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.
Newsflash: the Cubs are bad. Like really bad. With the Crosstown Series officially over until next season, the only things Cubs fans can really look forward to are seeing Anthony Rizzo in white with blue pinstripes and spending Saturday afternoons (or any day of the week for that matter) getting absolutely hammered in Wrigleyville before and after games. Life can be worse, that’s for sure, but having a winning team to root for wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.
It makes me sick to think that just four years ago, this was a team that sent a total of eight players to the All-Star Game. Now, we’re struggling to find more than a couple of guys who deserve to even be in consideration. With the Midsummer Classic just three weeks away, baseball fans on the North Side will finally get to watch some legitimate baseball (for one night), and at least one of the players participating in that game will reign from the corner of Addison and Clark. Which Cub deserves to be the team’s likely lone all-star, you ask? Well, let’s break down their top candidates and see who we come up with.
Ryan Dempster, Starting Pitcher
As crazy as it sounds, Ryan Dempster has quietly been one of the five or six best pitchers in the National League this season. His 2.11 ERA ranks him third overall for starting pitchers across the Majors, and nine out of his 12 starts have been considered quality ones (6+ innings pitched, 3 earned runs or less). His WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) thus far (1.02) is the lowest it has EVER been in his 15-year career, which is an amazing feat for a 35-year-old pitcher who has always had some trouble finding the plate and preventing hitters from getting on base.
Unfortunately, Dempster only has three wins to show for his incredible first half (all of which came in his last three starts), but that has almost nothing to do with him and everything to do with the abysmal Cubs hitters, who have failed to score more than three runs in seven of his 12 starts. But wins aside, Dempster has been far and away the best pitcher on the Cubs and will undoubtedly make any contender happy for the last two months of the season when he gets traded. As he sits on the DL with mysterious “back tightness,” one would have to suspect that Dempster’s time in Chicago may be coming to an end sooner than expected. Whether he manages to stay a Cub until July 10 or not remains to be seen, but he definitely deserves a spot on this list.
Starlin Castro, Shortstop
Yes, he ranks second among all every day players in errors with 12 (tied with Giants’ Brandon Crawford and one behind Dodgers’ Dee Gordon). And yes, he ranks 19th among 24 every day shortstops with a .956 fielding percentage. But Starlin Castro is still the best pure hitting shortstop in the National League (and arguably the ML), and that’s really all that matters when it comes to making the All-Star team. He currently leads the Cubs in hits (85), average (.302) and total bases (125), and he’s second on the team in runs scored (33), RBIs (38) and stolen bases (16). The only thing holding him back from true stardom is his inability to walk (he has only six walks with a horrendous .316 on-base percentage), but that’s another conversation for another day.
At the moment, Castro is sitting in third place among NL shortstops in all-star voting (~700,000 votes behind Rafael Furcal for first), making it very unlikely that we’ll see him starting for the National League in a few weeks. It looks as if Castro’s all-star fate will rest in the hands of the players, coaches and managers around the league. With the numbers he has put up so far this season, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Castro gets selected for his second consecutive all-star game.
Bryan Lahair, First Base
Once upon a time, Bryan Lahair was a 32nd round nobody out of St. Petersburg Junior College. Ten years, two short Major League stints, a Pacific Coast League MVP and a whole lot of perseverance later, he has become one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball. With the Cubs in rebuilding mode, Lahair was called upon to be the guy-who-plays-first-base-against-righties-only until Anthony Rizzo came to town. Then, it would be to the bench as a utility player/pinch-hitter or maybe even back to the minors. Clearly, Lahair never got that memo, as he obliterated major league pitching throughout the month of April and made it loud and clear that he is more than worthy of starting every day at the major league level, whether it be playing an unnatural position in right field for the Cubs or playing first base/DH elsewhere. He leads the club in home runs (tied with Soriano at 13), on-base percentage (.375) and slugging percentage (.563), and he’s second on the team in extra-base hits (25).
Due to the departures of Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols from the National League over the past two years, as well as Ryan Howard’s torn achilles tendon, the crop of talent at first base is at an all-time low, which means there’s no better time for Lahair to accomplish something no Cubs fan would have ever expected him to accomplish coming into this season: making the All-Star team. Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman are unquestionably the two best first baseman in the NL right now and are virtual locks to make the All-Star team. But after them, you’d have to make a very strong case to convince me that Lahair is NOT the next best player at his position (Adam Laroche may have more RBIs, but the average and OPS aren’t even close, in favor of Lahair). If the retired Tony LaRussa decided he wanted three first baseman on his All-Star roster, I would like to think that Lahair would be his third guy. After witnessing a journeyman knuckleballer become the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award while throwing 41 consecutive scoreless innings and back-to-back complete game one-hitters (that would be R.A. Dickey if you haven’t caught on), nothing in baseball would shock me anymore. And that includes Bryan Lahair becoming an All-Star.
Alfonso Soriano, Outfield
The way Soriano’s career has panned out in Chicago over the past few years, never did I think he’d make it to this list. But here we are, near the end of June, and Soriano leads the team in home runs (13), RBIs (43) and extra-base hits (26), and he ranks second in slugging percentage (.485) and OPS (.800). He has also been one of the best hitters in baseball over the last month (10 homers, 21 RBIs, 18 runs and 61 total bases). Who knew? Whether you think Soriano deserves to be in consideration for an All-Star selection or not, I had to put him on here because, after all the negative things I’ve said about him over the years, he really has been one of the few bright spots for the Cubs this season, and I commend him for it. I understand that there are a plethora of outfielders to choose from, so he probably doesn’t stand a chance at making the team anyways. But for the first time in four years, I am actually proud of Fonsi. That should count for something.
Who I would pick: Starlin Castro
Although all of these guys are equally deserving in my mind (except for maybe Soriano), I would pick Castro because a) as I said before, he has become the best pure hitting shortstop in the NL, and b) there is a severe lack of depth at the shortstop position this season. With Troy Tulowitzki out for the next 2+ months with a torn groin (ouch?), and Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins stinking it up worse than a fat kid’s dutch oven, Castro is easily the best candidate of all (and that’s assuming the mildly overrated Rafael Furcal wins the starting gig). If Castro fails to make the All-Star team, it’ll just be stupid.
Who will be picked: Starlin Castro
If the NL decides to go with two first baseman (or picks Laroche as the third guy), making Lahair the odd man out, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And because there are so many great pitchers to choose from (R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Lance Lynn, James McDonald, Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and Johan Santana, among others), the NL can survive without Dempster as well. That, along with my reasoning above, makes picking Starlin Castro the most logical choice. Since the Cubs are so bad, they will almost certainly get only one all-star (if they get more, I’ll be pleasantly stunned). Ultimately, this is how it will probably play out.