2015 PITCHING PROJECTION
A few (somewhat boilerplate by now) opening notes;
Jake Arrieta, Throws Right: Let’s deal with the superlatives that at least begin to describe Arrieta’s historic 2015 season;
And then there was his unprecedented dominating 2nd half (12-1, 0.75 ERA in 15 starts) that both earned him that award and helped propel the Cubs into the post-season for the first time since 2008, while also winning the most games since that same 2008 team, and featured;
There’s more, particularly from a personal best and team record standpoint, but there’s no need to overdo things. However, there’s also less, like a 1-1, 6.75 ERA record in his two other post-season starts, one each in the NLDS and NLCS, and both less than 6 innings pitched. Both Arrieta and the Cubs feel that the right-hander’s career high inning total at age 29 (he’ll be 30 on March 6) played the major role there. By the time he took the mound against the Cardinals on October 12 at Wrigley (it turned out to be a win, despite Arrieta surrendering 4 runs in 5.2 innings), Arrieta had thrown 238 regular and post-season innings; his previous career single season high was 2014’s 176.2 innings, which included only 78.1 in that season’s second half, vs. last years’ 107.1. Arrieta’s workout regimen, heavy into Pilates, is legendary and clearly had an impact in preparing him for last season’s innings hike; next year that dedication to conditioning plus the experience of a nearly 250 inning season should, hopefully, allow him to stay on top of his game throughout the post-season.
No one really expects that Arrieta is going to offer a repeat season in 2016. But, then again, it’s clear (from the table below) that he turned a huge corner at age 27 when the Orioles flipped him to the Cubs in exchange for 3 months of Scott Feldman – not one of the O’s best moves.
So, while Arrieta’s 2015 was superb by any measure and stacked up against just about anybody’s, his 34 starts for the Cubs over the previous two seasons showed enough that what he posted last year wasn’t actually shocking. Still, it has to be considered a fairly safe bet that 2015 will prove to be Arrieta’s career year and that, despite a salary of $10.7 million in 2016 (thus, avoiding arbitration and nearly tripling his 2015 salary), the Cubs would be wise to expect some regression (of course, we expected that last year and look what – didn’t – happen). However, there’s no reason to think that that regression will take Arrieta any further backwards than to merely one of the NL’s best starting pitchers.
That said, the list of historical pitchers most similar to Arrieta at this point in his career is littered with those derailed by injury, inconsistencies, or both; the most promising names on that list are Lance Lynn, Hideo Nomo, Clay Buchholz, Chris Young, and Wei-Yin Chen, none of whom Cubs fans would like to see Arrieta emulate now that he’s (nearly) in his 30’s. With an all-important 2016 then behind them, the Cubs will have an interesting choice to make for 2017, which is Arrieta’s final arbitration year and final year before he can become a free agent. Our bet? Assuming that 2016 is no worse than a solid season for the ace of their staff, the Cubs sign Arrieta to another one year deal, possibly besting the record arbitration eligible $19.75 million deal David Price signed heading into 2015. If, however, 2016 is another bell-ringer for Arrieta, the Cubs may have little choice but to try and wrap him up with a 5-6 year deal that will keep him a Cubbie through his age 36 or 37 season. Other than the dice-rolling aspect of that type of a deal for a pitcher, the fly in the ointment there is that Scott Boras is Arrieta’s agent, and Boras always wants his clients to test the market. But all that is getting ahead of things. For the subject matter at hand – the 2016 Chicago Cubs – Arrieta will be at the top of the rotation and, barring injury, almost certain to prove that’s exactly where he belongs.
Last year Arrieta dialed up both the use and velocity of his trademark sinker. In fact, despite the, at the time, unprecedented success he’d experienced with the Cubs in 2014, he actually went back to using the sinker like he had in 2013 (35.7% last year, 37.7% in 2013; only 24.9% in 2014). The use of his slider, on the other hand, was almost a dead-on match for 2014 (28.9% in 2015, 29.0% in 2014, when it was his most frequently thrown offering). He threw his curveball just about as often as in 2013, but not far off its 2014 usage, and the change-up – his #5 pitch – right between those two prior years. The four-seamer continued its slide, Arrieta tossing it only 15.7% of the time – starting with 2011, that pitch has gone from 43.7%, to 33.9%, to 28.3%, and to 21.5% in ’14. So, while it’s fair to say that Arrieta was primarily a sinker/slider pitcher last year, the fact that two other pitches – four-seamer and curve – made up nearly a third of his pitches means he’s not so easily categorized. Both fastballs averaged about 94.5 mph last year and both peaked over 97 – both are career high velocities for Arrieta. The slider, curve, and change-up were also thrown a bit harder, to keep near the same separation between those secondary pitches and his fastballs as in prior years. And, of course, nobody hit much of anything. While it’s unusual for a pitcher to set personal velocity records at age 29, the truth is that the differences are only about a mile per hour over his prior years and it’s very likely that 2015 was the first season where Arrieta had the confidence to reach back and not try to be too fine. Isn’t it ironic that the free and easy Arrieta also set personal bests in hit and walk rates (meaning command and control)? He can probably be expected to have a very similar approach in 2016, and maybe for a couple of years beyond. After that, he may have to reinvent himself as so many other power pitchers have done, or at least tried to do. Or he may be one of those lucky few (a la Nolan Ryan) who loses nothing by way of velocity even into his 40’s. We’ll see.
As a hitter (R): Last year Arrieta more than doubled up on his career plate appearances and at bats while hitting his first two professional home runs. He also coaxed but one walk in 83 PA’s while striking out 45 times (that’s a whopping 54.2%) and laying down but 3 sacrifice bunts. He’s now got a major league line of .154/.182/.245 in 162 PA’s and a strikeout percentage of 46.3%. It’s his arm that allows him to go deep into games, not his bat.
Jon Lester, Throws Left: It was actually a pretty good, and very Lester-like, year for the high-priced southpaw who grossed a cool $35 million last year thanks to receiving half of his $30 million signing bonus and a salary of $20 million. True, the Cubs paid Lester;
But that’s quibbling, for here’s how the 31 year old (he turned 32 early last month) fared last year vs. his career averages (2008-14) as a full time starter:
OK, so the WAR was a bit off, but still above his 2.8 average from 2012-14. And nearly everything was off his career year in 2014, but did the Cubs seriously expect a repeat of that or did they expect Lester to simply be the Jon Lester he’d been over the previous 7 years? There’s no way to know for sure but, despite the fact that the Cubs seemingly paid for 6 years of Lester at his very best, they were smart enough to expect nothing more than what he provided in 2015. And if they weren’t, they should have been. Indeed, by most measures, they actually received something a tick or so above an average Lester, though there’s no need to expect 5 more of those. Lester’s big, and rather well-chronicled, failure last year was in holding runners at first base. It was supposedly nothing he’d ever been terribly good at but, in point of fact, he’d been just a bit better than average through 2014 in stolen base percentage (70% vs a league average of about 73%), and even a guy like Andy Pettitte, with a reputation as having the penultimate pick-off move, was at 67% through his own age 31 season. But last year was an entirely different matter. Not only did Lester see 80% of base runners successfully steal against him, but the sheer number (44) of them led the majors (Tyson Ross was 2nd at 37). Interestingly enough, Arrieta was 4th with 27 stolen bases allowed and a caught stealing percentage (18%) even lower than Lester’s. So the top two Cub starters surrendered 51.8% of all the bases stolen by Cub opponents while being on the mound for only 44.7% of the runners thrown out (or picked off). In his entire career through 2014, Lester had allowed more than 20 stolen bases just once (22 in 2010) and hadn’t been above 16 since. Thus, this is a new weakness on the part of Lester but one that’s now considered psychological rather than physical, so it’s one that may well repeat (or get even worse).
Here’s what we had to say last year about Lester’s repertoire:
From 2010-2013, Lester had been a 5 pitch pitcher (after ditching his slider in favor of a sinking fastball) with everything playing off a fastball that he threw 35.8% of the time. In order of use, and over that same 4 year period, Lester mixed in that sinker (20.1%), a cut fastball (19.0%), a curve ball (13.8%), and a change-up (11.3%). Last year he actually relied on his fastball more than in any year since 2009 (using it 41.0% of the time), leaned more heavily on the cutter (24.9%) and curve (16.4%), while using his sinker less (15.0%) and just about abandoning his change-up (2.7%). And he threw every damn thing slower than he ever had, both on the average and at maximum velocity. He’s not a junkballer – and may never be – but last year Lester made it clear that he can hit his spots and, consequently, win without maximum power. And that may be why he’s got a 6 year deal for big, big money. Not only has he served notice that he has the smarts, the command, and control to anchor a rotation even when he becomes more a craftsman than a power arm, but he’ll be able to serve as a mentor to both types of pitchers, most of whom will be younger than him.
We’ve included it, pretty much in full, as 2015 was nearly an exact match, except he actually threw the fastball even more often (45.9%) – and a half mile per hour harder – and at the expense of his cutter and curve, and increased the number of change-ups (to 4.7%), mostly at the expense of his sinker. There’s no reason to expect that he’ll change this winning formula much in 2016.
As a hitter (L): There was a big ol’ party at Wrigley Field on the 6th of July last year. No, it wasn’t a continuation of an Independence Day celebration but rather was engendered by Jon Lester collecting the first hit of his major league career – no, strike that, it was the first safety of his professional career. It was by no means a resounding hit. In fact it was a two-out slow roller to the pitcher (new teammate John Lackey) that actually advanced a couple of runners (though none ended up scoring as the next batter struck out). Undoubtedly we’re exaggerating the hoopla, for the game itself was a 6-0 loss to the rival St Louis Cardinals and left Lester with a 4-7 record (and was his 4th loss in a row). By the time the season ended, such batting exploits were old hat for Lester as he picked up 3 more singles in a scintillating September (3 for 15) and also ended the season with 3 walks, the first he’d had since he’d picked up his one and only in 2010. OK, all this has been very much tongue in cheek as Lester has, admittedly in little action, always been a miserable hitter and, in greater action last year, the same can still be said (his line was .065/.108/.065). What’s worse is that every time Lester starts a game, he’s responsible for bringing another, nearly as anemic, bat into the lineup. For with personal catcher David Ross catching all but three of Lester’s 32 starts and going .207/.271/.299 in those starts (with a strikeout percentage of 34.0%), that placed a heckuva burden on the other 7 offensive players. Maybe it didn’t matter much but, since the team lost by one run in 4 of Lester’s starts, by two runs in one other, and by 3 runs in another four, it probably did. But it’s just about certain that Ross and Lester will be 22.2% of the Cubs’ offense in most, if not all, of Lester’s starts in 2016.
John Lackey, Throws Right: Last year Lackey toiled for the St Louis Cardinals at the major league minimum ($507,500) due to a clause in the contract he’d signed with the Red Sox in December, 2009. And, at age 36 (he turned 37 in October), he had the best year of his now 13 year career. Now he’s headed to Chicago where he’ll reconnect with some old Red Sox mates, pitching with Jon Lester for the next two years, and for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. After being spurned by David Price, the Cubs quickly moved to sign Lackey to fill the #3 rotation slot behind 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Lester, pushing Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks each down a spot and keeping lefty Travis Wood in the bullpen. Lackey’s always been a pitch to contact, control guy with only an average strikeout rate, and that’s what he was again last year – he was just better at it. There’s every reason for the Cubs to expect 30-33 starts and 190-210 innings from Lackey for each of the next two years, but no reason to expect anything close to the 2.77 ERA and 143 ERA+ he posted last year. Lackey really got a feel for his two-seamer last year, throwing it far more often than in any previous season. And, in addition to his 91-92 four seamer, he rounded things out with a cutter and curve ball, using all of his four pitches effectively; once again, he threw 2-3 change-ups per start on the average. This is a low cost (in today’s starting pitching market), low risk signing by the Cubs, with them obtaining a needed rotation stalwart who may just be the cog they need to advance all the way to the World Series next year. At least that’s the thinking in Wrigley.
As a hitter (R): A career American Leaguer until the 2nd half of the 2014 season (about 11 ½ years), Lackey still managed to accumulate 46 plate appearances (43 at bats) during those regular seasons, collecting 4 hits, 3 sacrifice bunts, no walks, and 14 strikeouts. So he was no kind of hitter when he was younger and his .117/.160/.143 line in 89 PA’s with the Cardinals shows that he hasn’t improved there.
Jason Hammel, Throws Right: In last year’s Projections, we illustrated how much Hammel had loved the Windy City in the first half of the 2014 season. And we’d opined that, even including some rough patches from his second half in Oakland, the Cubs would gladly take Hammel’s overall 2014 season in his return, full season engagement for 2015.
The nearly 1.5 WAR deficit is, given the similarity of the other stats across the board, surprising. In fact, it’s actually not as it’s indicative of the excellence, unprecedented in his career before or since, that Hammel displayed in those 17 first half starts with the Cubs in 2014 (before they banished him to Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija trade). Last year was very much in keeping with the pitcher Hammel has been since his age 29 season (in 2012, and after his escape from three years with the Colorado Rockies), though actually a bit better in nearly every category. At age 33 (last September) Hammel has been a guy who can legitimately be termed as having been a borderline #3 starter for two years now; the fact that he’s going to be looked upon as the #4 guy in the Cubs rotation makes him one of the best in the league (outside of Queens NY, at any rate). He’s probably a Cub through 2017 as the team has a $10 million option for that year (he’ll make $9 million next year), but it’s one that’s voidable (by Hammel) if he reaches certain performance thresholds. So a very good year in 2016 may actually end up being his last with the Cubs.
Hammel’s been a 5 pitch guy since at least 2010 and one who hasn’t lost much velocity – fastball sits about 92 mph and peaks 95, both perhaps but 1 mph off his career highs. But the four-seamer is just his set-up pitch while the two-seamer is his ground ball offering – neither is particularly mystifying to major league hitters. But the slider and curve ball are, and the change-up is a very effective ground ball pitch that no one hits terribly hard or often. Though none will make any list of the top pitches in the majors, it’s a solid and varied enough mix to make Hammel just what he is.
As a hitter (R): Hammel had a decent year with the bat last year, collecting 11 hits (including one double) in 65 at bats, scoring 6 runs, and knocking in 4 – his line was .169/.179/.185, making it the best of his career (though 2011 saw a higher slugging average thanks to his lone major league home run). He actually struck out at a slightly lower rate than usual, thus lowering his career strikeout percentage from 36.8% to a still robust 34.3%. As we’d said last year, given enough chances, Hammel will get his hits and strike out plenty; overall, he’s merely average as a hitting pitcher.
Kyle Hendricks, Throws Right: Hendricks, 26 last Pearl Harbor Day, came over mid-season in 2012 in exchange for the Texas Rangers getting 3 months of Ryan Dempster. He may be no Jake Arrieta, but he’s a better than average bottom of the rotation guy and one who offers some promise of being more than that. He’s also further evidence that this current Cubs team was intelligently built using all the tools at Theo Epstein’s and Jed Hoyer’s disposal. As the nominal #3 starter for the Cubs last year, Hendricks moves down at least a slot with the addition of John Lackey to the rotation and is in a coin flip competition with Jason Hammel as to just who is the #4 and who the #5 – the two had almost identical seasons last year, with Hendricks going 8-7, 3.95 ERA (but a FIP of 3.36) in 32 starts and 180.0 innings. His 1.160 WHIP essentially matched Hammel’s, he started one more game and threw 9.1 more innings, he was a little less homer prone and a little less likely to end an at bat with a strikeout, though the differences (with Hammel) in the former category were more pronounced than in the latter. Hendrick may have 5 pitches that he threw 100 times or more last year, but he’s all about the sinker, throwing it 60.7% of the time last year. It’s a good, solid pitch and one reason why he’s Hammel’s superior when it comes to keeping the ball in the park, but it’s hit a good 20 points better than league average; Hendricks throws all of his “hard” stuff – four-seamer and cutter added to the sinker – only about 88-89 mph with nothing much more than 92 in reach. It’s his change-up (19.9%, .168 BAA) and, to a lesser extent, his curveball (7.2%, .174 BAA) that are his most effective out, and strikeout, pitches. Hendricks appears to fit in a relatively new, but growing, “family” of pitchers – ground ball, pitch-to-contact, control types with above average strikeout rates (and below average velocity). It’s not a particularly sexy family and one that is mostly comprised of mid to bottom rotation starters (or those presumably headed there) but it’s one that’s going to make plenty money over the coming years. Hendricks isn’t one of them yet – he’s not eligible for arbitration until 2018 so will likely be working cheap for the next couple of years.
As a hitter (R): Again, nothing special in the majors (he’s now 6 for 84 with a 37.2% strikeout percentage) and even worse in the minors (4 for 51) – but he did pick up his first extra base hit, a double, as a professional last year.
Adam Warren, Throws Right: Though he was not the most talented pitcher on the Yankee staff, Warren, 28 last August, had done everything his team had asked of him over the past 3 years and done it all well, or at least competently. Take out his debut start in 2012 (his only major league appearance that year) and he’s got a 3.23 ERA, 1.220 WHIP, 8.1 H/9, and 7.7 K/9 in 146 games, including 19 starts, totaling 287.0 innings. He’s also accumulated 257 holds and 5 saves (the latter in 8 chances). Pressed into duty as a starter in 17 outings last year, the UNC-Chapel Hill alum went 6-6, 3.66 ERA with peripherals that would stand up against almost any mid-rotation starter in the league today. As a starter, Warren is going to sit 91-92 mph with the fastball (96 in reach). He’s a fastball/slider guy, though in reverse – he’s thrown 20 more sliders in his career than 4 seamers – and makes liberal use of a change-up, two seamer, and curve ball while throwing the occasional cutter. Of all of his pitches, the two seamer (sinking fastball) is the one that’s been hit safely most often. However, it’s also his go-to ground ball pitch and the one, other than his curve, that’s the least likely to be hit in the air. Warren will probably fill the role of a swing man with the Cubs in 2016, unless he either supplants Hammel or Kendricks as a bottom of the rotation starter, works in some unusual rotation or support role to one or the other, or is tabbed as the 7th or 8th inning guy.
As a hitter (R): He’s been in the American League for his entire major league career and has, consequently, only totaled 3 plate appearances with one strikeout (and all that was last year); as a minor leaguer for an AL master, he didn’t come to the plate so much as once. And since there’s nothing found on his hitting ability at UNC-Chapel Hill or New Bern (NC) High School, much of this will be new territory for Warren in whatever number of plate appearances he gets next year.
On the Major League 40 Man Roster:
Pierce Johnson, Throws Right: In 2014 it was a strained hamstring and then a strained calf; last year it was a strained lat muscle. Johnson’s a good sized fellow – 6’-3”, 200 lbs – and he’ll be 25 years old in May, but he’s yet to pitch as many as 120 innings in a season as a pro. In 2015, he totaled 119.2 innings, though that requires counting his 24.2 in the AZFL (which aren’t typically included in anyone’s minor league totals). In 2014, it was 102.2 and in an apparently healthy 2013 he rang up just 118.1. He hasn’t suffered any arm injury – he practically hasn’t had a chance to. Johnson’s on the 40 man roster primarily because he’s Rule 5 draft eligible, but also because he’s the Cubs’ most advanced starting pitching prospect, and their #7 overall. And, statistically, Johnson’s pitched quite well as a professional, going 22-13, 2.75 ERA in 65 games (62 starts) and 327.0 innings with solid peripherals. In fact his AA numbers (he’s yet to reach AAA) are even better – 11-6, 2.31 ERA with only 6.6 hits allowed per 9 innings, though his walk rate climbed and strikeout rate declined off his earlier minor league rates. According to Bernie Pleskoff of mlb.com, who scouted Johnson last year in Arizona (where he did not have a particularly good showing in 7 starts), the right-hander threw a “90-93-mph fastball with late inside run, an 82-83-mph curveball, an 88-mph cutter, an 84-mph changeup and an occasional 83-mph slider.” Pleskoff called the curve “outstanding” but also noted Johnson’s inconsistent release point and the resultant control and command issues. His ceiling is probably a mid-rotation starter but until and unless he develops more consistency and command pitch-to-pitch he likely doesn’t get there. More likely, he’ll get a chance to work out of a bullpen or at the back of a rotation as a 5 inning guy. Of course, even that will require that he stay healthy, and it may not end up being with the Cubs, though there’s every reason to anticipate a 2016 big league audition for Johnson with those Cubbies.
As a hitter (R): Johnson’s only got 30 plate appearances as a pro and, in them, has two singles, two walks, 10 strikeouts, and 6 sacrifice bunts. Oddly enough, he also has 6 RBI. Nonetheless, he’s only thus far shown that he’s not particularly close to being even an average hitting pitcher.
Dallas Beeler, Throws Right: Beeler will be 27 in June and in 5 major league starts spread over the last two years has really done nothing to get excited about – lots of hits (but no homers), lots of walks, and not quite as many strikeouts as walks. Naturally, he’s been better in 41 starts at the AAA level, but still shows as a pitch-to-contact sort with better than average, but by no means extraordinary, control, and a below average strikeout rate. Beeler’s got 5-6 pitches he’ll throw, but his velocity is below average (belying his 6’-5”, 210 lb frame) and he doesn’t seem to have any put-away pitch, just a collection of offerings designed to get the batter to put the ball on the ground somewhere. If he could ever duplicate his Triple A numbers at the major league level (and that’s a big “if”), he’d be in competition somewhere for a #5 slot in a rotation, but not in Chicago.
Starting Rotation Summary/Outlook
Even more so than when heading into 2015, the Cubs 2016 rotation seems set with Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hammel, and Hendricks, with the added benefit that each is in a slot that’s both appropriate to, and comfortable for, each. Add to that a good health track record, Lackey’s one lost season in 2012 the only serious black mark, and it’s not at all unlikely that the Cubs get through the entire 2016 season with only these five starters. But it’s questionable that they would even if they could. Whether it’s just to give a regular rotation member a needed break, to cover for a make-up game, or to fill-in for a minor injury, the Cubs have some immediately available experienced starting pitching depth with both Adam Warren and Travis Wood. If they need to dig deeper, both Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard have major league experience as starters, though not necessarily at a high level of successful performance. Of course if they have to go that deep it’s likely due to two or three major injuries above, and that puts an entirely different color on the makeup of this rotation. But that’s the same position every club, contending or otherwise, is potentially in – barring the unforeseen and fairly unlikely, the starting rotation is a Cub strength and one at least on par with the Cardinals, and almost certainly ahead of the Pirates.
Hector Rondon, Throws Right: We liked Rondon as the closer heading into 2015 and all he did was prove that he was every bit that likeable, plus some. After a very successful maiden season as a big league closer in 2014, all Rondon did last year (vs. 2014) was;
With an 8.9 K/9 last year, and 9.0 in 2014, Rondon, who turns 28 the end of this month, has not been the epitome of the high-strikeout, shutdown closer. But he’s been a shutdown closer nonetheless, his 96 mph fastball (peaks 99.6), slider, two-seamer, and occasional cutter proving to be a more than an adequate arsenal to defeat major league hitters in the 9th inning. The Cubs gave him a nice raise (from $544,000 to $4.2 million) for 2016, even though he’s not arbitration eligible until 2017, so he should be happier next year (not that there’s any reason to suspect he hasn’t been happy since the Cubs made him a Rule 5 pick before the 2013 season – he’s spent every day of his career since as a major leaguer). And he should be a Cub, and the Cub’s closer, for at least another 3 years.
Set-Up, Middle Relief
Pedro Strop, Throws Right: He settled for $2.525 million last year and is already signed for $4.4 million in 2016 on a one year deal. And he’s so far been worth every bit of it for, after a fine full season in Chicago in 2014 as the primary set-up guy, he borrowed a page from Hector Rondon’s book and actually improved in 2015, appearing in more games, throwing more innings, increasing his save and hold stats, lowering his WHIP and inching his K rate up. He’s still deadly against left handed hitters but, last year, he was even better against righties – he’s still going to be a one inning per outing guy, but Maddon need have no worries what side of the plate any of the hitters are standing on. Strop will be 31 in June so 2016 will be his age 31 season; he still throws plenty hard, both fastballs averaging 95-96 mph with 99 in reach, but last year his always oft-used, and off speed (82.7 mph), slider became his primary pitch, up to 49.1% from 37.0% in 2014 (and 33.5% in 2013). Batters hit an even .100 against it last year, which was actually higher than in either 2014 or 2013. He may be signed for only 2016 but his job is secure at least through then.
Neil Ramirez, Throws Right: Between shoulder inflammation and a couple of issues with abdominal soreness, and who knows what else, Ramirez only pitched in 19 big league games last year, totaling 14.2 innings – and only pitched in 7 others in the minors. When he pitched, he pitched quite well, even if not quite up to the superb levels of his rookie year in 2014. He’s only 27 in May and isn’t arbitration eligible until after the 2016 season. So, if he’s healthy, he figures into the Cubs’ 2016 bullpen in a prominent manner, and almost certainly in a late inning role. He didn’t pitch enough last year to change much of the following . . .
Ramirez depends heavily on a 94.8 mph fastball, that peaks at 97.6, to set up his two-seamer and a slider that he spins in there at about 8-10 mph off his fastball pace – he does have a little curve that, at least last year, no one had much trouble hitting . . . but the velocity was down in 2016 by a mile and a half per hour. Whether that was injury related or not will be something we’ll have to wait and see.
Travis Wood, Throws Left: Wood had started all but 4 of his 128 big league appearances through 2014 with nothing but about average, to slightly below, results (i.e. an ERA+ of 96, or 4% below average) in those 128 games and 738.1 innings. But 2014 itself took quite a bit of luster off of that as he went 8-13, 5.03 ERA (75 ERA+ in 31 starts and 173.2 innings). We’d pointed out that Wood’s high BAbip in 2014 was much to blame and the Cubs did start last year with Wood at the back of the rotation. He started off well in 4 April starts (2-1, 3.04 ERA), but three starts to open May flipped the other way (0-1, 10.13 ERA, 1.725 WHIP, and 6 homers in only 13.1 innings) and his spot in the rotation was given to Tsuyoshi Wada (who, despite pitching pretty well – the Cubs won 5 of his 7 starts, though he only reached the 6th inning twice and completed 7 once – was demoted after recovering from an injury and ultimately released in November). For the next 5 weeks Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler more or less alternated in the #5 spot (before Dan Haren came over from the Marlins in a deadline trade). At any rate, Wood was relegated, demoted, banished – pick your word – to the bullpen, getting only two more emergency type starts in September (and pitching a total of 5.2 innings).
But it was a fairly successful exile for all concerned as Wood appeared in 45 games out of the bullpen, going 3-2, 2.95 ERA while going 4 for 4 in saves and picking up 3 holds – even those two short inning emergency starts were superb, Wood giving up only one earned run in those 5.2 innings while striking out 8. He just turned 29 (February 6) and though he doesn’t throw exceptionally hard (90-91 mph four-seamer, peaks about 95), that’s no worse than average for a lefty and he has enough deception with it and movement on it that it’s both his most frequent and most effective pitch. In descending order of frequency, he also throws a cutter, two-seamer, slider, change, and curve but, year in year out, it’s that four-seamer that’s his bread and butter pitch. Exactly which role, or roles, Wood fills in 2016 is uncertain, and may hinge on the health and/or effectiveness of others on the staff. But, based on his season-ending run in September, when he picked up 3 of his saves, finished 6 contests, and never came on earlier than the 8th, and the effectiveness of his arsenal once through a line-up, it’s hard to imagine that Wood doesn’t profile into a set up role, and get some chances to close. He’s only signed through 2016, but for $6.18 million, so the Cubs certainly want to get as much as they can out of him as that’s no particularly small salary for a guy with an uncertain role.
Justin Grimm, Throws Right: Grimm wasn’t used as much last year as in 2014, when he appeared in 73 games, but he was a bit more effective in his more limited duty and used more in a late inning role (3 saves and 15 holds last year). He did see his walk rate spike last year, but his hit rate came down more than enough to offset it and his K rate soared from an impressive 9.1 to an elite level at 12.1. What was an average fastball in Texas when Grimm was mostly a starter has now become a 95+ mph weapon that he can get near 99, and one that major league hitters have a tough time squaring up (when seen in only one plate appearance in any one game). Grimm’s secondary pitches are a slider and curveball, with last year being the first time that both were very effective (he’d abandoned his change-up after the 2013 season – his last as a starter – while bringing a previously little used slider more to the forefront). He just signed a one year, $1.28 million deal to avoid arbitration so, as Cub relievers go, he’s a relative bargain.
Trevor Cahill, Throws Right: Cahill only pitched in 11 games for the Cubs in 2015, signing on as a free agent a couple of months after the Braves cut him loose. And the former starter, who once led the majors with 34 starts (for Oakland in 2012), the year after his 18-8, 2.97 record earned him an All-Star berth, pitched really well. Granted, even with those 11 appearances totaling 17.0 innings, it was still a very small sample size. But it’s hard to look at a 0.765 WHIP and 11.6 K rate and not get at least a little excited. For all he’s been through, including a 3-12, 5.61 season in 2014 with the Diamondbacks, Cahill only turns 28 on March 1 and he’s on just a 1 year, $4.25 million deal with the Cubs. While not Grimm-like in its bargain potential, it does offer the Cubs the opportunity to use his as much, or as little, as they choose, and in whatever role or roles make sense. He picked up two holds in those 11 games last year so he now has set-up experience, he’s actually got one major league save (in two chances), had started 153 of 154 games at the outset of his major league career, and spent one season as a swingman (alas, that ill-fated 2014 was the one). Cahill throws nothing terribly hard, but he did enjoy a 91-92 mph range with both his trademark sinker and little used four seamer last year, while also cranking the former up to a level not seen before (96 mph). The sinker is the #1 weapon, but even in last year’s shorter outings it was still a pitch that hitters didn’t hate to see; his #2 – a change-up – has been his only consistently successful secondary pitch. Otherwise, he’s drifted through a curve, four-seamer, slider, and, last year, experimented with a knuckle curve. Even if he doesn’t settle on a 3rd pitch, he’s got enough stuff to handle a middle and late inning relief role just fine. If, perhaps, he perfects that slider that’s been around for a while, or the knuckle curve that hasn’t, he could really be quite a find. And maybe the kind of guy one flips for a decent prospect or two at the trade deadline – as the rich perhaps get richer.
Clayton Richard, Throws Left: Another reclamation project, Richard was purchased from the Pirates last July just as the #5 starter position became wanting. Richard actually had never pitched for the Pirates, that team just having taken a flyer on him as he continued to recover from the shoulder problems and surgeries that had cost him two-thirds of the 2013 season and all of 2014. With the Cubs last year, Richard did fill in, along with Dallas Beeler, as the #5 guy until the acquisition of Dan Haren filled that slot for the rest of the season. And he did very well, winning 2 of his 3 starts, posting a 3.00 ERA and 1.056 WHIP in 18 innings, only a 4.0 K rate marring things a bit. Richard then went to the bullpen, appearing in 20 games (24.1 innings) and scuffling a bit, but at least he showed a 5.2 K rate (still low, but both near his career rate and a 30% improvement over his mark as a starter). Those 20 appearances, with but two late season exceptions, had him coming on in the early or middle innings (with the 7th being included in the latter category). But not all were low leverage situations as Richard came to the mound 3 times with his team tied, 3 times with the Cubs ahead by 2 or less, and 6 times with the Cubbies behind by 2 or fewer.
Like Cahill he led the league in starts (33 in 2012 with the Padres), though he combined league leading hit and home run totals with that. 2010 was his career year, when he went 14-9, 3.75 ERA for the Padres, also in 33 starts, but his 98 ERA+ tells more of the story – that wasn’t a particularly good showing with Petco Park as a home field. Other than a 38 game, including 26 start, swingman role split between the White Sox and Padres, those are the only full major league seasons Richard has enjoyed in a career that began in 2008. His fastball, almost exclusively of the two-seamed variety, is thrown at roughly average velocity for a lefty (even though, at 6’-5”, 245 lbs, there’s nothing average about Richard’s size). It’s never been hard to square up but, in 2011, Richard finally seemed to hit on a change-up as his chief secondary pitch; like Cahill, he’s never quite figured out what pitch #3 should be (he’s also tried the four-seamer, curve, and slider). Unlike Cahill, Richard has been 32 years old since last September. Signed for 2016 at a $2 million salary, he is likely in the mix for a left handed relief job, with Zac Rosscup and Rex Brothers, that may not even exist if Neil Ramirez is healthy, or if Trevor Cahill is selected in Ramirez’ place. But we’re thinking he makes the 25 man roster out of Spring Training regardless.
Rex Brothers, Throws Left: This is a low risk acquisition for the Cubs, but one which might well have a high reward. Brothers still has a big fastball for a lefty (92-94 mph, peaks 96-97), a plus power slider, and he’s only 2 years removed from a trio of successful campaigns as a late inning reliever with the Rockies. But even during those years, his walk rate was nearly 5 (4.8 BB/9 to be exact) and in the last two seasons it’s been 6.3 in 66.2 major league innings and a whopping 9.4 in 42.1 AAA innings. At his best, Brothers is effective against all hitters, limiting balls in play, hits, and home runs while piling up the strikeouts (and issuing a tad more than one free pass for every 6 outs). He’ll only be 28 for the 2016 season and if he can get back to just that kind of guy, he’ll have value to the Cubs even with the walks. If he can’t right his particular ship in Spring Training and, as needed, the first couple of months of the 2016 season in AAA, it won’t be any meaningful loss to the team.
Spencer Patton, Throws Right: If the 28 year old (in February) Patton pitches the entire 2016 season in the majors, it will be the first time that will have occurred. Last years’ 27 games and 24.0 major league innings were essentially matched by his AAA totals of 26 and 27.0 (he made his major league debut in 2014 with 9.1 innings over 9 appearances). Both major league sample sizes are small and the results have been diverse – last year’s were marred by 12 walks and 5 home runs in those 24.0 innings. Patton’s been groomed as a bullpen guy and his minor league numbers show definite swing-and-miss stuff (11.9 K/9) and decent control (3.2 BB/9). He throws a 91-92 mph four seamed fastball that can touch 95 and he throws it almost exactly 2/3rds of the time; an 82-83 mph slider that batters have only touched at a .176 clip is his almost exclusive secondary pitch (he’ll throw a two seamed fastball about once every inning on the average, and a change up only about once every 4th outing). He’s a candidate to fill the bullpen slot created by the departure of free agent Jason Motte, but he’s no sure bet to start the 2016 season on the major league roster.
Carl Edwards, Throws Right: Formerly (like pre-season 2015) known as C J, Edwards, 24 last September, made his big league debut last year with 5 relief appearances, 4 of them scoreless and none longer than an inning. Acquired from the Rangers in the Matt Garza deal in July, 2013, the decision was clearly made heading into the 2015 season that Edwards’ future is to be out of the bullpen (we’d actually questioned his suitability as a starter in last years’ Projections) – all 36 minor league appearances (both AA and AAA) last year were in relief; he’d started 49 of 50 prior (2012-2014). And it wasn’t a particularly smooth transition, one marred almost exclusively by a nearly complete loss of control as Edwards walked 41 batters in 55.1 innings (and another 3 in his 4.2 big league innings). All of his other peripherals were outstanding and, though he’d never been any kind of control artist previously, his highest walk rate as a starter had been 4.2 per 9. So what happened and where do things go from here? No one really knows – one reporter has suggested that the life and movement of Edwards’ fastball is to blame – and no one seems to particularly care at this point. That lively fastball also is thrown with good velocity – 92-95 mph, touching 96, with a natural cutting action. He also reportedly throws an upper 70’s curveball with above average depth and tight spin, rounding things out with a developing change-up that already features natural split action – it does not appear that he threw that pitch in his major league outings. Edwards was 25 last September and is certainly ticketed for AAA in 2016; he’ll see more than 4.2 innings with the big league club next year and is certainly expected to be a solid back of the bullpen guy by 2017, though it would not be surprising to see him achieve that sometime during the 2016 season.
Eric Jokisch, Throws Left: Jokisch didn’t get the expected call up to the big league club in September we’d thought so he logged no MLB time last year. Much of that was due to his losing almost two months (save 3 rehab appearances with the club’s Rookie league team in Arizona) to an oblique injury. The rest can likely be blamed on some fairly significant regression in his 14 AAA stats vs. 2014 (in 26 starts) – his hit rate went up from 8.1 to 10.4 H/9, his walk rate returned to a normal 3.0 BB/9 vs. 2014’s aberrant 1.8, and his strikeout rate took a tumble from 8.1 to 5.0. Jokisch has been almost exclusively a starter over the past 4 seasons, but if he does get a major league summons in 2016 (no sure bet by any means), it will probably be for some bullpen work – 3 of his 4 MLB appearances in 2014 were in relief. He turned 26 last July 29 so he’ll be 27, and on the wrong side of the scale for a prospect, a bit more than halfway through next season. Last year, we commented that “His fastball velocity is below major league average (he brings it in about 88-89 mph) and the two-seamed (sinking) version is his primary weapon”. John Arguello with Cubs Den adds the following (at the close of the 2014 season): “Jokisch throws in the 88-92 range, but his best pitch is a circle change, which makes him as effective against RH hitters as he is lefties. He mixes in an average, but inconsistent, curve, though he has relied less on that pitch and more on his cutter (which) has helped him throw strikes and gives him a reliable 3rd pitch. It has been a go-to pitch when he needs to put the ball in play and avoid hard contact.” He put plenty of balls into play last year – .289 BAA, .314 BAbip, and that low K rate – but it appears there was plenty of hard contact as he surrendered 21 doubles and 6 home runs among the 81 hits he allowed in his 70.0 innings. We said it last year and we’ll say it again – we just don’t see where this guy fits into either the Cubs’ near or long term plans.
Zac Rosscup, Throws Left: At age 27 (last June 9) Rosscup did log a fair amount of major league time last year, appearing in 33 games, all in relief (same case in his 11 appearances with Iowa), and pitching 26.2 innings while picking up two save opportunities (he blew both) and 6 holds. Otherwise the results were OK, but nothing better than that – he’s got definite swing and miss stuff (9.8 K/9) but he walks too many (4.4 BB/9), was extremely homer prone (5 in his 26.2 innings), and barely beat the one hit per inning pitched threshold (he gave up 26 in 26.2 innings). But he was hell against lefty swingers – .158/.289/.289 line against in 46 PA’s – though righties rather enjoyed facing him (.308/.366/.662 in 72 PA’s). And that’s been a trend so he’s got some possibilities as a LOOGY if the Cubs are willing to carry him on the 25 man roster for that – we can see some occasional possibilities there, but it seems likely that he’ll spend more time in Iowa than Illinois in 2016. Rosscup throws a bit harder than average for a left hander (92-93 mph four seamer that he can get up over 95) and makes liberal use of a slider that big leaguers have trouble with; he’ll also mix in a two-seamer that he throws just about exactly as hard as his four-seamer. He’s got a good arm and just enough pitches to perhaps succeed in a bullpen role but the Cubs’ 2016 bullpen looks both too deep and too crowded for Rosscup to fill much of a role next year.
Edgar Olmos, Throws Left: In less than one month (this past December), Olmos went from the Mariners to the Cubs to the Orioles and back to the Cubs, all being waiver wire pick-ups. He did get in 6 games (including 2 starts) with the Mariners last year (they’d picked him up the previous fall on waivers from the Marlins) and showed essentially nothing (1.714 WHIP, only a 2.6 K/9 rate), or just about what he showed in 5 relief appearances for the Marlins in 2013. He fared quite a bit better in AAA where, in 53 games (including 2 starts) and 84.1 innings – and all in the Pacific Coast League in 2014-15 -, he’d posted a 1.316 WHIP and a far healthier 8.3 K rate. Last year, he handled lefties better than righties but that really wasn’t the case in either 2013 or 2014, when he showed almost no split at all. The word is that, working out of the bullpen, he can hit the mid-90’s with his fastball and features a slider that projects as average as well as a developing change-up. Last year PitchFx shows that, in his limited MLB experience, he leaned heavily on a four-seamed fastball that averaged just under 93 mph and could touch 95, augmenting that with a frequently used change-up that must have developed and a far lesser used curve and slider. Actually all those pitches were effective, save for the fact that he couldn’t get many over the plate, and most of the offensive damage done to him occurred when he went to his two-seamer. He’ll be 26 just after the 2016 season opens and might still have some kind of major league future, but he’s got even less chance than Rosscup does of seeing any meaningful action with the Cubs next year.
Andury Acevedo, Throws Right: Acevedo is listed on baseball-reference.com as a pitcher, third baseman, and shortstop, but he hasn’t played a defensive position (other than pitcher) since 2010. The Cubs signed him as a minor league free agent in November, though they actually gave him a major league contract. The 24 year old (he turned 25 last August) had a fine season at three stops in the Yankee organization – 13 games at High A, 18 at AA, and 10 at AAA – last year as a reliever. In 59.0 innings he posted a 2.59 ERA, 1.254 WHIP, and 7.5 K/9. Over a year ago (June, 2014) Baseball Prospectus had him with plus-plus velocity – fastball sitting 95-97 mph and peaking 99 – but with extremely poor command and control. It was a pitch projected to be 65 on baseball’s 20-80, which means a dynamic offering indeed; he also throws (threw?) a fringy slider, but one with hard bite and solid tilt that projected as a 60 and a pure strikeout pitch. Overall last year he seems to have improved at least his control (3.2 BB/9), but he was back to his old habits once he hit AAA, walking 9 in only 11.2 innings (and his 2.31 ERA there belied his 1.971 WHIP in a big way). So he appears to be a project but one that, presumably, will get at least major league pay if not time next year.
With Adam Warren making the 25 man roster as a swingman, the best bet for the rest of the bullpen is;
If Ramirez isn’t completely healthy, and maybe even if he is, Trevor Cahill (R) would likely take that spot (or the Cubs could tab Zac Rosscup as a situational lefty, though that’s not terribly likely). All of the guys in the second category have set-up experience (including Cahill), though it’s likely that the primary 8th and 9th inning guys will be a mix of the first four with Richard perhaps designated as a long relief/swingman along with Adam Warren. Of course, Wood, Cahill, and Richard also have significant starting experience so there are a number of options for spot and emergency starts (or in the event that one of the five members of the rotation goes down, though Warren is probably the first call there).
The 2016 Cub bullpen is not going to be mistaken for one of major league baseball’s best, but this group has come a long way in just one short year from the team that gave James Russell (49), Edwin Jackson (23), Tommy Hunter (19), Phil Coke (16), and Brian Schlitter (10) a whopping 116 turns on the mound (not to mention Zac Rosscup’s 33, but he’s still (somewhat) in the mix). Still, last year’s ‘pen was a long way from a disaster, posting a 3.38 ERA (starters were at 3.36) and 8.9 K/9 (starters at 8.7), but there’s a bit of a problem when the bullpen, as a whole, exceeds the starters in WHIP and OPS. Of course the preceding clunkers are in those numbers and, undoubtedly, some of the brief and inevitable call-ups are going to get hammered, at least on occasion. And then there’s the fact that the starting rotation, as currently comprised, is pretty strong.
Whether the 2016 bullpen outperforms the rotation (peripherally) is something only time will tell. But, by and large, this is a strong, and deep, group that, while they won’t, collectively, wow anyone with high strikeout or low hit rates, offers strong promise of their ability to both protect leads and keep their team in the game when entering with a deficit. Even when they cough up a lead, or allow a deficit to widen, the (perhaps) best in the majors (at least the league) offense they’ll be pitching in front of won’t take it lying down.
2015 LINEUP PROJECTION
Following is a position-by-position look at the players most likely to be manning defensive positions for the Chicago Cubs in 2016.
1B – Anthony Rizzo
Offense (Bats Left): Rizzo led the league in games (160) and plate appearances (701), the majors in times hit by a pitch (30), and the Cubs in doubles, home runs, and RBI (38, 31, and 101, respectively) while reducing his strikeouts (from 18.8% in 2014 to 15.0% last year, both very good rates for a 30 home run guy) and tossing in 17 steals (in 23 tries). And, though his line of .278/.387/.512 was the littlest bit off 2014’s in 20 fewer games, it was close enough across the board to be considered a statistical dead match. Oh, and he moved up from #10 to #4 in the National League MVP voting. Rizzo hit lefties better last year for average and on base percentage, righties for power – so he has no split anymore (remember when, after the 2013 season, there was concern that he couldn’t hit major league lefties?). And then there’re the facts that he’s only 26 years old (last August) and has only solidified his position as both the leader and soul of this team. That’s probably enough said.
Defense (Throws Left): He actually slipped a little last year defensively, but it was still an above average performance and, with the swings those metrics can take in mind, Rizzo can still be considered as a Gold Glove candidate at first base.
2B – Ben Zobrist
Offense (Bats Both): Though he’s known for his versatility, having spent time at 6 defensive positions in his 30’s, Zobrist is almost certainly pegged for the second base position next year given the Cubs’ need (the light-hitting Tommy La Stella and the who knows? hitting Javier Baez the only real incumbents – we’re completely discounting the Chris Coghlan experiment late last year). And, though he profiles best as a number two hole hitter, he probably slots in as the primary leadoff hitter for the Cubs in 2016 (more on that later). Over his 10 year career Zobrist, who will be 35 next May) has a line of .265/.355/.431 in 1,190 games and 5,013 PA’s, though that’s been .273/.361/.428 over the last 4 years and he’s not been more than 3 points plus or minus there in batting average over the past four seasons (last year was .276/.359/.450 in 126 games and 535 PA’s, the latter two his lowest totals since he became a regular in 2009). In 2015 Zobrist murdered left-handers but was so-so against righties – over his career he has preferred left handed pitching, though the spread overall has not been as wide as last year. All of which means that he is better from the right side of the plate, and last year really was.
Now, about that lead off role. It’s only the 5th most common spot for him over his career, though just about as often as he’s batted 4th and 5th – his most frequent position in the order, as noted above, has been #2 while the second most has been the number 3 spot. Zobrist has stolen as many as 24 bases but is no longer a major threat (10 for 15 in 2014, 3 for 7 last year). And, though he’s had a net gain of 118 base running bases over his career (91 on the paths, 27 with steals), last year he was 0 and -5. So what makes him a, maybe the, likely candidate to lead off for the 2016 Cubs? Together with Zobrist’s above average, even well above average, on base percentage and smart base running (remember, he didn’t lose any bases on the paths last year), it’s simply a process of elimination. Who else is there among the presumed 8 regulars? It can’t be Schwarber, Soler, Bryant, Addison, Rizzo, or Montero, now can it? Of course, that does omit one guy and, from every angle that guy would be an even better choice.
We’re talking, of course, about Jason Heyward.
True, he only started one game in the lead off position last year but he was the Braves’ most oft used guy in that spot in 2014 (94 of his 126 career games as the lead off batter came that year). His career on base percentage of .353 is an almost exact match for Zobrist’s (and his 2015 average was exactly the same), he’s stolen 43 bases the last two years with a success ratio of 80.0% (which is very good), and his moderate power plays up extremely well as the lead off guy (even better than it plays up in center field). But will Maddon, who is hardly a traditionalist, go there? We think he should but if that’s too far afield even for an innovator like Maddon, it then has to be Zobrist.
Defense (Throws Right): Here’s where Zobrist as the mostly full-time guy at the keystone loses some of its luster. While he’s still an able defender in left field (though his able defense there isn’t resounding and also is likely on the downhill slide), the metrics are negative at second base (and in right field). La Stella, assuming he makes the team, will probably be the late-inning defensive replacement (though that’s a bit close to the frying pan and the fire). Or Javier Baez might re-emerge as the full-timer, setting nearly everything above on its ear and Zobrist as a super-utility sort, but one whose glove is by no means plus at any position. At $14 million per year, on the average, over his age 35-38 seasons, Zobrist only needs to contribute about 2.2 WAR annually for the Cubs to break even on the deal. He should be good for something nearer 3.0-3.2 for the first couple of seasons and, if he is, the downhill side of the deal will likely take care of itself, even if those final two years are significantly less productive. But if Baez is the full time guy at second, Zobrist will likely not come terribly close to even that 2.2 annual WAR level and will then have proven to be merely expensive insurance. But, as the Cubs can afford it and the upside is a hitter (and at least average fielder) like Baez at second, that’s not a bad thing.
SS – Addison Russell
Offense (Bats Right): Last year, for the obvious reason, we compared Russell’s and then-incumbent shortstop Starlin Castros’ offensive stats through their age 20 season in the minors (Russell had completed his in 2014). And we’d opined that Russell would start the 2015 season in AAA (he did) and that, to mirror the ascendancy of Castro, Russell would have had to supplant Castro by May 7 of last season. Funny how things sometimes work out as, on May 7 of last year, Russell was getting ready to play in his 7th major league game, but at second base alongside Castro (which we’d kinda predicted). Three months later, to the day actually, he took his rightful place at short when Castro went down with a minor ailment – when Castro was ready to return on August 11th, he was at second base (a move which, eventually, led to his trade to the Yankees). Russell had a nice first month as a major leaguer, going .273/.321/.485 with 4 homers in 27 games and 106 PA’s. He matched the home runs in August, the PA’s in September, and actually bettered the OBP (barely) in both July and September but, otherwise, May was his zenith month as a rookie big leaguer. For the season, he went .242/.307/.389 with 29 doubles and 13 home runs in 142 games and 523 PA’s (he also went 4 for 7 in stolen bases). He whiffed 149 times (a 28.5% rate) while walking just enough (42 times) to keep that K/BB ratio around 3.5:1, which is superb for a pitcher, but not so much for a hitter. And he did almost every bit of it in the 9th spot in the batting order, Joe Maddon feeling that took the pressure off his then 21 year old rookie (he turned 22 late last month). There was nothing he did offensively that was particularly surprising, given his young age and the expectation that he can eventually be, as we’d stated last year, “a .280-.290 hitter with 20-25 home run power, 12-15 stolen bases, and at least a slightly above league average on base percentage” is still very much appropriate and, no pun intended, in play. It just might not happen as quickly as 2016 but if Russell can simply not regress in his sophomore campaign next year, that will be considered good enough – any positive growth as a 22 year old will be a plus.
Defense (Throws Right): While there’s no question that he’s a shortstop, and the shortstop for the Cubs in 2016, he was pretty darn good as a second baseman last year. In fact, it was pretty close to pick ‘em – 10 DRS in 86 games at second, 9 DRS in 61 at short. He showed better range at second last year (there’s actually less ground to cover) but still showed well above average range at shortstop where, probably due to a comfort factor, he was more sure-handed with the glove. Russell is already an elite defensive shortstop and will complete the package when his offensive game catches up.
3B – Kris Bryant
Offense (Bats Right): Here’s what we, and others in some cases, had to say last year as Bryant’s major league debut awaited;
. . . he’s expected to immediately provide light-tower power . . . strike out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances, and offset that somewhat with a solid walk rate – probably something in the 15% range – and enough speed to swipe 12-15 bases in a full season at a 70%+ success rate. Some (Steamer, FanGraphs) see him as arriving on the scene as a .260-.265 hitter while at least one pundit thinks Bryant has Miguel Cabrera type ability (meaning a .300+ hitter with 40+ home run power). . . . if the Cubs are at all serious about contending in 2015, they would seem to be handicapping themselves right out of the gate by leaving Bryant off the major league club for the first 2-3 weeks of the season.
Bryant showed the expected power, hitting either the longest (495’) home run in 2015 on September 6, or the 20th longest on that same date depending on whether mlb.com or ESPN’s Home Run Tracker is the source (the latter claims to offer the “real” distance). His 26 yard shots ranked 14th in the National League, well back of the league leaders (Bryce Harper and Nolan Arenado with 42 each), and is a season total that can be expected to move higher, perhaps as soon as 2016. Bryant did strike out in 30.6% of his plate appearances (and his 199 led the league, though not the majors), walking a bit less – 11.8% – than expected, and he stole 13 bases at a 76.5% success rate. He exceeded most expectations with his .275 batting average, thanks to a blistering August and September (he’d headed into August at .246/.351/.439) – that two month line of .323/.400/.567 with 12 homers in 217 AB’s will keep the Cabrera comparisons coming. And, since Bryant only missed the first 8 games of the season last year, and the Cubs went 5-3 in those games, his delayed arrival had no real impact on the teams’ ultimate fortunes (though his play once he arrived certainly did!). In fact, had Bryant actually missed the 1st three weeks of the major league season (and arrived on April 26), that still would likely have had little impact – the team was 9-7 through the 25th, a position (2 games over .500) they’d visit 4 more times through the middle of May.
Bryant did struggle a bit against left handed pitchers in his rookie season last year, but by no means did they dominate him. And, since that was at odds with his minor league stats, it’s a safe bet it will prove to be an aberration and, beginning in 2016, pitchers throwing from both sides will be punished. Bryant is 9 months older than Bryce Harper and 5 months younger than Mike Trout, those two, however, being veterans of 4 full major league seasons. Bryant’s late start, due in part to his having attended the University of San Diego, isn’t something he can ever make up. And, truth be told, as good as Bryant is, and will be, his ceiling is not up where those guys reside. But who cares? He’s got his Rookie of the Year Award, will almost certainly be in the MVP mix (he finished 11th in that voting last year) annually – and likely win one or two -, and will be a star, even superstar, run producer for the Cubs for at least the next 6 years. And he’d have to be considered the odds on favorite to earn a World Series ring before either of those two “rivals.”
Defense (Throws Right): Bryant started 136 games (of his 151) at third base (he got into 8 others at the hot corner later in games) and did better than expected. We knew he had a great arm and he did show that off, but the range – which rated at excellent – was a bit of a surprise. He was a shade below average in starting the double play and his 17 errors (13 of them fielding) suggest that he can improve the glove work. But both are teachable skills, whereas range is not. So we’ll rank him at slightly above average overall at the hot corner in his first year, which is about two notches higher than where we thought he’d end up. Bryant also spent parts of 19 games in the outfield, starting 10, and at least one at each outfield position (we certainly never expected to see him in center, and he showed up there 7 times total, including one start). The arm plays everywhere but his range doesn’t translate well to any outfield spot other than left field, though we’d expect that he’d be able to get comfortable in right field in short order. He really wasn’t marked off for anything else so, given the defensive concern the Cubs have with left field, Bryant will certainly see some action there in 2016 – and probably in right field as well.
LF – Kyle Schwarber
Offense (Bats Left): Schwarber was the 4th overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Indiana University-Bloomington, and he was picked that high by the Cubs for three reasons;
Right on two accounts, as he tore through 4 levels of minor league ball between June 13, 2014 and June 15, 2015, posting a line of .333/.432/.610 with 62 extra base hits (31 of them homers) in 130 games and 554 PA’s (459 at bats). That earned Schwarber a major league call-up, for six games of interleague play, during which he went .364/.391/.591. His big league TDY over, he then made his debut at the Triple A level, performing almost exactly as well as he’d shown at every stop of his pro career – .333/.403/.633 in 17 games and 67 PA’s; a bit less than a month later he was summoned by the Cubs again, this time for good. Things weren’t quite as scintillating for Schwarber that time around; though he continued to show both the power and patience (15 home runs, .341 OBP) in 250 PA’s, his batting average of .233 was likely about a hundred points lower than anything he’d seen by his name starting in Little League (of course, then he went .333/.419/.889 in 9 post season games, including a club record 5 home runs). All told, his regular season major league totals last year were .246/.355/.487 with 16 home runs in 69 games and 273 PA’s, all good enough to have him inked in as the starting left fielder for the Cubs next year. So what can we expect? Well, here a few published projections for Schwarber:
Who’s right? Quite probably nobody, at least not exactly. But clearly the modeling programs used are not terribly dissimilar, with one exception. That one, of course, being the Marcel projection that has Schwarber only collecting 23% more plate appearances than last years’ 273 in 69 games. In other words, Marcel projections seem to suggest that he will either be very much a part time player (like, half the time) or will spend roughly half the season in the minors. That’s extremely doubtful. In fact if, overall slash line wise, Schwarber hits as just about everyone projects, he is likely to total between 550 and 600 plate appearances. But, if his batting average is in the .230’s and he’s under a buck forty against left-handers (both were the case from July 17 on last year), he probably starts sitting against all lefties. And that’ll likely keep him between 400 and 425 PA’s. But we don’t expect that – Schwarber hit southpaws at all levels of the minors (over .300/.400/.500) and he likely adjusts in fairly short order next year. Plus, he kept his MLB walk rate (13.2%) nearly as high as his MiLB one (14.2%) so he’s got a plan up there; his strikeout rate spiked a bit in the bigs – up to 28.2% from 20.8% in the minors – but even that’s not obscenely high for a 30 home run type guy (and we expect that he’ll improve that as well). At the age of 23 (next March 5), Schwarber, even at 6’-0”, 235 lbs, will still possess some decent base running speed, and that can only help him in the field – he may have the body of a designated hitter, and that may prove to be his role some time down the road, but for now he’ll be playing in the field.
Defense (Throws Right?): Speaking of which, brings us to the 3rd point above. Does Schwarber have a future behind the plate? Actually, no one’s prepared to say, though there’s a Spring Training tutorial supposedly on the schedule so it appears that the ghost has yet to be given up on. Schwarber’s got a good arm, though his career 24% caught stealing rate (majors and minors) isn’t quite up to average, but that’s seemingly the high point of his receiving skills – he’s not particularly accurate with his arm, or good with pitches in the dirt, or with his footwork, or with framing pitches (though he was close to average last year), or with presenting a target. His -2 DRS in 136.1 major league innings last year would equate to about a -15 in 120 games behind the plate (Montero was -2 last year in 825 innings while back-up David Ross was at +5 in 402.1, just for some frame of reference). Unfortunately for the Cubs, he’s really no better in the outfield. The assessments range from “unplayable” (pretty harsh) to “could get to 40 in left field” (that’s about 20% below average). On a good day, and someday, he’s considered as perhaps having the potential to be Matt Holliday out there (and Holliday’s never been considered even average defensively) and a player who will drive in more than he’ll let in. So, the defensive hopes aren’t high, and they’re still just hopes. But Schwarber will almost certainly begin trying to realize them right from 2016’s opening bell.
CF – Jason Heyward
Offense (Bats Left): Heyward may be only 26 years old (last August) but he actually had his career offensive year as a 20 year old back in 2010 (he finished 2nd in the Rookie of the Year voting to Buster Posey) with the Braves. He hit his career high 27 home runs two years later (he had 18 as a rookie) but he’s never had an OPS within .035 of his rookie level of .849 since (and that was in that 2012 season) and last year’s .797 was 52 points off that mark. And, other than that 2012 season, he’s never hit more than 14 home runs in any single season (last year was 13 in 154 games and 610 PA’s). So, clearly, he’s never really delivered on the offensive promise he tendered as a 20 year old. Indeed, since then his slash line is .266/.344/.426 – not the stuff corner outfield legends are made from. But he’s always been a good on base guy and last year he posted a .293/.359/.439 line that, in his only season with the Cardinals, very definitely represents his best year since that rookie output. And he’s an effective base-stealer, having gone 23 for 26 last year and 66 for 81 since 2012. He’s likely never going to be the big power guy the Braves envisioned, though the friendly confines of Wrigley Field may well help (but don’t be too sure – Anthony Rizzo’s hit more on the road the last two years, and over his entire Cub career for that matter).
Defense (Throws Left): While Heyward’s bat since 2011 has made him essentially the barest tick above a major league average right fielder (.264/.330/.431; OPS .761 to Heyward’s .266/.344/.426; OPS .770), it’s his defense that separates him from the pack. Since 2011, Heyward has been credited with 104 runs saved above average (Rdrs at baseball-reference.com; DRS at FanGraphs.com), leading the majors in 3 of those five years (right field position only). Josh Reddick’s 62 over the same time span is a distant second, though Ender Inciarte’s 52 during 2014-15 at all three outfield positions nearly matched Heyward’s 56 (2 of which came in center field). And that segues nicely into the second part of this section. Despite Heyward being head and shoulders above all other right fielders in the major leagues defensively, and one of the very best defensive players regardless of position, the Cubs have every intention and expectation to move him off that position and have him assume the center field opening (created by the departure of free agent Dexter Fowler).
Are they crazy?!? This writer’s first reaction was yes, they are. But that was a knee-jerk reaction, not the result of any thoughtful analysis. And that shows a different story. During his 6 year career, Heyward has been credited with one Defensive Run Saved every 65 innings in right field (he’s played there for 6,756.1 innings). In his much smaller sample size of 233 innings (2012, 2013, 2015) in center field, it’s been 1:78. His Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games played (UZR/150) at the two positions has been 18.4 and 11.1. He’s not Kevin Kiermaier or even Lorenzo Cain in center, but he’s probably better than Carlos Gomez. And he’s certainly a better choice then Jorge Soler or Kyle Schwarber, the other two likely outfield starters in 2016. Of course if the Cubs trade Soler (that’s probably off the table by now) and acquire another center fielder (there’s actually been talk about Gomez, but that’s also more historical than current), this all becomes moot and Heyward goes back to right. But if center field is to be his home in 2016, he can be expected to be at least better than average there defensively (and his bat certainly plays better there). His individual value will be lower, perhaps, but his value to the team may well be greater, if that makes sense to the readers. More than one pundit has already crowned the Cubs favorites to play in the 2016 World Series, and with the young talent on this team and Epstein/Hoyers’ ability to add the missing pieces, it’s not inconceivable that they will both do that and make one or two additional appearances over the next 4-5 years. If that happens, every long-suffering Cub fan will consider the Heyward deal a good one. The only certainty, however, is that Jason will collect an average of $23 million each year for the next eight seasons. Of course, Heyward reportedly has two opportunities to opt out (based on plate appearances), and the first is after just 3 years, so the time during which he’s on the Cubs’ payroll may be shorter lived.
RF – Jorge Soler
Offense (Bats Right): Last year was supposed to be Soler’s first full major league season, but an oblique injury curtailed it to 101 games and 404 PA’s. And he didn’t exactly excite in that playing time, going .262/.324/.399 with but 10 home runs while striking out exactly 30% of the time and showing that the 4:1 K/BB ratio we’d thought was aberrant in his 24 game audition in 2014 wasn’t. He’s still considered to have solid game and raw power and still profiles as a 25-30 home run per year guy in 600 or so at bats, though he was closer to half that last year. And let’s not forget that he only turns 24 towards the end of this month (he’s younger than Kris Bryant). Soler is no base stealing threat (though he did go 3 for 4 last year) and he really has no split (actually handling right handed pitchers slightly better than lefties last year). There was a fair amount of talk during this off-season about trading Soler for a young, controllable, and highly rated starting pitcher. But Soler himself is a young, highly rated power hitter who, thanks to a 9 year, $30 million deal signed prior to the 2012 season, is team controlled for an incredibly modest salary of $3.67 million in 2016 and 2017, and just $4.67 million for each of the final 3 years of that deal. We’re thinking that the Cubs keeping Soler will prove to be one of those trades a club is happy wasn’t made.
Defense (Throws Right): Soler did not have a good year defensively last year. The vaunted arm wasn’t shown off much and, indeed, ended up rated just a tick below average, and his range was more that of a guy 10 years his senior. Only an above average sure-handedness kept his DRS at -8. Perhaps an injury free season and some tips from one of the major league’s best ever in right field (that being new teammate Jason Heyward) will help Soler get back on track next year. Because there’s little in his past, prior to 2015, that suggests he can’t be at least average or slightly above defensively.
C – Miguel Montero
Offense (Bats Left): Montero actually had a pretty good year offensively, at least by his own current offensive standards. 2015 saw the catcher post his best slash line (.248/.329/.409) since 2012; his 15 home runs and 53 RBI were also his most since that 2012 season. It certainly wasn’t a superb offensive showing, and indeed was well off Montero’s peak years performances from 2009-12, but it reversed his two year decline and, as we’d suggested heading into last year, that’s the best the Cubs should have expected from the 32 year old Montero (he’ll be 33 next July). He only appeared in 113 games – his lowest total since 2010 – but even that took returning from a thumb injury more than 2 weeks quicker than anticipated. He’s signed through 2017 (at $14 million each of the next two years), doesn’t catch (or play) on the days Jon Lester pitches, and next year is his age 32 season so he’ll be around a couple more years and, to get in 133 games (his 4 year average prior to 2015) he’d have to play every game Lester doesn’t pitch (and Lester could only start 29 times). Neither of those is likely to happen so the Cubs shouldn’t expect more than 120 games or so from Montero next year, assuming he’s healthy. And they probably shouldn’t expect an offensive performance even as good as last year’s.
Defense (Throws Right): Other than an odd 82nd ranking (out of 122 catchers) in pitch framing in 2013, Montero has consistently been among baseball’s best at that particular skill (or outcome), ranking 17th in 2012, 1st in 2014, and 6th last year. Otherwise, last year, his caught stealing percentage took a tumble – at 20%, it was the lowest of his career (league average was 28%) – while he reversed his three year slide in Defensive Runs Saved, still finishing -2 in that category in 2015. Last year our suggestion that “his defense, overall, is slightly above average at worst” was probably an overstatement – off last year’s performance behind the plate, we’d have to more fairly rate his as slightly below average in all facets save pitch framing, where clearly he’s excellent. Not sure what that does from an overall standpoint so we won’t go there.
LF – Chris Coghlan
Offense (Bats Left): Coghlan played a bunch last year – 148 games, 503 PA’s – and he had a pretty good offensive year (.250/.341/.443 with 47 extra base hits – 16 of them homers – while also going 11 for 13 in steals). That’s two solid seasons in a row as a Cub – .265/.346/.447 – showing that his promise as a 24 year old rookie with the Marlins in 2009 (.321/.390/.460 with 46 extra base hits – 9 homers, in 128 games and 565 PA’s) wasn’t entirely empty. Indeed, last year was good for 1.9 WAR while 2009 only totaled 1.0. So that means that, despite the slash line deficits, he was 90% better in 2015 vs. what still looks like his career year in 2009, right? Well, not exactly, but we’ll get to the other half below. Oh, and by way, we’d suggested something like .276/.347/.419 for 2015 in last years’ projections, missing on the average but falling 18 short on OPS – we’d also thought 30 doubles, 10 homers, and a 1.0 WAR were realistic; Coghlan actually posted 25, 16, and the aforementioned 1.9. So, actually, it can reasonably be said that he exceeded our expectations, though not by any long margin. He didn’t hit left-handers at all last year, but he wasn’t allowed to face them much (only 49 of those 503 PA’s came against southpaws); while he’s always had that same split, it was far more pronounced last year. That’s already made him a platoon player but that option is gone in left field as Kyle Schwarber has a similar split (and is a much more powerful hitter) and Jorge Soler, a right handed hitter, is actually a touch better against righties than lefties so there’s no platoon situation for Coghlan in right field. And he certainly isn’t going to make Jason Heyward a part time player in center. So, while he probably makes the club (he’s under contract for $4.8 million next year) 100 games and 300 PA’s may both prove to be out of reach.
Defense (Throws Right): One can call it progress – Coghlan’s dWAR in that 2009 rookie year was -2.5 while last year was merely -0.7 – but he’s at -1.5 for his Cub career. On the other hand, his DRS in 2009 was -19, he posted -15 in his first year with the Cubs in 2014, and he soared all the way to 0 last year, proving questionable only in center field (but we knew that). Seems like significant improvement in the span of just one year, doesn’t it? Of course it does, but it’s more a mirage than anything else. Coghlan just happened to have a good year with the glove, legs, and routes in the outfield last year. That doesn’t change the fact that his reputation as a poor defender is a well-deserved one earned over well more than one season. He did see some time at second and first bases last year. That helps his reputation for versatility, but not for defense.
C – David Ross
Offense (Bats Right): Ross, who will be 39 before the 2016 regular season opens, has reached the point where he simply can’t hit, not that he was ever particularly good at it – last year was .176/.267/.252 in 182 PA’s; career is now .228/.314/.421 in 2,439, and he hasn’t sniffed any one of those averages in the past 3 seasons. But he’s signed through 2016 (for $2.5 million), is a superb club house guy, pitched two perfect innings last year, and also fills the role as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, so he’ll be on the 25 man roster for 2016 come opening day. Thanks to Montero’s injury, Ross started 14 more games than Lester did while coming on later in 13 others
Ross has made a long (12 years) and fruitful (almost $18 million since 2004, and that doesn’t include the $5 million he’s guaranteed for the next two years) career out of being a defense first, back-up catcher. While he’s had his moments with the bat in the past, his strikeout rate over the past 5 years has been 29.9% and it’s actually been climbing (34.8% over the last 2 years). He’s not planning on getting cheated at the plate and he’ll smack a few over the fence next year, but he’s more of a .200 hitter now who may never again see even a .300 OBP. Limiting Ross’ plate appearances will simply be one of the many challenges facing Joe Maddon.
Defense (Throws Right): As Jon Lester’s personal catcher over at least the past two seasons, Ross’ caught stealing percentage has suffered. Having achieved a career rate of 39% through 2013, Ross has been below league average in each of the past two seasons, yet not dramatically so with a 24% rate against the 28% league average. In pitch framing, he’s ranked in the top 15 each of the past 4 years (12th last year). And, despite his very much part time role, he contributed 0.9 dWAR last year due to the preceding, and a +5 DRS. He’s a good defensive catcher, perhaps one of the best even at his relatively advance age. And with that bat, he needs to be.
2B,3B – Tommy La Stella
Offense (Bats Left): Last year he only got about a third of the major league playing time he did in 2014 (that with the Braves) but acquitted himself just about as well – he now has a .254/.327/.332 line in 126 major league games (435 PA’s). That’s not bad for a utility infielder. Unfortunately, La Stella is first, foremost, and (mostly) always a second baseman – he’s only appeared in 16 games at third base and none elsewhere in his pro career, and 12 of those were in the majors last year with the Cubs where he played 52.0 innings and posted a fielding average of .857. Small sample size for sure but it seems like the Cubs were/are trying to force something here that just doesn’t really exist. He turned 27 the end of January and at least one pundit has predicted that he’ll be on the major league opening day roster in 2016. That may well be the case, as the Cubs don’t have many back-up options in the infield (even if Baez makes the squad, there would still be an opening).
Defense (Throws Right): La Stella actually played up at second base last year (in his 88.0 innings) but third base, also in limited duty, was mostly a disaster. We’ll stand by the bigger major league sample from 2014 that caused us to say:
He played in 93 games last year and showed below average metrics for a full season. So he’s below average as a defender, something that squares with reports from some who watched him in the minors.
On the Major League 40 Man Roster
2B – Javier Baez
Offense (Bats Right): If things had broken a bit differently for Baez last year (no pun intended), he might have been the guy summoned for DH duty, instead of Schwarber, in the middle of June last year. But, alas, he broke a finger 8 days before that call-up so he was off the table. But before that real break, he’d been raking at AAA Iowa (.314/.386/.536) and, better yet, had his strikeout percentage down to an acceptable 25.3%. He missed just about 6 weeks but picked up right where he’d left off, finishing his AAA season (on August 31) with a line of .324/.385/.527 with 13 home runs in 313 PA’s, and lowered his strikeout percentage further to 24.3%. Baez was called up the next day when rosters expanded and, in 28 games and 80 PA’s with the big league club, went .289/.325/.408 with 6 doubles and one homer (but a K rate of an even 30%, or a touch less than Kris Bryant’s). Even that strikeout rate represented a plus move for the youngster (23 last December). He’s now, presumably, behind Ben Zobrist on the depth chart so his usual spot is taken. And with experience at only second, short (mostly), and third – and too young and talented to be relegated to an infield utility role – he probably gets another ticket to Iowa to start 2016. But don’t be surprised if he doesn’t get some looks in the outfield this Spring and, if the Cubs like what they see, he just might break camp as a second, and far younger, faster (he did go 17 for 20 in stolen bases in AAA last year) and more powerful (vs. Zobrist), super-utility guy. ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers sees him as lock to make the team out of Spring Training – we don’t necessarily see that at quite the same level of certainty.
Defense (Throws Right): He only played 64 innings at third last year with the Cubs but showed excellent range, reasonably sure hands, and ended up with a +4 DRS (that’s an incredibly big number for such a small number of innings – would convert to something like a +56 in 100 games – but we’ll call it a small sample size). At second base (210.0 innings) he was marked off for range and errors, scoring plus only at turning the double play and shortstop (255.0) was much the same though, oddly, his range was better. In the minors last year, he spent most of his time at shortstop and booted 17 in 42 games – that’s not at all good. He’s still got (a bit) of a reputation as a solid middle infield defensive player, but it’s starting to wear a little thin.
OF – Matt Szczur
Offense (Bats Right): Remember, it’s “Szczur” as in “Caesar”. But, under any name, he’s not yet been kingly in his major league opportunities – in 80 games and 146 PA’s over the last two years he’s gone .224/.276/.343. He’s had better luck at the AAA level, particularly last year when he posted .292/.355/.442 in 70 games and 305 PA’s, but that was a pretty decent spike over his more or less full season numbers at AAA in 2014 and AA in 2013. He’s a decent on base guy and one who’s improved his stolen base success rate over the last two years (52 for 64 after being a more prolific, but less successful, base thief earlier), but he doesn’t have anything more than moderate power, and even that might be a bit of a stretch. And, despite being a right handed hitter, he does not punish lefties – he’s actually been better against righties the last two years. Szczur turned 27 last July so his prospect days are officially over; he now profiles as nothing beyond a Four A player or a major league 5th outfielder. Whether the Cubs have a spot for the latter in 2016 is an open question. Regardless, he still is likely to get some major league playing time next year.
Defense (Throws Right): Szczur is an excellent defender at any of the three outfield positions so that, along with his base stealing abilities, just about insure he’ll be on the field with the Cubs at least a little bit next year.
OF/2B – Arismendy Alcantara
Offense (Bats Both): He hasn’t hit in the majors, only got 32 plate appearances last year with the Cubs, and now has submarined what had before been solid minor league stats – last year he went .231/.285/.399 in 120 games and 499 PA’s with AAA Iowa. He still flashes some power – 52 extra base hits with Iowa last year, 10 of them homers – but his plate discipline seems to be devolving, and it’s always been a long way from good. Not surprisingly, it didn’t matter which side of the plate Alcantara stood at last year; in 2014, he was strong against lefties but handled right handers poorly – and both of these showings were in AAA. He’s still only 24 (last October) and still has excellent speed (like he still flashes some power), but at 5’-10” and 170 lbs he seems to have decided that swinging hard at just about everything is his ticket to the big time. That clearly won’t work – his power is nowhere near that good – and maybe 2015 proves to be but a bump in the road, though that will take a change in his approach if a march towards some type of super-utility player at the major league level is to be successful. Undoubtedly, he falls off of the Top 100 Prospect list heading into 2016, but the Cubs do have the luxury of time to see if he can right his particular ship. And next year he’ll get to show if it was 2014 or 2015 that was the aberration at the AAA level.
Defense (Throws Right): Last year we said:
He’s about average in center field, but his arm is weak, and slightly above average at second base (where that lack of arm strength doesn’t matter as much). So, from a versatility standpoint, that weakish wing probably makes him too much of a liability as a sub at shortstop, third base, and right field. But there’s plenty of other spots where his glove, and his arm, will play.
Alcantara didn’t do anything, at any level, last year to change that opinion.
3B – Christian Villanueva
Offense (Bats Right): First the bad news: Villanueva has played almost exclusively at third base (633 games) as a minor leaguer (he’s yet to make his MLB debut), and he turns 25 years old in June. That, of course, puts him behind Kris Bryant, who actually is 6 months younger. He has put in 37 appearances at first base – uh oh, Anthony Rizzo territory. So, presumably, his path to the big leagues is his vast experience in left field (11), second base (8), and designated hitter (9). Doubt the first two will work, and we know the last won’t. Let’s turn to the other side: Villanueva has some power. Not great power – he poled 20 last year in 536 PA’s, almost all in AAA, and 19 in 472 in 2013 (AA). The 10 in 507 in 2014, split just about evenly between AA and AAA, doesn’t quite make the good news category, but over his entire minor league career he’s been good for 10-20 if he gets about 500 PA’s. That, however, is more typically defined as moderate power. But, continuing with the positive, Villanueva doesn’t strike out much – only 85 whiffs last year and 100ish has been his norm in 500 or so PA’s; flipping that a bit, he also doesn’t walk much, about 35-40 in 500 PA’s. So, he likes to swing the bat and usually makes contact. However, not enough to change the fact that he’s shown to be a .250-.260 average hitter in the higher levels (AA, AAA). And his walk rate has only allowed for an OBP of about .310 at those levels, and that’s a solid 15-20 points below big league average. If Villaneuva were a 25-35 home run per year guy, those would be acceptable marks at the big league level, but he’s not that. But he makes up for it with base-running speed and base-stealing success, yes? Well, he did go 32 for 38 as a 20 year old at the A ball level. Unfortunately, that was an aberrant high water mark, for he’s gone 11 for 19 over the past 3 years at those AA and AAA levels. There’s perhaps enough promise here to warrant a 40 man roster spot (as he has been granted) but it’s hard to say that he necessarily deserves a big league shot – the only thing harder to say is that he’ll get one. The rub, however, is that Villanueva is out of options and has to clear waivers if the Cubs don’t carry him on the 25 man roster in 2016 (and all of it). That isn’t going to happen so he may have played his last game in the Cubs’ organization as some major league club with a hole at third might be willing to take a flyer on him.
Defense (Throws Right): He’s considered a slick fielder at third with a powerful arm. However, though remembering he’s not played any games on the best fields in the game (those in the majors), he’s been good for an error about every 5-1/2 games with a fielding average of but .935 – that’s about 25 errors over 140 games. Chase Headley, uncharacteristically, led the majors with 23 last year at third, but his fielding average was .958. Kris Bryant – yeah, that guy again – had the lowest fielding average (.951) in the majors last year of those with at least 120 games at the position. On the other hand, Villanueva’s career 2.77 range factor per 9 innings would have placed him 6th in the big leagues last year. So it might be suggested that at least some of those boots are the result of Villanueva getting to balls many don’t, and some may be due to field conditions. Given his reputation with the leather, he might be even more attractive as a third base option for a non-contender, particularly for a $50,000 waiver fee.
C – Willson Contreras
Offense (Bats Right): The Cubs think highly of the nearly 24 year old (come May) Contreras and he only raised his stock with a superb maiden season at AA last year, going .333/.413/.478 in 126 games and 521 PA’s with 34 doubles, 8 home runs, 75 RBI, 57 walks and only 62 strikeouts. He followed that up with a fine performance in the AZFL (.283/.361/.547, including 3 homers, in 14 games). It would seem that Contreras is fairly neatly poised to reach the majors as a back-up in 2017 (the final season of Miguel Montero’s contract) and take over the fulltime job the following year. Except for one thing that is. 2015 was far above anything he’d done offensively in his previous 4 years on US soil. In fact, he hadn’t been able to crack the .250 average, .320 OBP level in either A or High A ball in the previous two seasons and, until last year, his highest batting average had been .273 at the Low A level in 2012. A .370 BAbip may have had something to do with it, maybe a lot to do with it. The Cubs don’t think – no one thinks – that Contreras is even a .280 hitter at the major league level. Even his plate discipline and bat control last year were, for him, over the top; next year, almost certainly at AAA, will tell a lot about Contreras. If he shows the potential to be even a .260 hitter with doubles power and on base ability as a major leaguer, he’s a shoo-in to follow the track suggested above. Off his 2015 season, it’s hardly a high bar; off his previous two years, it may be out of reach.
Defense (Throws Right): Contreras has only been a catcher since 2012 and has yet to appear in more than 75 games behind the plate in any single season (that was last year). But he’s largely improved each year and now seems to be a guy with a solid average ability to control the running game and with good footwork. His only continuing bugaboo has been a bit of an erratic arm, something that’s eminently coachable.
3B – Jeimer Candelario
Offense (Bats Both): Candelario actually dialed things up in about a third of a season in AA last year, his first experience at that level, going .291/.379/.462 with 5 homers in 46 games and 182 PA’s. And he dialed it up another notch in 21 games and 89 PA’s in the AZFL (.329/.371/.610, also with 5 home runs). That’s all well and good but Candelario hasn’t been near those numbers since Low A ball in 2012 and actually scuffled in both 2013 and 2014, batting .256 and .223 in over 500 PA’s each year at one rung or another of A ball – two thirds of last season (82 games, 343 PA’s) saw .270/.318/.415 at High A. He only turned 22 last November so he’s still got some developing to do – like perhaps a full season at AA and maybe one at AAA – but he’s certainly on a fine uphill track currently. Whether it’s sustainable or aberrant is something that 2016 will presumably serve to show. Like Christian Villanueva, Candelario’s biggest obstacle is his fielding position – he’s been at third base for all but 7 of his 484 minor league games in the field.
Defense (Throws Right): And so far he’s also been Villanueva’s statistical near-twin with the glove, showing a .932 fielding average and 2.75 range factor per 9 innings over his minor league career. The same fielding issues that affect Villanueva likely impact Candelario as well.
1B – Dan Vogelbach
Offense (Bats Left): Vogelbach was drafted (2nd round, 2011) out of high school for his power (he’s a fireplug 6’-0”, 250 lbs, and some observers suggest that’s 20 lbs lower than actual) and he showed it off in short order, launching 17 (in 61 games and 283 PA’s) as a 19 year old at the Rookie and Low A levels in 2012. He slammed another 19, though in 566 PA’s, the next year at A and High A stops, following that up with 16 (500 PA’s) in a full season at High A in 2014. Last year a strained oblique limited him to 81 games and 330 PA’s, mostly at AA, and he totaled just 7 home runs (and his season ending .272/.403/.425 borrowed heavily from a .362 batting average in April – he went only .238 the rest of the way to his injury). Still, he’s been a solid .270-.280 hitter as he’s progressed, showing excellent on base skills and solid plate discipline. But the home run power has inexorably devolved to what can only be described as a moderate level. And that makes him less attractive given his position – every professional game in the field has been at first base – for, even at age 23 (last December), he isn’t going to dislodge a guy who’s only 3 years and 4 months his senior and signed through 2019. We’re talking, of course, about Anthony Rizzo. Where Vogelbach goes from here in the short term is easy – he likely spends most, if not all, of 2016 at AAA Iowa (though he may begin the year in Double A). Where he goes longer term is tougher – if he reverses the power decline without cutting the walks or increasing the strikeouts (at least by much), he potentially becomes attractive trade bait for something the Cubs need more, like young, controllable starting pitching (of a prospect nature).
Defense (Throws Right): The assessments here include “lack of mobility and athleticism” that, not surprisingly, has resulted in a “lack of range”. Vogelbach’s .991 minor league fielding average, even though hardly extraordinary at the position, suggests that he handles most of the balls he can get to. But that average won’t include the errors his infielders were charged with because he couldn’t get to, and therefore haul in, some of their throws. So, in short, he’s not considered even average at and around the first base bag.
Neither “Back to the Future II” nor Anthony Rizzo proved prophetic in 2015 (both having predicted, some 26 years apart, a World Series Championship for the Cubbies). Nonetheless, neither missed by much with the Cubs having rung up 97 wins and earning a berth in the National League Championship Series (where they lost to the New York Mets).
That was widely acknowledged as a year ahead of schedule for the North Siders, just as 2016 is being acknowledged as the year these Cubs come of age. However, while the Cubs seem to be nearly everyone’s pick to go at least go deep into the playoffs next year, the numbers start to diminish when the pick is for the National League Pennant or the 2016 World Series Championship. But not by much. The cautionary note to that, of course, having been witnessed as recently as last year when the Washington Nationals were in much the same position, and failed to even qualify for the post-season.
That being said, and some of this has been mentioned earlier, the 2016 Cubs;
So, what’s their weakness? Because, of course, every team has one (or more).
Setting the uncertainty of key injuries aside (because, also of course, every team has that Achilles’ heel), it’s defense. But even that’s a long way from bad – Russell is an elite defender at shortstop, Heyward can be expected to be a plus center fielder, even if not at the same level as his historical, and historic, right field defense, Rizzo is above average at first (and maybe better than that), and Bryant is almost certainly no worse than average at the hot corner. And the tandem of Montero and Ross behind the plate is at least OK, and better than that when the old guy (Ross) dons the tools of ignorance (though then there’s that bat). So then what’s the problem? Well, primarily it’s Schwarber in left (where he’s been termed “unplayable”), Soler in right (who seems to have gotten old early defensively), and Zobrist at second (where his defense is, charitably, below par). But, on the flip side, every one of those weak (or relatively weak, or scary weak) defenders bring elite, near elite, or, in the case of Soler, potentially elite or at least solid, bats to the line-up. So none will sit and all will play (though there’s always the chance that Javier Baez can relegate Zobrist to his normal super-sub role).
2016 will be a fun season to be a Cubs fan, and there have been few enough of those over, say, the past 107 years. Because, as most baseball, and all Cubs, fans know the last time this team hoisted a World Series Championship flag was after the 1908 season. To put that in some perspective (as if that’s necessary), this writer’s (who is a young 61) grandmother was born that same year, lived to be 95 years old, and has now been dead for nearly 13 years. Since then, the Cubs have lost 7 World Series, the last in 1945 (when this writer’s father was 12 years old). So 2016 will be the 71st year since the Cubs have even vied for that ever-elusive World Series title. For some further perspective, the hated (by Cubs fans) St Louis Cardinals have 6 titles since then (and 5 other appearances in the Fall Classic). But 2016 could, finally, be the year, at least for an appearance.