Chicago Cubs: 10 Ways the Team Can Get Better with All Current Personnel
Since firing GM Jim Hendry on August 19, the Chicago Cubs have played amid a constant swirl of rumors about who will stay and who will go as the team prepares for 2012.
After the New York Yankees claimed Carlos Pena off revocable waivers, there were major whispers that the team would deal Pena and move on with the intent of pursuing Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols this winter.
But the new GM is not yet in place, so it's too early to ponder those decisions closely. Moreover, savvy trades and free-agent moves represent just one component of success. The other, often more elusive element, is to consistently make the most of the resources already at hand.
Put aside, then, questions about whether Theo Epstein, Brian Cashman or Andrew Friedman would leave their current jobs for this one (they won't), of whether Billy Beane would be open to the idea (he might be).
Here are 10 ways the Cubs can be better in 2012 without making a single addition to their organization.
1. Make Welington Castillo the Backup Catcher
This should have happened 16 months ago.
Since the start of the 2010 season, and probably well before then, Welington Castillo—24 years old, and stuck at Triple-A Iowa—has been a better option for the Cubs than Koyie Hill.
This might seem a trifling matter (who gets worked up over backup backstops?), but it is not.
Hill might be the worst player with three or more years of service time in baseball.
He has no redeeming qualities on the diamond. He does not handle pitchers better than starter Geovany Soto; he does not throw as well from behind the plate as Soto; and he utterly cannot hit, neither drawing walks nor hitting for power. His career OPS is .579, and his WAR (according to FanGraphs) is -1.1.
Castillo is just average defensively, a good athlete with a fine arm but not a great game-caller, but he has real power and would probably post a .775ish OPS each year if given the full-time backup role. The difference could be a win or more per season.
2. Move Aramis Ramirez to First Base
Much was made of Aramis Ramirez's rocky 2010 season, and deservedly so.
He is on the wrong side of 30 years old; suffered a serious shoulder injury in 2009; saw his strikeout and walk numbers move sharply in the wrong direction; and seemed to revive himself in the second half only by hitting home runs.
But in 2011, he has surged back to virtually his full former glory, and the change has not been better luck or a solid adjustment: it's been a full (or nearly so) return to the way he had always hit prior to 2010.
After a season in which his strikeout and swinging-strike rates shot to outrageous career highs, Ramirez has reined in each of those figures in 2011.
His superior contact rate, coupled with a renewed commitment to hitting line drives rather than fly balls (his batted-ball tendencies also flew way out of whack in 2010, but are back to career norms this season), has made him the same hitter he once was, but for a little lost patience at the plate.
Honestly, even that may be less about him than about pitchers feeling less inclined to pitch around him than they once were.
In light of all that, the Cubs ought to move Ramirez to first base.
The two threads are related for this simple reason: Ramirez is awful at third base. Just terrible. His defense there has been some of the league's worst for a few years now, and is costing the Cubs multiple runs each season at the hot corner.
With Carlos Pena's contract expiring and Ramirez locked in for a $16-million club option, the Cubs should take this opportunity to gain some serious defensive value without losing anything offensively at first base, and without committing $100-million plus to anyone.
3. Platoon Tyler Colvin and Alfonso Soriano in Left Field
I've been calling for this for fully a year now, but now that Hendry (who signed Soriano to a huge deal) is gone, it may be more feasible, since a new executive is unlikely to feel any special loyalty to the mistakes of his predecessor.
Soriano and Colvin are dream platoon partners. The left-handed hitter, Colvin, is the better athlete and defender. The right-hander, Soriano, has slightly more power.
They will both finish most seasons with .300ish on-base percentages, but also .475ish slugging averages.
They accomplish the same things on the diamond, but in very different ways. Together, they would probably post something more like an .800 OPS.
4. Slide Starlin Castro to Third Base
This move is inevitable.
People rave about Castro's athleticism, and it's true: he's a fast-twitch guy with a good arm and great quickness. But he doesn't have the hands to play shortstop well for very long. He just rushes too much, or else takes too long, and his hands seem forever out of sync with his body.
At third base, though, those liabilities become assets.
A third baseman needs to be much more able to throw from odd angles, throw on the run and make a quick first step. But they do not need hands as soft and deft as those of a shortstop. Castro fits the bill perfectly.
His bat will have to continue to develop in order for him to be a star at third, but then, it must continue to develop for him to be a star at short, too.
It makes all the sense in the world to move Castro now, so that (if the Cubs are lucky) he will develop great defensive chops at third and be an absolute elite player by age 25.
5. Slide Darwin Barney to Shortstop
Barney is Castro's foil.
He seems to have followed Castro to the majors simply because fate wants us to appreciate each player more via comparison.
An old rookie at age 25, Barney has little upside relative to his current standing, and his best asset in any phase may be his soft hands.
His value is as wrapped up in positional and defensive value as Castro's is in hitting ability.
Moving Barney to shortstop would alleviate the drain on the lineup that is inevitable given his lack of offensive skills.
It improves the team defensively, yet again, and makes Barney the central cog of the defense on the field. That is a good thing.
6. Go to a Modified Four-Man Rotation
- Make each a "bullpen day," started by a Casey Coleman or Chris Carpenter and featuring four or five relievers. Never let one bat, unless the score is way out of hand.
- Use Coleman's lack of service time to shuttle him back and forth from Iowa as needed, slipping in a James Russell if your opponent is loaded with left-handed hitters.
Assuming Carlos Zambrano is done in a Cubs uniform, pitching depth is a huge area of weakness for the Cubs entering the offseason.
Randy Wells has pitched well of late and figures to be back in the rotation next year, alongside Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster. If Andrew Cashner's winter goes to plan, he would be a solid fourth option. But who would fit into the fifth slot in that rotation?
No one, if the Cubs play their cards right. In a given season, it's entirely possible (thanks to off days and the All-Star Break) to throw your four best pitchers 140 times without using any more than once on three days' rest. With those other 22 starts, the Cubs could do one of two things:
All told, that strategy could save the team a fortune in wasted dollars (please, new GM, do not commit multiple years to Edwin Jackson or C.J. Wilson) and add a win or two to the ledger by concentrating many more innings in guys who can really pitch.
7. Platoon D.J. LeMahieu and Ryan Flaherty at Second Base
The Cubs currently have shoddy defense at third base and inconsistency at shortstop.
The aforementioned recommendations could shore up that left side, but would leave inconsistent defense at first base.
Now come LeMahieu and Flaherty onto the scene, guys who can definitely hit but who will each struggle to be more than average defensive infielders. But that's okay.
They need not be special talents around the bag, as long as they post a combined OPS north of .750 (they can) and use their youth to get in front of the baseball.
Filling in the back half of the lineup card gets a lot easier if these two can be relied upon to step in and tee off a bit on opposite-handed pitching.
8. Call Up Rafael Dolis and Scott Maine for Good
The Cubs tend to stockpile minor-league relief pitchers.
The list of those who have rode the Iowa shuttle the past two seasons alone boggles the mind: Mitch Atkins, Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, Chris Carpenter, Jeff Gray, Scott Maine, Marcos Mateo, James Russell, Jeff Samardzija, Brian Schlitter and Jeff Stevens have all done it since the start of 2010, and that doesn't include veterans or swing men.
But the fact that all these faces have come and gone illustrates a chronic problem of impatience in Cubs management.
They never give these pitchers real chances to prove themselves, and the slightest failure can sometimes mean a demotion.
Sometimes, that makes sense, but in the cases of Maine and Rafael Dolis (still only in Double-A), a much longer look is warranted.
Nothing will be lost by giving these hurlers, who each have nasty stuff but struggle at times with command, a chance to find their footing in the big leagues.
Committing to such a philosophy might even alleviate the temptation to sign some relief help this winter, since that would be an inefficient use of money.
9. Utilize Tony Campana More; Start Him Less
Few Cubs in the past decade are as much fun to watch as Campana.
Yes, Sam Fuld was neat, but his speed was not in league with Campana's.
Joey Gathright had those wheels, but could not hit or field.
Campana is a bit more well-rounded as a player, though his game remains 90 percent speed.
Instead of giving him occasional spot starts, though, the team ought to make him a permanent pinch-runner and defensive sub.
Campana could thrive in that role, steal 30 high-leverage bases, steal 10 high-leverage hits and make the team much better.
He could become a folk hero without ever taking up undue space on the payroll or the roster.
10. Make This Your Everyday Lineup
- Brett Jackson, CF
- Starlin Castro, 3B
- Aramis Ramirez, 1B
- Geovany Soto, C
- Marlon Byrd, RF
- Tyler Colvin/Alfonso Soriano, LF
- Ryan Flaherty/D.J. LeMahieu, 2B
- Darwin Barney, SS
I have a decided statistical bent, but there really isn't any objective basis for this. I just think setting up a less fluid is an intuitively smart way to go about things.
Players understand their roles, know how to approach plate appearances and develop a certain synergy.
This lineup could do that. It could also cure some of the more foolish ills of the current lineup configuration, which throws away too many outs near the top of the order:
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