Over on Cubs Den (a really good blog), John talks about how the Cubs have quietly built depth to give them trade flexibility. I want to look at his bullets one by one because I just don't agree with the conclusion that John is reaching. John is attributing this depth to Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer too, which is another thing I mostly disagree with. I know some people find the count/counterpoint kind of dickish, but I hope it doesn't come off that way. It's not my intention. I like John's work. I just disagree with him here. And I felt I need to do it this way to stress where I disagreed.
Marlon Byrd: The Cubs have Brett Jackson to take his place in the very near future, although they could start with Joe Mather and/or Reed Johnson in CF if they feel they want to give Jackson a few more swings in Iowa, where he hasn't played a full season.
Jackson was drafted by the Cubs in the 1st round in 2009. It was the most excited I'd been at any Cubs first round pick since Mark Prior. It was a fantastic selection by a team that had become known for being old school. He developed even better than expected and has become a top 50 prospect. Credit Jim Hendry and staff for this one; not Thoyer.
Joe Mather is the type of player that every team signs leading up to spring training. These are guys that no team wants so I have a very difficult time considering Mather depth. Perhaps he'll perform better than people expect, but until we see that he's nothing more than a below replacement level back-up who wouldn't make two-thirds of the rosters in baseball. The Cubs brought Reed Johnson back last year and the team re-signed him after Reed's excellent season at the plate. This was a no-brainer. The only question was whether Reed would want to play for a team that had a chance to contend. He can play on an every day basis if needed, but you'll get replacement level production from him once he starts facing right handers in nearly 70% of his plate appearances.
The Cubs haven't added any real depth at this position that they didn't already have. Other than Brett Jackson who was in the system before the new regime came along, the Cubs depth has mostly been nothing more than replacement level players. Most here are familiar with the concept, but for those who aren't, a replacement level player is someone is readily available for league minimum. This includes the career AAAA labeled players and players found on the waiver wire.
These players have no real value and every team has them. Every team has easy access to more of them. If Reed Johnson plays everyday, he's basically a replacement level player. Mather? He's probably not even that good. I have a hard time accepting replacement level talent as depth because every team already has those guys and they can add more of them for league minimum if they want.
If replacement level talent counts as depth, we have to consider the depth that a team like the Pirates. If you take away the pitchers batting, few players were below replacement for them last year. Most of the innings pitched were by guys better than replacement level. We could look back over several years and we'll find the same thing. They've been bad, but better than replacement level as a team. Replacement level for a team is 48 to 49 wins.
Randy Wells: The Cubs made building starting rotation depth a priority from day one. Assuming Chris Volstad and Jeff Samardzija have won the last two spots, Wells is starting pitching depth along with Travis Wood, Casey Coleman, and Rodrigo Lopez.
The Cubs did add some depth here, but is it quality depth? Take a look at the starters any team runs out there in years they have injuries and I'm not sure this group is in any way better than what you'll see from the typical team. I'm not even sure this group is better than the guys the Cubs ran out there last year when players were out with injury. They'll likely perform better than that group, but you could take the same group from last year and that would be equally true.
Let's consider the depth the Cubs had at this position entering last season. They had Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner in the opening day rotation. That's significantly better than this year's rotation. They also had Casey Coleman and James Russell. The Cubs top pitching prospect had skyrocketed through the system and already played half a season in AA. He wasn't far from the big leagues and was part of the depth the Cubs had last year. Had he not suffered through blisters early in the season he'd more than likely have made his big league debut no later than the end of May.
The Cubs depth at pitching this year is actually worse. Prior to last season there was a chance Russell could have been a decent starter. I don't mean decent in a way that you'd like someone like that in your rotation, but at the very least he was a replacement level starter. Coleman had some solid numbers in the minors. McNutt was coming off of an excellent season. Jay Jackson was still young enough. The Rorigo Lopez's of the world will fall into your lap this year just as they did a year ago.
The Cubs traded Cashner. McNutt had a season filled with non-pitching related injuries and when he did pitch he was less than impressive. Jay Jackson is older and still hasn't put it together in AAA. Coleman will probably not get another chance to start and neither will Russell. So the Cubs added Volstad, Wood, and Sonnanstine. Sonnanstine is already gone. Wood is ticketed for the minors after a disastrous spring. Rodrigo Lopez hangs around and nobody is sure why.
The depth the Cubs had a year ago has been decimated with injuries and ineffectiveness. In their place the Cubs have added replacement level pitchers.
Jeff Baker: The obvious replacement is Joe Mather. He is another RH batter who can play the 4 corners, just as Baker does. Baker has the advantage that he can also play 2B while Mather can play CF. Baker is the better hitter but Mather may have more pop and speed.
At the big league level over the last two years, Mather has a 53 OPS+ in 147 PA. While that's not a large sample, we have many years of minor league data to look at. He was nothing more than a league average hitter in the friendly PCL each of the last 2 years and below average in 2009. He's been in AAA for several years now. He's had less than 50 plate appearances in spring training. Mather hasn't been better than average in the minors since 2008. Since then he's done nothing but remain in AAA and been unimpressive. At the age of 29 or 30 he's not likely to be anyone's replacement at the big league level.
Sample size and quality of opponents is important to consider here. Mather has only 52 plate appearances this spring. Lorenzo Cain leads the way with an OPS over 1.300. Cain turns 26 in a couple weeks and boasts a minor league OPS under .800. His MLB OPS is under .750. Alex Liddi is above Mather and has a minor league OPS of just over .800. 26 year old Zack Cozart and his career minor league OPS of .753 has a spring OPS of 1.101. Dexter Fowler, an established MLB player, has the worst spring OPS of .330.
The reason these numbers are so considerably different than usual is sample size. Take Joe Mather's .442 OBP. Over 52 plate appearances 1 standard deviation is .074. If the only information we had on Mather was this .442 OBP and the 52 PA, we could use that to calculate a range of true talent. There's a 95% chance it's between .292 and .592. So Mather and his pretty OBP doesn't mean anything over 52 PA. Especially when you have over 3400 professional plate appearances during the regular season (almost all of them in the minor leagues).
Blake DeWitt: The Cubs have a carbon copy, though younger and cheaper version in Adrian Cardenas. Both offensively oriented LH hitters whose primary role would be as a complement to the defensively oriented, RH hitting Darwin Barney. I also find it curious that Alfredo Amazega's playing time seems to be increasing lately. He's the one Cubs utility IF'er who can play a respectable SS. I think he's a lock for Iowa and perhaps more if the Cubs make a couple of deals.
I would point out here that every team in baseball had a chance to pick DeWitt up after the Cubs took him off their 40-man roster. No team did and Blake was more than happy to just accept a minor league contract and invite to spring training. I have no idea what he's done this month, but if teams didn't want anything to do with him a month ago when they could have had him for nothing, they'll want nothing to do with him now. Spring training stats just aren't as valuable as many people think.
Furthermore, every team had a chance to pick up Cardenas and Amezaga. Every team passed because they already had their own version of them.
Geovanny Soto: The Cubs have two major league ready catchers in Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger. Neither is as good as Soto, but they are cheaper and capable of putting up decent numbers between the two of them.
Both players were signed/drafted and developed when Hendry ran this team. There is depth at this position. Castillo and Clevenger both figure to be at least slightly better than replacement, but neither has much of a chance of being a starting catcher for very long.
Of the players listed here, perhaps only the back-up catchers offer real value other than the prospects in CF and 1B. It's possible Volstad improves. The same could be said for Wood, but the rest of these guys are what they are and most of them were in the organization before Thoyer took over.
Regardless of who is responsible, the Cubs lack depth at all postions except catcher, center field and first base. Hendry was responsible for the depth at the first two and this group traded former top prospect Andrew Cashner to acquire depth at 1st base.
The Cubs have made baby steps so far. Some might even question that. They're not better in any noticeable way this year than they otherwise would have been.
Correction: Brett pointed out that every team did not have a chance to acquire Cardenas. Only the AL teams and the Astros (worse record than the Cubs in the NL) had a chance.