What the Cubs have to consider at the Winter Meetings

We haven’t talked a lot about what the Cubs need to do this offseason. When the season ended they were without a GM so it made no sense. After they hired Theo and he assembled his front office it was difficult to know which direction the Cubs may go. There have been indications they’re willing to trade anybody and everybody, but there also have been indications the Cubs will be buyers as they’ve reportedly shown interest in Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. In past years I was comfortable in writing about what the Cubs can, need or should do because I was familiar with Jim Hendry. I’m somewhat familiar with Theo Epstein, but this is a situation unlike any team he fielded in Boston. It may actually be more informative to look at what Jed Hoyer did a year into his GM job with the Padres. They were sellers.

I don’t see the Cubs having a fire sale. They don’t have the talent that would net them much in return if they had one. It’s also a large market team with a lot of money to spend so a fire sale is always going to be unlikely. But trading a player here or there may help them accomplish two goals: building the farm system and allowing them more payroll flexibility to get better at the MLB level. I think we’ll see that, which is why we’ve heard rumors about the Cubs being willing to trade Matt Garza and that they’re interested in someone like Pujols or Fielder.

So instead of talking about what the Cubs might do based on any historical context, I’m going to talk about what the Cubs have to do to field a team next year. Not necessarily a team that will contend, but the Cubs do have to have 25 guys on opening day who can play baseball.

Everyday Position Players

The Cubs have Geovany Soto behind the plate and at least a couple non-Koyie Hill options to back-up. They have Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger who would make league minimum and can’t possibly be less valuable than Hill. Soto had a poor year at the plate last year and the projections see him as an average hitting catcher, which is pretty damn good for the position.

Carlos Pena was offered arbitration and will more than likely decline. Assumig he is gone, which is what the Cubs are thinking, they have fill 1st base. Bryan LaHair is the only realistic in-house option. The free agent market does have two exciting names in Pujols in Fielder. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Cubs acquire either of them. My guess is that they acquire a right-handed platoon player and go with whoever that is and Bryan LaHair.

Darwin Barney became a fan favorite early in the season last year, but as the season progressed his bat was almost nonexistent. The Cubs currently have a potential platoon ready for 2nd base in Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt. I’m guessing one or both of them is traded and I’m going to say the Cubs sign free agent Kelly Johnson. Johnson earned $5.85 million a year ago and while he didn’t come close to matching the .377 wOBA, 5.9 WAR season he had in 2010, he was still worth 2.2 fWAR last year. His wOBA was .316, which was a bit below average, but Total Zone thinks he’s been a very good fielder in his career and UZR agrees with that over the last couple years. Bill James projects a .336 wOBA. With some good defense he could easily be worth 3 WAR next year. He’ll probably come at a discount too. It’s unlikely he’ll cost about $15 million over 3 years, which is what he’s worth. He could probably be had for a 3-year deal for $24 million or so.

Aramis Ramirez‘s long career with the Cubs is about to come to an official end. He was also offered arbitration, but will turn it down. The same potential 2nd base platoon of Baker and DeWitt is an option here. The free agent market for 3rd basemen is weak to say the least. If the Cubs fill this position by anyone not already a Cub it will more than likely be through a trade. I’m kind of surprised we haven’t heard more about 3rd base. I think it’s more of a hole than 1st base. Filling Ramirez’s shoes isn’t going to happen, but I do expect whoever mans that position will be a much better fielder than Ramirez and presumably a much better baserunner.

While the Cubs are reportedly willing to trade anyone, they’d have to get an offer they can’t refuse to trade Starlin Castro. That’s probably not going to happen. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the Cubs started working on a long-term contract with Castro after the arbitration eligible players are all taken care of. I think we’ll hear more about that when spring training starts.

I’m going to skip left field for now and point out that CF and RF are filled for the time being. It’s possible the Cubs look into trading Marlon Byrd, but I’d be surprised if that happens. Byrd is still worth more than he’s being paid and so is recently signed free agent David DeJesus.

I think Alfonso Soriano will be traded. They are reportedly willing to eat a sizable chunk of the money owed to him over the next 3 years. Some team will take a shot. I think we’ll see Brett Jackson in CF on Opening Day and Marlon Byrd will shift to LF. If not the first game of the season, I think the plan is to have Jackson up no later than the middle of May. I don’t expect the Cubs to sign any other outfielder. I think they trade Soriano and maybe stick Jeff Baker in LF for 6 weeks if Jackson doesn’t begin the season in Chicago.

Rotation

We’ve heard rumors that the Cubs are willing to trade Matt Garza and Randy Wells. I’m not sure either makes much sense, but if you get a good enough offer then they should. The rotation as of right now would be Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells and a 5th starter. The 5th starter could be Andrew Cashner though I’m guessing he’s bullpen only at this point. It could also be Jeff Samardzija, but I think that would fail miserably. There was a rumor a couple weeks back that the Cubs were interested in Chris Capuano, which would have been a good signing, but he just signed with the Dodgers.

The Cubs don’t have any in-house options at the moment. Casey Coleman isn’t very good. The same is true of Jay Jackson. Trey McNutt had a poor year last year in AA so he has yet to prove he’s deserving of a spot in the big league rotation.

Mark Beuhrle is a free agent and was tied to the Cubs at one point. It’s hard to imagine him ever wearing a Cubs uniform, but he’s still a good pitcher. Roy Oswalt is a free agent and is also still good. CJ Wilson is the best free agent pitcher available. Brandon Webb was an elite starter, but missed the last two seasons and only threw 4 innings in 2009. He’s not anybody you could count on, but he’s a guy I could see the Cubs taking a flyer on. Why not?

Yu Darvish is also likely to be posted in Japan, but will cost a lot of money. He’s still quite young for a Japanese player coming to the US and fits the profile of the free agent that Theo and Hoyer were talking about (still in their prime).

My guess is the Cubs make a run at Darvish, but fall short to the Red Sox. I’ll also guess they sign Buehrle and/or Oswalt. I still think Zambrano is traded so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cubs acquire a 5th starter type either.

Bullpen

Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall are each returning and making up one of the better 8th/9th inning combos in baseball. Sean Marshall is actually the better pitcher and due to Marmol’s inconsistency I do expect we’ll see Marshall become the closer at some point in 2012. I also expect the Cubs to work out a long-term contract with Marshall before the season begins. When Theo was asked the other day about Marshall being a starter he said they weren’t going to move the best left-handed reliever in the game into the rotation. Marshall has one year left on his contract and I don’t think the Cubs want him to test free agency next year. Look for Marshall to be locked up through 2014 or 2015 by the time the season begins.

Jeff Samardzija’s numbers looked OK last year, but the walk rate is still quite high. Andrew Cashner is healthy and between the two of them they can take care of the 6th and 7th innings.

The Cubs have a number of other options including: Casey Coleman, James Russell, John Gaub, Marcos Mateo, Alberto Cabrera, Jeff Beliveau and Chris Carpenter. Russell actually fared quite well vs lefties last season. He struckout 7.1 per 9 and walked only 0.6 per 9 to give a 12 to 1 K/BB ratio.

Bench

The bench is always the last thing to put together and it depends on who the starters are. If Jeff Baker and/or Blake DeWitt find themselves being starter or part of a platoon, there will be other lesser bench players added. Jeff Baker can’t hit righties, but he hits lefties very well. I’d like the Cubs to hold onto him, but won’t be surprised if he’s traded. Darwin Barney would be better off being a bench player. He could play some SS on occasion, fill in at 2nd and maybe even fill in at 3rd base. He’s a good fielder too so a late inning replacement is always a good thing to have around. In the outfield the Cubs have Tony Campana, but unless he can get on base he has almost no value and he can’t get on base. Despite that, I feel confident in saying he’s as valuable or more valuable in LF than Alfonso Soriano.

Depth

I had planned to write more in depth about this, but let’s face it, the Cubs just don’t have much of this and it’s not something you can just buy on the free agent market. Theo talked about needing to have 9 starters and the Cubs are lucky to have 4 right now. Finding another 5 isn’t something you can just make happen. I expect at least 2 starters will be signed for the big league club and we’ll begin to hear talk about how Jay Jackson could provide some innings if needed. That’s not going to be a good thing. Even if we include Casey Coleman and hope that Trey McNutt turns a corner, I’m not sure anyone can say the depth at rotation is anything but poor. it’s going to take time to build that depth and right now the Cubs farm system just doens’t have it.

The organization has plenty of relievers, but what organization doesn’t?

As for position player depth, the Cubs have Brett Jackson who is at least the third best outfielder in the Cubs organization right now. Matt Szczur was added to the 40-man roster, but he’s a year or two away. If you look at the top prospect lists for the Cubs you see that a lot of these guys are aways away from making an impact.

The Cubs can fill some holes and create a stronger bench, but depth isn’t something that’s going to be a strenght for this organization for awhile. If a starter goes down you’re going to get the likes of Tony Campana and DJ LeMahieu filling spots on the bench.


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