MLB Spring Training: Chicago Cubs Featured Columnist Preseason Roundtable
As we kick off the new baseball season with the start of spring training, the Chicago Cubs have a ton of new faces, from the front office on down to their top prospects and everywhere in between.
The team is taking the beginning steps towards rebuilding, which will likely mean a tough couple of seasons while Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer shape the team for the future. However, that does not mean there is not plenty to be excited about in Chicago this season, and plenty of questions to be answered.
With that in mind, I asked Featured Columnists Bob Warja, Eli Greenspan, Jeff Chase and Matt Trueblood to join me in answering 10 questions surrounding the team for the 2012 season. I would like to thank them for participating in this and helping to offer several different points of view for these questions.
Question 1: Who Gets the Fifth Starting Rotation Spot?
Assuming that Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm and Chris Volstad have rotation spots locked up, it will likely come down to Travis Wood vs. Randy Wells for the fifth spot. So who gets the nod?
Bob Warja: "I believe Travis Wood will get the nod over Randy Wells. At best, Wells is a league average starter, while Wood at least has some upside. Plus, Wood was a Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer production, while they inherited Wells."
Eli Greenspan: "If the spot comes down to Travis Wood and Randy Wells, I think the edge goes to Randy Wells. Wells gets another shot after going 6-3 with a 4.04 ERA to end the season. He needs to keep the ball down, because if he can, he can eat up innings, which is perfect for the fifth starter role.
In all honesty, I think Wood could be in the minors to start the year and it will come down to Wells and Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija is determined after a strong 2011 to impress the new brass and he is fully capable of doing it.
Jeff Chase: "To start the season, expect to see Randy Wells in the fifth spot. Soon after the season gets underway, I expect to see Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer move him in effort to bring in a few more prospects, which will in turn bring Travis Wood into the fold."
Joel Reuter: "I think the two will compete early in camp, and if Wells does not emerge as the favorite, the team will look to deal him. If he does start the spring well, I could see Wood opening the year in a long relief role or even in Triple-A. My gut says Wood wins the job, and we've seen the last of Wells in a Cubs uniform."
Matt Trueblood: "I first posted that Randy Wells belonged in the Cubs bullpen in September 2010. My position has not changed. Wells throws primarily a sinker-slider blend, and isn’t proficient at keeping left-handed hitters off base. He’s as much memory as he is man at this point, at least between the foul lines.
Travis Wood, to my mind, is ready to move past his really bad 2011, and is in fact closer to his 2010 self. He is ready, and his development shouldn’t be subjugated to the interests of a pitcher who will be an annual non-tender candidate, starting this November."
Question 2: What Should It Take to Get a Matt Garza Deal Done?
This offseason, the Cubs watched as starters like Mat Latos and Gio Gonzalez brought impressive four-player prospect packages to the teams trading them. If the Cubs decide to deal Garza at some point this season, what should the Cubs expect in return?
Bob Warja: "If I'm the Cubs brass, I would definitely move Garza because it can expedite the Cubs' rebuilding process. The farm system is average at best, but given how good Garza is, I'd have to have two solid prospects in return. For example, I'd want both Jacob Turner and Nick Castellanos from the Detroit Tigers. That won't happen, obviously, but then again, I would be in no hurry to trade him. As the pennant race gets hot and heavy, teams will be more desperate to pony up the prospects for a solid No. 2 like Garza."
Eli Greenspan: "I think the Cubs should expect a polished prospect in a package of three or four prospects. Considering that this deal would likely be a deadline deal, it would have to be either a pitching prospect or an offensive prospect potentially MLB-ready in 2013."
Jeff Chase: "In any deal the Cubs make for Garza—although I am weary of a deal in the first place—must include any team’s top prospect, as well as another top three or four guy. The Cubs gave up a lot to get Garza, so they better get a lot in return."
Joel Reuter: "After watching other teams cash in by moving young starters this offseason, anything short of the packages that the Padres and A's received is a bad move in my mind. Any package will have to include two marquee prospects, and the Jacob Turner/Nick Castellanos deal would be one I would certainly think about if the Tigers show interest in Garza."
Matt Trueblood: "I think I have written this topic to death, but first and foremost, the Cubs need a top-flight pitcher. Garza can be that guy, though probably for no more than the next three years or so. If they are going to trade him, they need to get someone management firmly believes can pitch at the front of the rotation the next time the team is seriously competitive.
Jacob Turner of the Tigers would work. Any of the Blue Jays’ bevy of young, high-ceiling arms would work, so long as Jason McLeod and the scouting department get their favorite of that large group. As a matter of relative value based on utility, not trading Garza would be a commitment to win by 2014. It’s likely that the optimum choice is to simply deal him for the best price available at the deadline."
Question 3: What One Non-Garza Cub Is Most Likely to Be Traded in 2012?
The hot name in Cubs trade rumors has been Matt Garza, but he is far from the only Cub who could end 2012 in a different uniform. Which other Cubs player is most likely to be traded in 2012?
Bob Warja: "I will say Marlon Byrd. He has a reasonable contract, and around the All-Star break, the Cubs could be considering bringing up Brett Jackson to play center field."
Eli Greenspan: "Bryan LaHair. If both he and Rizzo are playing well, LaHair could be dumped for a couple of prospects and cash to a team in need of a band-aid. He has short-term value that the team could take advantage of if LaHair (and Rizzo for his sake) thrives this season."
Jeff Chase: "The most likely Cub to get dealt this season is pitcher Ryan Dempster. With nothing left on his contract after this season, as well as the Cubs likely to be out of the playoff picture, the team will look to move him to a contender who will be desperate for another man in their rotation. Can’t imagine Dempster rejecting a move like this."
Joel Reuter: "Chances are, both Marlon Byrd and Ryan Dempster won't make it past the trade deadline and could be moved even sooner, but for the sake of picking just one, I'll say Byrd. If Brett Jackson proves to be ready early on in the minors, the club won't hesitate to promote him and hand him the starting job before the All-Star break, even if that does mean starting his service clock."
Matt Trueblood: "Ryan Dempster might have a no-trade clause and 10-and-5 rights, but Epstein and Hoyer absolutely ought to approach him early and ask about his motivation. If Dempster wants to play for a winner and pursue a World Series ring before he retires, the team should be able to flip him this spring or summer for some sort of minor-league depth. He’s not the prototypical deadline addition, so the front office should trade him whenever his value hits a local maximum."
Question 4: When Can We Expect to See Anthony Rizzo for the First Time?
Bryan LaHair will open the season at first base, but it is only a matter of time before Rizzo assumes the spot. When does he make his Cubs debut in 2012…or does he at all?
Bob Warja: "A lot depends on how Bryan LaHair performs, but don't expect to see Rizzo up before June at the earliest. Hoyer admitted he brought Rizzo up too soon in San Diego, and they don't want to make that mistake again. When Rizzo comes up the next time, it has to be for good. Epstein and Hoyer have too much riding on this kid to take a chance. If LaHair performs well, Rizzo could stay in the minors until September."
Eli Greenspan: "A lot depends on how the Cubs are doing this year. If the Cubs are doing well and LaHair is playing well, there is no reason to deviate. Rizzo could see time in August and September with a look on 2013 more than 2012. However, I could see it becoming an issue if Rizzo plays very well in the beginning of the season at Triple-A and LaHair does not, which could force the Cubs’ hand. If it goes this way, my guess is late May early June, when it really warms up in Chicago."
Jeff Chase: "Considering the Cubs are totally rebuilding, it may not be until 2013 that we see Rizzo at the pro level. If the team is struggling, especially if Bryan LaHair can’t handle the everyday duties, the Cubs' front office may have no other choice than to give Rizzo a shot."
Joel Reuter: "As much as Cubs fans will want to see the young slugger in action, the fact is he is still just 22 years old, and after struggling in a call-up last year, the team will want the next time he gets promoted to be the last time. Expect to see Rizzo in September, regardless of what he does this season, and to open the 2013 season as the starting first baseman."
Matt Trueblood: "The cop-out answer is the right answer: it will be when Rizzo is ready, and not a moment sooner or later. Bryan LaHair is a good player but a Quadruple-A player, and Theo Epstein knows it as well as anyone. LaHair will get every chance to succeed, for as long as the organization feels Rizzo still has adjustments to make in Triple-A. The club will not rush Rizzo, but they will promote and start him as soon as he shows them he belongs. The trade deadline is a good general time frame."
Question 5: When Can We Expect to See Brett Jackson for the First Time?
With the signing of David DeJesus, the Cubs outfield is once again full. However, Marlon Byrd will be a free agent at season’s end and could be a candidate to be traded. With all of that in mind, when will Jackson make his big-league debut?
Bob Warja: "I expect to see Jackson playing center for the Cubs as early as May, but no later than the All-Star break. Unless the Cubs somehow contend this season, they will trade Byrd and bring up Jackson."
Eli Greenspan: "It all depends on how Jackson does in Triple-A. The former Cubs brass was certainly aggressive with him through the minors, and he has been successful. I think the new Cubs brass is less attached to the money owed to Soriano, so sitting in place of a hot hitting Jackson is not an issue. If he plays well, the Cubs will find room for him. My guess is we could see him as early as June if he exceeds already high expectations."
Jeff Chase: "Jackson will definitely have his shot in spring training, but the team may want to look for him to develop a little more before giving him the nod. With Marlon Byrd likely being on the block with the team’s rebuilding efforts, Jackson will likely emerge once there is a clear opening."
Joel Reuter: "As soon as Jackson is ready, which could be sooner rather than later, he will be in Chicago. With Marlon Byrd in the final year of his contract, and still a solid producer, the team shouldn't have trouble finding a taker for Byrd once Jackson proves capable of handling the big-league job. I'll say he's up right before the All-Star break, and an everyday starter by the deadline."
Matt Trueblood: "Again, it will be about Jackson, not anyone else. That is the most welcome, comforting thing we know about the new Cubs regime: It is no slave to any competitive itch. Player development, at least in 2012, will not be the most important thing: it will be the only thing.
Jackson should be ready sooner than Rizzo, but because the new CBA provides for more players (those who debut even into June and up to the All-Star break) to receive Super Two consideration and reach arbitration a year early, the pair might be held back and called up when both are ready to contribute."
Question 6: What Are Your Expectations for Starlin Castro Moving Forward?
Castro has given Cubs fans something to cheer about the past two seasons, but is he capable of taking the next step and becoming a superstar and the face of the franchise? Will he bulk up and turn into a middle-of-the-order power threat, or continue to use his speed and contact to be a .300 hitter atop the order?
Bob Warja: "I expect Castro to continue hitting around .300 with increasing power as his body fills out. I'll say 15-20 homers per season eventually. Defensively, I expect to see Castro move to second or third base at some point, though it won't be this season."
Eli Greenspan: "I wonder if Castro realizes he is becoming the next face of the franchise. So far, he has played the new-kid card. He has done a great job for the Cubs, but 2012 should be a year for him to really come into his own as not just a player, but as a Chicago Cub. Hopefully he finds some power, too—it would be nice for him to break 15-plus home runs."
Jeff Chase: "Given Castro’s speed and ability to get on base, his likely destination in the batting order will be either in the one or two spot. He has yet to provide the power numbers that would make him a three or four guy, so he will best be utilized to stack the bases up whenever the power guys are coming to the plate. His fielding still needs to improve, but with another year under his belt, Castro’s errors should be done, while his consistency should be up."
Joel Reuter: "Offensively, I think Castro will continue to hit for a high average and while he will develop a bit more power as he fills out, I expect 20 to be his ceiling. One comparison I have always drawn is to Edgar Renteria, who was also in the league at a young age and has similar offensive tools to Castro. Defensively, I think a position change will come in the next couple of seasons, likely to second base, where he should settle in as a solid defender."
Matt Trueblood: "I see Castro as a right-handed Robinson Cano in a few years. He will need to change positions, but his erratic arm is already most of his problem. He will do best if moved to second base, and should be one of the most athletic and rangy players in baseball there. At the plate, he’ll take five or six more years to develop 20-plus home-run power, but he can be a .320/.380/.480 guy within the next two or three seasons, and that is wildly valuable. He belongs in the second slot for now, though a move to the heart of the order (third or fifth) could be in order down the road."
Question 7: What Should the Team Do with Geovany Soto?
Soto has had an up-and-down career to this point with the Cubs, and he will be looking for a bounce-back season this coming year. Is he the team’s catcher of the future? Welington Castillo will likely be the backup catcher this coming season, but if he outplays Soto early, should the team consider trading him (Soto)?
Bob Warja: "I am more concerned with Soto's defense than I am his offensive production. It's challenging to find catchers that can hit, and the most important thing for a backstop is to call a good game. I'm afraid Soto doesn't have the skills to continue much longer with this ball club.
Before we get to contending status, I'd expect the Cubs to consider moving him. His offense, however, isn't that bad when you consider what other catchers produce and the fact that he has a better knowledge of the strike zone than most Cubs players. I don't expect anything to happen with him this season."
Eli Greenspan: "I think Soto could be good for the Cubs this year, especially because he has a lot to prove. He is in a great position to prove a lot of people wrong. The Cubs are not banking on Welington Castillo in the event Soto struggles, is what I am getting at. And they are in a tough situation because he could be a serviceable back-up having been successful at Triple-A, but can’t really take away at-bats from Soto without diminishing his value. The Cubs could be confronted with a tough situation, but I expect Soto has the support of the entire organization."
Jeff Chase: "The Cubs are in a tough spot with Soto, given the possibility that stud prospect Welington Castillo may be ready to take over. The team did give Soto a nice chunk of money with $4.3 million this offseason, but a team in need will likely be more than happy to take him on when the trade deadline approaches."
Joel Reuter: "The 2012 season will be a big one for Soto, and I think if he struggles early the team won't hesitate to get a good, long look at what Welington Castillo is capable of. Good catchers are hard to come by, and if the team does decide Castillo is capable of stepping in, they should have no problem finding a taker for Soto. In the end, I think he loses his job in the second half this season and is traded/non-tendered before next year."
Matt Trueblood: "Castillo is underrated as a prospect. He flies under the radar, but has power, is unfazed by platoon disadvantages, handles pitchers well and has a rocket arm. Soto is just two years from free agency, so he’s not likely to be around next time the Cubs are any good. Castillo is more important to the organization, and if Soto gets off to a hot start, he might be a good trade chip. The Rays, Marlins and Brewers stand out as teams who aspire to compete this year, but have big question marks at catcher."
Question 8: What One Player Could Make a Surprise Contribution This Season?
Last year, Darwin Barney was fighting for a utility infield spot and on the bubble to even make the roster out of spring training, yet he wound up being the everyday second baseman. What one player could have a similar out-of-nowhere impact in 2012?
Bob Warja: "I'll go with Adrian Cardenas, a left-handed hitting infielder who was claimed off waivers from Oakland. Barney plays good defense, but if he hits for a poor average, he won't help you offensively since he has no power and doesn't draw walks. Likewise, Ian Stewart at third is a question mark, although I do think he's a good bounce-back candidate. Cardenas plays second, short, third and left field, so he could make the team as a utility player and make an impact before the year is over."
Eli Greenspan: "Does Jeff Samardzija count? He was great out of the bullpen, so I guess he is not a surprise pick. My pick is Bryan LaHair. How fitting would it be for the Cubs to go out and trade away a solid young pitcher in Andrew Cashner for a first base prospect not yet ready for the big leagues and blocked by a minor-league journeyman who happens to start clobbering home runs in the big leagues? As long as LaHair gets off to a good start, I think Cub fans will get behind him. He can really hit."
Jeff Chase: "The player that has the best chance at making some serious noise this coming season is Anthony Rizzo. Given the play of Bryan LaHair, nobody can call him a lock for the 2012 season. If Rizzo can really outplay LaHair and any other first base option, the Cubs may decide to give their big offseason catch a shot from the start."
Joel Reuter: "The team has made it clear that the third base job belongs to Ian Stewart, but after he hit .156 last season, how long will the team hold to that if he struggles once again to open the year? Coming off of his best pro season in which he hit .283 BA, 14 HR, 81 RBI, former top prospect Josh Vitters tore through the Arizona Fall League (.360 BA, 4 HR, 17 RBI in 24 games). If he continues to produce, he is likely next in line for significant playing time at third base."
Matt Trueblood: "It’s Jay Jackson, with a bullet. Once rated the fifth-best prospect in the Cubs organization, Jackson has stalled out in Triple-A, and many have given up on him altogether. Thankfully, Jackson has a new set of bosses to impress this spring, a group that swears they don’t believe in that unfortunate soul. His fastball has lost a bit of juice but remains a good pitch, and his command is sound.
The old organizational philosophy called for a lot of DJ LeMahieu trying to man shortstop, Bryan LaHair in the outfield and Bobby Scales all over the diamond. It’s very possible Jackson has looked bad because he has pitched in front of an awful defense in a very hitter-friendly league. Having just turned 24 in October, Jackson should get a chance to prove he is not dead yet. By the way, his real first name is Randy. I’m feelin’ it, dawg."
Question 9: What One Game/Matchup Have You Circled on Your Calendar for 2012?
Is it Cubs-Sox, Cubs-Cardinals, Cubs vs. Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez’s return to Wrigley or something else entirely? What game/series/single player vs. player matchup are you most looking forward to this coming season?
Bob Warja: "No question, Big Z coming back to Wrigley Field and pitching against the Cubs. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how he responds as well as how the fans respond. That one will be worth the price of admission."
Eli Greenspan: "Well, the Cubs face the Brewers and Marlins in the first month of the season, so we may knock out two birds with one stone there. The one series I am most looking forward to is the end of May series versus the Padres. If Anthony Rizzo proves to be everything Theo Epstein hopes he is, he will likely be with the team by then. And if Andrew Cashner takes the mound, whether it be as a starter or reliever, it will be very interesting to see how our former prized pick looks. He is the best pitcher since Ricky Nolasco to leave our organization via trade."
Jeff Chase: "The game to watch this season is when Zambrano takes on the Cubs. While there are a lot of variables going into that situation—Will Z still be active? Will he get the Cubs?—the matchup would be very exciting, especially if it takes place at Wrigley Field. But like I said, we will have to see if Zambrano is even still active at that time."
Joel Reuter: "I always look forward to the Crosstown Classic, and it seems as though while Cubs and Cardinals fans have a mutual respect for one another, White Sox fans and Cubs fans just absolutely hate each other. It's a fun time to be in the city, to say the least. However, the single moment I'm most looking forward to will be Zambrano's return to Wrigley Field, should he get a start here. There'd be nothing quite like watching him go though one of his trademark meltdowns in another team's jersey and at the benefit of the Cubs for once."
Matt Trueblood: "The new scoreboard/patio/general boondoggle will be fully operational by the April 5 home opener. Seeing the revamped team take the field at the revamped Wrigley is my first priority. The team’s first-ever trip to the beautiful Target Field in Minnesota comes in June. There’s an old-fashioned (and very rare these days) home-and-home set in two consecutive weeks straddling the trade deadline, where they will play consecutive three-game series at St. Louis, at Pittsburgh, at home against St. Louis and at home against Pittsburgh. That’s a really fun quirk.
I’d expect excellent baseball games at Wrigley, and there’s also a chance of seeing new faces like Rizzo and Jackson as the trade deadline passes. The home series against Houston to close the season on three weekdays in October should be awesome. By then, the teams could have combined for 200 losses. It might be the worst final series ever, which makes it fascinating. It might draw a record-low crowd at Wrigley, and I mean in the last 50 years. It’ll also be the last time the Astros take the field as a National League team."
Question 10: What Will the Team's Record Be, Where Will They Finish in the Central?
Are the 2012 Cubs a 100-loss team, a surprise contender or something in between? I think we can at least all agree that they will likely have a better record than the Astros.
Bob Warja: "I wrote a piece suggesting the Cubs could surprise, but in reality it's anybody's guess.The Cardinals will miss Pujols and the Brewers will miss Fielder, but the Reds are better, and on paper only the Astros would appear to be worse than Chicago. I'll say the team is better than projected and finishes 80-82, third place."
Eli Greenspan: "Because no one expects anything from the Cubs, I do expect them to be contenders. It would not surprise me if the Cubs added a veteran infielder in the middle of the season to shore things up a bit. They are looking to compete with what they have, and while it does not look like much on paper, there are some very touted players on the Cubs roster this season.
That being said, I put the Cubs somewhere near .500, in the 75-win range. While that is not great for the draft, I think the Cubs will contend if their pitchers are not throwing away the bullpen arms too early. That probably puts them in the third-to-fourth-place range."
Jeff Chase: "Oh boy, I wish I didn’t have to answer this question. While I was optimistic early on, as I always am, the additions of Carlos Beltran in St. Louis and Ryan Braun being activated in Milwaukee really scares me. The Cubs are clearly rebuilding, and if they move Garza, this season has no hope. Hate to say it, but this will be a tough year for the Cubs. I see them going 60-102. Yep, I didn’t like writing it myself. That will have the Cubs sitting in last in the Central, but one can only hope the team has made all the right moves to take 2013 and beyond by storm."
Joel Reuter: "As crazy as it sounds, the Cubs should improve on last season's 71-91 record. After enduring the likes of Doug Davis, Rodrigo Lopez and James Russell in the rotation last season, not to mention Carlos Zambrano, the additions of Chris Volstad, Paul Maholm and Travis Wood alone make the team better. However, runs will likely be hard to come by with Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena gone, and that could off-set the improvements to the rotation. We'll say the team finishes a little better and goes 78-84, finishing fifth in the NL Central ahead of the Astros."
Matt Trueblood: "Probably so. My number is 70, and I think they will top it, but slightly. The team in place is going to really struggle to score runs, but they get credit for the depth of the starting rotation. I think Byrd, Garza and Soto all get traded before the season ends, making for a lot of August and September losses, and I don’t expect impact rookie showings from Jackson or Rizzo.
A scenario exists that gets them to 80 wins, but it involves a whole lot of ifs and maybes. Moreover, the new CBA incentives are tanking, so trading away talent might give the team an easy excuse for losing 100 games and making a run at the top five in next year’s draft."