(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.
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.
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.
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.
It was a quiet day for the Cubs in Winter League action Sunday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s games around the Caribbean:
- 1B Willson Contreras drew a walk and went 0-for-2 as the Tigres de Aragua edged out the Aguilas del Zulia 3-2. It’s worth noting that Contreras played first base just twice in 2014. He served primarily as High-A Daytona’s catcher.
- 2B Luis Valbuena went 0-for-4 despite his Cardenales de Lara side coming away 2-1 winners against the Leones del Caracas.
- PH-RF Junior Felix Arias struck out in his only at-bat for the Gigantes del Cibao in their 9-1 win over the Estrellas de Oriente. He came on as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning.
- C Luis Flores went hitless in three-at bats for Oriente.
Arismendy Alcantara hit a home run off an organizational teammate, and Christian Villanueva was one of the few bright spots in his team’s loss. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:
- CF Arismendy Alcantara smashed his second home run of the winter off organization mate Frank Batista, but his Tigres del Licey fell to the Aguilas Cibaenas. The two-run shot was his lone hit of the day in three at-bats.
- RHP Batista got the start and gave up three earned runs—including the aforementioned Alcantara homer—over four innings and struck out two for Cibaenas. His ERA now sits at 3.73.
- DH Christian Villanueva finished 1-for-4 with a single and a run scored despite his Yaquis de Obregon side falling 11-2 to the Charros de Jalisco Tuesday. He also managed to draw a walk in the defeat.
Junior Lake reached base multiple times Monday in the Dominican, and a pair of catchers recorded hits for their respective teams. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action in the Caribbean:
- PR-C Luis Flores entered the game in the third inning as a pinch-runner and finished 1-for-2 with two runs scored in the Estrellas de Oriente’s 5-4 win over the Gigantes del Cibao. The 28-year-old backstop split time between Double- and Triple-A during the 2014 regular season, hitting .253/.388/.371 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with eight homers in 67 games. He was originally a seventh-round selection out of Oklahoma State in the 2008 draft.
- CF Junior Lake had a big day in the Estrellas’ win. The 24-year-old reached base four times, with two singles and two walks. He went 2-for-3.
- CF John Andreoli was 0-for-4 as the Senadores de San Juan fell to the Indios de Mayaguez Monday.
- C Willson Contreras recorded a single and scored a run in the Tigres de Aragua’s loss to the Navegantes del Magallanes. Contreras was 1-for-3 on the day before being pinch-hit for in the eighth inning.
It was a quiet day for Cubs prospects in the Caribbean Sunday. Catching prospect Willson Contreras managed to help his team in Venezuela, while Arismendy Alcantara contributed to his Dominican club. Here are some notes from yesterday’s Caribbean action:
- CF Arismendy Alcantara recorded a single and walk for the Tigres del Licey. He finished 1-for-3 in the 7-2 win over the Aguilas Cibaenas.
- LHP Jeffry Antigua pitched a hitless eighth inning of relief for the Toros del Este. Antigua, who split time between Double- and Triple-A last season, struck out one Leones del Escogido hitter in a 5-4 loss.
- DH Christian Villanueva reached base on a pair of walks Sunday despite his Yaquis de Obregon side getting pummeled 16-3. He finished 0-for-2 against the Caneros de los Mochis pitchers.
- CF John Andreoli had a single in a Senadores de San Juan loss to the Indios de Mayaguez. He was one of four players to reach base in the 2-0 loss.
- C Willson Contreras recorded an RBI single as the Tigres de Aragua cruised to a 7-2 win over the Tiburones de La Guaira. Contreras is viewed as one of the better young catching prospects in the organization. He played 80 games at High-A Daytona, hitting .242/.320/.359 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with five homers.