Category: Chicago Cubs

Maddon Suggests Cubs Could Carry Three Catchers Into Season

The Chicago Cubs have made some big roster moves over the course of the offseason, but with the acquisitions of Miguel Montero and David Ross to bolster their catcher position, the big question is what they plan to do with Welington Castillo.

Castillo, who hit 13 home runs and drove in 46 RBI for the Cubs last season, isn’t the best catcher defensively behind the plate, and that coupled with his youth led the Cubs to act this winter as they brought aboard a couple of veterans with leadership ability and defensive skill.

Sloan Park 3-11

To his credit, Castillo has been playing well so far during the Cactus League season. In 19 at-bats, he has racked up seven hits, four runs scored, clubbed a home run, and driven in five RBI. With those numbers, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Cubs try to trade him to another team, but manager Joe Maddon isn’t shying away from the idea of carrying three catchers when the team breaks camp in early April:

Muskat also brought up a good point about the versatility that players like Arismendy Alcantara (who has been seeing time at second base and in center field this spring, and could also potentially fill in at third base in a pinch) and Tommy La Stella (who has been squaring the ball up nicely at the plate and can play several infield positions) bring to the table, and how that could potentially allow the Cubs to carry three catchers out of Cactus League play.

Even with that being the case though, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs holding onto all three catchers. Ross is probably going to catch quite a bit when Jon Lester is toeing the slab (although all three catchers have caught him so far this spring), and Montero wasn’t brought aboard to be a platoon guy. That leaves Castillo as the odd man out, and no matter how much the Cubs say that they are looking into keeping three catchers on their roster, it just feels like they’re trying to maintain a higher trade value for a guy who could be a lucrative asset as catchers with other teams succumb to injuries this spring.

BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK: Hope Springs Eternal

Drink it in, it always goes down smooth.

Drink it in, it always goes down smooth.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Monday, you know that Tuesday afternoon the Cubs became the talk of Spring Training, as prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in a preseason game they didn’t even win. Not that wins mean all that much in Spring Training anyway. In the hierarchy of what’s important, they rate far below player conditioning and far above whether an individual is allowed to bring their own food into the ballpark.

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Maddon Says Bryant Will Play Third, Outfield This Spring

The Chicago Cubs are a team in transition this season, bringing aboard fresh-faced prospects and high-priced free agent veterans alike as they try to turn over a new leaf with manager Joe Maddon.

On Monday at Cubs camp in Mesa, Maddon discussed the team’s plans for one of the prospects who will be looking to make an impact this season, saying that Kris Bryant will play at both third base and in the outfield as the team plays its Cactus League schedule.

“He gets it,” Maddon told the media. “I think he understands the work involved that’s necessary to being great.”

Bryant had an incredible 2014 season, skyrocketing through both the double-A and triple-A levels. In 594 plate appearances, he slugged 43 home runs and drove in 110 RBI, and he stole 15 bases in 19 attempts for good measure as he established himself as the top prospect in not only the Cubs’ system, but in all of baseball.

While speculation that Bryant could end up as the team’s left fielder (depending on what happens with Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, and Addison Russell in the infield) has been bandied about quite a bit, he hasn’t played any outfield since he was drafted by the Cubs in 2013. He has played all 177 of his career minor league games at third base, putting up a respectable fielding percentage of 94.6 percent while improving on his defense at each stop along the way.

It will be something worth keeping an eye on as Bryant works out the kinks in left field, and even though the odds are that he’ll begin the season in triple-A to avoid starting his big league service clock, it’s possible this move will give him even more versatility when he finally does make the jump.

Opinion: Negative Reaction to Jackson’s Comments Overblown

The Chicago Cubs bolstered the top of their rotation this offseason with the acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, but the back end of their rotation is still a big question mark, with several hurlers competing for the final spot in the five-man group.

One of those pitchers that will be competing for a job will apparently be Edwin Jackson, as manager Joe Maddon revealed on Friday that the pitcher will be stretched back out to compete as a starting pitcher. The last two years haven’t been kind to Jackson after he signed a four year deal with the club prior to the 2013 season. In those years, Jackson has a 14-33 record, a 5.58 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.54.

Last season was especially bad for Jackson, as he struggled through poor play, an inability to keep the ball in the yard (he gave up 1.2 home runs per nine innings, his worst number since he made eight starts for the 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers.

With those kinds of numbers, and with players like Travis Wood, Felix Doubront, Eric Jokisch, and Tsuyoshi Wada all competing for a spot, it’s going to be a tough slog for Jackson to crack the rotation, but he’s feeling confident even in spite of the obstacles in front of him.

“I’ve been just looking forward. I haven’t really looked back in the past too much,” he told MLB.com. “Those two years, they were what they were. I’ve been ready, getting in shape and ready to go.”

Jackson was also asked about what it was like to play under Maddon, who managed Jackson during his brief stop in Tampa Bay earlier in his career.

“It’s definitely cool having a good manager,” he told Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.

That last statement stirred up a bit of resentment on social media, as some fans took it as unwarranted criticism of the job that Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria have done in the past two years as Cubs manager. Most fans who criticized Jackson blasted him for being cruel about previous managers while seemingly glossing over his own failures on the mound for the Cubs.

That is one way to look at it, but it all feels a bit overhyped. Jackson has struggled with the Cubs, and there’s no way that he’s going to be guaranteed a roster spot even though the team is stretching him back out as a starter. He’s merely expressing confidence that he can win the job, knowing full well that there is an open competition for it.

As for the Maddon quote, Jackson is merely saying what everyone in the organization has said and inferred since Renteria was dumped and Joe was brought aboard. Maddon’s hire represents a shift in the focus of the Cubs away from competing to avoid the NL Central cellar to competing for a division title.

Part 1: Q&A With New Cubs Pregame Host Mark Grote

When the new season begins for the Chicago Cubs, there will be some big changes both on the field and in the broadcast booth, as the team moves from WGN Radio to WBBM for the new campaign.

As part of that transition, the team will have a new voice handling pregame and postgame duties on the radio, and that man will be Mark Grote. Before he slides into the chair for the first time, he sat down with us instead and talked about his new job, what he expects from the Cubs this season, and whether or not he thinks the team can win the World Series.

Part two of the conversation can be accessed here. 

Windy City Hardball: I have to go with the most obvious question first: what is the interview process like for a job like this? Did you have to pass a Cubs trivia test or anything crazy like that?

Mark Grote: My third gathering with Ron Gleason and Mitch Rosen stands out to me. I was asked to report to Ron’s office for a meeting with about ten minutes advanced notice, and no knowledge of the specific content. I was then sent into a production studio and told to do a few minutes of a Cubs pregame. Improvised. The way I would do it. Anything I wanted.

Beyond that, there was no ‘Cubs trivia test,’ per say. I was asked for my thoughts on the team and its players, and there was a natural flow of Cubs chatter throughout the sessions. The entire interview process was thorough and sincere. It was never interrogation style. Instead, (there was) a genuine curiosity of exactly how I would handle specific scenarios, and my philosophies of what a professional pre and post game should sound like.

WCH: Now that we’ve covered the “who,” let’s move to the “why.” What drew you to this job?

Grote: It sounds a bit flowery, but the Cubs truly drew me to sports and broadcasting in the first place. I was obsessed with the game, the players, and the announcers growing up. Jack Brickhouse, Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau, Harry Caray, Steve Stone, Dewayne Statts, and on and on. The broadcasters were just as important to me as what Jerry Martin would do on a typical day.

Beyond that, just from a pure broadcasting standpoint, it was a prime opportunity. The type of position that does not emerge frequently. My current full-time position as an anchor on the “Mully and Hanley” show on 670 the Score is an absolute blast because of the freedom those two allow me on their popular show, but I couldn’t resist making a play for the Cubs job.

WCH: Pat Hughes is making the trip over from WGN to WBBM, and that news has Cubs fans excited. Have you gotten to talk to Pat yet, and how excited are you to work with him?

Grote: Pat Hughes was the first person to call me when it was revealed that I had landed the job. What a thrill. It was funny, I told him, ‘Pat, I am just going to follow your lead, and play whatever role you and Ron Coomer need me to play during the broadcast.’ Pat’s response (in that great, syncopated Pat Hughes voice) was, ‘Oh no Mark. I want you to be YOU. Perhaps if the Cubs are leading the Mets 11-1 in the 7th, you can come on and do an impersonation or two.’

The key thing he told me is that we are going to have fun, and I do fun well. Hughes is an unbelievable play by play man. If you listen to him, you know he doesn’t miss things and that his recall is scary good.

Part 2: Q&A With New Cubs Pregame Host Mark Grote

In Part One of our conversation with new Chicago Cubs pre-and-postgame host Mark Grote, we discussed what the interview process was like, and what drew him to the job. In Part Two, we’ll discuss the on-field issues that the team will have to address in the coming year.

WCH: Now that we’ve covered the broadcast part of the equation, let’s talk a bit about the team. After seeing Javier Baez make his debut last season, what are your expectations for him in the new year?

Grote: Baez is that guy that took your breath away at times when he connected with that ferocious and wonderfully untamed swing, but the strikeouts are too much. I think the Cubs’ coaching staff has a very delicate task as it pertains to Baez. You don’t want to turn this guy into a doubles hitter, but striking out half the time is unacceptable. He could be a monster at Wrigley Field if he makes slight changes to his approach.

WCH: The other big prospect story with the Cubs concerns whether or not Kris Bryant will start the season at the big-league level. Do you think he’ll be on the team’s roster when they leave Mesa, or do you see him going back to triple-A?

Grote: I believe that Kris Bryant will be on the Cubs’ opening day roster IF he tears it up in spring training. I respect and understand the money clock, but there is a point where a baseball player becomes undeniable. Where the player means actual wins at the big league level now. And, if this is to be the next phase of the Cubs’ “rebuild,” they are going to have to act accordingly.

WCH: When he does make his way up here, do you see him staying at third base or shifting to the outfield?

Grote: I’d like to see him get a crack at third base. I realize his height is not ideal for the position, but it would be easy to rearrange pieces if necessary.

WCH: Out of the Cubs’ big offseason moves, which one do you think is the one that will make the biggest impact?

Grote: The answer is Jon Lester. Not just because of his immense skills, but because he allows the rest of the rotation to fall into place. He legitimizes things, as I like to say. Remember last year when everybody was asking if Jake Arrieta was a number one guy? No need for further inquiry.

A comfortable number two spot is where he can thrive. The jovial Jason Hammel seems tailor-made for the three, and where Lester really works his magic is with Kyle Hendricks, who was a pleasant surprise in his first year. Now he can continue to play it cool and perhaps take the next step without everybody EXPECTING him to take the next step.

It also puts Travis Wood in a perfect spot, and I do believe Wood will have a turnaround season (assuming he’s not traded).

WCH: What do you think this team’s biggest need is as they head to Mesa for spring training?

Grote: Who’s on third? If Kris Bryant doesn’t break camp, it’s everybody. Mike Olt? Tommy La Stella? Arismendy Alcantara? Steve Ontiveros?

Dexter Fowler smoothed out the outfield situation, but what about left field? My vote is to give Chris Coghlan a shot. The former rookie of the year was fantastically consistent last season. I really like him, and not every position has to be ‘Cubs super-prospect.’ Coghlan could be one of those guys who is just now figuring it out. It happens.

WCH: Outside of the big stars and hotshot prospects, which player do you see being a surprise for the team this year?

Grote: I already alluded to my faith in Chris Coghlan to be something real. The other I keep thinking that may be ready to pounce is Jason Motte. He had 42 saves in 2012, and Joe Maddon is uniquely qualified to make those bullpen guys jump.

WCH: There’s one last question that absolutely has to be asked: do you, Mark Grote, think that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015?

Grote: Let’s see. I was just named the Cubs pre and postgame host. I’m going to be on the team plane, and around these guys 24/7.

Um.

OF COURSE THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES IN 2015!!

The real answer is that I would not predict the Cubs to win the World Series this season, but there is life. Real life. What one can begin to predict again is good things. It is safe to go back into the water.

 

Chicago Cubs Position Previews: Second Base

As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).

We keep things rolling today with a look at the team’s options at second base.

The Starter:

The Cubs have a ton of options available to them at this position, but who the starter will end up being is up in the air. In all likelihood it is a two-horse race, with Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella going head to head for the job. Baez has plenty of upside and can hit the tar out of the baseball….when he makes contact. As for La Stella, his slash numbers were solid last season with the Atlanta Braves, and his plate discipline was a heck of a lot better than Baez’s.

Javier  Baez bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd.

Javier Baez bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd.

The problem with La Stella is that he provides literally nothing else if he isn’t getting on base. His power is nonexistent, and going into his second season in the bigs, pitchers are really going to start adjusting to him in the new year. Baez’s power upside is definitely something that could give him an edge in the battle, but if he struggles in the warm air in Arizona, then we could see a shift in thinking on the part of the Cubs.

Back-Ups:

Either Baez or La Stella could get the primary back-up job at second base (Baez could get a leg up for a roster spot since he can also fill in at shortstop, and potentially at third base in a pinch), but Arismendy Alcantara will also see plenty of time at the position. With Dexter Fowler in center field, Alcantara will be looked at as a utility guy extraordinaire, and he provides a nice insurance option in case Baez and La Stella both struggle out of the gate.

Arismendy  Alcantara warms up prior to September 3rd game vs. Brewers

Arismendy Alcantara warms up prior to September 3rd game vs. Brewers

Position Ranking:

The Cubs may have quite a few guys that can play the position, but we still have this spot ranked seventh out of the eight fielding spots. The questions about Baez’s plate discipline and about La Stella’s ability to continue hitting for average with the Cubs are serious concerns, and even though Alcantara does give the spot a bit of a boost, not having an established guy to man the position is a bit concerning.

Prospect Watch:

The Cubs’ plethora of middle infield prospects is an asset that many teams would love to emulate. Logan Watkins made 68 plate appearances for the Cubs in the 2014 season, putting up an OBP of .269, so he could start the season in the minors. Gleyber Torres is another guy to keep an eye on, with an insanely high ceiling and some great tools that he could use to jump higher on the team’s overall prospect rankings.

One other player to keep an eye on this season is Gioskar Amaya. He could be poised for a jump after playing well in high-A ball last year with Daytona, and he has some decent speed (14 stolen bases in 21 attempts in 2014) to go along with a solid OP of .379 a season ago.

Chicago Cubs Position Previews: First Base

As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).

We keep things going with the first base position.

The Starter:

There are only a couple of positions on the Cubs’ roster that are absolutely guaranteed, and their starting first baseman is one of them. Anthony Rizzo went from being a really solid player last season to being a potentially elite one, slugging 32 home runs, racking up an impressing 5.6 WARP and even garnering MVP votes for a last place team.

Perhaps more impressively than his play overall was the fact that he embraced his role as a leader on the team. With precious few veterans on the squad, Rizzo took it upon himself to be the voice of the team, and even though guys like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero will be helping out in that department this season, they aren’t likely to tell Rizzo to quiet down since he’s the guy who’s been around the longest on this particular team.

As for what we can expect from Rizzo in the upcoming year, it’s tough to say. Some advanced metrics suggest he’ll suffer a dip in his home run total but an increase in his RBI total (having guys like Dexter Fowler ahead of you in the lineup will help with that), but it wouldn’t be shocking to still see him hit around 30 home runs and drive in close to 90 runs. That would be a big boost to the Cubs’ offense, and with a guy like Kris Bryant potentially coming up midseason to help provide more protection, Rizzo could really take another step forward in the coming year.

Back-Ups:

First base is really the only position that the Cubs don’t have a certain back-up for at the moment, but guys like Mike Olt will likely be looked at to give Rizzo an occasional break. Calling up a guy like Dan Vogelbach is off the table (at least we’d assume it is), but other options like Tommy La Stella, Chris Coghlan and Arismendy Alcantara (who is likely shifting into a utility infielder role with Fowler taking over as the full-time center fielder), aren’t exactly palatable.

Position Rating:

Even though they aren’t blessed with a tremendous back-up, the Cubs’ first base situation is their second-best position in our eyes. Rizzo is one of the top first basemen in the National League, and with Joe Maddon at the helm and with the confidence of his breakout season still fueling him, the Cubs won’t have to worry about addressing this spot for a while.

Vogelbach bats vs. the Scottsdale Scorpions in AFL action.

Vogelbach bats vs. the Scottsdale Scorpions in AFL action.

Prospect Watch:

With tremendous depth at other positions, the Cubs have a really shallow group of true first basemen in their system. Vogelbach is just about the only guy that immediately comes to mind, and while he’s a solid prospect, he’s likely not a game changer at the position from a defensive standpoint. That’s not a deal-breaker, especially considering how good he is at the plate (he had an impressive .357 OBP and 45 extra base hits in 560 plate appearances in High-A Daytona last season), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a step or two up the ladder this season.

 

 

Vegas Sets Over/Under Numbers on Wins for Cubs, Sox

With teams preparing to head to their respective spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona this week, there is a palpable excitement in the air as fans prepare for baseball season to finally arrive.

With those preparations taking place, Las Vegas is ratcheting up its game as well, as website and sports books come out with their projections for how the baseball season will shake out. Bovada is one such place, and they released their over/under win projections for all 30 teams on Monday.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals top the list, with both teams seeing their win totals set at 92 ½. The Los Angeles Angels follow close behind at 89 ½, and the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, and Seattle Mariners round out the top five (the Red Sox and Mariners are tied at 86 ½ wins).

Sitting just outside of the top 10 are the two Chicago teams, with the Cubs at 82 ½ wins and the White Sox just behind them at 81 ½. Both teams made some significant moves this offseason, with the Cubs bringing in guys like Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, and Joe Maddon and the Sox adding Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, and Jeff Samardzija. Both teams are optimistic that their farm systems will begin yielding talent this year. Hopes are, needless to say, high on both sides of town.

The question then is whether or not we would bet the over or the under on those win totals. For the Cubs, that number seems about dead on with what we’re expecting from them this season (we’ll delve more into that as spring training begins and we really start to hammer out our predictions), but the under seems like a safer bet. They could end up going way over that win total if the prospects they’re calling up have good seasons, but we still have questions about the pitching staff and whether or not guys like Javier Baez will perform as advertised, so we’ll put our money on the under.

As for the White Sox, the over seems like the better bet. Their pitching rotation is really solid at the top, and their offense should be pretty good as well with Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez leading the way. Questions do arise with their bullpen even after the acquisitions of Robertson and Zack Duke, but in a weak division, we’ll go with the over on their win total.

Chicago Cubs Position Previews: Catcher

As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).

We get things started today with the catcher position.

The Starter:

The Cubs made one of their biggest moves of the offseason during the Winter Meetings, acquiring Miguel Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for pitchers Zack Godley and Jefferson Mejia.

The veteran catcher is not only a solid hitter that will likely hit in the fifth or sixth spot in the Cubs’ order this season, but he is also one of the absolute best defensive catchers in the game. Last season, Wellington Castillo was statistically the second-worst catcher in baseball in terms of framing pitches, costing the Cubs 24.3 runs on the season according to the good folks at Stat Corner. Montero, on the other hand, was baseball’s best catcher at pitch-framing, saving the Diamondbacks 24 runs.

While Montero may not hit as well as Castillo (and that is frankly a big if, because he may well hit better), the fact that he gives the Cubs a net boost of 48 runs just by being able to frame pitches is a HUGE asset to have.

Back-Ups:

At this point, it seems unlikely that Castillo will remain in the picture at catcher for the Cubs, considering that the team went out and acquired David Ross in free agency. The catcher was Jon Lester’s personal catcher with the Boston Red Sox, and even though his numbers have been declining a bit (he had a -0.16 WAR last season, and his slash numbers have been declining as well), the fact that he brings leadership and veteran experience to the locker room is a big asset for the Cubs.

Ultimately, the odds are that Castillo will be dealt to keep Ross on the roster, but the Cubs could get a decent bullpen arm or a couple of decent prospects in exchange for him via trade.

Position Ranking:

As of this moment, we have the Cubs’ catchers ranked as their fourth-best position on the big-league roster. If they were going to stick with Castillo as the back-up, they may have gone up a spot due to the offensive improvement, but having Montero and Ross as the two guys behind the dish is still a pretty solid tandem, and Montero’s defense is something that is really going to save the Cubs some runs this season.

Prospect Watch:

The Cubs have one guy who could potentially be a game-breaker at the plate in Kyle Schwarber, but they don’t really have a stud defender behind the dish. Schwarber could potentially end up as the catcher of the future, as Montero has three years left on his current deal, but odds are the team will want to move him to the outfield to let him focus on his hitting.

Outside of Schwarber, there are a couple other prospects to look out for. Victor Caratini is one guy that we’ve been impressed by, and he is a really smart player all around. Mark Zagunis is also a guy that could potentially be an outfield/catcher hybrid, but he’s fast as all get-out and draws tons of walks, making him an attractive option as well.