therefore they create run scoring opportunities for teammates and 2) hitters with higher walk rates tend to be more disciplined at the plate and swing at better pitches. If a minor league player is a successful hitter in the minors with a low walk rate, he may not be able to carry that success into the majors because experienced pitchers will exploit that hitter's aggressiveness and make him swing at pitcher's pitches. Now, some hitters like Vladimir Guerrero or the younger Alfonso Soriano could hit those pitcher's pitches anyway, but they are the exception to the rule. If you read my blog on Starlin Castro, you may also remember my statement that not all walk rates are created equally. Castro does take a lot of pitches, but he also makes contact more often than most players so even if he takes a few pitches, he's more likely to put the ball in play once he does swing. This may limit his opportunities to see enough pitches to draw a walk. Others, like Alfonso Soriano, simply swing at just about everything that gets up there. Though walk rates don't normally take significant leaps, someone like Castro is more likely to improve on his walk rate than Soriano did over time. An average walk rate is 8.5%. Castro's most recent walk rate is 8.2% at AA and provides some hope for the future, though that was in a limited number of plate appearances.

OBP and Slugging Pct. - If you have a low walk rate, you better be a .300 hitter to get your OBP up and/or hit for some power since doubles, triples, and homeruns are obviously more valuable than singles. Sometimes you'll see the two added together as OPSv(On-Base Plus Slugging). I'm not a huge fan because the two statistics are weighted differently but it's a good place to start if you're trying to determine a player's overall offensive value. Some sabermaticians have come up with better statistics such as wOBA (weighted on base average) but that's a stat for a different day. The bottom line is that hitters, to some degree, can control how often they get on base and how hard they slug the ball. What they can't control is how often their teammates are on base to create RBI opportunities. So a sabermetrically inclined fan may tell you, therefore, that RBIs are pretty worthless when determining a player's individual value.

BABIP - This stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play. This is a statistic that tries to eliminate luck by determining what your average is when you actually make contact. Putting it simply: If you are getting a lot of bloop hits then your BABIP may be unusually high and conversely, if you're hitting a lot of line drives right at someone, you're BABIP will go down. The thing about BABIP is that you cannot sustain good or bad luck for a long period of time, eventually it finds it's equilibrium; what statisticians call "regression to the mean". The league average for BABIP is .290, though this can vary depending on the hitter. If you're Ichiro Suzuki, for example, you get to first base extremely quickly so you'll have a higher BABIP simply because you will beat out groundballs for infield hits that others wouldn't. A power hitter such as Albert Pujols may also have a higher BABIP because he hits the ball harder. He hits more line drives which are much more likely to get past fielders than if you are Aaron Miles and hitting pop-ups. The good news for Cub fans is that both Alfonso Soriano and Geovanny Soto had unusually low BABIPs last year. This likely means that they will bounce back a little this year. But if you've been paying attention, you might say, "Couldn't part of Soriano's drop in BABIP be due to his loss in speed?". That would be a valid point. If the injuries have permanently affected his speed, then his BABIP may not ever be as high as it was in his youth. However, it still should bounce back closer to his career BABIP average of .306 instead of the .279 BABIP he had in 2009. Since Soriano hit .241 last year, you should expect him, all things being equal, to get his average back in the .260-.270 range. BABIP is just one reason that stat-minded people don't value average as much because some of it is dependent on luck and how many of your batted balls elude fielders. Unfortunately, luck has nothing to do with Soriano's inability to catch the occasional fly ball. That's all him.

So this is a brief intro and a little oversimplified but it should give you the basic idea of the kinds of numbers people are looking at nowadays. I prefer to combine numbers with scouting reports and personal experience, because while the numbers can tell you a lot, they cannot tell you everything.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Farm Report

This will be a regular Sunday report on this blog...

The Top 4 Prospects

Starlin Castro was 6 for 13 in his first series at AA. That's a .462 average. He also had 2 triples and 2 stolen bases in 2 tries. See ya soon, Starlin.

Andrew Cashner's first start was a little rocky in that he gave up 3 runs in 4.1 innings. However, he had 10 strikeouts which is a nice indicator that his stuff was prety good.

Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson are off to slow starts at Class A Daytona. The Cubs top two slugging prospects have combined to hit .080 with no hrs, no rbi's, and no extra base hits. It's still early, however.

Keep your eye on...

Brandon Guyer, OF. He looked impressive in the spring and his athleticism makes him a nice sleeper. His minor league career has shown promise and inconsistency so far. This year he's off to a nice start at AA with a .455 series.

Help on the way

Nowhere do the Cubs need more help than in the bullpen right now.

Jeff Gray (AAA) has pitched 3 scoreless innings with no walks. He's the odds-on favorite to be the first Cubs call up from the minors (Sorry, Starlin).
David Cales (AA) has pitched 3.2 innings for a 2.45 ERA, and most importantly, he hasn't walked anyone either. Cales still isn't on the 40 man roster, but he has a chance to leapfrog past a few guys and get to the majors this year.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What's up with Carlos Silva?

I went to the Cubs Convention this year and some friends and I were joking about Carlos Silva at the autograph table. Shouldn't we be getting some money back to wait in this line? Is Jim Hendry going to come by and tap him on the shoulder and tell him he's been released in the middle of his autograph session? Silva doesn't even look like a baseball player. In street clothes he looks like just a guy. And if somebody were to tell you he played sports, you'd probably guess it was bowling or pool or maybe bags.

But after one bad start in spring training, Silva is suddenly looking very much like a ballplayer and he's in no danger of being released. As good as he was in spring training Silva, if anything, was even better in his regular season debut. Check out these numbers: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 3K, 1 ER. That's a pretty nice line. But here's the number that stood out at me today: 91...as in 91 miles per hour. This is the same guy who was throwing in the low 80s over the winter. If Silva can continue to throw 91 mph with good sinking action and pinpoint control, he's going to help the Cubs this year. Most of us were just happy to get rid of Milton Bradley and couldn't have cared less had we received a box of jockstraps in return. As it is, the Cubs got $6M and a pitcher who looks like he may have turned the clock back 3 years when he was good enough to receive a $48M dollar contract. It's only one start and a lot of things can happen, but that one number -- 91 -- is for real. And if he can do that, throw strikes, change speeds and keep the ball down, there's no reason he can't eat some innings this year and even win his share of games in the process.

Too bad Esmailin Caridad blew this one for him.

The Cubs Win! Five observations on the game.

Obervation #1: Tyler Colvin

Some of you may remember I wrote an article a while back that was a bit, well, skeptical about Colvin's present and future role. Much of it had to do with his lack of plate discipline and I questioned as to whether he'll have enough power to be a corner outfielder. Well, Colvin may have answered one of those questions last night and left the door open for the other.

Colvin's first AB was a thing of beauty. He got ahead on the count, waited for his pitch and hit an absolute rocket several rows deep into the RF seats. I think Colvin is answering questions about whether he has enough power, but the key to the AB was Colvin taking a couple of bad pitches and working the count to his favor. With Tommy Hanson behind 2-1 on the count, Colvin had the luxury of looking dead red on the next pitch. So when Hanson tried to blow a 95 mph fastball past him, Colvin turned it around and drove it about 105 mph the other way. It shows what you can do with 25 lbs of added muscle and a pretty swing when you've got the advantage at the plate. Colvin's next 3 ABs weren't as good, but AB #1 gives us some hope.

Observation #2: Outfield Defense looks much improved.

Having Colvin in LF, Byrd in CF, and Fukudome in RF has to be one of the better defensive set-ups we've had in awhile. Colvin cut off a ball in the LF-CF gap that I thought was going to the wall when it left the bat. Either Colvin is faster than scouts say he is or I'm used to watching Soriano out there. I think it's a little of both. Colvin doesn't start quickly but once he's under way, he really eats up ground with those long strides. If he can get good reads and good jumps consistently, he can negate that lack of burst and be a very good defensive outfielder in the corners. He also showed a nice arm by throwing a line drive, one-hop throw to first as he tried to double off a runner after catching a line drive in LF. Fukudome also cut off a ball headed for the gap later in the game and got off a quick, strong throw to 2b. He held the Braves runner to a single, keeping him out of scoring position in a tight game. Despite the homeruns, the Cubs won this game with solid pitching and good defense. This time the outfield pitched in and helped out the infield.

Observation #3: Can Randy Wells keep this up?

I think so. There were 6 shut-out innings but it wasn't pretty. Wells, with only one strikeout, was heavily dependent on his defense to help him get out of jams throughout the game. But as long as he consistently keeps the ball on the ground and in the park, Wells should continue to give the Cubs solid outings. Just don't expect any artistry out there. Fangraphs has a great write-up if you prefer an analysis by the numbers. Check out their link: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/randy-wells-shuts-down-atlanta

Observation #4: Bullpen holds the lead!

Marshall and Caridad continue to impress out of the pen. Look for Piniella to start leaning on them more and more as the season progresses. Marmol was erratic but showed nasty stuff. The movement on his pitches can best be described as cartoonish. As for you Mr. Grabow, I've seen Mr. Marmol pitch and you are no Mr. Marmol. You, my good man, need to throw some strikes.

Observation #5: Kudos to Lou on playing great matchups

Although Baker didn't contribute on offense, benching Fontenot with a hard thrower like Hanson on the mound was the smart thing to do. A good manager has to know his player's limitations and Fontenot's limitations include hitting guys who can throw high heat or anyone who throws with his left arm.

Another good move was choosing this game for Colvin's debut -- and I'm not just saying this because he hit the game-winning homerun. Hanson was a tough matchup for Soriano's eroding bat speed, whereas Colvin had no problems with Hanson's fastball. Perhaps just as importantly, the Cubs needed their best outfield defense with Wells on the mound, simply because Wells consistently pitches to contact. That part was probably a coincidence, but I wouldn't mind seeing Colvin in the OF every time there's a righty on the mound for the opposition and Wells and Silva take the mound for the Cubs. Both Wells and Silva tend to keep the ball on the ground, but it's a nice security blanket to have your best defensive outfield out there on those inevitable occasions whre they leave the ball up a little.

It was only one win but there were many encouraging things that came out of it. Let's hope Piniella continues to rotate in the appropriate players for the situation, and puts the best team out there on a day-to-day basis.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Brian Roberts (Non) Trade Revisited

Prior to the 2008 season, Cub fans were subjected to the daily soap opera known as the Brian Roberts Saga. It seemed so close to happening we could taste it. We excitedly drew up lineups that didn't include Alfonso Soriano at the top and we seemed on the cusp of adding that legitimate leadoff hitter we've been missing since...hmmm...Bobby Dernier, maybe?

The trade, as we all know, never happened. The Cubs went with Mark DeRosa at 2b and Alfonso Soriano as their leadoff guy. It looked for awhile that maybe it was a good idea that we took a pass and kept our coveted prospects. They still won 97 games....but, alas, they couldn't carry the success into the postseason. Looking back, should the Cubs have made the trade anyway?

The names rumored at the time included the following in some combination or other: Felix Pie, Sean Gallagher, Jose Ceda, Matt Murton, Ronny Cedeno, Eric Patterson, and Donnie Veal. Notice the pattern here? None of these players are with the Cubs today. Pie wound up going to Baltimore anyway one year later for Greg Olsen. The Cubs then paired Olsen with Ronny Cedeno to obtain the hypertension-inducing Aaron Heilman, whom they teamed team with the ulcer producing Kevin Gregg in our bullpen. Gregg, by the way, was obtained for Jose Ceda. Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, and Eric Patterson were part of the deal that brought in Rich Harden. That one worked out well as Harden was arguably our best pitcher down the stretch in 2008. Donnie Veal? The Cubs gave him up for nothing when they didn't put him on the 40 man roster. They lost him to the Pirates in the Rule 5 Draft.

So we don't have Brian Roberts, we don't have any of those prospects, and we don't have any of the players we later acquired for those prospects! It's safe to say that the Cubs would have been better off had they made the deal, not just because Roberts would have helped but it also have would avoided the whole Gregg/Heilman heartburn we had to endure in 2009. You could even have had Harden and Roberts. The Cubs probably would have been able to obtain Roberts for Pie (whom McPhail was said to be holding out for), Jose Ceda, Donnie Veal and Ronny Cedeno -- and still have gotten Harden with what would have been left over.

So would Brian Roberts have made a difference? Maybe not. But we will never get a chance to find out. Maybe this is just an example of hindsight being 20/20, but looking back it seems foolish to have spent wildly to take our big shot at the World Series, then suddenly become stingy when it came to picking up what could have been the final piece of the puzzle.

And one more thing...considering the Cubs used three of their best trading chips to obtain two horrific relievers, do you really want them to make a trade for Jason Frasor or some other reliever this year? Do you really?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How long should the Cubs be patient with their bullpen?

The one thing Jim Hendry tried but was unable to obtain this offseason was a bullpen arm. A combination of budget restraints, a diluted free agent reliever pool, and a seller's trade market have hampered his efforts. After being rebuffed in their efforts to sign Chan Ho Park or trade for Jason Frasor, the Cubs had little choice but to cross their fingers and go with the kids. But early on, it hasn't been the kids who've been the problem, Monday it was defacto "veteran" Jeff Samardzija and today it was an actual veteran, John Grabow, who have been giving us cause for concern. If these are the experienced guys we're supposed to depend on, maybe we should start getting a little worried.

The Cubs have some good arms in the bullpen. That's a good start. But they all come with their own set of warts.

Carlos Marmol - His slider is absolutely filthy and one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball. Coupled with a mid 90s fastball, Marmol's closer stuff is as good as anyone's in baseball. At times, he has such incredible movement on his pitches that he has trouble harnessing it. He'll never be a control guy, but he needs to reduce his walks to 2007 levels to be dominant.

John Grabow - Unlike Marmol, his stuff isn't good enough to get away with walking people. He has to throw strikes. Even when he does, he's just going to get hit once in a while. Ideally, he's probably a 7th inning guy. The Cubs miscalculated the market for relievers badly this offseason, giving what amounts to an average reliever in Grabow a bewildering $7.5M over 2 years. In retrospect, they could have gotten at least two decent arms for that kind of money.

Esmalin Cardiad - A sleeper in my opinion with a real chance to surprise. As a starter in the minors, Caridad got by with a 91-92 mph fastball with inconsistent secondary pitches. As a reliever, that fastball jumped to 95-96 mph and became a swing and miss pitch. He still lacks a real consistent secondary pitch but it's less needed as a reliever. Additionally, the bullpen suits Caridad's aggressive approach much better. He has a good fastball and good control that allow him to attack the strike zone and keep hitters on their heels. I'd like to see him develop a cut fastball to help neutralize the lefties a bit and stick with the splitter for a change of pace. Just keep it simple...there's definitely something to work with here.

Sean Marshall - He's been outstanding since the bell rang this spring. Though he has a nice curve to go along with an average lefty fastball, he's not going to overwhelm anybody with his raw stuff. But his stuff is good enough if he keeps the ball down, changes speeds and throws strikes, three things he's done all spring.

Justin Berg - I'm just not a fan. He doesn't strike people out and, except for his cup of coffee last year, he walks a whole lot of people -- and his stuff is pretty hittable. It all adds up to men on base and a lot of balls in play - not the kind of combination you want from your relief pitchers. He did well in his auditions last fall and this past spring, but it remains to be seen whether those decreased walk rates as a Cub are for real or whether he reverts to his minor league walk rates. My guess is it's the latter.

Jeff Samardzija - The Bears need a wide receiver, don't they?

Jeff Russell - the most unknown commodity of the group and, unfortunately, the most likely to return to the minors when Lilly gets back. His stuff is pretty average but he throws strikes and knows how to pitch. He's a confident guy too, which is a nice quality to have if you're going to be called on to bail out Samardzija and Berg from bases loaded jams.

You can be pretty certain that this won't be the group all year. The question isn't if the Cubs are going to make a move, it's when. The Cubs have a decent core in Marmol, Caridad, and Marshall. And Grabow is here to stay whether we like it or not, but that leaves some wiggle room to add an arm or two. The Cubs will likely first go with internal options like Jeff Gray and John Gaub to try and stabilize their bullpen. Some sleepers include Rafael Dolis, who got his fastball up to 100 mph this offseason, Blake Parker, and further down the road, David Cales, who looked brilliant at Daytona last year before struggling at AA. There's also the possibility of temporarily using Cashner as a reliever. The problem is that all of these guys, with the possible exceptions of Gray and Cales, tend to run into the same types of control problems as the guys they are trying to replace. It may take a while to find the right mix of arms. But here's a good start: the Cubs should replace Samardzija with Gray, who's had good walk rates at every level (including the majors) except AAA, where it was just average. Then when Lilly comes back, send back Berg. Then put Gaub in front of the line at AAA for the next call-up.

If they can't find the answer from within, I expect Hendry to get Toronto and San Diego on the phone again. But let's not lose perspective and deal a good prospect for a big name relief pitcher with inflated value. In other words, no more of this Jose Ceda for Kevin Gregg type tomfoolery. If we have to make a trade, I'll settle for a guy with a decent K rate and above average control that won't cost as much...anyone like that available?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

An Opening Day balm to soothe the pain: Starlin Castro is the real deal

I know it's only one day but 16-5? Really? That is not the way I envisioned our season starting. If this is any indication of what our team is going to be like then it won't be long before we start seeing more kids, starting with Starlin Castro. Not that the loss was Mike Fontenot's fault. He did his part on defense and he could not possibly have hit enough to help the Cubs squeak out a 17-16 victory. But Fontenot is part of the present, not the future. And if the present begins to slip away then the Cubs will get the DeLoren ready and zip Back to the Future. Odds are Starlin Castro will be driving that DeLorean, but is he the real deal or is he just another in the long line of hyped prospects?

I think he's the real deal.

I've heard the detractors..

* the Cubs can't develop prospects. He's just the next Corey Patterson
* he doesn't walk enough
* he's not fast enough
* he doesn't hit for power
* his defense is solid to good, but not elite

They're all valid points and I'm not going to discount them. What I will say is that Starlin Castro is just a good old-fashioned ballplayer. Subjective? Maybe. But here's what I think...

The Cubs have had trouble developing prospects but some of that has been because they have overrated amateur players in the Hendry/McPhail era. Tim Wilken now heads the scouting department and even though he's still an old school scout, he does it far better than Hendry does. Whereas Hendry looked at athleticism and tools...and seemed to pay no attention to mental makeup (see Ben Christensen, Corey Patterson, Mark Pavelek), Wilken looks for physical tools, but he also makes sure the players have what it takes upstairs. And baseball ability is preferred over raw athleticism. You can blame the Cubs development staff for past failures, but let's face it, raw athletes with limited baseball specific skills and questionable makeup aren't that easy to develop. I think guys like Castro, Josh Vitters, Brett Jackson and Jay Jackson all have a better shot of making the Cubs development staff look good.

But let's get back to Castro. The most specific complaint you hear about Castro is his low walk rate. Now I believe walk rate is important and I don't want to downplay it, but not all walk rates are created equally. If you ever get the opportunity to observe Castro, you will immmediately note that he is not a Soriano-esque hacker at the plate. He works the count. He gets a feel for what the pitcher has in terms of stuff and often looks at least at one breaking ball before swinging. The difference is when Castro swings, he simply hits the darned thing with impressive regularity. That speaks to his tremendous hand-eye coordination, efficient swing, and the ability to pick up quickly on how the pitcher is trying to work him. Unlike players like Vitters and Tyler Colvin, I think Castro will significantly improve his walk rate over time. He just doesn't swing at a lot of bad pitches. It's just that right now, given he's facing lower level pitchers, he has little trouble hitting the first pitch he likes. And the ball just jumps off his bat. Eventually, because he generally swings at good pitches and because he has yet to fill out physically, Castro will add above-average power to his offensive skills.

As for the other criticisms, that he is not an elite runner or defender, I say that's getting a little nitpicky. He is good in both areas. It's his bat that will carry Castro to the majors anyway, and if he develops as I expect, increasing both his OBP and Slugging Pct. to go with his hitting for average skills, we are going to see one of the better shortstop bats in the game. Couple that with good defense and speed and you've got yourself one heckuva ballplayer.

Forget about past failures like Corey Patterson. This time you can believe the hype.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Opening Day: Cubs Fans and the Myth of Sisyphus

If you are a Cub fan at some point you've been taunted (probably by a White Sox fan or Cardinal fan) with some variation of the following, "101 years and still no World Series!" Never mind that few, if any, of us have been around to experience the full weight of a century of heartbreak and failure; my question is does it really make a difference? Should we let the ferocious taunting of opposing fans get us down? As far as I'm concerned we're as happy with our team as every other baseball fan out there...and no, it's not because some of us get so drunk at the game that we could care less if they win or lose, though that does hold true for some fans -- and it's also not because we Cub fans have a tenuous grip on reality. To me, the answer for our happiness lies not in self-delusion or alcohol induced bliss, but a figure in Greek mythology and an existential writer.

In the Greek legend, Sisyphus is a man who is condemned for eternity by Death to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. One would think that Sisyphus should despair at having to forever undertake such an absurd, futile undertaking. Not so, says the writer Albert Camus. Camus argues that Sisyphus is in fact, a happy guy. Once Sisyphus acknowledges the absurdity of his situation, he is freed to reach a state of contended acceptance. In the end, Camus concludes, "The struggle itself...is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

So it's opening day today and I find myself back down at the foot of the mountain with my boulder after another season without a championship. Still, I am more than ready to begin rolling it back up again as we Cub fans struggle to try and make our way to the top this time. I fully realize that whether or not the Cubs win the World Series, that boulder will just roll back down again and we Cub fans will commence the struggle again in 2011.

Now, would I like for the Cubs to win the World Series? Absolutely! Unlike Sisyphus, the Cubs (as far as I know) have not been condemned by Death for all eternity. But even if we do win the World Series, it's not like we're going to suddenly stop our yearly, arduous trek back up the mountain. Win or lose, the struggle will commence again next year, right? So why not accept it and be happy? It's the struggle that keeps us going, after all. And every team, whether it's the Yankees or the Nationals or anyone in between, are right where we are right now -- at the bottom of the mountain....and next year around this time, we'll all be there again.

So I'm raring to go for another push toward the top...anyone with me?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Should the Cubs trade Fukudome?

According to mlbtraderumors.com via MASNSports' Ben Goessling, the Washington Nationals have had discussions about obtaining a starting rightfielder. Among those on the list they've discussed? Kosuke Fukudome.

Fukudome has been a disappointment. The Cubs won a bidding war for his services and his arrival brought big expectations. A common comparison we heard at the time of the signing was that he was a combination of Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki. In retrospect it was an unfair expecation; one which Fukudome hasn't come anywhere close to meeting. As such, he has become a target of frustrated Wrigley fans because of his huge contract, his corkscrew swing, and his stoic, outwardly passionless demeanor. That anyone would be interested in trading for him fulfills the wishes of many but I'm not so sure it's a great idea, at least in the short term.

For all his faults, Fukudome brings two valuable assets to the Cubs: He gets on base and he plays outstanding outfield defense in right field. There is no doubt that Fukudome is not the hitter we thought he was going to be. He hits .250-.260 pretty consistently. After two years, we can safely say he'll be around those numbers again this year. However, his OBP was a robust .375 last season and projects to get on base at a similar clip this year. If you are hitting at the top of the order as Fukudome will this year, that is your job. It isn't to hit homeruns or drive in runners, your task is to get on base in front of your 3,4,5 hitters whether it's by a walk, hit or whatever. Fukudome does that consistently better than anyone else we could put at the top of our order. From the #2 spot, he has the potential to help create runs.

So what about defense? As a rightfielder, Fukudome is well above average. Last year his UZR/150 was 37.9. For those unfamiliar with UZR/150, UZR stand for Ultimate Zone Rating and, while imperfect, it's regarded as the best defensive metric in the game today. UZR/150 measures the runs a defender saves by virtue of his range, arm, and error total over 150 games. A rating of 37.9 means that Fukudome was worth that many runs on defense projected over a 150 game season. Now, there is a caveat here; UZR can fluctuate a lot from year to year and depends on large sample sizes for accuracy. Considering Fukudome played mostly in CF last year, it's likely that number may be overstated to some degree. It would be better to rate him over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. In that case, his UZR is 18.2 -- that figure is still well above average. In fact, it would be among the best in the league were he to play up to his usual standards and put up that rating in 2010. (For comparison's sake, Ichiro Suzuki, widely regarded as an outstanding defensive right fielder, has a career UZR/150 rating of 11.0). When you've got an average centerfielder in Marlon Byrd and a virtual statue in LF, the importance of Fukudome's defense in right cannot be overstated.

So while Fukudome has been a big disappointment and is way, way overpaid...and yes, that swing can be about as hideous as any in baseball at times, he still has value that I don't think can be easily replaced. While a deal would bring the Cubs some payroll relief, it's too late to do much with that space this year. If you're a fan that thinks the Cubs should be looking longer term, shedding that salary may well be worth it. In the short term, however, the Cubs would be taking a risk replacing Fukudome with Colvin and/or Nady. It is quite possible, even likely, that the Cubs would actually be weakened in 2010 by dealing Fukudome. So to fans who want a better chance of winning this year and have been wishing for someone to take Fukudome off our hands... be careful what you wish for. You may just get it.

Friday, April 2, 2010

5 prospects to watch in 2010

It’s a great feeling to be able to talk about the Cubs minor league system in positive terms. The addition of Tim Wilken as scouting director has been a boon for a once barren farm. It’s a farm system that’s rising quickly in the overall rankings, and with many top prospects playing the year at AA or higher, the Cubs could make another move upward if prospects continue to make progress. By now, most of us have heard of Starlin Castro, Josh Vitters and Andrew Cashner. We're also getting a glimpse of the future this year with Esmailin Caridad and Tyler Colvin among 4 rookies cracking the opening day roster. So I’m going to throw out a few lesser known names to keep an eye on…feel free to add anyone I’ve missed.

1. Hak Ju Lee, SS - He may not qualify as a "lesser known name" for Cub fans, but he's still a relative unknown on the national scene for most fans. Lee has the potential to be something Cub fans haven’t seen in a long, long time: a leadoff hitter with on base skills and speed. He hit .330 at short season Boise last year and also had a 10% walk rate giving him an OBP of .399, outstanding numbers for a 19 year old. He also stole 25 bases and was successful 76% of the time. In addition to his leadoff skills, Lee has outstanding range at shortstop, a good arm, and if he can cut down on his errors, may actually be good enough defensively to bump the more heralded Starlin Castro to second base. If Lee takes another great leap forward, he'll become the second Cubs SS prospect sensation in two years.

2. Kyler Burke ,RF – The Cubs were ready to convert Burke into a pitcher, a testament to his outstanding throwing arm and his struggles to hit A ball pitching. In the end, the Cubs gave Burke another chance and he took advantage of it. His plate discipline improved tremendously, going from a 7.6% walk rate to an outstanding 14.1%. He also hit a little bit, putting up a .303/.405/.505 line (batting average/on base percentage/slugging pct) We should expect some regression, Burke had an unusually high .353 BABIP and had trouble hitting lefties for power, but he seems to have turned a corner and the toolsy outfielder should be interesting to watch this year.

3. Dae Un Rhee, RHP – Another great product of the Cubs scouting efforts in Korea, Rhee looked like he had top of the rotation starter written all over him two seasons ago. Unfortunately, an injury has set him back somewhat but Rhee appears to have recovered nicely. He’s throwing with very good velocity, mid 90s, to give him potentially 3 above average major league pitches, the best of which is an outstanding change-up. Rhee may not get the ink that fellow prospect Cashner gets, and he is a different type of pitcher, but he has the ability to be every bit as good, even better, if you believe those who say that Cashner profiles best as a reliever.

4. Jeffry Antigua, LHP – A lefty who’s 19 and very polished for his age. He held his own at full season Peoria against hitters that were 2-3 years older. I know what you’re thinking…polished lefty is a baseball euphemism for below average stuff, but that’s actually not the case with Antigua. He can get his fastball up to 92 mph and his changeup and slider project as average or better. Three solid pitches, good command, and “pitchability” give Antigua a legitimate shot of being a middle of the rotation starter, maybe more.

5. Chris Archer, RHP – part of the payment for Mark DeRosa, Archer has the highest upside of the three pitchers obtained in that deal (John Gaub and Jeff Stevens were the others). He breaks bats with a heavy 93 mph fastball and hard slider that Class A hitters could not hit out of the park. Archer did not yield a single homerun last year. He needs a lot of work on his command and control before he can be considered a top prospect, but if he can improve in those areas, he has exactly the type of stuff that plays well at Wrigley Field.

These are just a few of my favorites. Anyone out there have a different prospect that we should keep an eye on this year?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Master and Margarita , sabermetrics, and 2010 expectations

One of my favorite passages in Mikhail Bulgarakov's book, The Master and Margarita, a satire on the literary bureaucracy in communist Russia, involves a conversation between an editor, Berlioz, and a poet, Ivan. It seems that Ivan the poet is commissioned to write a long antireligous poem about Jesus. So the poet writes a humanistic portrait of Jesus as a figure who once existed - a portrait that includes both positive and negative traits. Berlioz, however, mirroring the spirit of the age, declares that the poem is not atheistic enough. He suggests that the poet re-write the poem as if Jesus had never existed at all. The editor, being a well-educated, well-read man, presents him with a logical and historical basis for this idea. To the poet, all this reasoning is new, and not knowing quite what to make of it, the poet Ivan sits back and just listens. The passage sets the tone for a strange, but great book within which Bulgarakov thumbs his nose at the conventional. He is wonderously inventive, even throwing in such marvelous characters as a gun-wielding, 6 foot tall cat.

So what does this have to do with the Cubs or this blog? Let me say first off that I'm writing this blog for fun. That being said, a writer needs some feedback from time to time, so I've asked friends to read it and give me some tips. I got an interesting one the other day from a Cub fan friend of mine. The verdict? As much as I try to portray a realistic portrait of the Cubs chances, endowing the team with both negative and positive traits, my friend tells me in effect that my blogs are not pessimistic enough. Like Berlioz, he presents me with facts and figures that suggest that the Cubs chances are, in fact, virtually non-existent. Not being the numbers guy he is, I sit back and just listen.

Sabermetrics is the spirit of the age in baseball and my friend isn't the only one who views the Cubs in such a harsh light. It has become gospel in the sabermetric community to view the Cubs this way and blashphemy to suggest that there is anything positive about their GM Jim Hendry, whose philosophy is centered less around sabermetrics and more around old-fashioned scouting. The excellent sabermetric-based website, Fangraphs, ranked the Cubs as the 19th best organization out of 30 teams. That's pretty low, in my opinion, for a team that's been as successful as they have in recent history and with a farm system that is quickly rising to be among the best in baseball. The writers on the site, to their credit, did say this was a subjective ranking. The readers, however, were a different story. When I questioned this ranking, I was immediately besieged by three other readers who insisted the ranking was perfect as it is, and chided me for suggesting otherwise. One went so far as to suggest that I do not understand sabermetrics at all. In all honesty, I understand it well enough. Well enough, anyway, to quickly allay that readers concerns. In the end, however, it wasn't the ranking itself that left a lasting impression, it was the rigid, dogmatic adherence to a system that, while interesting and useful, cannot possibly know all the answers or provide us with 100% accuracy.

Luckily for me, my friend is not my editor and I, as my blog suggests, try to draw information from a number of sources, not just one...so I'm going to continue to portray my Cubs with the positive and the negative...and continue to try to be realistic, but with the hopes that the Cubs really do have a chance in 2010. If I am not pessimistic enough, so be it. Maybe the chances of the Cubs winning the World Series this year are as likely as a Russian poet encountering a 6 foot tall feline, but when your favorite team hasn't won in 100 years and the immediate future looks gloomy, sometimes you need fantasy to escape the mundane realities of history and the logical probabilities of stats and trends. So I say, Go Cubs! This is the year!...Well, maybe not. But sometimes you just gotta have hope.