Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Chicago Cubs.
The Big Question: Is Theo Epstein pushing the Cubs any closer to contention?
He most definitely is, but it’s doubtful to show up in the standings this year because the other teams in the National League Central are — on paper — quite clearly superior. Epstein has helped breath life into the Cubs’ minor league system since taking over as team president in October 2011 and he has been making incremental roster improvements in free agency with the help of talented general manager Jed Hoyer. But the lovable losers are not built for championships yet.
Starlin Castro is entering his age-23 season and has already tallied 529 hits in 445 career major league games, but he had a .323 on-base percentage in 2012 and his defense rates poorly at shortstop. He may become a superstar one of these years, but he’s not there now. Though you probably don’t want to tell him that. Castro will bat second in the Cubs’ lineup this year behind 33-year-old center fielder David DeJesus, who registered an underwhelming .263/.350/.403 batting line last season. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo does pretty much everything well and should hit third for Chicago for many years to come, but he still has some developing to do. Alfonso Soriano is the Cubs’ cleanup man and made plenty of noise in 2012 with his 32 home runs and 108 RBI. But he’s a liability in the outfield and he turned 37 years old this winter.
And the batting order takes a sharp dive from there. Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston will share time in right field. Luis Valbuena will start at third base until Ian Stewart recovers from a quad injury. Welington Castillo will start behind the plate, and Darwin Barney and his .654 career OPS will man second base.
This is not a good offense, and it looks especially poor when stacked against the lineups of the Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates. With the Astros gone, the National League Central is no longer a breeze.
What Else Is Going On?
- The rotation is fine right now and could actually be pretty good once all the pieces are in place. Jeff Samardzija, who will serve as this year’s Opening Day starter, posted a cool 3.81 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 180/56 K/BB ratio across 174 2/3 innings in 2012. It was his first full season in the starting rotation and he absolutely flourished. Edwin Jackson was signed to a four-year, $52 million free agent contract this winter and Scott Feldman was brought in on what could be a bargain one-year, $6 million deal. Matt Garza should return from his lat strain by early May and Scott Baker should be recovered from Tommy John surgery by the end of April. Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva are solid fill-ins.
- The Cubs have been trying to trade closer Carlos Marmol since last summer but have been unable to work anything out. The wild 30-year-old right-hander had a 1.54 WHIP in 2012, yielding 45 walks in 55 1/3 innings. If the Cubs do figure out a way to part with Marmol this season, newcomer Kyuji Fujikawa will likely slide into the ninth-inning role. The 32-year-old from Kochi, Japan had a 1.77 ERA and 11.8 K/9 in 12 years of Nippon Professional Baseball before deciding to head overseas this offseason.
- About that rejuventated minor league system. The Cubs signed Cuban defector Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract last June and then watched the 21-year-old outfielder bat .338/.398/.513 with three home runs and 15 RBI in 20 games at Low-A Peoria. Albert Almora was the sixth overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft and carries high upside as a center fielder. Javier Baez, the ninth overall pick in 2011, hit .294 with an .888 OPS, 16 home runs and 24 stolen bases last year between two different classifications of Single-A. The 20-year-old shortstop could eventually push Castro to third base.
- There’s no better atmosphere for a midsummer baseball game than Wrigley Field, but the structure needs some care. Which is why the new Cubs ownership group — led by chairman Tom Ricketts — is hoping to break ground on a massive $300 million renovation as soon as the 2013 regular season comes to a close. All of the logistics are still being worked out, but the plans look really great.
Prediction: Last place in the new-look, five-team National League Central.
With the White Sox losing Jeff Samardzija to free agency, Erik Johnson will likely get a shot to contribute out of the rotation to open up the 2016 season, GM Rick Hahn said in a conference call on Wednesday, per a report from MLB.com’s Scott Merkin.
“As we sit here today, I think it will be an opportunity for Erik Johnson to convert on sort of the return to form he showed back in 2015 when he was International League pitcher of the year for [Triple-A] Charlotte,” Hahn said. “Obviously, he got some starts in September and continued to show the progress in Chicago he had shown in the Minor Leagues over the course of the last season.
“So if Opening Day were today, then I think Johnson is penciled in to that spot in the rotation right now. In all probability, once we get closer to spring, there will be some competition for him to earn that spot. But if we were strictly looking at today, then I would think Johnson has the inside track on filling Samardzija’s innings.”
Johnson was called up from Triple-A Charlotte in September and made six starts, allowing 14 runs (13 earned) on 32 hits and 17 walks with 30 strikeouts in 35 innings. That followed up an impressive five months in the minors where he compiled a 2.37 ERA and a 136/41 K/BB ratio across 132 2/3 innings.
Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com each included Johnson on their top-100 prospect lists, ranking him 63rd, 67th, and 70th, respectively. The right-hander was selected by the White Sox in the second round of the 2011 draft.
It was reported on Friday afternoon that Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig was involved in a brawl at a Miami nightclub. Details were scant at the time, but he reportedly left with a bruise on his face.
Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times reports that Major League Baseball plans to investigate Puig under the league’s new domestic violence policy for his role in the brawl. Citing a report from TMZ, Hernandez notes that Puig shoved his sister, “brutally sucker-punched” the manager of the bar, and instigated the brawl.
The Dodgers and Puig’s agent have thus far refused to comment on the situation.
Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes was the first player to be investigated under the league’s new domestic violence policy earlier this month, as he allegedly assaulted his wife. Reyes has pleaded not guilty after he was charged with domestic abuse in Hawaii.
As our own Craig Calcaterra pointed out, commissioner Rob Manfred does not need to wait for Puig to plead guilty or to be found guilty to levy a punishment.
Patrick Newman is reporting that the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and outfielder Dayan Viciedo are close to an agreement on a contract. Newman notes that the Dragons are close to signing pitcher Jordan Norberto as well.
Viciedo, 26, has struggled since making his major league debut in 2010 with the White Sox, batting an aggregate .254/.298/.424 with 66 home runs and 211 RBI in 1,798 plate appearances. He spent the 2015 season with Triple-A Charlotte (White Sox) and Nashville (Athletics), hitting a composite .287/.348/.450. While Viciedo can hit the occasional home run, he hasn’t shown the ability to do much else at the big league level. Given his age, he could prove himself in Japan and parlay that into a renewed shot in the majors in the future.
The White Sox signed Viciedo out of Cuba in December 2008, agreeing to a four-year, $10 million deal. The club re-signed him to one-year deals in 2013 and ’14 for $2.8 million each and $4.4 million ahead of the 2015 season.
Update (8:45 PM EST): Per Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, Happ will get $10 million in 2016 and $13 million each in 2017 and ’18.
MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm reports that the Blue Jays have signed lefty J.A. Happ to a three-year deal worth $36 million.
Happ, 33, had a rebirth as a member of the Pirates last season after starting the season with 20 subpar starts with the Mariners. He made 11 starts for the Buccos, boasting a 1.85 ERA with a 69/13 K/BB ratio over 63 1/3 innings.
Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported this past August that Happ’s newfound success had to do with a delivery tweak suggested by Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. The Blue Jays are certainly hoping that adjustment is the full explanation for his success.
The Jays’ signing of Happ most likely signifies they won’t be pursuing free agent lefty David Price.
This will be Happ’s second stint with the Blue Jays. The Astros dealt him to Toronto in a July 2012 trade. He posted a 4.39 ERA with a 256/113 K/BB ratio in 291 innings with the Jays, then went to the Mariners in a trade this past December that brought outfielder Michael Saunders to the Jays.