Category: Cubs Prospects

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.

 

 

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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.

Cubs Miss on Shields, But What Comes Next?

It appeared that it would happen all weekend long, but early Monday morning the news became all but official as reports came out that James Shields had agreed to a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres.

The report, which comes from Chris Cotillo of SB Nation, puts to an end a potential run by the Chicago Cubs to nab the starter off the free agent market. Originally the Cubs were priced out on Shields’ contract demands, but when the asking price started dipping and the amount of term being offered followed suit, the Cubs did their due diligence and “kicked the tires,” as just about every reporter following the situation said.

With Shields now off the market (unless something drastic) changes, it leads to an interesting question: do the Cubs continue to pursue another starting pitcher, or should they stand pat? There are still options via the trade market, with the Washington Nationals potentially looking to unload a starter after signing Max Scherzer to a massive deal. A guy like Jordan Zimmermann or Stephen Strasburg would look great in the Cubs’ rotation, although the cost in prospects may be something that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would hesitate to pay.

Another possibility is a fresh push to get Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies. There are likely still teams out there interested in acquiring him, including the St. Louis Cardinals, but getting a guy with his track record and skill set for a somewhat discounted price (trading for him with fewer years and money than they would have to pay him on the open market) could be an intriguing possibility for the Cubs.

If neither of those options proves to be feasible, the Cubs could simply go into spring training with what they have and still have an improved rotation. Adding Jon Lester and Jason Hammel via free agency bolstered the rotation in a big way, and having guys like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Travis Wood in the mix for starting spots means that the Cubs will have some healthy competition out in Mesa to determine how the rotation shakes out.

AFL Snap Judgments: Russell Impresses as Solar Sox Fall

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One game sample-sizes are a terrible way to judge the merits of a baseball player, but since my time in Arizona is so brief, I’m being forced to evaluate players based on just one game of action. Here are my snap judgments on some prospects for the Chicago Cubs, who fell in Arizona Fall League action to the Scottsdale Scorpions by a score of 2-1 on Monday night in Scottsdale.

Zach Cates

Cates only faced one hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning, retiring Roman Quinn on a groundout to shortstop. It was a very well located pitch that he induced the grounder on, and I really wish that he had faced more batters in the game.

Jacob Hannemann

Unfortunately for me, all three of the Cubs’ hitters who started this game struggled at the dish. Hannemann was just 1-for-6 entering the evening, and he left without helping his average at all. In fact, Hannemann hit with runners in scoring position on three different occasions in the game, and he grounded out to first base, flew out to center field, and struck out in those situations.

Vogelbach bats vs. the Scottsdale Scorpions in AFL action.

Vogelbach bats vs. the Scottsdale Scorpions in AFL action.

Even though he had an off-day at the plate, Hannemann made up for it with a couple of nice defensive plays, including a slicing ball down the right field line that he was able to cut off and hold Tyler Austin to just a single. His throw to Addison Russell wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done as the Solar Sox looked to keep their hopes of winning the game alive.

Addison Russell

Out of the four Cubs prospects that I saw on Monday, none impressed me the way that Russell did. No, he didn’t blow me away at the plate (although his sharply hit single to left field and his ninth-inning walk were both good to see), but his work with his glove was jaw-dropping.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Russell (playing second base in this game) was positioned at normal depth against right-handed hitting Blake Miller. On an outside pitch, Miller lifted a fly ball that sliced down the right field line and looked like it was headed for trouble. Getting to full acceleration in just a few steps, Russell was able to somehow get under the ball and make a remarkable running catch to retire the batter.

Not content to let that be his only web gem, Russell came up with an even better one in the bottom of the seventh inning. Elias Diaz smacked a ball up the middle of the field, just eluding the pitcher. Sliding on one knee, Russell made an excellent pick of the ball, and from that knee he rifled a throw over to Dan Vogelbach at first, and when the Cubs’ first base prospect was able to scoop it out of the dirt, the runner was retired.

Hannemann bats for the Solar Sox in AFL action.

Hannemann bats for the Solar Sox in AFL action.

Both of those plays showed why Russell is such a highly touted shortstop. His range is incredible, his arm is strong, and most impressively of all, he made it look ridiculously easy. If Starlin Castro is looking over his shoulder during the 2015 season, fans will know why.

Dan Vogelbach

Vogelbach’s immediate comparison player is Javier Baez. He strides up to the plate looking like he can hit the ball a mile, but if anything offspeed came near the plate in this game, he was swinging and missing. He struck out with runners on second and third in the first inning, struck out again in his next at-bat in the third, and grounded out softly to third base in this third trip to the dish. He finished off the evening by grounding into a fielder’s choice in the top of the eighth inning.

Even though Vogelbach has struggled at the plate during AFL play (he’s now 1-for-11 with seven strikeouts and three walks), his glove work did give him something positive to build on. When pitcher Felipe Rivero fielded a high chopper near home plate, he ended up throwing the ball directly down the base line. Vogelbach not only was able to pick up the ball out of his hand (not an easy thing to do with a baserunner bearing down on you), but he was able to pick the one-hop throw out of the dirt to get the out at first base.

 

Soler, Baez Help Boost Cubs TV Ratings

The Chicago Cubs are not only starting to make some real progress on the field, but apparently the emergence of players like Javier Baez, Kyle Hendricks, and Jorge Soler this season has caused more fans to tune into games. Here is what Ed Sherman had to say on the subject:

“With the three young players leading the way, the Cubs’ 6-3 victory over Milwaukee did a 3.20 rating on Comcast SportsNet Wednesday. That means an estimated 115,000 homes tuned into an otherwise meaningless September game for the Cubs.”

The Cubs ended up being the third-highest viewed program in the Chicago area on Wednesday night, and those ratings spikes are coming at a good time. With renegotiation with WGN ongoing for their TV rights, as well as the possibility of a massive new TV deal in 2019, the Cubs are going to be looking to increase their footprint, and this is a good start.

Theo Epstein has also brought up how getting more money from television and other sources will impact the team’s ability to compete when he discussed their plans for the year ahead:

“As we get closer to a new television deal, and as we realize some of the revenues associated with a renovated Wrigley Field, I believe that will only enhance our flexibility.”

With work set to begin on those renovations in the next few weeks, and with players like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell still primed to be called up next season, things are about to start accelerating quickly for the Cubs on multiple fronts, and clearly fans are tuning in to see the progress that the team has made over three lackluster seasons.

Alcantara, Arrieta Shine as Cubs Youth Movement Continues to Impress

Jorge Soler bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd

Jorge Soler bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd

Unlike the past few Septembers, the atmosphere around Wrigley Field has been electric in recent weeks, and Tuesday night was no exception as the Chicago Cubs trounced the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 7-1.

While plenty of the headlines will focus on the injury that Starlin Castro suffered in the first inning of the game, the contest was yet another showcase of the myriad of young players that the Cubs have working their way up through the system. Headlining that list was pitcher Jake Arrieta, who bounced back from a rough start against the Cincinnati Reds last week with a strong outing in this one. Outdueling Yovani Gallardo, Arrieta scattered five hits over six innings, allowing just one run and striking out four batters.

He varied up his speeds well, topping out at 95 MPH on his fastball and ratcheting down by 15-20 MPH on his offspeed stuff. His command was solid through most of the game, and even in tough situations like the one he faced in his final inning of work, he never strayed from his plan. With runners on second and third with two outs in the sixth inning, Arrieta struck out Gerardo Parra and got out of the jam with his team’s lead still intact.

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

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

Arrieta wasn’t the only youngster that shone in the game either. Arismendy Alcantara also had a nice night, slugging his eighth home run of the season to put a finishing touch on the rout. With Castro’s injury, we could end up seeing more of Alcantara at second base, but with the way he’s taken to playing center field in the big leagues, that might end up being a longer-term answer than some folks previously thought. 

Javier Baez was also impressive in the game, despite only reaching base once. He looked much more patient at the plate, and he made some really good contact with the ball, including a shot to center field in the second inning that would have been a long home run on most nights at the ballpark. He also transitioned seamlessly from second base to shortstop when Castro left the game, and he fielded the ball perfectly in those eight innings of work.

Jorge Soler also continued his torrid start with the Cubs, picking up an RBI single in the first inning and nearly hitting a home run in the fifth inning. Unfortunately for him, the wind held the ball in the yard as Khris Davis made a warning track snag, but his bat speed and sharp eye at the plate were both on full display. He also made a couple of spectacular grabs of his own in the outfield, including a diving catch that ended a potential Brewers rally in the seventh inning.

With so many young and exciting players in the lineup, Cubs fans are a much more optimistic bunch these days, and even though the paid attendance was below 30,000 on Tuesday, the crowd was still engrossed in the game. The Cubs aren’t going to make the playoffs this season, but if they continue to show the kind of improvement they have over these past few months, next season could be a lot more exciting on the North Side.

Should Rizzo, Castro Be Shut Down by Cubs?

Javier Baez bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd.

Javier Baez bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd.

The Chicago Cubs knocked off the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 7-1 on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, and even though the performance was arguably one of the team’s best of the season, there was still bad news that put a damper on the festivities.

That’s because Starlin Castro, who has had a resurgent season after chafing last season under Dale Sveum, was injured in the first inning of the game on an awkward slide into home plate. The shortstop was able to limp to the dugout under his own power, but he was understandably removed from the game. X-rays were negative after the game, but he will undergo an MRI on Wednesday to see if there’s any structural damage to the leg.

Add to that the frustrating back injury that continues to hamper first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who is sidelined for at least the next 10 days after an MRI revealed a muscle strain, and the Cubs are looking as though they could be without their two best players for a good chunk of the remainder of the season. The team has declined to rule either player out for the remainder of the campaign, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the team is going to play each injury cautiously.

The real question for the Cubs is this: even if Rizzo and/or Castro can come back and play this season, would the team be smart to just sit them both for the duration? After all, Rizzo already has 568 plate appearances this season, and he’s set career highs in home runs, on-base percentage, and OPS. He clearly is more dialed in at the plate than he ever has been in his career, and as such he doesn’t really have much left to prove for the team down the stretch.

Chris Valaika on the other hand could earn himself a reserve spot on the team next season if he can have a strong finish to the season. He only has 71 plate appearances with the Cubs so far this season, with two home runs, seven RBI, and a .185 batting average. Those numbers aren’t all that great, but he has shown signs that he could be better than his numbers would indicate, and more plate appearances would be a nice audition for him.

Castro is also a player without much left to prove, as he has shown increased power and plate coverage in his fifth MLB season. He has a very respectable .290 average, 153 hits, and a career high .774 OPS. His defense still needs some work, but with so little time left in the season, it’s unlikely that he would get much more time at the position anyway, so cutting him off now would be a savvy move.

In addition to those factors, getting Javier Baez some more reps at shortstop could only be a good thing for the rookie. He looked perfectly comfortable at the spot on Tuesday after being forced to switch from second to short following the Castro injury, and he could really thrive if given some more reps at the spot.

Whatever the Cubs decide to do, they have the benefit of not only being out of the playoff hunt, but of having players capable of filling in if Castro and Rizzo have to sit out. That is a luxury that most teams would love to have at this point in the year, and the Cubs should take full advantage of the chance.