Chicago Cubs Rumors: 10 Moves the Team Should Explore over the Next Year
For Pujols, the Cardinals' weekend sweep of the Cubs seems to augur a turning point in what has been a disappointing season.
For the Cubs, it marks a low-water mark in team morale and in the standings.
For Carlos Zambrano, who watched a second consecutive sparkling outing lose its luster after his departure, it marks the boiling point.
Speaking to reporters after the game Sunday, Zambrano bashed closer Carlos Marmol, who blew a ninth-inning lead on a hanging slider to weak-hitting Ryan Theriot. He went on to compare the Cubs to a Triple-A team—not so outlandish, really, since 11 members of the active 25-man roster have spent time in the Minors this season.
Still, the comments are sure to draw the usual scrutiny and Zambrano-bashing on sports talk radio and in Chicago newspapers.
The erstwhile ace has earned a reputation as a hothead, onto which an ill-deserved rep as a selfish whiner has been summarily affixed.
Deep down, Cubs fans and members of the media horde must know Zambrano is right. In the parlance of baseball politics, though, he will be pilloried for "going about it the wrong way."
Sooner or later, though, the Cubs have some harsh realities with which they must reconcile themselves.
In a division suddenly populated by young teams with heavy burdens of risk but sky-high reward potential, Chicago has one of the least promising packages of young talent. Some veterans will be goners after 2011, but the money attached thereto may not go back onto the Cubs' payroll in 2012.
The team is currently in violation of MLB rules about debt ratio, according to a published report, and anyway, Tom Ricketts insists he prefers to build the team through other means than big free-agent outlays.
The Cubs are a year away, if they're lucky.
It may well be three or four years before the team is well-positioned to make a run at anything more than a Wild Card or divisional entry into the playoffs.
Here are 10 moves that balance present and future well enough to merit some consideration as the team heads deeper into the thicket of a rebuilding endeavor.
1. Trade Geovany Soto
With perhaps as many as four or five true contenders (the Red Sox, Giants and Brewers, plus the more dubious Rockies and Marlins) in need of an offensive boost behind the plate, the Cubs are one of a few teams who can afford to fill that void.
Since winning the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year award, Geovany Soto has had an up-and-down career pocked by injuries.
When healthy, though, he provides top-shelf offense and much-improved quickness both on balls in the dirt and on his release when opponents run against him.
His $3 million salary for 2011 is very reasonable, though with any kind of success down the stretch, Soto figures to line up for a hefty raise at arbitration this winter.
The Cubs may decide his value added over young Welington Castillo is not worth a $5 million compensation gap, or even that Soto can be replaced well enough this winter by the likes of Ryan Doumit or Ramon Hernandez.
In either case, Chicago GM Jim Hendry would need to see an attractive package to move a player whom the Cubs can control through 2013, but that kind of deal might be out there—especially with San Francisco or Colorado.
2. Pursue Yonder Alonso
Joey Votto seems to have first base pretty well locked down for the Cincinnati Reds through 2013.
Therefore, the team might well send Alonso out this summer in trade for a piece that can help them more immediately in their pursuit of St. Louis and Milwaukee in the NL Central.
Alonso has played some 60-plus games in left field over the past two years in the Reds' farm system, as the team desperately tried to make him even viable out there.
He's already as good as Jonny Gomes, of course, but that is a very low bar and Alonso is unlikely to clear many higher ones as an outfielder.
Like it or not (and admittedly, some do not), Alonso projects as a first baseman. Through 52 games at Triple-A Louisville, he had posted a .324/.383/.510 triple-slash with six home runs and only 31 strikeouts in 230 plate appearances.
He will never have 40-homer power, but at 24, he has time yet to develop a bit more lift. Alonso stands at 6'2" and weighs 240 pounds, so the ball will fly off his bat just fine. He profiles a lot like Gaby Sanchez of the Marlins actually, and his ceiling may be the sort of surprise escalation Votto showed beginning in 2009.
The Cubs could take interest because Alonso would represent a much smaller risk than either Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, whom the team might otherwise sign this winter to play first base for the long haul.
Chicago could offer the Reds relief help, or even a shortstop upgrade in the form of current Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney.
Barney defends the position well and would sit comfortably around a .660 OPS at Great American Ballpark, which would mark a 15 percent improvement over the tandem of Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria.
3. Move Big Z's Big Deal
For perhaps the first time since signing a five-year, $91.5 million deal in August 2007, Zambrano is beginning to look like a movable commodity.
With only a year and a half left on a hairy contract, he is pitching as well as he has in perhaps six years: His peripheral numbers are as good or better than he has posted since 2005, with the exception of a lower strikeout rate.
Overall, Zambrano's 5-2 record and 3.98 ERA are only moderately impressive, but he has put some of his worst prior demons—most notably high walk rates—behind him for the time being.
Gardner, especially, would represent a great headline return in a trade for the embattled Zambrano.
Just don't forget that, despite not pitching up to his deal, Zambrano is a very talented hurler.
4. Explore a David Wright Trade
Given the ruinous results of the crosstown White Sox's "all-in" tactics this winter, the Cubs seem unlikely to break the bank on a run at the flag in 2012.
That goes double because of the looming debt issue.
Still, if there were one scenario in which the team could field a serious pennant contender in 2012, this might be it.
The nearly insolvent New York Mets are seemingly skating across thin ice just to pay their bills, and could elect to trade Wright this winter in order to remedy their money problems. Rumors have already been flying for nearly a week, with the caveat that Wright apparently cannot be kept under the terms of his current deal beyond 2012 by any team other than New York.
Even so, Wright is an impact talent.
He is no wizard at third base, but would represent a massive athletic upgrade from Aramis Ramirez, and is also a better hitter and base runner at this stage.
The Cubs could send the Mets a ready-made replacement in the persons of either Marquez Smith, Josh Vitters or Darwin Barney, as well as Tyler Colvin and/or an expendable pitcher a la Randy Wells or Casey Coleman.
A deal seems unlikely, but it may be feasible, and would set up the Cubs to add a premier first baseman and suddenly boast an elite offense for the first time since they won 97 games in 2008.
5. Deal Kosuke Fukudome for Pitching
- By shortening the front foot timing mechanism he uses to load his swing, Fukudome has gotten to the ball much quicker and more consistently, leading to fewer swings and misses than ever, even to this point in the season.
- Fukudome has sacrificed some power at the altar of the ground ball, which he has become extraordinarily adept at pulling through the infield. His ground-ball rate this season is in the mid-60s, a 20 percent uptick from his career norms.
- His devastating plate discipline has only gotten sharper in full-time leadoff duty, leading to his best-ever walk rate.
This deal just screams to be made.
Fukudome carried a .420 OBP into play Sunday, and although his history of fast starts and slow finishes might put buyers on edge, some key adjustments make this seem a more reliable burst out of the gate:
Teams will come calling for the smooth defender and on-base machine, and when they do, Hendry ought to demand a useful pitching prospect in return.
The Cubs are a terrible pitching team with not nearly enough help on the way, and getting pitchers via free agency is nigh impossible these days.
6. Move Marlon Byrd at the Deadline
When it comes to this potential move, the Cubs need to make some decisions in short order.
If they do intend to compete in 2012, Byrd is a part of that equation.
His defense in center field and his clubhouse presence have been meaningful contributions even to a team with relatively little to play for down the stretch last season and going forward this year.
That said, Byrd is signed to a very reasonable contract through next season.
He could help a number of contending teams (the Braves, Marlins and Rockies fit best) and could fetch a good return if he bounces back from a terrifying fastball to the face with a few good weeks in late July and early August.
If the Cubs have the patience to put a lesser light in right or center field in 2012 while they wait on either Jae-Hoon Ha or Matt Szczur, Byrd would be a solid trade option either this summer or this winter.
7. Get Anything They Can for Aramis Ramirez
This is an interesting case from several angles.
First of all, Ramirez has had a very strange year for the Cubs to this point.
He has missed a few games, but for much less orthodox reasons than usual: Instead of pulling hamstrings or groins, he missed one weekend after being hit in the face on a bad-hop grounder and another to give away his sister at her wedding.
His conditioning seems to have paid off, in that he currently runs as well as he has in three or four years and has avoided injury.
His swing also looks better. After a season during which he relied on a vicious and often empty uppercut to nurse a residual shoulder injury, Ramirez has gotten back to doing what he does very well. He has cut his strikeout rate down precipitously this year, and makes solid contact on a regular basis.
His apparent power drop-off is actually a product of bad fly-ball luck (two home runs on 74 flies and a .139/.342 BABIP/SLGBIP on those balls) and a more level swing, which has resulted in many more line drives and grounders.
That said, he has become a true and glaring liability at third base.
Any would-be suitor (the Marlins again, the Rockies again, the crosstown White Sox and possibly an AL West team not named the Rangers) would have to take into consideration Ramirez's immobility and only average arm at that spot.
Other layers of this issue make it even tougher for the Cubs to move Ramirez.
He has 10-and-5 rights to block a trade if he so chooses, so the Cubs need to send him somewhere he wants to go. He also receives a $1 million assignment bonus if dealt and may demand that whichever team gets him in a deal guarantees his $16 million option for 2012.
All in all, Hendry cannot expect full value for an aging player with growing holes in his game.
Since the next collective bargaining agreement will likely not include draft-pick compensation for lost free agents, though, he should move Ramirez if at all possible and get something back.
8. Be a B.J. Upton Bidder
The Tampa Bay Rays are likely to move B.J. Upton at some point over the next several months.
They may retain him through the end of this season as they pursue another AL East crown, but realistically, Upton will be gone before next year's trade deadline and, more likely, before Opening Day 2012.
If the Cubs can move Byrd this summer, Upton would be a very good fit in a lineup that still lacks athleticism and that needs better defenders up and down.
Upton's strikeout rate and slash line (.228/.323/.386) have been much-maligned this season, but that .709 OPS is actually three percent better than league average in this brave new world of pitching-dominated baseball.
Upton is a brilliant defender and, at 26, still has huge offensive upside.
He would be perfect for the Rudy Jaramillo school of hitting, which has already made much better hitters out of Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and Alfonso Soriano.
Ultimately, the price tag may be too high for the Cubs, but then, this is the team that gave up three future big-league regulars for Matt Garza last winter.
9. Sign Kelly Johnson or Aaron Hill
Darwin Barney is not a long-term solution at second base. Nor are D.J. LeMahieu or Ryan Flaherty. Each could be fine in a part-time role, although Barney's greatest value to the team may be as a trade chip anyway.
In any event, the Cubs need an upgrade at second base if they intend to compete soon.
Two players likely to be freely available this winter could be the right fit.
Kelly Johnson bats left-handed, which works in his favor. The Cubs need more punch from that side of the plate.
He has power, patience and a modicum of speed. He also has sure hands and average range at second base.
Aaron Hill, who has an $8 million option for 2012 that the Blue Jays are unlikely to pick up, is essentially a right-handed Johnson.
They would be a terrific, but expensive, platoon; but either could serve the Cubs' needs at the keystone sack.
10. Sign a First Baseman
The rumors have flown for months now.
The Cubs have Carlos Pena signed for 2011 only, and with all the money coming off their ledger this winter, they seem perfectly positioned to make a run at one of the two elite first basemen soon to hit the market—Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols.
The caveats discussed earlier are real considerations, but in the end, the team will probably sign one of those two towers of power.
Either man would sign for five or more years, giving the team cost certainty and a long-term asset around which to build.
Although neither man would put the Cubs over the top in 2012, each is a worthy investment because they provide a cornerstone the franchise lacks right now.