Cubs acquire INF Addison Russell, OF Billy McKinney, RHP Dan Straily and a PTBNL from the A’s for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty)
The Chicago Cubs today acquired infielder Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney, right-handed pitcher Dan Straily and a player to be named from the Oakland Athletics for right-handed pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
Russell and McKinney were ranked as the top two players in Oakland’s farm system by Baseball America entering the 2014 season, while Russell was ranked the third-best prospect in baseball by ESPN.com, No. 11 by MLB.com and No. 14 overall by Baseball America.
“It’s not a secret that we now have an extremely talented, extremely deep group of potential impact position players age 20-22, who are moving very quickly through our system” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “And these are real prospects. Not all of them work out, but we like these players quite a bit, and they have a chance to play together for long time at Wrigley Field. When you put that together with a couple of 24-year-old All-Star-caliber performers like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, we can’t help but be excited about the future.”
Russell was Oakland’s first-round pick in the 2012 Draft (11th overall out of high school), and McKinney was the club’s first-round pick in the 2013 Draft (24th overall out of high school). Straily began the 2013 campaign ranked second by MLB.com and sixth by Baseball America in the Athletics system (with the organization’s best slider and change-up) before going 10-8 with a 3.96 ERA (67 ER/152.1 IP) in 27 starts in the major leagues last season.
With the acquisition of Russell, a shortstop, the Cubs now have in their organization three of the top 14, six of the top 41, and eight players overall listed on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list entering the 2014 campaign.
The 20-year-old Russell entered 2014 as Oakland’s top prospect as ranked by Baseball America for the second year in a row. He was a 2012 Arizona League postseason All-Star, a 2013 Futures Game selection, the 2013 Single-A California League Rookie of the Year, a 2013 California League postseason All-Star and was named to the 2013 Arizona Fall League’s All Prospects Team, where he played for the Mesa Solar Sox and was a starter in the AFL All-Star Game.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Russell began his pro career by hitting .369 (80-for-217) with a 1.027 OPS in 55 games covering three levels in Oakland’s farm system before spending nearly all of 2013 at advanced Single-A Stockton. He was just one of 12 minor league players to reach double digits in doubles (29), triples (10) and home runs (17) last year en route to an .885 OPS with Stockton before a three-game promotion to Triple-A Sacramento at the end of the season.
Russell was with Oakland’s Double-A Midland affiliate at the time of the trade, where he hit .333 (16-for-48) with a .439 on-base percentage, a .500 slugging percentage and a .939 OPS in just 13 games this year due to a hamstring injury. He joined the Midland line-up in mid-June and finished his time there riding an eight-game hitting streak.
“We put a lot of work into understanding the [trade] landscape, and I’ll just say it was a no-brainer process,” Epstein said. “If we had a chance to get Addison Russell, that was the deal we had to make. We didn’t think twice about it. Certainly we made attempts to craft packages that gave us enough pitching to feel like it was worthwhile to part with a Jeff Samardzija or Jason Hammel or both in the same deal, and we felt this was by far the best deal for the Chicago Cubs.”
The 19-year-old McKinney last year played across two levels in Oakland’s system in his first pro campaign and combined to bat .326 (70-for-215) with nine doubles, three triples, three home runs, 26 RBI and a .387 on-base percentage in 55 games between the Rookie League Athletics and Single-A Vermont.
At the time of the trade, the left-handed hitting McKinney was batting .241 (70-for-290) with 12 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs and 33 RBI in 75 games for Single-A Stockton this season. He has appeared at all three outfield positions, predominantly in center field (67 games). He batted .292 (28-for-96) with 12 runs, five doubles, one triple, three home runs and 15 RBI in 24 games in June. All told, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder has batted .277 (140-for-505) with 21 doubles, five triples, 13 home runs and 59 RBI in 130 career minor league games.
Straily, 25, has pitched parts of the last three years with Oakland, going 13-11 with a 4.11 ERA (105 ER/230.0 IP) in 41 starts. He made his big league debut on August 3, 2012, and made seven starts with Oakland that season, going 2-1 with a 3.89 ERA (17 ER/39.1 IP) before spending nearly the entire campaign in the majors in 2013. Straily has split the 2014 season between the big leagues (1-2, 4.93 ERA in seven starts) and Triple-A Sacramento (4-3, 4.71 ERA in 10 starts).
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Straily was originally selected by Oakland in the 24th round of the 2009 Draft and was named the organization’s 2012 co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year after combining to go 9-7 with a 2.78 ERA (47 ER/152.0 IP) and an organization-best 190 strikeouts in 25 starts between Sacramento and Midland, where he was named to the Texas League All-Star team.
Samardzija, 29, went 31-42 with one save and a 3.97 ERA (294 ER/666.0 IP) in 206 games, including 83 starts, with the Cubs over the last seven seasons. He went 2-7 with a 2.83 ERA (34 ER/108.0 IP) in 17 starts with the club this season. He was originally selected by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2006 Draft.
Hammel, 31, went 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA (36 ER/108.2 IP) in 17 starts with the Cubs this season. He is 57-64 with four saves and a 4.62 ERA (564 ER/1,098.0 IP) in 232 big league outings (175 starts).
“We certainly hope that this is the last year that we’ll be obvious sellers at the trade deadline,” Epstein said. “Nothing would make us happier than being in the position Oakland is in, which is to aggressively add to the big league team and enhance the team’s chances of making the postseason and winning the World Series. As we discussed it, we repeated to ourselves that this type of move, being sellers, is not what we want to do, so if we’re going to do it, we need to make it count. And we need to get a player back who significantly impacts the organization, helps change the landscape, helps make our future a heck of a lot better.”
The Cubs came to terms with catcher Mark Zagunis, the organization’s third-round pick in the 2014 MLB draft, on Wednesday.
The 21-year-old Zagunis batted .330 with two homers, 10 doubles and 39 RBI in 53 games in his junior season at Virginia Tech. He posted a .426 on-base percentage, tallying 32 walks and swiping 16 bases. He was an All-ACC second-teamer for the second time in his career and was a semifinalist for the 2014 Johnny Bench Award.
In his time with the Hokies, Zagunis was a .338 hitter and had a .979 fielding percentage while playing primarily behind the plate. He stole 52 bases, becoming just the second player from Virginia Tech to record 50-plus stolen bases in a career since the school joined the ACC.
With this signing, the Cubs have inked 21 of their first 22 picks, with only sixth-rounder Dylan Cease still without a deal.
The Cubs have come to terms with second-round selection Jake Stinnett, fourth-round selection Carson Sands, fifth-round selection Justin Steele and seventh-round selection James Norwood from the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. Terms of the deals were not disclosed.
Stinnett, a right-handed pitcher from the University of Maryland, posted an 8-6 record with a 2.67 ERA in 17 games this season. The 22-year-old led the ACC with 132 strikeouts, four complete games and 118.0 innings pitched. He pitched the seventh no-hitter in U of M history on March 1 in a game against UMass.
Sands, 19, was 11-1 with a 0.58 ERA and one complete game in 14 outings, including 12 starts for North Florida Christian High School this past season. In 60.2 innings, he fanned 100 batters, or 14.8 K/9, and walked just 24. The left-hander pitched for Team USA on three occasions, winning a gold medal with the 18U club in 2012.
The 18-year-old Steele went 5-1 with a 0.98 ERA in eight games for George County High School (Miss.) this past season. He struck out 92 in 43.0 innings, good for an average of 19.3 K/9. He also walked just 12 and threw two no-hitters. His efforts earned him the 5A Player of the Year award in Mississippi.
Norwood, 20, went 8-2 with a 2.68 ERA (28 ER/94.0 IP) in 15 starts this season to cap off a three-year college career at Saint Louis University.
Cubs top prospect Javier Baez playing for the Tennessee Smokies in 2013.
The Cubs have had success at the Double-A level since teaming up with the Tennessee Smokies in 2007. On Wednesday, the clubs worked out a deal that will hopefully extend that success.
The Chicago Cubs and the Tennessee Smokies announced a four-year Player Development Contract extension, keeping the club’s Double-A affiliate in Kodak, Tennessee, through the 2018 season.
“We are pleased to reach agreement with the Tennessee Smokies on a four-year Player Development Contract extension,” said Jason McLeod, Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development. “Our front office has enjoyed our relationship with the Smokies, and the players who have come through Tennessee have spoken very highly of the Smokies and their fans. We thank Randy Boyd, Doug Kirchhofer, Brian Cox and the entire Smokies family for their commitment to providing a great experience for our Double-A players.”
This PDC extension will bring the Cubs and Smokies affiliation to 12 seasons by the end of the 2018 campaign. Since beginning their affiliation with the Cubs in 2007, the Smokies have participated in postseason play in five of seven seasons and have advanced to the Southern League Championship series three times. Tennessee has posted a 553-485 record (.533) as of June 10, with six of seven completed seasons ending with a winning record. The .533 winning percentage is best among all affiliates in Smokies history.
“Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod have been great partners,” said Smokies owner Randy Boyd. “The Cubs have strong ownership and an outstanding organization. We look forward to continuing this affiliation for many more years.”
Tennessee has seen many of the Cubs top prospects over the last two seasons, including No. 1 prospect Javier Baez in 2013 and No. 2 prospect Kris Bryant this year. In total, 35 Smokies have gone on to make their major league debuts with the Cubs, including Jeff Samardzija, Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and Welington Castillo.
“There’s no question the talent that has come through Kodak recently has been some of the best in baseball, and it’s an amazing opportunity for fans to see the stars of tomorrow pass through here,” said Smokies General Manager Brian Cox. “The impact the players and coaches have made in East Tennessee has been tremendous and the future is clearly bright for both the Chicago Cubs and Tennessee Smokies.”
Just six days after becoming the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft, catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber has finalized a deal with the Cubs. Schwarber will join the club’s affiliate in Boise, which plays its Short-Season Single-A Northwest League opener at home on Friday.
The 21-year-old from Indiana University batted .341 (238-for-697) with 40 home runs and 149 RBI in 180 games in his three seasons, adding 182 runs, 41 doubles, 12 triples and 23 stolen bases. He walked 116 times compared to 91 strikeouts, leading to a .437 on-base percentage. He recorded a .984 career fielding percentage, primarily at catcher (though he also played some outfield) and threw out 51 of 154 (33 percent) attempted base stealers.
The 6-foot, 235-pound Middletown, Ohio, native hit .358 (83-for-232) with 14 home runs (tied for seventh-most in the nation) and 48 RBI for the Hoosiers this spring, adding career highs with 66 runs, 16 doubles, six triples, 44 walks (compared to 30 strikeouts) and 10 stolen bases. He started all 59 of Indiana’s games and recorded a .464 on-base percentage alongside a .659 slugging percentage, good for a 1.123 OPS.
Behind the plate, Schwarber had a .992 fielding percentage (3 E/383 TC) this season and threw out 16 of 43 (37 percent) attempted base stealers, en route to being named one of three finalists for the 2014 Johnny Bench Award, given to the top Division I catcher in the nation.
In 2013, he was named the top catcher in the country and a First Team All-American by Perfect Game and the NCBWA after hitting .366 (86-for-235) with 18 home runs (first in the Big Ten and third nationally) and 54 RBI in 61 games. He recorded a .456 on-base percentage, walking 42 times, and slugged .647, best in the Big Ten. He was also named Academic All-Big Ten and joined USA’s Collegiate National Team after the season.
As a freshman in 2012, Schwarber started all 60 of Indiana’s games, including 54 at catcher. He posted a .300 batting average (69-for-230) alongside a .390 on-base percentage and a .513 slugging percentage, hitting eight homers and driving in 47 runs. Defensively, he nabbed 27 would-be base stealers, good for second-most in the conference.
Schwarber, a 2011 graduate of Middletown High School, was recommended by Cubs area scout Stan Zielinski.
Hector Rondon returns to the 25-man roster. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs made a series of transactions Tuesday, activating right-handed reliever Hector Rondon from the paternity list, and calling up catcher Eli Whiteside from Triple-A Iowa. In other moves, reliever Jose Veras has been designated for assignment, and catcher Welington Castillo has been placed on the DL with left rib cage inflammation.
The 26-year-old Rondon has an 0-1 record with six saves, 25 strikeouts and a 1.59 ERA over 22.2 innings. Opposing hitters are batting .193 against the right-hander, and his .493 OPS against ranks 10th among NL relievers.
Whiteside, 34, signed with the Cubs prior to the season and is set to make his Cubs debut. He’s currently hitting .171 with four doubles, three homers and 13 RBI in Triple-A Iowa. He has played all or part of five big league seasons and won World Series rings with the Giants in 2010 and 2012. He’s a career .215 hitter in the majors.
In 13.1 innings, Veras went 0-1 with a 8.10 ERA for the Cubs.
Castillo is currently hitting .242 with five homers.
Neil Ramirez got his first call-up to the major leagues Thursday. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs recalled right-handed pitcher Neil Ramirez and left-handed pitcher Zac Rosscup from Triple-A Iowa Thursday. Outfielder Justin Ruggiano has been placed on the 15-day DL with a left hamstring strain, and right-handed reliever Blake Parker was optioned to Triple-A. According to manager Rick Renteria, the team will go with a 13-man bullpen for the next few series.
This is the 24-year-old Ramirez’s his first call-up to the majors, after going 36-35 with a 4.40 ERA in 140 minor league appearances over the last seven seasons. He was acquired by the Cubs as the player-to-be-named later in a deal that sent starter Matt Garza to the Rangers. Ramirez spent most of Spring Training in major league camp, pitching 7.2 scoreless innings. In seven frames at Iowa this season, he had a 7.71 ERA. Between Double-A Frisco and Double-A Tennessee last year, he went 9-3 with a 3.68 ERA in 22 starts.
“It’s a dream come true. Everybody says that, but when you get that call, it’s definitely that feeling that you’ve been working for something so long, and it’s finally here,” Ramirez said. “I’m just excited to be here and give the team a chance to win.”
Rosscup, 25, joins the Cubs for the second time this season. He previously came up as the 26th man during the doubleheader against the Yankees on April 16. He made his big league debut as a September call-up last year, posting a 1.35 ERA with no record in 10 appearances, all out of the bullpen. He’s currently 1-0 with a 4.26 ERA over six innings with Iowa.
Ruggiano, who injured himself chasing a ball in the right-field corner Wednesday, is batting .229 (8-for-35) with a homer and six RBI this season. Parker has no record and a 16.20 ERA in two relief outings.
Slugger and 2013 first-round draft pick Kris Bryant has been assigned to minor league camp. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Chicago Cubs have assigned 12 players to minor league camp, reducing their spring roster from 66 to 54 players.
Infielders Arismendy Alcantara and Logan Watkins, outfielder Matt Szczur and right-handed pitcher Dallas Beeler have been optioned to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Jorge Soler has been optioned to Double-A Tennessee.
Six nonroster invitees have been assigned to minor league camp: right-handed pitchers Marcus Hatley and Carlos Pimentel, left-handed pitcher Eric Jokisch, infielders Kris Bryant and Jeudy Valdez, and outfielder Albert Almora.
Additionally, outfielder Aaron Cunningham has been granted his release.
Chicago’s spring roster now consists of 27 pitchers (seven nonroster invitees), five catchers (three nonroster invitees), 11 infielders (four nonroster invitees) and 11 outfielders (five nonroster invitees).
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Major League Baseball’s offseason got off to a fast start roughly a week before the Winter Meetings began in December. There was an early rush that included address changes for multiple All-Stars; then marquee players like Robinson Cano and Clayton Kershaw nabbed record-setting contracts. And the frenzy stretched into late January this year as organizations, including the Cubs, awaited the decision of Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka, who eventually signed with the again-free-spending Yankees.
As for the Cubs’ roster? On paper, the squad looks quite similar to the one that wrapped up the 2013 campaign. Though that might worry some fans, especially after a 96-loss season, one of baseball’s youngest lineups should only improve with another year under its belt. Many members of the young Cubs core got their first full season at their respective positions in 2013, and that experience should pay dividends. Plus, the Cubs have one of the top farm systems in baseball, and many of those coveted players are getting closer to making their debuts at Wrigley Field.
“There’s room for improvement,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “There are a lot of talented players on the roster who didn’t have their best year. I know they’re really committed to the work they’re doing this offseason and to doing better this year. And we had guys who did have big breakthroughs last year, and they want to sustain that progress and build from there.”
The team also added depth at several positions and bolstered the bullpen. Last season, the rotation was good enough to win, but the team struggled to close things out. This offseason, they plugged Wesley Wright and closer Jose Veras into the back end of the ’pen, which should keep the squad in a lot more games.
To get you ready for the upcoming season, we go around the horn to see what the roster could look like as the Cubs open up the season in Pittsburgh in late March.
Defensively, nobody plays the second-base position better than Darwin Barney. He captured a Gold Glove Award in 2012, and the 28-year-old had comparable numbers in 2013. But if Barney hopes to move into the Cubs core, the defense-first player is going to have to improve his offensive production. His on-base percentage and wins above replacement ranked worst of all qualifying NL second basemen last season.
“I think you have to remember that this game is hard, and that you’re not always going to play as well as you want,” Barney said. “Unfortunately, nothing came together last year, but I’m very confident that isn’t going to happen again.”
Logan Watkins, the Cubs’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, will continue his playing-time push at second and compete with the versatile Emilio Bonifacio and nonroster invitee Ryan Roberts for the extra infield spot.
Around the diamond, nobody’s job appears to be safer than first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s. Despite a dip in his slash line, the power numbers were pretty much as expected, including a position-leading 40 doubles. It’s easy to forget the 24-year-old just concluded his first full season in the majors, and the grind of a 162-game schedule might have gotten the best of him. The slugger’s numbers dipped midway through the year—he hit .210 in July and just .190 in August. But throw in his Gold Glove-caliber defense, and it’s safe to assume mistakes will be kept to a minimum on the right side of the infield.
The left side, however, has a few question marks surrounding its personnel. Sure, young veteran Starlin Castro will begin the season as the team’s shortstop. New manager Rick Renteria has gone out of his way to describe the great communication he’s had with the 23-year-old two-time All-Star, who is under contract for at least six more seasons. But it’s hard to ignore the production of top shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who has received plaudits from the front office, minor league experts and anyone else who has seen his lightning-fast, ultraviolent swing.
Depending on Castro’s production, as well as Baez’s continued development, the incumbent may have to eventually make way for baseball’s No. 4 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, and shift to second or third. For now, the position is Castro’s to lose. He’s never been a patient hitter, but he’ll have to cut down on his 18.3 percent strikeout rate, which was second highest among qualifying NL shortstops last year. A simpler approach might be necessary to get the 2011 NL hits leader back to that level of success.
“I can’t really speak to what was the change or what transpired to cause how he approached his at-bats,” Renteria said of Castro’s offensive struggles in 2013. “But I can assure you that [the new coaches] are just looking to have Starlin Castro be himself and swing at good pitches.”
Third base is the grab-bag section of the Cubs infield. There are upward of five players who could realistically man the position at any point this season, and that doesn’t include the overflow from short. As it currently stands, the underrated duo of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy should begin the year as a hot-corner platoon, with the left-handed Valbuena likely seeing more time. Despite a .230 batting average between the two, they combined for 23 homers, 23 doubles and a .327 on-base percentage last year.
Trade deadline acquisition Mike Olt also has an outside shot of breaking camp as the everyday third baseman if he can regain the form that once made him an untouchable prospect in the Rangers organization. But that will depend on whether he can put last year’s concussion- and allergy-related eye issues behind him and show the power/defense combination that got him all the way to the major leagues with Texas in 2012.
The first full season of the Welington Castillo era was a resounding success. The 26-year-old backstop exceeded expectations offensively while serving as one of the finest defensive catchers in the game. At the January Cubs Convention, pitching coach Chris Bosio and catching instructor Mike Borzello both took time to praise Castillo’s work ethic and the strides he made over the course of the year.
Typically, catchers don’t get to call their own games until they have years of experience, but Castillo picked up the ins and outs of the position so quickly—and so impressed Bosio with his ability to dissect the scouting report—that he had free rein on pitch selection in 2013. According to baseball website Fangraphs, he also posted 19 defensive runs saved, tops at the catcher position and sixth best for any player in the NL.
Former Royal George Kottaras will replace Dioner Navarro, who signed with Toronto this offseason, as the club’s backup backstop. Though Kottaras is only a career .214 hitter, he is a base-on-balls machine, drawing walks in 14 percent of his 820 career plate appearances. He should be a good addition for a team that had the third-lowest on-base percentage in the game last season.
Much like the infield, the outfield appears to be pretty well set, at least for Opening Day.
Expectations are high for 30-year-old right fielder Nate Schierholtz, a 2013 free-agent signee who opened eyes in the Cubs outfield last year. He led all of the team’s returning outfielders in WAR and nearly doubled his career home run total with 21, though he’s significantly better against right-handers (.262 average and 20 homers against righties vs. .170 against lefties).
It’s also a safe assumption that Junior Lake will get plenty of regular playing time in left field this season. Thanks to his slightly surprising but solid major league debut in mid-July, fans are expecting big things from the Dominican, who will turn 24 four days before the season opener. If Lake can cut down on his strikeout rate of 26.8 percent, it will bode well in other categories. His 27.8 percent line-drive rate ranked second in the NL among players with 250 plate appearances, and his .377 batting average on balls in play ranked third among NL outfield rookies. If Lake can cut his K total down, even to just his career minor league average of 23.8 percent, he could finish with a near .300 average.
The biggest offensive acquisition this offseason came in the form of Justin Ruggiano, a 31-year-old former Marlin with the ability to man all three outfield spots. Traded from Miami during the Winter Meetings for Brian Bogusevic, Ruggiano adds much-needed right-handed pop to the lineup and could form an effective platoon with Schierholtz. The lifetime .251 hitter had a career-high 18 homers last season and looks to improve on that total now that he is away from the spacious Marlins Park, where he hit only three dingers in 2013.
“I don’t think it can get much tougher [as a] ballpark than Miami,” Ruggiano said. “I’ve seen so many balls go 420-plus feet and go for doubles. [Wrigley Field] is going to be a good park to hit at.”
Ryan Sweeney, who re-upped this offseason to stay on the North Side, could see a lot of playing time in center field. Sweeney got off to a fast start in 2013, hitting .295/.342/.527 in 44 games before fracturing a rib trying to make a play on June 29. Though his return was less than stellar, he is a singles machine. More than 20 percent of his at-bats have resulted in singles since he started playing regularly with Oakland in 2008. That ranks 21st of all players during that time.
Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald and former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan will compete with prospects Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur for a potential fifth outfield spot.
The starting rotation was undoubtedly the strong point of last season’s squad, as fans saw many young talents evolve with more playing time and higher inning totals. But the byproduct of two active trade deadlines under Epstein and Hoyer has been a lack of depth. Though the Cubs fell short in the bidding war for Japanese ace Tanaka, they did make a few under-the-radar acquisitions, adding Jason Hammel and James McDonald late in the offseason, that should serve them well.
Former manager Dale Sveum tabbed Jeff Samardzija as the squad’s Opening Day starter in 2013, and the power arm fought to live up to that honor all year. Though his 8-13 record and 4.34 ERA were not what Samardzija or Cubs fans had hoped for out of a No. 1 starter, he did strike out 214 hitters, reach 213.2 innings and complete an entire season for the first time as a starter. His 9.01 strikeouts per nine innings were fifth in the NL, and his cumulative strikeout total was good for fourth.
“I really feel like last year was a big learning process, coming off starting 30 times the year before and, before that, throwing 80 innings of relief. I really feel like I had to adjust myself toward the end of the year,” Samardzija said. “I think you look at August and July, and they weren’t great. You look at my September, and I really liked my September and how I finished.”
Though Samardzija slotted in as the ace last year, nobody put up a better season in the rotation than left-hander Travis Wood. The Cubs’ lone All-Star representative was as consistent as it came, going at least six innings in 26 of his 32 starts and making it into the fifth inning on all but two occasions. His 3.11 ERA was good for 12th in the NL, and he kept his team in a lot of games with his 6.9 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio, fifth best in the NL.
After signing a four-year, $52 million contract last offseason, Edwin Jackson will need to step up in his second year in Cubbie blue. Though he showed glimpses of the top-end guy the Cubs hoped he’d be last year, Jackson’s ERA ballooned to one of the worst in baseball, and his 18 losses led the NL.
The good news is E-Jax has dealt with adversity before, having been traded six times in a five-year period. At 30 years old, he has already been around the game for 11 major league seasons and has earned a reputation as a solid workhorse. The last time he finished with such a high ERA, he cut the total down by well over a run the following season.
A newcomer to the fray, right-hander Hammel adds some veteran experience to the rotation. The Cubs signed the 31-year-old, who was Baltimore’s Opening Day starter a year ago, to a one-year deal on Jan. 31. Hammel got off to a fast 7-2 start in 2013, despite a 4.98 ERA during that time. However, he dropped his next six starts and spent more than a month on the DL with a forearm injury. When he returned, he was inserted into Baltimore’s bullpen.
Many predict a successful first half for Hammel could lead to a trade, similar to what happened with Scott Feldman a year ago. Looking at the right-hander’s career splits, he could make a perfect midseason trade candidate, as he has proven to be significantly better in the first half (36-30, 4.47 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in the first half vs. 13-29, 5.29 ERA, 1.49 WHIP post-All-Star break).
Jake Arrieta looks to slot into the final spot despite and while he had arm issues as camp got underway, he comes off a successful spell with the North Siders in 2013. The once highly touted prospect came over in the Scott Feldman deal, and gave up one run or fewer in five of his nine starts to finish his Cubs run 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA.
That should give the Cubs a solid (and hard-throwing) front five, but the team also has some depth behind them, with lefty Chris Rusin and right-handers Justin Grimm and Carlos Villanueva. Rusin came up after the Cubs parted ways with Matt Garza in July and made 13 late-season starts. Though he definitely faded in the last month, he showed he has the ability to get major league hitters out.
Grimm, one of the arms exchanged for Garza, was told to prepare to compete for a starting job prior to Spring Training. Despite having just 19 career major league starts, the 25-year-old has an effective fastball/cutter combination and is still viewed as a solid prospect going forward.
Villanueva will serve as a nice cushion for the Cubs, who know exactly what they’ll get out of the 30-year-old swingman. He won a starting job out of Spring Training in 2013 and was great in April (2.29 ERA, .171 OBA) before stepping in to stabilize the bullpen. If Villanueva doesn’t win a rotation spot, he’ll likely serve as a long reliever while Grimm and Rusin are sent to Triple-A to hone their skills in the I-Cubs’ rotation.
If the rotation was the strong point last year, the bullpen was definitely its weaker counterpoint. Cubs relievers finished with a 4.04 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP (both 13th in the NL), 26 blown saves and 210 walks (both 14th in the NL).
The front office spent the early part of the offseason overhauling the ’pen, adding closer Veras as the group’s centerpiece.
“I think we’re bringing [Veras] in because I have confidence that he can follow through in the ninth inning. That’s a special inning in baseball,” Renteria said. “Obviously you guys have seen in times past that there have been particular issues in that particular inning.”
The 33-year-old finished last year with a 3.02 ERA and converted 21 of 25 save opportunities between stints in Houston and Detroit. He also brought his WHIP down nearly half a point from 2012 to an impressive 1.07, while striking out a respectable 8.6 batters per nine innings.
Pedro Strop should continue to improve since his July arrival via trade. The right-hander got off to a rough start to open the year in Baltimore, but finished with a 2.83 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and 10.8 K/9 over 35 innings with the Cubs. He fits the mold of a two-pitch, late-innings power arm, and could spell Veras in the closer’s role if needed.
James Russell will again operate as the top lefty in the ’pen—but this year, he won’t be the lone lefty, thanks to the acquisition of free agent Wesley Wright. Though Russell gave the club all it could ask for in the first half of 2013, pulling into the All-Star break with a 2.78 ERA, the southpaw was plagued by overuse down the stretch.
Wright should help ease the load this season. The veteran lefty uses a combination of a two-seamer and a slider to get batters out, and he fanned 55 hitters over 53.2 innings in 2013.
Aside from Arodys Vizcaino—who hasn’t pitched since 2011 because of complications following Tommy John surgery—and possibly Villanueva, there are a number of arms who could compete for the final bullpen spots, including Alberto Cabrera, Blake Parker, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon and Zac Rosscup. Last year’s big free-agent acquisition Kyuji Fujikawa should also be back in the mix by the All-Star break.
Down the Line
For the past two-plus years, Epstein and Hoyer have been preaching patience. Just one look at the Spring Training invitee list is proof positive that the club’s patience is close to paying off. The five biggest offensive prospects will all be in attendance to start the preseason, including the aforementioned Baez.
Kris Bryant will likely begin the year as Double-A Tennessee’s third baseman, but he could really push Valbuena, Murphy and Olt in camp. Though his professional career just started late last year, the game’s No. 17 prospect (Baseball Prospectus) has hit at every stop along the way, including in the Arizona Fall League. A productive half season of minor league ball could have him knocking on Wrigley Field’s door by the end of the season.
Another name to keep an eye on at the hot corner is Christian Villanueva, a return from the Ryan Dempster deal with Texas in 2012. Villanueva will start the season at Triple-A Iowa, but most scouts believe the plus defender could excel at third base right now. The only questions in the past have surrounded his bat, but an impressive offensive campaign in 2013, in which he showed strong doubles power and drove in runs, opened eyes around the game.
Infielder Arismendy Alcantara started gaining recognition after his scorching first half at Double-A Tennessee in 2013 and his productive Futures Game performance, in which he hit a homer for the International side. Though he’ll begin 2014 at Triple-A, the five-tool player could give Barney a run for his money at the keystone sooner rather than later.
A year from now, we might be having similar conversations about top outfield prospects Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. Though hopes of seeing the two manning the Wrigley outfield when camp breaks are a little premature, the duo will get an opportunity to impress in spring camp before being sent to their respective minor league destinations.
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)
The Cubs named Ted Lilly as Special Assistant to President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer on Tuesday.
The former Cubs left-hander spent nearly four seasons with the club, from 2007-10, and was a key contributor to both of the organization’s NL Central titles in 2007 and 2008.
In his new role with the organization, Lilly will spend time with the club during Spring Training, visit the minor league affiliates during the season, evaluate amateur players leading up to the draft and perform professional scouting assignments.
Earlier this year, Lilly announced his retirement as a player after 15 seasons with Montreal (1999), the New York Yankees (2000-02), Oakland (2002-03), Toronto (2004-06), the Cubs (2007-10) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (2010-13). He finished his big league career with a 130-113 record and a 4.14 ERA (913 ER/982.2 IP) in 356 appearances, including 331 starts.