Cubs sign Zobrist, trade Castro

130107_gq_trout_aWell as is generally the case, where there is smoke, there’s fire. And on Tuesday, there was a lot of smoke rising up above the city of Nashville where the MLB Winter Meetings are taking place. Lots of rumors began popping up involving the Cubs in multiple capacities, and sure enough they made the headlines by the end of the day.

The Cubs had been linked to Jason Heyward throughout most of Tuesday, and they still are (we’ll get to that later), but Tuesday evening the focus shifted to Ben Zobrist. Zobrist, one of the game’s best, if not the best, utility men was reportedly nearing a final decision as to where he would ultimately sign. Recent reports all indicated that the Mets were the heavy front-runners, however the Cubs made a late push and signed Zobrist to a four year deal worth $56 million. It is worth noting that of all players Cubs manager Joe Maddon has ever managed at the big league level, no player has played more games for him than Ben Zobrist. Also add in the fact that Zobrist was born in Illinois and still has family in the area, and you begin to understand why he chose the Cubs (aside from the obvious reason of them being a contending team).

What Zobrist brings to the Cubs is versatility. He wants to play second base, and he will, but the fact that he can literally play any other position outside of catcher and pitcher gives Joe Maddon extreme flexibility with his lineup decisions. He is also great at getting on base, with a career .355 on base percentage, and bats from both sides of the plate. If the Cubs don’t end up signing an obvious leadoff hitter, you might want to pencil Zobrist into that spot in the lineup.

Aside from his physical abilities, Zobrist is a winner and a leader. He has played in two World Series now, having won one last year with the Royals, and is generally looked up to by younger teammates. The Cubs, a team with relatively little postseason experience in the field, will definitely benefit from having Zobrist in the lineup come crunch time next season.

So while signing Zobrist was a big move, it may not have even been the biggest news to come from the Cubs on Tuesday. Shortly after agreeing to a deal with Zobrist, the Cubs dealt Starlin Castro to the Yankees in exchange for 28 year old pitcher Adam Warren and veteran infielder Brendan Ryan. The Yankees will take on the remainder of Castro’s contract.

Warren, the main piece coming back to the Cubs in the trade, started 17 games for the Yankees last year and posted a 7-7 record with a solid 3.29 earned run average. He figures to be a number 5-6 starter and/or long reliever. This now gives the Cubs four pitchers who can pitch in relief and make spot starts when needed. Their bullpen depth, which was problematic at times last year, is quickly turning into a strength of the team.

Getting back to Castro, his departure was one that we were all somewhat anticipating for quite some time now. Despite getting off to a horrendous start in 2015, he became a completely new player once being moved to second base, which is where the Yankees plan to start him. While his bat and clubhouse presence will be missed, it was a move the Cubs had to make for two reasons. One, they needed to open up the second base position in order to sign Zobrist. Two, they needed to dump some salary to sign Zobrist. As Theo Epstein said Tuesday night, consider the Cubs’ transactions as a “Castro for Warren and Zobrist trade.”

Looking ahead now, the Cubs are still heavily linked to Jason Heyward as well as Denard Span and, if all else fails, Gerrardo Parra. All three are either center fielders or are capable of playing the position. If the Cubs could have it their way, the belief is they would sign Heyward today.

The Cubs had also shown interest in dealing for Shelby Miller, but the Braves reportedly had too high of an asking price. Tuesday night, the Braves and Diamondbacks agreed to a trade that sent Miller to Arizona, and Dansby Swanson (number one draft pick in 2015 MLB draft) and Ender Inciarte (among a couple other prospects) to Atlanta. Given what Atlanta got in return for Miller, it is clear now why no deal was made with the Cubs. The Braves got an almost unbelievable return in that trade. It’s likely their asking price was for something much more significant than Jorge Soler.

While the Cubs are definitely in the hunt for an outfielder, rumors of their pursuit of a good, young starter have died down a bit. It is unclear if the acquisition of Warren put a halt to that or not, so those rumors could potentially pick up again at some point.

A lot more could happen today and as we approach the weekend, and it should be fun.

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It’s here: Cubs’ future is now

10-171460575-smallAs is the case every so often, I’ll take a quick break from writing about hockey on here and shift the focus to baseball. Particularly, Cubs baseball. After promoting baseball’s top prospect, Kris Bryant, to the big league’s last Thursday, the Cubs made another big announcement late Monday night by recalling the game’s number four prospect: Addison Russell. It was widely known or assumed that Bryant would be on the Cubs’ roster by May, but things didn’t seem to be as sure for Russell.

With Mike Olt getting injured just a few games into the season, the Cubs were all of a sudden left with a gaping hole at the third base position. They got by for a handful of games with what they already had on the big league roster until enough games had passed where they could bring up Bryant without losing a year off his contract. So that problem was quickly and not surprisingly solved.

The other glaring problem with the Cubs’ lineup has been second base. Arismendy Alcantara was supposed to be the guy to hold down that position for the time being, but his early season struggles have led the Cubs to their next big call-up. Addison Russell, who figures to be a shortstop in the long run, had started putting some work in at second base recently, which raised some eyebrows and some questions regarding his immediate future with the organization. Are the Cubs just trying to get him used to another position, or do they want him coming up to Chicago sometime soon to play second base? As it turns out, the front office wants him starting tonight at second base for the big league club.

I think most people, myself included, expected Russell to see his first big league action somewhere between June and July. However, most people weren’t really expecting the Cubs to have such a dire need at second base either.

Everyone knew Kris Bryant would be making his first start for the Cubs somewhere around the 10-12 game mark of the season. As I already hinted at, not many expected Russell to be doing the same. What his promotion tells me is two things:

  1. The Cubs feel he is ready to make the leap from Triple A to the big leagues. In eleven games with Iowa this year, he hit .318 with 1 home run, 9 runs batted in, and an .803 OPS. His fielding has never been a concern.
  2. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are going for it and feel that this team and its young players are ready to compete for a playoff spot. If they didn’t believe that the playoffs were a real possibility, my guess is Russell would still be in Iowa.

The Cubs have gotten off to a 7-5 start to the season, which is by far their best start in many years. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have proven that they are good MLB players, with Rizzo looking like a perennial All Star and a cornerstone piece of the franchise, and Castro continuing to hit while improving defensively. Jorge Soler, who debuted with the Cubs last summer, has adjusted extremely well to the big league game and is off to a great start to the year. Many “experts” have him pegged as this year’s NL 10-171460575-smallRookie of the Year. Then you have recent addition Kris Bryant, labeled by many as the savior of the Cubs franchise. He has played in four games with the Cubs while hitting .429 with 2 doubles and 4 runs batted in. Oh, and his early OPS is 1.150.

Now that you add Addison Russell into the equation and take into account his potential, the Cubs’ lineup is suddenly loaded, and all with young talent. The average age of their infield is just 23 years old.

And don’t forget about the Cubs’ pitching staff. Jon Lester, while off to a forgettable start to the season, is a true ace and figures to turn his game around sooner than later. Jake Arrieta is coming off his best season a a pro in 2014, and is already 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA this year. Then you have Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Kyle Hendricks who have all pitched well and provided reason for optimism. Also, the Cubs’ bullpen is no pushover. Prior to Neil Ramirez getting hurt, they had the best bullpen ERA in the National League. I see no reason for their ‘pen to become a weakness.

Most people would say that this team’s weakness is their inexperience and starting rotation. Well I have a response to each.

The Cubs may be young, but they don’t play like it, and they don’t think like it. Epstein, Hoyer, and Jason McLeod draft players who not only possess great talent, but possess great maturity for their age. It doesn’t take a fool to see that while watching the likes of Rizzo, Soler, and Bryant, just to name a few. Secondly, the starting pitching of the Cubs wasn’t bad last year, and only got better this year. If the team continues winning games and is in a competitive position in the standings at the trade deadline, I would expect Epstein to deal for another top of the line starter in exchange for any combination of current (available) Cubs prospects. Starlin Castro and Javier Baez could be potential pieces to any such trade.

Obviously there is still A LOT of season left, but there is more reason for optimism with this team than we’ve seen in a long, long time. If the first twelve games are any indication as to how the rest of the season will play out, it’s going to be one hell of a fun summer on Chicago’s north side.

Time to trade Castro

I have seen enough from Starlin Castro. This guy started his career looking like he would become a perennial all star, but those visions are quickly disappearing. This Cubs team is not winning anything this year, they won’t win anything next year, and who knows what may happen in the years after that. The key to their success in the future is going to be building a very good farm system and developing their top prospects into good MLB players. If you trade Starlin Castro right now, you would help yourself achieve those long term goals.

Castro has shown through his first three and a half MLB seasons that he is capable of being a very good hitter. He had 207 hits in 2011 and batted .307 for the year. Those are very respectable stats. However, he has not gotten any better since then. In fact, he’s only gotten worse.

I challenge anyone to give me an area of Castro’s game in which he is better at today than he was the day he stepped into the Majors. Good luck finding one. He started his career as a weak defensive player, and maybe he has gotten better there over the last 3 years, but hardly. Here’s a good stat for you:

Of all active MLB players, Starlin Castro already ranks 38th in career errors, and he’s only been in the league for less than four total seasons! In his first three and a half seasons in the big leagues, Castro has a whopping 98 errors at shortstop. That is hard to comprehend.

What put me over the top regarding Castro is what took place in yesterday’s (Friday) game at home against the Pirates.

Starlin came up in the bottom of the 8th inning with the Cubs trailing 6-2 and doubled to left-center field. He then proceeded to get picked off of second base by Pirates catcher Russell Martin in the ensuing at-bat, and Castro looked like he had no clue what just happened. 

Here’s my point. There have been WAY too many times since Castro came into the big leagues in which he has been caught not paying attention to what is going on in the game. Just complete dumb, mental mistakes.

Last month in a game against the Angels, Mike Trout hit a hard ground ball to Castro at shortstop. Castro took his time fielding it and was in no rush to get the ball to first base. What happened? Trout beat out Castro’s throw for an infield hit. It was as though Castro had absolutely NO CLUE who just hit him the ball (If you are unaware, Mike Trout is arguably the fastest player in the Majors). If a guy like Mike Trout hits a ground ball to you, you better get that ball to first base as quickly as possible. In this case, either Castro was unaware of who was batting, or flat out made a lazy effort. Either way, this was unacceptable.

Recently, Castro has been criticized for not running hard from second base to home plate on a ball hit to left field in which he should have scored on. Instead, he was thrown out at home and the Cubs lost the game 1-0.

Things like that are what have put me over the top with Castro. Winning teams do not have players who are lazy. They don’t have players who are unaware of the situation in the game. Castro has proven time and time again that he is both of those. Even though I strongly believe that Castro has some of the best talent in the Majors, his attitude and continuous mental mistakes are not what this Cubs team needs moving forward.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer should trade Castro now and get as much as they can in return for him. I’d be willing to bet that at least a few teams would give up a few top prospects and draft picks for Starlin Castro.

If you’re wondering what the Cubs would do with that open spot at shortstop, look no further than Javier Baez. Baez is the Cubs’ top prospect right now, and he is a shortstop. I’m not saying that the Cubs would promote Baez to the Majors right away if they do trade Castro, but Baez will be Major League-ready in the next 2 years. Even if the Cubs don’t trade Castro, I believe Baez will push Castro out of the shortstop position whenever he does make his MLB debut.

The bottom line here is that Starlin Castro is not getting any better at baseball since he first came up three and a half years ago. This is by far his worst year at the plate (.236, 4 HR, 26 RBI), and his fielding is not where it should be for a MLB shortstop. His value is still high enough to where the Cubs could get something good in return if they trade him, and that is exactly what they should do.

Stay optimistic about the Cubs’ future

While this has not been a good year for the Cubs in terms of their record, there is no reason to believe that things won’t change in the next few years or so. Just look at Anthony Rizzo.

Prior to being called up to the big leagues this season, Anthony Rizzo was being called “the next Babe Ruth,” “a future Hall of Famer,” “the second coming,” and so on. I’m not saying that he didn’t deserve those praises, but those are some tough expectations to try and live up to. As tough as it is to succeed at the Major League level, Anthony Rizzo is doing just that. In the 29 games since being called up, Rizzo is hitting .321, with 8 home runs and 20 RBI, including this past Sunday’s walk-off home run against the Cardinals. Not many players could have lived up to the hype that surrounded Anthony Rizzo prior to his Cubs debut, but Rizzo has done that and more.

Aside from Rizzo, the Cubs have guys like Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney already producing at the Major League level. In the minor leagues they have players such as Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Jorge Soler (a recently signed Cuban outfielder), and Albert Almora (their number 1 pick in this year’s draft). While those guys still have yet to prove themselves at the Major League level, their futures look pretty bright.

Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein went into this season’s trade deadline with a sole purpose of acquiring young talent, especially in the form of pitchers. Monday night, Reed Johnson and Paul Maholm were dealt to the Atlanta Braves for 2 minor league pitchers, one of which was rated the Braves number 3 prospect last season. Also on Monday night, they traded Geovany Soto to the Texas Rangers for another young pitcher. Today, Ryan Dempster was traded to the Rangers as well, but the details involving the trade have not fully come out yet.

As I have stated before in previous blogs, I have total confidence in Epstein and Hoyer. They know what they are doing when they trade for, sign, and develop young prospects. Just look at what they did in Boston if you need proof. Odds are that the Cubs will not be too good next season, or the next season, or maybe even the next season. But if you give Epstein and Hoyer time, there is no reason to believe that they won’t fulfill their promise of putting a winning team on the field. In the mean time, we can all sit back and watch the whole future develop right before our eyes in players such as Rizzo and Castro.

Stay optimistic Cubs fans.

Cubs Assessment

Believe it or not, we are already 23 games into the Cubs’s season. Unfortunately, much like we, or at least I suspected, they are in last place in the Central Division with a record of 8-15.

I’m pretty sure that no one had high expectations for this team heading into this season, which is a good thing. The Cubs are not a very good team this year. They have very little power in their lineup, their pitching rotation is sub par (with the exception of Garza and Samardzija so far), and their bullpen is a near disaster. But, there have been some bright spots up to this point.

Bryan LaHair has been on a tear to start the season. He is hitting .390 with 5 home runs, and 14 RBI. His 5 home runs lead the team, and he is tied with Starlin Castro for the team-lead in RBI. There were a lot of questions surrounding LaHair heading into this season, with a lot of people wondering if he could perform in the MLB at the level that he had been performing at in the minors. Well, so far he is not disappointing anyone.

Starlin Castro has picked up right where he left off last year at the plate. He is hitting .333 with 14 RBI, and 10 stolen bases. One thing that I would like to see him do is hit for a little more power. Many people have compared Castro to Hanley Ramirez of the Miami Marlins in that both are built similarly from a physical standpoint, and that both have the potential to hit for power. Ramirez has proven that he can hit for power, but Castro has yet to do so. If he could end up averaging anywhere from 15-20 home runs per season as a shortstop over the length of the remainder of his career, his value would sky rocket. Another thing that Castro needs to improve on is his fielding. Last year, he ended the season with 29 errors, which is unacceptable at the major league level. This year through 23 games, he already has 7 errors. He must cut down on his mistakes in the field.

Matt Garza has pitched like an ace through is first 5 starts of the season. He is 2-1 with an ERA of 2.67, 36 strikeouts, and a WHIP of 0.89. Had he gotten some more run support, or had the bullpen not blown the lead in a couple of his 5 starts, he might have one or two more wins. A lot of teams were coming to the Cubs this off-season with trade offers for Garza, but they held onto him because of the potential that he has to pitch like the way he has been so far.

Tony Campana is back in the big leagues. Although he has only played in 9 games this year, he has had a big impact on just about each game he has played in because of his speed. In those 9 games, he is hitting .370 and is 7 for 7 in stolen base attempts. Just the other night in Philadelphia, he had an infield single, and also bunted for a hit. It has gotten to the point where any ground ball he puts into play, he has a legitimate shot at beating it out for a hit. Infielders on opposing teams literally cannot afford to bobble the ball or make any kind of mistake when trying to throw out Campana at first base. Once he is on base, he is the ultimate threat to any pitcher or catcher. Campana is one of only a few guys in the big leagues who have pitchers and catchers totally distracted while he is on base because of his incredible potential to steal any base at any time.

The Cubs are not going to go anywhere this season, and none of us fans should expect them to. Even despite the stellar play of the guys I just mentioned, this team still has way too many holes, with the biggest being their bullpen who can’t seem to hold any kind of lead. For those of you who like to take optimistic points of view on things, like me, here is a theory for you to keep in the back of your mind.

No one has any high expectations for the Cubs this year, including their management and front office, and the players are aware of this. Therefore, they are going out and playing with the “we have nothing to lose” mentality each day. When athletes go out and play relaxed with no pressure on them, they end up performing pretty well. I know this from experience. Because of this, there is a good chance that the Cubs might end up surprising a few people with their record this year. I have seen some analysts say that the Cubs might reach 120 losses this year. If they continue to go out there and play relaxed with no high expectations of them coming from the  fans or management, they might just win a few games and have a decent season considering the circumstances. That’s just my theory, and you can take it or leave it.

I am looking forward to the remaining 139 games on the Cubs’ schedule because I am very interested to see how some of their top prospects perform at the big league level once they are inevitably called up. Hopefully we are all in for a pleasant surprise.