We’re now two months into the Cubs season, and I know a lot of you are considering just ignoring the rest of the season. The Cubs are bad, they are only occasionally actually fun to watch,and it’s summer. You know, there are things like the beach, headache-inducing 3D movies, cookouts with the family that inevitably end with somebody getting drunk and falling into the gas grill, there’s poison ivy to accidentally roll around in. Your options are limitless.
So, I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t stop watching the Cubs. You know, unless you plan on getting rich by doing a little sports betting against the Cubs.
No, I know, how about…
I’ve got nothing. Let’s call it a season, regroup and all meet in Mesa next March. Class dismissed!
Wait, you’re still here? Ah, screw it. You’re right. If we actually had better things to do, we’d have done them decades ago. So let’s take a tour around the mess of a roster, and try to figure out what’s going on, and more importantly, what the Cubs can trade these losers for.
Starlin Castro — Yesterday, Bob Nightengale of USA Today caused a little uproar when he reported that every Cub, except the immortal Jeff Samardzija, is on the trading block. There are two things that immediately come to mind about this.
1. Bob Nightengale is a moron. He’s always been a moron. Here’s all you need to know about Bob Nightengale. In his three managerial stops in San Francisco, Chicago and Cincinnati, when Dusty Baker wants to talk about how horribly he’s being treated by management, and how he needs a new contract to do his job, he calls Bob Nightengale and it gets printed immediately.
2. It’s wrong. There’s no way the only Cubs untouchable is Samardzija. You know who the Cubs untouchables are? They are nobody. Of course the Cubs would trade Starlin. They’ll trade anybody. Are they calling around and offering up Starlin? No. But if you make them an offer they’re going to consider it, and…miracle of all miracles…if they think your offer makes them better in the long term, they’ll say yes. These guys traded Nomar, which caused an uproar in Boston that is forgotten now, only because the Red Sox won the World Series that year (which, of course was the point of the trade in the first place). They also traded Hanley Ramirez, when he was the top prospect in baseball, and considered to be about as can’t miss as any prospect ever, and he didn’t miss, as his similarity scores cleary show.
So, of course they’ll trade Starlin if they get the right offer. Is it likely that offer will come? No. But this is why the Cubs brought in Theo and Jed in the first place. It was to make the big decisions. Anybody can decide to try to trade Marlon Byrd. It takes balls to trade Starlin or Nomar or Hanley.
But anyway, all this talk about Starlin’s unlikely trade is covering something up. Over the past few weeks, Starlin hasn’t just improved his defense…he’s pretty damned good now. That play he made in Houston where he sprawled out like Superman, popped up and made a great throw was pretty amazing. But he’s making the routine plays, and making them look…routine. Bryan LaHair is not real smooth around the bag, so where in the last two years, Starlin could rely on Derrek Lee or Carlos Pena to handle bad throws, he can’t do that now.
In April, he was a defensive basket case. He made seven errors, and looked like shit. It’s why people were clamoring for the Cubs to move him to the outfield. Now, that was maybe the dumbest idea ever. The kid is 22 years old. The team is terrible. Get him to put in extra work and prove he can handle the position. If he makes a few errors along the way, so what, he’s not going to cost them any important games. There are no important games this year. And, it turns out that his April sloppiness was actually a result of him trying to change his footwork. He was still thinking too much about what Dale Sveum and Pat Listach were trying to get him to do. But they’ve kept at it, and in May, he made only two errors, and as Sahadev Sharma pointed out on Twitter today, one of those was when his relay throw to the plate hit the baserunner in the back.
Imagine that? Instead of giving up, the Cubs resorted to the crazy strategy of hard work, and it looks like it’s paying off. Castro is currently second in the National League in Defensive Wins Above Replacement at 1.3. He was tied for first on Wednesday, but (incredibly) the guy he was tied with moved one tenth of a point ahead of him. Why is that incredible? Because the guy who moved ahead of him is Darwin Barney. That’s right gang, the Cubs have the two most valuable defensive players in the National League…right in the middle of the field. Who knew?
There are few offensive knocks on Starlin. He’s a career .300 hitter, who is on pace to join guys like DiMaggio and Cobb with 200 or more hits twice by the age of 22. Does he need to walk more? Yes, he does. But he still doesn’t strike out a lot. He only struck out 94 times last year in 674 at bats. He’s on pace to strike out more than 100 times this year, but still not a hellacious amount. He’s on pace to steal more than twice as many bases as he did last year, hit more homers and more triples. His doubles pace is off, which is kind of weird. I have no idea what to make of that.
Our good friend Len Kasper raised some eyebrows last week when he said that “in a good lineup, Castro would hit seventh.” Len says lots of smart stuff. I don’t necessarily think this is on that list. Should a 22 year old be hitting third most of the season? On a good team? No. So maybe that’s what Len meant. Fact is, we spend a lot of time looking for what’s wrong with players, and on this team it’s usually pretty obvious. Starlin’s their one bona fide good player. Maybe spend a little more time focusing on all of the stuff he’s good at for a while? He’s actually adding to that list.
Bryan LaHair – I just knocked his defense, but that’s about all you can knock with this guy. Last year, the Cubs paid Carlos Pena $10 million bucks (well, last yar they paid him half, and this year they’re paying him the other half) to hit .225 with 28 HR and 80 RBI. Pena did walk 101 times, and played Gold Glove caliber defense, but couldn’t LaHair have likely put up similar numbers (with a higher average and worse defense) for a lot cheaper? He had just come off a nice season in Iowa, albeit one that didn’t warrant him a call up at the end of 2010, even though Derrek Lee was off to Atlanta. (Hey, who was gonna bump Xavier Nady and Micah Hoffpauir out of the lineup?) This year, LaHair was handed the first base job in spring training, but it felt mostly like he was just there as a placeholder until Anthony Rizzo put in his time at AAA. LaHair was awful in the spring, and then when he finally started to hit just before camp broke, he hurt his back and dealt with nerve pain that might not totally be gone. So expectations had gone in the crapper, and they weren’t that high to begin with.
But LaHair did what he’s done at every level. He hit. He got on base. He hit for power. He’s not a superstar, and he is 29, but it’s amazing it’s taken him this long to get a big league job. He’s useful, and not every big league player is. He leads NL first basemen in homers with 10, he’s cooled off recently, but he still has an OPS of .979, and he’s made it easier for the Cubs to fend off criticism for leaving Rizzo in Des Moines. At some point, probably late this month, Rizzo will come up and the Cubs have to find an outfield spot for LaHair. He’s played mostly first in the minors, but he’s logged enough outfield time to be comfortable out there. He’s slow, and he should probably be hidden in left, but until somebody takes Alfonso Soriano off the Cubs hands, that can’t happen. So the Cubs will have to move David DeJesus from right to center and put LaHair in right. And then pray nobody ever hits the ball to right. Or left. (Actually, we’ll get to Soriano’s defense in a moment.)
All in all, LaHair’s a great story. He’s a deserving big leaguer and he has an outside chance at sneaking onto the All-Star Team. Hell, Vance Law made one, why not Bryan LaHair?
Since the Cubs feel like they have his first base replacement, it might not be the worst idea in the world to shop him at the deadline. He’s at an age where when the Cubs are finally competitive again, he’ll be…dead.
Alfonso Soriano — I’ve never understood the hatred Cubs fans have for Soriano. Well, I mean other than the fact that a large portion of the Cubs fanbase is dumb as a post. I’m not happy his enormous contract is on the books, but other than occasionally standing at home plate and watching a ball he was sure was long gone bounce off the wall, it’s not like Soriano doesn’t play hard. He doesn’t say stupid shit, he doesn’t drive his teammates crazy. He’s just overpaid. Hell, if we all took time to boo anybody that was overpaid we’d be too busy following David Haugh around to even got to a game.
One impressive thing about Soriano this year is how much improved his defense has been. Every Cubs manager who has had Soriano (Lou, Quade and now Sveum) have all said Soriano was willing to put in extra work. So why is he just now figuring it out? A lot of credit is given to Dave McKay…but were the former Cubs coaches so inept that they couldn’t teach Alfonso how to track a flyball?
We all hope that Soriano will get hot and some impulsive owner will talk himself into taking a portion of his bloated contract off the Cubs hands. I can’t see that happening this year. Next year it’s a possibility. It will happen between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. So, in other words, don’t hold your breath.
Darwin Barney — Our vaguely Asian second baseman is OK. He’s the kind of player who won’t kill you, but one that you should always be trying to find an upgrade at his spot. He was good early, then terrible, and he’s been decent of late. His walk-off homer on Wednesday against the Padres, not only should have led to San Diego being being demoted to the Pacific Coast League, but it also gave him a career high in homers, with three. His defense has been excellent, as evidenced by the fact he leads the league in defensive WAR. People for some reason want to compare Barney to Ryan Theriot, but Theriot was a baseball retard, and Darwin is the opposite of that. Barney might be a candidate to be traded at the deadline because he’s the kind of player who would really be valuable on a team that already had a good offense.
Ian Stewart — Defensively he’s excellent. Offensively? He’s a mess. He landed on the right team, because the Cubs will trot him out there every day and let him prove he can’t hit big league pitching. Unfortunately, I think he’s up to the task. It’s weird, because he walks a fair amount, he doesn’t strike out THAT much (I mean compared to LaHair he’s Wade Boggs) but he makes a lot of pitiful contact. He has to lead the league in balls that roll three feet in front of home plate. And then, on occasion he’ll absolutely crush a ball. You know who does that? Bad baseball players.
Tony Campana — The good news is that he’s getting on base a lot more often this year than last. The bad news is that his on base average is trending down after a great start. Because he has no power (his career slugging average is lower than his on base average–which is low to begin with) the only way he’s useful is if he can get on base at a .380 to .400 clip. He can’t come close to that. When he’s on base he’s a holy terror, because he’s probably the fastest player in baseball, and he has pretty good baserunning instincts. But he’s useless defensively (his arm is as bad or worse than Juan Pierre’s). He’s a novelty act. He’s on the perfect team this year, but there is no future for him. Anywhere.
David DeJesus — He’s a nice, solid player. He does everything pretty well (except steal bases.) His on base average has rebounded to .379 after an injury plagued season last year. He’s the kind of player a contender could use down the stretch, but I have a feeling he’s more likely to be traded next year in the second year of his two year contract than this year. At some point in June he’s going to have to move to center to make room for LaHair in the OF and get Rizzo in the lineup.
Joe Mather — He’s playing third against lefties, and some center, and when he plays he bats third. Holy crap, this team is bad. Mather’s a good utility player, but that should be the extent of his role. He was a good find by Jed and Theo, but it’s a testament to how thin this roster is that he’s needed to play this big of a role.
Geovany Soto — Until this year, Geovany had been on an every other year plan. One good, one bad, one good, one bad. Last year was bad. This year’s been bad. The future is either Steve Clevenger or Welington Castillo (or, maybe neither), but it’s not Soto. They’ll play him everyday when he gets of the DL in an attempt to build some trade value. But I fear it’s a lost cause.
Steve Clevenger — After 11 games and 26 at bats he was hitting .500. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict he won’t keep that up. He’s a solid catcher and he bats lefthanded which makes him useful. His minor league hitting stats are fairly impressive, and he projects to a slightly above average big league hitter.
Welington Castillo — He’s more talented than Clevenger behind the plate, and his minor league hitting numbers are solid. The Cubs could do worse than a Clevenger-Castillo platoon. You know, kind of like the Joe Girardi-Rick Wrona platoon the ’89 Cubs had. (Well, actually hopefully better than that.)
Reed Johnson — Here’s a guy almost guaranteed to be traded to a contender. Even at 35 he’s still a useful extra outfielder. Well, until he throws his back out. With the Cubs luck, that will happen on July 30.
Jeff Baker — For his career he kills lefties, and while he’s been better against them than righties this year, he hasn’t been great against either. He’s supposed to be a utility player who can play first, third, the outfield and especially second base. But he’s only played first, right and left this year. Shows what the Cubs think of his second base defense. (They think it sucks.) I can’t imagine he has any trade value.
Blake DeWitt –He’s been put on waivers twice in eight months and cleared both times. Enjoy Des Moines, Blake. You’re going to be there…forever.
Adrian Cardenas — He has four big league hits. All doubles. Fascinating, I know. I think part of the reason he doesn’t play more is because his number is too big. I don’t mean too high, just too big. He’s too little a guy to have 45 on his back. It makes him look slow. I have no idea what I’m writing about at this point. Just change the number, Adrian. Give that a shot.
Blake Lalli — He was never supposed to play in the big leagues, and yet he got to play in six games, he got a big league hit (two, actually), and his OPS plus is -10. So he’s got that going for him.
Koyie Dolan Hill — The day the Cubs announced that Castillo was hurt, I jokingly tweeted that they needed to find out where Koyie was. The sad reality was that they had, and they’d already traded for him. Koyie is an awesome guy, but he’s an awful baseball player. He’ll be cut when Castillo comes off the DL, unless he’s smart enough to fake an injury of his own, just to avoid having to finish the year in the Mexican League. (If he can hack it.)
Matt Garza — If Jon Heyman is to believed, the Yankees are hot after Garza, and that’s not a bad minor league system to go shopping in. The Cubs are considering signing Garza to a long term contract, because he’s a good pitcher, and still young, but a trade is more likely. By far the biggest concern with Garza is his awful fielding. It was ridiculous last year when he made seven errors, and had a terrible .788 fielding percentage. This year, it’s .750. You seriously have wonder why teams don’t bunt on him early in games just to make him prove he can throw the ball to first. Because he can’t. At least not right now.
If the Cubs trade him, experts are going to want to judge the Cubs haul to what it cost them to get him from Tampa. At the time, the price seemed steep. Sam Fuld was of course the greatest player ever. But aside from that, Chris Archer was a promising starter, Robinson Chirinos looked like a useful–if kind of old–second catcher, Brandon Guyer had a solid, if unspectacular outfield bat, and Hak-Ju Lee was a top shortstop prospect. In fact, baseball sage Steve Stone was all over Jim Hendry for trading Lee, who Stone is convinced will be better than Castro. So how does it look two years later?
Fuld hasn’t played all year yet with a bum wrist. Archer is 3-6 with a 4.76 ERA at AAA. Chirinos is on Tampa’s 60-day DL with a concussion. Guyer has played three games in the bigs this year (he played in 15 last year) and has a career .188 average. Lee is the interesting one.
He played very well in high class A last year. He hit .318 with a good .389 on base average with 11 triples and 28 stolen bases and he’s by all accounts an excellent defensive shortstop. This flew in the face of Cubs scouts who were convinced that his glove would be great but that he wouldn’t hit advanced pitching. So Tampa promoted him to AA Montgomery, and Lee struggled, he hit only .190 and struck out 22 times in 24 games. At 20, he was slightly young for the level, so nobody thought much of it. So this should be his full season year at AA, and it’s not going well. He’s hitting only .233, he’s not getting on base (.300) and he has struck out 46 times in only 53 games. Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too.
Ryan Dempster — While the Cubs have insisted they’d like to talk to Dempster about a contract extension. Those talks would probably be like this:
Theo — Ryan, we’d like to talk to you about a long-term contract.
Ryan — Great.
Theo– What I mean to say is that we wanted to tell you there’s no chance in hell we’d sign you to one. You’ll be 36 next year, and frankly, you’re getting worse.
Ryan — Gee, thanks?
Dempster has pitched a lot better than his 0-3 record shows, and he’s only had one bad start (his last one against San Diego), so his value should be pretty high. He’s in the last year of his contract so there’s no commitment to any team that trades for him, beyond the season, and the Cubs can hope every other team forgets that he’s completely useless in any kind of big game. Dempster has 10-5 no trade rights, and so it makes sense that Theo would meet with him now. He has to impress on Dempster that there’s no reason to stick around to the end of the season if the Cubs have no intention of bringing him back next year.
Jeff Samardzija — For years I’ve written that if Samardzija could ever throw strikes he’d be good. I don’t think I ever believed he could. But he is, and damned if he isn’t good. His future is bright, too, because he doesn’t have a lot of innings on his arm. The same thing that held him back, is now his biggest asset. Because he was an All-American football player at Notre Dame, he only played spring baseball, never fall, so that kept his college workload down, and he has spent most of his career in the bullpen. So he’s 27, and has low miles. He could be good for quite some time. Who knew? USA Today said he’s the only Cubs untouchable but with Theo and Jed around that’s crap. Everybody is touchable for the right price. If only it were that way for John Travolta. Huh?
Paul Maholm — He is what we thought he is. Pretty good, nothing special, very inconsistent. He was awful early, then really good, and now…just meh. He’s not a bad fourth starter, and he’s paid like it. With no pitching prospects on the horizon, the Cubs are likely counting on Maholm to make 30 starts next year, so he won’t be traded. But for the right price…
Chris Volstad — Sucks. At least now he can suck in Iowa.
Travis Wood — The Sean Marshall trade gets better all the time. The Cubs got three players. Wood, who was hilariously awful in the spring and had to spend April in Des Moines (he’s up now and he’s not exactly setting the world on fire), Dave Sappelt, who had a chance to grab an outfield spot in the spring, but was awful and is now hitting .229 at Iowa, and Ronald Torreyes a tiny little second baseman who the Cubs described as a “line drive machine.” The machine needs service, because it’s hitting .184 at Daytona.
Randy Wells — He’s in the bullpen now, and he’s made two starts, and he’s…Randy Wells. He still puts in his work, then fires up the Pontiac Fiero, heads to a country bar in Alsip and hits on the girl with the most teeth. He’s living the dream.
Carlos Marmol — In 2007 and 2008, Marmol was an undeniable force in the Cubs bullpen. He was so good it was ridiculous. Now he’s just ridiculous. Maybe he threw too many sliders and his arm is shot. Maybe he never threw strikes and it just took teams four years to figure out to stop swinging. Whatever it is, he’s not particularly effective. The Cubs would love for him to put it together long enough to get him back in the closer role and then trade him. That’s not going to happen.
Rafael Dolis — The kid has a future, but it’s just that, “a future.” He doesn’t throw enough strikes to be effective, and it showed, and he’s in Des Moines now.
Michael Bowden — He just was DFA’d, but because he was so ineffective, he figures to clear waivers and end up in Iowa. He has two pitches, a straight 90 MPH fastball that just screams “hit me” and an 83 MPH something that doesn’t break very much and also yells “hit me.” He’s really terrible.
Shawn Camp — He’s a 36 year old middle reliever on his fourth team and the other day Sveum said “he’s probably our MVP.” That’s how terrible this team is.
James Russell — He’s by far the team’s best reliever, and he’s the reason they could trade Marshall (it’d have been nice if every guy they got for Marshall wasn’t lousy), and if the Cubs were actually competitive he should probably be their closer, but because this team is going nowhere, it makes little sense to hold your one good reliever for a save chance that might never come.
Lendy Castillo — Is too young to be in the big leagues, but has a great arm. The Cubs are currently stashing the Rule Fiv’er on their DL, but at some point they’ll have to put him back on the roster, because he has to be on the active roster for 90 days to shake his Rule 5 status so the Cubs can put him in AA next year where he belongs. You can envision him being a useful big league pitcher…but it’s going to be a while.
Casey Coleman — Still tiny and bad.
Blake Parker — He’s steadily climbed up through the Cubs’ system, and was good in a half season at Iowa after a promotion last year and so far this year there. Don’t get too excited…or attached.
Anthony Rizzo — One of the hazards of having a shitty minor league system is that the top prospects in the system are overhyped. Rizzo is a good prospect, but between the terribleness of the Cubs, and the inflated numbers you can put up in the pitching poor PCL, Rizzo is suddenly seen as a savior. He’s not going to hit 40 homers and drive in 120 runs out of the shoot…or maybe ever. He should have no problem becoming a good player, but there’s really no reason to think he’s a safe bet to be a superstar. His offense was suppressed at Petco Park in his short run there last year, and should fit well into Wrigley, but Cubs fans need to dial back the expectations, because where they are now, Rizzo has no way to go but down.
Kerry Wood — His departure was pretty cool. He got one last appearance in front of a full Wrigley Field, he got a couple of great ovations, he struck out his last batter (he’d also struck out the first he ever faced), and he walked off the field and got a huge hug from Tony Campana. What more could you ask? I find it frustrating that I have to explain to some morons that Kerry Wood’s career was only disappointing in that at one point we thought he might become an all-time great. Instead, we settled for pretty goddamned good. He’s an awesome guy who was always easy to root for, and provided some unforgettable moments. He took a powerful, but poorly constructed right arm and got 15 seasons out of it. It was a lot of fun to watch.