(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs may be only a brief stop away from their next destination. Or, perhaps, a shortstop. That is, if they are willing to trade one.
In his postseason address to season ticket holders, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said he expects the team to contend for a division title in 2015. And that was before marquee manager Joe Maddon first put on the pinstripes at the Cubby Bear.
With holes still to fill, the Cubs can’t stop short with their hiring of Maddon. In their quest to be the best, middle-infield depth could be the key to acquiring more pieces to the puzzle.
Since arriving in October 2011, Epstein and his front office mates have done a lot of heavy lifting to strengthen the organization—signing international free agents, making astute picks in the June amateur draft and trading for other teams’ top prospects. As a result, the Cubs’ system is rated among the consensus top three in the majors.
At this stage, moving surplus talent, notably at shortstop, could be vital to improving the major league product.
“I believe the Cubs potentially have three All-Stars in [Starlin] Castro, [Javier] Baez and [Addison] Russell,” said a top major league executive. “I watched Russell last year in the Arizona Fall League. This year in the minor leagues, he got a little thicker and stronger. This young man is going to be a fine hitter and could very well be an All-Star shortstop. I love his natural instincts. Nothing about his game is below average.”
The Cubs acquired Oakland’s top draft picks from 2012 and 2013—Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney—along with pitcher Dan Straily in a July 4 deal for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Athletics General Manager Billy Beane said he didn’t want to trade the 20-year-old Russell, rated the No. 5 prospect in the game by MLB.com, but succumbed to the urge to add pitching depth in hopes of making a deep playoff run last season.
Of the three shortstops in question, Baez has the greatest power potential. His lack of contact at the major league level—95 strikeouts in his first 213 at-bats—hasn’t tempered the club’s confidence in him. Epstein said Baez will start the 2015 campaign on the Cubs’ 25-man roster, “barring anything out of the ordinary.”
A top National League scout raved about the raw skills he sees in Baez, who turns 22 on Dec. 1.
“I love his power, and he really seems comfortable at shortstop,” the scout said. “He’s not a flashy fielder—just gets the ball and throws the runner out. Baez has less moving parts than Castro.
“Will he hit? I really think so. Remember when [Anthony] Rizzo first came up in San Diego? He struck out almost 40 percent of the time. That bat speed and the quick hands cannot be taught. [Baez] is 21 and struck out at every level a lot of times until he figured it out. I like him as a shortstop, second baseman or third baseman. And I see a lot of extra-base hits in his future.”
The Cubs’ third shortstop jewel is the young veteran Castro, already a three-time All-Star at just 24 years old. His recovery from a disappointing 2013 season was a boon for both him and the organization.
After landing a seven-year, $60 million contract in August 2012, Castro seemed to enter 2013 as if he had nothing to prove. He reported to camp 10 pounds heavier and never hit his stride, batting just .245 on the season (39 points below his current lifetime average).
In 2014, a rededicated Castro led the team in hitting with a .292 mark from the middle of the order and regained his All-Star status. Working with infield instructor Gary Jones, he also reduced his errors from 22 to 15—the first season in four he didn’t lead major league shortstops in miscues.
The question of what the Cubs will do with their surplus of middle-infield talent could be answered this winter. If so, Castro might be the likeliest to go. At least three major-market teams will be seeking a top shortstop, and Castro would seem the most marketable commodity as an already-established big league star.
Ultimately, the Cubs could elect to keep all three shortstops—each 24 or younger—and move two of them to different positions. Baez is currently scheduled to be the Opening Day second baseman, with Russell ticketed to play shortstop at either Double-A Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa.
Maddon’s arrival seems to accelerate the team’s timetable for winning. A blockbuster deal for a top young pitcher could be the next step.
In other words, don’t sell Epstein short. Not so long as he has shortstops to sell.
—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
Luis Valbuena had another solid day at the plate, and multiple Cubs relievers pitched scoreless innings Sunday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:
- 2B Luis Valbuena had a pair of hits, including a double, and scored two runs as the Cardenales de Lara captured a 7-3 win over the Caribes de Anzoategui. The infielder also added a walk.
- DH Jonathan Herrera recorded a hit and scored a run in the Navegantes del Magallanes’ loss to the Braves de Margarita. He also drew a walk.
- C Willson Contreras hit a single, finishing 1-for-3, as the Tigres de Aragua topped the Aguilas del Zulia.
- RHP Loiger Padron pitched to one batter and got him out despite the Leones del Caracas falling to the Tiburones de La Guaira.
- LHP Joseph Ortiz pitched 2/3 of an inning, giving up one hit and striking out one in the win for the Tiburones.
- RHP Frank Batista pitched two scoreless innings as the Aguilas Cibaenas captured a win over the Tigers del Licey. Batista gave up one hit and struck out one to earn his first hold of the season.
- LF Junior Lake struggled at the plate, going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and a walk, as his Estrellas de Oriente side fell to the Gigantes del Cibao.
- DH Christian Villanueva went hitless but drove in his 16th run of the season on a fourth-inning, bases-loaded walk. His club, the Yaquis de Obregon, topped the Naranjeros de Hermosillo Sunday.
In a relatively quiet day for Cubs prospects in the Caribbean, infielder Luis Valbuena managed a pair of singles despite his Venezualian side falling Thursday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Winter Leagues:
- 2B Luis Valbuena recorded a pair of singles, but it wasn’t enough as his Cardenales de Lara team lost to the Tiburones de La Guaira.
- RHP Loiger Padron pitched a scoreless fourth inning in the Leones del Caracas’ loss to the Tigres de Aragua. He gave up no hits but walked two.
- 2B Jonathan Herrera went 0-for-4 for the Navegantes del Magallanes in their win over the Caribes de Anzoategui. Herrera was recently signed to a minor league deal.
- CF John Andreoli went hitless in three at-bats as his Senadores de San Juan squad was crushed 17-0 by the Gigantes de Carolina.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
After 16 seasons in the majors, longtime Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster has announced he will retire from baseball and take a position in the Cubs’ front office.
The right-hander was able to retire as a member of the Cubs organization and will become a special assistant to baseball president Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer.
The 37-year-old concludes his career as a two-time All-Star and a 2013 World Series Champion with the Red Sox, in what would become his final active season in the majors. He was an All-Star with the Marlins in 2000 and the Cubs in 2008, a year that marked his return to the rotation in which he went 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA to help the team to a second straight NL Central division title.
Overall, the well-liked Dempster spent nine seasons with the Cubs from 2004-12 and posted 67 wins and 87 saves, the only pitcher in club history with more than 50 wins and 50 saves.
For his career, the right-hander went 132-133 with 87 saves and a 4.35 ERA in 579 appearances (351 starts). Along with his time on the North Side and his season in Boston, Dempster played for Florida (1998-2002), Cincinnati (2002-03) and Texas (2012).
His new role with the organization will include spending time with the club during Spring Training, visiting the club’s minor league affiliates during the season, evaluating amateur players leading up to the draft and going on professional scouting assignments.
Dave Martinez served as Joe Maddon’s bench coach in Tampa Bay. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
The Cubs named Dave Martinez the club’s major league bench coach and shifted Brandon Hyde to first base coach Thursday.
They also appointed Henry Blanco the club’s major league quality assurance coach. Doug Dascenzo, who had been named first base coach on Oct. 9, will remain in the organization as outfield and baserunning coordinator with responsibilities in the major and minor leagues.
The announcement completes manager Joe Maddon’s coaching staff for the 2015 campaign: Martinez (bench coach), Chris Bosio (pitching coach), Hyde (first base coach), Gary Jones (third base coach), John Mallee (hitting coach), Lester Strode (bullpen coach), Mike Borzello (catching and strategy coach), Eric Hinske (assistant hitting coach), Blanco (quality assurance coach) and Franklin Font (staff assistant).
The 50-year-old Martinez served as Maddon’s bench coach in Tampa Bay and returns to the organization that originally drafted him in the third round of the 1983 Draft. Martinez was first named as a Spring Training coach for Maddon in 2006 and 2007 before being named to the big league staff on Oct. 11, 2007.
A former outfielder, Martinez played 16 seasons in the big leagues with nine teams: the Cubs (1986-88, 2000), Montreal (1988-91), Cincinnati (1992), San Francisco (1993-94), the White Sox (1995-97), Tampa Bay (1998-2000), Texas (2000), Toronto (2000) and Atlanta (2001). Over his career, he batted .276 with 91 homers and 580 RBI in 1,919 major league games.
Blanco, 43, completed a 25-year professional catching career last year when he retired with the Diamondbacks at the end of Spring Training and joined the club’s big league coaching staff as an assistant. He spent four seasons with the Cubs, helping the club to consecutive National League Central titles in 2007 and 2008.
Overall, Blanco played in 971 major league games covering 16 seasons and 11 teams: Los Angeles Dodgers (1997), Colorado (1999), Milwaukee (2000-01), Atlanta (2002-03), Minnesota (2004), the Cubs (2005-08), San Diego (2009), the New York Mets (2010), Arizona (2011-12), Toronto (2013) and Seattle (2013), finishing his career with a .223 batting average, 145 doubles, 72 home runs and 298 RBI.
On an otherwise quiet day for Cubs representatives in the Caribbean, Junior Lake recorded a few big hits for his Dominican team. Here are some notes from yesterday’s winter league action:
- LF Junior Lake had a big day at the plate for the Estrellas de Oriente in their win over the Tigres del Licey. The converted outfielder had a triple and a double, notched two RBI, scored three runs and walked three times. He finished 2-for-2 on the day.
- C Luis Flores went 0-for-3 but scored a run for the Estrellas.
- PR Junior Felix Arias entered the game in the sixth inning as a pinch-runner and scored for the Gigantes del Cibao, who were victorious over the Toros del Este.
- RHP Frank Batista was roughed up in two innings, giving up three earned runs in the Aguilas Cibaenas’ win over the Leones del Escogido.
- LF Christian Villanueva went 1-for-4 with a single as the Yaquis de Obregon fell to the Tomateros de Culiacan.
- LHP Joseph Ortiz picked up his second win of the winter in a Tiburones de La Guaira victory over the Navegantes del Magallanes. He pitched 0.2 innings and gave up one hit.
- 2B Luis Valbuena went hitless in four at-bats as the Cardenales de Lara fell to the Leones del Caracas.
Anthony Rizzo is one of the most valuable assets in baseball. (Photo by Stephen Green)
For the third year in a row, ESPN-based website grantland.com created its annual MLB Trade Value top 50. The full piece by Jonah Keri is a fun read and dives into further detail as to how the rankings were compiled using 2014 statistics, contract status, age, health and position scarcity.
The story is not assuming all the players listed are going to be traded, but simply aims to determine which players are more valuable than others. Here’s Keri’s explanation of the ideal candidate:
“The perfect Trade Value player is an established star who’s still young enough to carry growth potential, has no significant injury history, and has an affordable contract that brings numerous years of team control. Ultimately, this is a thought experiment: If every team made every player available via trade, which guys would fetch the greatest return?”
A trio of young Cubs found their way onto the list, with Anthony Rizzo checking in at No. 7, Kris Bryant at No. 18 and Jorge Soler at No. 44.
The White Sox get to employ [first baseman Jose] Abreu — the reigning rookie of the year and MVP candidate — for the next five years for just $51 million. The Cubs have an even better deal with Rizzo, whom they’ve got for five years at $35 million, plus a pair of $14.5 million club options in 2020 and 2021 that look supremely reasonable for a 25-year-old slugger who just batted .286/.386/.527 (the NL’s third-best park-adjusted line) while flashing a solid glove. Right now, there’s nothing to dislike about either player.
Bryant, however, is fresh Trade Value fodder. Admittedly, this is an aggressive ranking for a player who’s never seen a pitch in the big leagues, but several factors work in his favor. For one thing, Bryant isn’t a pitcher, so his risk of major injury or sudden skill erosion is comparatively low. For another, he’s a damn beast. No amount of park adjusting or number manipulating can douse the .325/.438/.661 beating he laid on Double-A and Triple-A pitchers last season, when he launched 43 homers in 138 games. He’s an all-world talent, he doesn’t turn 23 until January, and he’s one of the biggest reasons to start fearing the Cubs.
Soler was never rated as highly as [Pirates outfielder Gregory] Polanco (let alone [Twins outfielder Byron] Buxton), even getting overshadowed by flashy prospects Bryant, [Javier] Baez, and [Addison] Russell within the Cubs system. But he made it to the Show at age 22 last summer and punished the ball, belting five homers, eight doubles, and a triple in just 89 at-bats, with three of those five long balls traveling 420 feet or more. He doesn’t quite have the well-rounded tool set that Polanco and especially Buxton do, but at a time when power is at a premium throughout the majors, the Cubs have a player with major pop who’s ready to be their Opening Day right fielder four months from now — and take aim at Waveland Avenue for years to come. In 2012, the Cubs signed Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract, with a clause that would allow him to opt out of the deal and into arbitration when he became eligible. If he continues to hit at anywhere near the level he did in his first brush with the bigs, that’ll surely happen after the 2017 season. In either case, the Cubs control his rights through 2020.
Members of the Cubs organization made an impact Tuesday, especially from the offensive side, and a duo of farmhands participated in Venezuela’s All-Star Game. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:
- CF John Andreoli blasted his first home run of the winter in a 6-2 Senadores de San Juan win over the Gigantes de Carolina on Tuesday. The solo shot came in the third inning, and he added another single, finishing 2-for-4 with two runs scored. The 24-year-old Andreoli played 61 games at Double-A last season, compiling a .211/.329/.249 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line, stealing 28 bases and getting caught only twice. Though he lacks some pop, his 13.5 percent walk rate demonstrates his discipline at the plate.
- CF Arismendy Alcantara had a pair of hits as the Tigres del Licey edged out the Aguilas Cibaenas. He recorded his first double of the winter and added a run scored, finishing 2-for-5.
- LF Christian Villanueva had another monster day offensively for the Yaquis de Obregon in their loss to the Tomateros de Culican. The 23-year-old ripped a sixth-inning grand slam and added three singles. He finished 4-for-4. The home run was his sixth of the winter.
- RHP Lioger Padron pitched to one batter and got him out for the Future All-Stars side in their 8-0 win over the LVBP All-Stars.
- C Willson Contreras recorded a single in two at-bats for the Future All-Stars.
The Chicago Cubs and Wintrust Financial Corporation Wednesday announced their Legacy Partnership introducing Wintrust as the exclusive official banking partner of the Cubs, Hickory Street Capital LLC and Cubs Charities.
Starting in 2015, the Wintrust sign will be prominently displayed throughout Wrigley Field. The most recognizable position will be atop the left field video board that will be constructed this offseason. The partnership will expand over time and include:
- Primary signage rights above the new left field video board.
- Exclusive ATM provider rights. Fans will be able to use Wintrust ATMs at multiple locations within Wrigley Field.
- Logo placement on the team’s media backdrop.
- Eventual naming rights of the ballpark’s Gate D on the corner of Addison and Sheffield avenues. Gate D will be named “The Wintrust Gate” once its renovation is complete.
- Rotational signage behind home plate.
- A video board feature between innings at every Cubs home game.
- A presenting sponsorship of a game each season, including a special promotional giveaway item for fans.
- A presence at the team’s Spring Training home, Cubs Park, in Mesa, Arizona, with signage in the outfield and behind home plate, promotional space at the ballpark and a promotional date each season.
- A retail lease in the future entertainment plaza and hotel development adjacent to Wrigley Field, through a separate agreement with the Ricketts family’s Hickory Street Capital LLC.
“It was important for us to find a strong local player for our Financial Legacy Partner,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “This Legacy Partnership pairs these two Chicago institutions for years to come, and we know our fans will support Wintrust’s role as a critical partner in helping the team achieve its goals of winning a World Series, saving Wrigley Field and being a good neighbor. Wintrust is a perfect fit for us.”
The Wintrust Legacy Partnership agreement was secured by the Cubs’ agency, W Partners, which was launched in February 2013.
“This is more than a sports sponsorship,” said Ed Wehmer, Wintrust CEO and founder. “This is two Chicago institutions partnering to meet two lofty goals—one to win the World Series for the first time in more than a century and the other to become Chicago’s bank in an increasingly fragmented and competitive market. You can see a lot of parallels in our two organizations.”
Wintrust becomes the fifth Legacy Partner of the Cubs, joining Anheuser-Busch, ATI Physical Therapy, Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Under Armour.
Slick-fielding infield prospect Christian Villanueva found himself in an unfamiliar spot Monday, as he lined up in left field. Though likely unrelated, he also had one of his better games of the winter at the dish. With few games going on around the Caribbean leagues, he was the only Cub in action. Here are some notes from yesterday’s game:
- LF Christian Villanueva smacked his fifth homer of the winter as the Yaquis de Obregon took down the Tomateros de Culiacan 6-3. He also added a single and scored a second run, finishing 2-for-4. Known for his defensive prowess at third base, it’s interesting to see the 23-year-old slated anywhere but the hot corner. In his six seasons of minor league ball, he has never played the outfield, and he is viewed by many as the best defensive third baseman in the organization. Though the glove has always been there, question marks surround Villanueva’s bat, as he hit .230/.297/.379 in split duties between Double- and Triple-A in 2014 and is a career .266 hitter. Though he has shown glimpses of pop (19 home runs in Double-A in 2013), it’s likely those offensive stats will need to improve as he progresses. Either way, games like the one he had Monday will surely boost his confidence.