The City of Broad Shoulders’ Adam Levy and Josh Frydman team up for another COBS Podcast, dissecting the Cubs deadline deals, including the Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano trades, and what other moves might be coming.
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Another year, another starting pitcher fire sale on the north side. For the second consecutive July, the Cubs have managed to trade away two of their best starting pitchers to a contender looking to beef up its rotation in the midst of a pennant race: Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm last season, Scott Feldman and Matt Garza this season.
As evidenced over the past two years, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have a clearcut plan for how they want to rebuild this franchise, and it’s simple: take low-risk, mediocre-reward fliers on decent free agent starters by signing them to one year deals with the hope that Chris Bosio can help turn around their careers before trading them for prospects at the deadline (Maholm and Feldman); trade top of the rotation pitchers with expiring contracts for as much as they can possibly get (Dempster, Garza); trade shitty contracts, compliments of Jim Hendry, for a bag of cracker jacks (Carlos Zambrano, Geovany Soto, Carlos Marmol and hopefully Alfonso Soriano); draft hard-working players with superior leadership qualities and great character (Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who counts here because Jed Hoyer has brought him to all three organizations he has worked for); and stay active in the international market by adding to their loads of bonus money via trades and acquiring top-notch talent (Jorge Soler, Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez).
Of course, sticking to such a rebuild plan isn’t as easy as it sounds; it takes an extraordinary amount of time, patience and baseball intelligence before the dividends begin to pay off. Fortunately, Epstein and Hoyer possess all three (time by ownership’s standards), and they have yet to be fooled by anyone (except maybe Edwin Jackson). The Garza trade is yet another example of their major rebuild plan coming to fruition, and Cubs fans are finally starting to gain some excitement as they’ve begun to spot that small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Who have the Cubs acquired from Texas in exchange for Garza’s services, you ask? Let’s find out.
Mike Olt, 3B
Once upon a time (like last winter), Mike Olt was one of the top prospects in all of baseball (#16 in MLB’s prospect rankings before the 2012 season, #22 in Baseball America’s prospect rankings before this season). The soon-to-be 25-year-old third baseman out of the University of Connecticut has unbelievable raw power (“probably grade-70 on the 20-80 scouting scale,” according to ESPN’s Keith Law) from the right side of the plate. He finished his 2012 Double-A campaign with 28 homers, 17 doubles and 82 RBIs in 354 at-bats (that’s one homer every 12.6 at-bats) before getting called up to the big leagues and struggling mightily. He is also an exceptional, MLB-ready infielder who could provide steady defense at the hot corner – he just never really got a real chance with Adrian Beltre holding the fort down in Texas. Although there’s a whole lot to like about Olt, there’s also a whole lot to be skeptical about.
For starters, Olt has had recurring vision issues since sustaining a concussion during the Dominican Winter League in November. It’s easy to say that any rest and treatment he received should help bring him back to full health soon enough, but with concussions, you just never know. Justin Morneau won AL MVP in 2006 and was consistently one of the top hitters in baseball for years – until he got hit in the head and missed the entire second half of the 2010 season. Since then, Morneau has been on and off the DL a number of times with post-concussion symptoms and vision issues, and he’s nowhere near a shell of his old self. One can only pray that the same doesn’t happen to Olt.
In addition, Olt strikes out a lot. He struck out 101 times in 354 at-bats and led the Rangers Double-A squad in K% last season (24.0%), and he led their Triple-A squad with 89 strikeouts before being traded Monday. The latter may have more to do with the visionary issues he was experiencing early on in the season than anything else, but with Rizzo, Castro and Soriano (plus Javier Baez down on the farm) all continuing to strike out at high rates, there are only so many strikeouts a man of my patience can withstand.
It’s difficult to say right now whether or not Olt will turn out to be the guy that everyone expected him to be at the Major League level, which is a 25-30 homer guy. Since coming off the DL in Triple-A, he’s hitting .247/.353/.506, with 57 strikeouts in 186 plate appearances, a decent preview of what most scouts expect to see in the majors, only with a bit more contact as his vision (hopefully) nears 100%. If he can get healthy (and stay healthy) and begin to show off the power that scouts had grown accustomed to seeing, there’s no reason to think Olt won’t be wearing Cubbie blue in September; if not, then my previously negative feelings towards him will revert back, and the future of this significantly older prospect will begin to look murky.
C.J. Edwards, RHP
The wild card. A former 48th round pick, the 21-year-old Edwards has been absolutely killing it at Class-A Hickory this season. “The String Bean Slinger” was, quite incredibly, first discovered by a then-future Rangers scout who happened to see him pitch several years ago for a predominantly African-American league comprising adults from communities in the part of the state in which he lived (Prosperity, S.C.).
All Edwards has done since receiving a $50,000 signing bonus from the Rangers is completely dominate. In the 2012 Arizona Fall League, he threw 20 scoreless innings while striking out 25, walking six and giving up just six hits. In the 2012 Northwest League (Spokane), during short-season A-ball, he posted a 2.11 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 47 innings. In low-class Hickory this year, he has put up a 1.83 ERA while fanning an outrageous 122 batters in 93.1 innings (11.8 K/9). He also has yet to allow a single home run during his professional career. The track record may be limited, but Edwards has very high upside as a potential top- or middle-of-the rotation starter. Here is a breakdown of his arsenal, via Keith Law:
He has easy plus velocity, 90-96, with an above-average to plus curveball with good depth and 12-to-6 break, and a developing changeup that projects as average to slightly above… He’s aggressive and throws strikes, with a little life on the fastball, and probably could go to high-A at this point given how well he’s dominated low-A.
Law goes on to point out that, amongst all these positive traits, lies the issue that, at 6-foot-2, 155 pounds, Edwards’ slight build could very easily lead to durability problems. He’ll need to put on some weight as he progresses up the minor league ladder. For now, though, Edwards is the guy Cubs fans should be most intrigued by.
Justin Grimm, RHP
Since being called up to the Majors last season, Grimm has been nothing but horrendous (outside of this past April, when he posted a 1.59 ERA in 17 IP). He has a career 6.73 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 19 starts (and 22 appearances) across 103 innings. Grimm had some very good minor league stints, but due to his very weak change-up, his two-pitch repertoire (fastball and curveball) has been a serious problem for him. Grimm’s ceiling is as a mid-rotation guy, but some project him as a swingman or middle reliever, unless he can improve upon that repertoire (a more in-depth scouting report can be found here). He should be in line to get some starts for the Cubs this season, so we’ll see how he fares during the next two and a half months against National League lineups.
Two Players to be Named
Would it kill the front offices to let us know who these players are already? Throw me a friggin’ bone here.
Some may be disappointed in this package; others may be ecstatic. It really all depends on one’s feelings about Olt. After years and years of heartbreak and fallen hope, the pessimistic Cub fan in me was a bit disappointed in this trade solely because of my fear for Olt’s inability to get healthy and eventually become the player he once was. He has incredible potential; if he pans out, this trade will one day be looked at as a turning point in the Cubs’ rebuild, as a future roster of Rizzo (1B), Javier Baez (INF), Starlin Castro (INF), Olt (3B), Bryant (LF), Almora (CF), Soler (RF) and Junior Lake (somewhere) is a realistic possibility. If he doesn’t, then mostly everything will ride on the very young, very raw C.J. Edwards to maximize the value of this trade package. Regardless, whatever our feelings are now will have no impact on whatever happens in the future; this was undoubtedly the best return the Cubs were going to get for Garza. All we should do is look towards that future optimistically and hope the annual July fire sale on the north side will finally come to a halt sooner rather than later.
What a hectic few weeks it has been for the Chicago Cubs front office. There has been excitement, disappointment, optimism and pessimism, but after all the trade rumors and insanity that have swallowed up the attention of actual MLB games, it’s finally time for everyone to relax and look forward to the future of this ball club. Sure, it would’ve been nice to see us net some prospects for the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Bryan Lahair, Matt Garza and others before the trade deadline ended, but at least the Epstein/Hoyer duo didn’t stand completely pat. Let’s break down the deals that went down over the last couple of days.
Geovany Soto to Texas Rangers for RHP Jacob Brigham: Dear lord, what in the world happened to Geovany Soto? Once upon a time, just four years ago, he was one of the most valuable players on the Cubs roster. In a league where good catchers are more difficult to come by than it is for Skip Bayless to say something remotely intelligent, we thought we had found our backstop for the next 10+ years. Soto won NL Rookie of the Year in 2008 and finished 13th in NL MVP voting. Since then, he has tested positive for marijuana and has never been the same player. Over the past two seasons, he has posted .228/.310/.411 and .195/.278/.345 splits, respectively. Embarrassing. I think it’s safe to say that, at this point, Soto would probably be best suited to sell dope than hit baseballs at the major league level. I’m glad he’s finally gone. Wellington Castillo: it’s your time to shine, my friend.
As for Jacob Brigham, some sources were pretty surprised that the Rangers were willing to part ways with a high-ceiling pitcher like him. According to Baseball Time in Arlington, the 24-year-old Brigham features plus-plus arm strength and has the ability to strike out a lot of hitters (230 K’s in 238.1 innings over past two seasons at Double A Frisco). His two legit major league pitches (fastball and curveball) “make him a likely candidate to become a max-effort, power reliever.” He’ll need to improve his command, though, if he’s going to get to the majors any time soon. Given how atrocious Soto has been in a Cubs uniform over the past couple years, I’d say this is a low-risk, medium-reward (medium may be pushing it, but there’s nothing in between low and medium) type trade. For a team desperate to add as much pitching as it can get (especially in the bullpen, where it ranks 26th in the majors in ERA at 4.41), this was a deal that probably can’t hurt.
Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to Atlanta Braves for RHP Arodys Vizcaino and RHP Jaye Chapman: No disrespect to Maholm — he’s been nothing short of phenomenal the past month+ for the Cubs (5-0 with a 1.00 ERA and 32 K’s over past seven starts, including six consecutive starts going at least 6 IP and allowing 1 or fewer runs), and I truly appreciate the effort and hard work he has put in for such a bad team — but boy, will I miss Reed Johnson. Here’s a guy who has done nothing but good things for the Cubs the past four out of five years (played for the Dodgers in 2010) and absolutely anything that was ever asked of him. He’s as hard-nosed a ballplayer as you’ll find, and he signifies everything that’s right with the game of baseball and what it means to be a great teammate. I have no doubt that he’ll thrive in his new home in Atlanta, and Braves fans (all five of them) will love his versatility and what he brings to the table.
Aside from all my sappy bullshit, this was arguably the best trade the Cubs made simply because of one name: Arodys Vizcaino. Coming into 2012, ESPN Senior Baseball Analyst Keith Law had him ranked as his 14th — repeat, 14th — best prospect. Sure, he had Tommy John surgery in March that ended his 2012 season before it started, but given the way that pitchers have effectively come back from the surgery over the past decade or so (most notably Stephen Strasburg, John Smoltz, Ryan Dempster, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, among many others), I think it’s a risk absolutely worth taking. Here’s a brief scouting report on Vizcaino from Law:
When healthy, Vizcaino throws 92-96 mph as a starter, with an out-pitch curveball, showing slider velocity but with two-plane action and depth. He has good arm speed on his changeup and was very effective against left-handed batters in the minors in 2011, a testament to that pitch given his arm slot, which is a little below three-quarters. (Pitchers with lower arm slots are easier to pick up for opposite-handed hitters.)
If Vizcaino can stay healthy, and that’s obviously a huge “if,” we’re talking about a 21-year-old guy who has the potential to become a No. 2 starter or better, and all we had to give up to get him was an extra outfielder and a back-end of the rotation kind of pitcher who was never going to be a part of the rebuilding process anyways. He, in addition to Jaye Chapman (3.52 ERA, 60 K’s in 53.2 IP for Triple A Gwinnett this year) — an organizational arm who can become a back-end reliever for the Cubs’ bullpen — is a great return for what we gave up. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that Vizcaino can come back as strong as ever next spring.
Ryan Dempster to Texas Rangers for 3B Christian Villanueva and RHP Kyle Hendricks: There’s no need to get into the events that went down with Dempster last week, as I’m sure every Cub fan by now knows what happened (if you don’t, it’s time to rise and shine and get out from under that rock you’ve been living under). The way he handled the situation about being traded to Atlanta was poor to say the least and, in all honesty, he acted like a total pansy. He completely screwed the Cubs out of getting a potential No. 3 starter in the near future in Randall Delgado because of his 10-5 rights, so I think it’s fair to say that most, if not all, Cubs fans are very upset with Dempster.
However, even after the way he went out, we can’t dismiss the great things Dempster did for this organization over the past 8.5 years. When the Cubs surprisingly asked him to become their full-time closer in 2005, he went out and saved 85 games in a three-year span. When the Cubs reverted him back to a starter in 2008, he finished his first season back in the rotation with a 2.96 ERA, made the All-Star team, placed sixth in NL Cy Young voting, and helped lead the Cubs to the best record in the NL. Sure, the end of the Dempster era may have left a bitter taste in our mouth, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge what he has done for us. I’ll definitely miss him, and if the Rangers end up winning the World Series this season, I’ll be happy for him. He deserves it.
In terms of the trade, it’s not as great as we would’ve liked it to be. But, if Theo and Jed didn’t see something special in these guys (mostly Villanueva), they wouldn’t have even considered the trade in the first place. Whether keeping Dempster and receiving a compensatory first round pick for his free agent status after the season would’ve been a better option remains to be seen, but most people find Villanueva and Hendricks to be a reasonable return.
Villanueva, a 21-year-old third baseman out of Mexico, ranked No. 100 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list entering the season. He “has a broad base of tools that include a solid bat, potential average power, fringe to average speed with good instincts on the bases and standout defense with soft hands and a strong arm at third base.” He’s currently hitting .285/.356/.421 with 10 home runs and 59 RBI’s at high Class A in Myrtle Beach, but he’s not very patient at the plate, just like many of the other Cub prospects. Hopefully he can continue to develop, improve his approach at the plate and make it to the majors in a few years.
As far as Hendricks is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to like. He has been very solid in Myrtle Beach as well and has shown great command (only 15 walks in 131 IP), but Keith Law isn’t too high on him:
Hendricks is more of an organizational starter, 87-89 mph with an average cutter and changeup and below-average curveball but good command and a repeatable delivery and arm action. The right-hander could surface as a fifth starter, but his stuff is probably too fringy for that.
Hendricks is young (22 years old), so there’s definitely room to grow and get better, but it sounds like a No. 5 starter could be his ceiling. As of now, this was a decent trade for the Cubs and a great one for the Rangers. But, in Theo and Jed I trust. Given their track record, it wouldn’t surprise me to see any of these guys become something much greater than expected. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we can only hope for the best for our former Cubs and stay optimistic (or pessimistic if you’re that kind of person) about the prospects we received in return.
I get it. The Cubs haven’t won a world series since 20 years BEFORE sliced bread. I don’t need Cub haters to keep reminding me. I’m as realistic a sports fan as there is – the Cubs aren’t going anywhere this year either. Unfortunately, some irrationally optimistic Cubs fans I know beg to differ. Just last night, a friend of mine guaranteed me that a) the Cubs would finish at least .500 and b) they have a legitimate shot at winning the division. I’m not lying either. I tried kicking him out of his own house, but that didn’t work. I understand that people like to be hopeful and what not, but c’mon man. I love the Cubs more than life itself, but patience is a virtue. It will take years for Theo and Jed to rebuild this team from basically ground up where He Who Must Not Be Named (eh what the hell, his name is Jim Hendry. And I hate him) left us to rot. That being said, there are a couple of potential stars waiting for their names to be called as they continue to improve in Iowa. Their names: Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson. The problem is that many Cubs fans want them called up NOW. My take on that: absolutely not.
First of all, the Cubs are not going anywhere this year. They will probably finish 5th or 6th in the NL Central – 4th would be a stretch in my opinion (God help me if we finish below the Abysmal Astros in the division, which is exactly where we sit right now). Second of all, I don’t care how well Rizzo has been playing in the minors. We all saw what happened last year. He torched triple A pitching through 90 games or so, cranking 26 homers, driving in 101 runs and posting .331/.404/.652 splits. Ridiculous. But then San Diego called him up, and through 128 at bats, he only had 18 hits and struck out 46 times. Yes, he’s currently batting .364 with 7 homers and 25 RBIs in his first 28 games at Iowa, but is there really any reason to call him up right this second and risk him losing his confidence like last year? I don’t think so. I say Theo waits and lets the kid keep raking in Iowa, then calls him up in August or even September to let him showcase his talents. He’s dealt with the greatest adversity of all in beating cancer, so I have no doubt in my mind that Rizzo will work his ass off and eventually become a machine at the major league level. Plus, no need to push Lahair to the outfield this soon to make room for Rizzo at first. People underrate what switching to an unfamiliar position can do to a hitter’s confidence at the plate.
As for Jackson, let’s just say he can definitely use some more time in the minors. Yes, I know that we traded Marlon Byrd and essentially have a platoon in center field between Tony Campana and Joe Mather. Calling him up just sounds like the right thing to do. But he’s really struggled at the minor league level at times. Here’s ESPN’s Keith Law’s scouting report on him:
“Jackson has solid tools across the board, but they’re mitigated by a longstanding problem with contact that really limits his offensive upside. Jackson has some bat speed with very little load, getting his weight settled late and not letting the ball travel that well. So despite his size and athleticism, he doesn’t project for more than average power. He’s an above-average runner who can handle center field and could be worth five runs a year or so there in a full season, or he could move to left and potentially be plus there.
But he punched out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances in Triple-A, and only two big leaguers qualified for the batting title in 2011 with that kind of strikeout rate — Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds, who had a combined OBP of .322. If Jackson can’t figure out how to make better contact, he’s probably a solid-average regular; but he could be a grade better if his hit tool improves.”
Simply put, he’s a strikeout machine, and he’s currently struggling in the early going at Iowa. Nothing pisses me off more than a .240 hitter who strikes out a ton. I really can’t stand that. Forget the home runs for a second: Mark Reynolds is a career .236 hitter with 996 strikeouts in 740 games. Drew Stubbs is a career .251 hitter with 451 strikeouts in 375 games. I get that Jackson will probably never be Yadier Molina in terms of strikeout numbers. But do you really want to call up Jackson now before he learns how to minimize those holes in his game? I sure don’t. We gotta be patient with him.
In the meantime, we’ll have to wait ’til… 2015? Now that’s being optimistic.