This spring roster is now at 31 players, after the following cuts (* – denotes player is on the 40-man roster and has been optioned to Iowa):
C Welington Castillo*
INF Edgar Gonzalez
C Blake Lalli
P Scott Maine*
P Blake Parker
OF Dave Sappelt*
INF Matt Tolbert
P Randy Wells*
P Travis Wood*
The most important decisions first:
1) Sending Wells down was a surprise, I think for everyone, and probably not least of all Wells himself. He’s been in the rotation for three solid years now, although he’s experienced a big drop in performance from each year to the next, to the point where he managed only a 78 ERA+ last season in 23 starts. His early arm injury was used as an excuse for why the Cubs got off to such a bad start last year, but after he returned he wasn’t much better than his replacements. He made only 9 quality starts, and had a career-high walk rate and a career-low strikeout rate. Just about the only bright spot was on August 29, when he threw the Cubs’ only complete-game shutout of the year (and first since 2009), a two-hitter against the Giants. I can’t say that I have any problems with this move, since Wells is not a young pitcher any more (he’s 29), and his peripheral stats last year were bad enough that his struggles can’t plausibly be explained by just bad luck. If he turns it around, he’ll probably be back in the majors before too long, either after injury or after the luster of Chris Volstad’s good spring wears off.
2) Sending Travis Wood back down to AAA isn’t as surprising, but I bet it’s pretty disappointing for the front office. Wood was acquired in the Sean Marshall trade and was no doubt expected to be a part of the rotation this year, but he had a miserable spring, allowing 17 runs in only 8.1 innings. I don’t put much faith in spring stats, but it’s easy to see why the front office lost confidence in Wood’s ability to get outs. I hope he turns it around quickly, and it’s possible he might; his minor league career shows a few bumps in the road before returning to effectiveness.
3) Welington Castillo is no doubt another tough call. It’s a good problem to have, though, as the Cubs have two guys competing for the backup catcher role (Castillo and Steve Clevenger, who has won the job), and they’re both very similar and both pretty good. Castillo is a year younger, and bats righthanded while Clevenger is a lefty. Castillo has better power, while Clevenger hits more for average. Other than that, though, they both had nearly identical numbers in the spring, and both look to have about the same ceiling in terms of upside (i.e., worthy starters, probably not stars). The front office is spinning the decision to go with Clevenger as having to do largely with the desire to give Castillo everyday playing time in AAA, as opposed to sitting on the bench in the majors. But the good news is that, after years of suffering with Koyie Hill – one of the worst Cubs players in recent memory – the Cubs now have three catchers who are probably good enough to hold down a starting job in the majors. I won’t be surprised if they take advantage of the situation and deal Geovany Soto, especially if he gets off to a good start.
4) Dave Sappelt lost the competition for the last outfield spot to Joe Mather, who has crushed the ball this spring to the tune of .418/.467/.745. Of course Sappelt was unable to compete with that, but didn’t help his cause by hitting a weak .216/.293/.405. In this case, my inclination would probably have been to disregard the spring stats and go with Sappelt’s relative youth (he’s 25, Mather’s 29) and more impressive minor league track record (.309/.362/.459 for Sappelt vs. .260/.334/.450 for Mather). If anything, Sappelt’s minor league numbers are even more impressive than they seem at face value, since he’s played AAA exclusively in the more pitcher-friendly International League, while Mather’s played mostly in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Plus, Sappelt has played much more in CF, which would give manager Dale Sveum more flexibility. It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but I think this is the wrong call.
5) Maine has served a couple of stints on the Cubs roster in 2010 and 2011, appearing in 20 games overall. Last season, he managed to give up 4 homers in 7 innings. He probably had a good shot to earn a bullpen spot this spring, but then walked 7 in 8 innings, although he didn’t give up a run. He’ll be back, though; he’s a big, 6’3″ lefty who strikes out a ton of hitters (12.6 per 9 innings for Iowa last season), which makes his high walk total (4.4 BB/9 last season) much easier to tolerate.
6) Along those lines, Blake Parker is similar, but righthanded, and without quite the same panache for strikeouts. He still gets his (9.6 K/9 between Tennessee and Iowa last season), but he walks just as many as Maine does (actually 4.8 BB/9 last year), and of course doesn’t have the advantage of being a lefty. As a non-roster invitee, he’s been assigned to minor league camp, where one assumes he’ll be assigned once again to Iowa when the season begins.
7) I don’t know what it is about the Cubs’ catchers this spring, but in addition to Soto, Clevenger, and Castillo, Blake Lalli also had a tremendous spring, hitting .316/.350/.684. Hard to say what the future holds for him, though, because he’s 29 and still hasn’t broken past AA. I don’t think he has much of a future as a catcher – he’s been a first baseman throughout most of his minor-league career – but if he can handle the position defensively, that’s his only foreseeable path to the majors.
8 and 9) Neither Gonzalez nor Tolbert really had a shot to make the team, as they’re both major-league castoffs that don’t seem to have a lot to offer. Tolbert is a weak-hitting infielder that would probably have been more favored with the previous front office regime than the current one, and Gonzalez has spent most of his career giving up homeruns for the Diamondbacks. They’ve been assigned to minor league camp, although it’s doubtful that they’ll remain in the organization.
And so it’s finally over. That’s right, the compensation deal with the Red Sox over the hiring of Theo Epstein has finally been completed.
1) The Cubs hired Theo Epstein from the Red Sox to be President of Baseball Operations.
2) The two sides agreed that the Red Sox were owed compensation, but negotiations over the deal stalled for nearly four months, with the Commissioner constantly threatening to get involved but never actually doing so.
3) The Cubs send Chris Carpenter to the Red Sox, although arcane MLB rules apparently require including a PTBNL from both sides.
4) Three weeks later, the Cubs send Aaron Kurcz to the Red Sox to satisfy their PTBNL obligation.
5) Finally, two weeks after that, the Cubs get Bogaerts from Boston.
Bogaert’s older brother, Xander, is one of the Sox’ top prospects, but Jair is a 19-year-old who has yet to move above the Dominican Summer League. He’s played mostly at first base there, and has shown that he has some patience at the plate, and as of yet, not much else. He’s struck out in over a quarter of his 372 DSL plate appearances. I suppose he’ll make his US debut this summer, either in the Arizona League or perhaps in Boise.
He seems like a long-shot to me, but then again, it’s doubtful that he’s meant to be an impact player. The Red Sox had to give someone up, but the whole idea is for them to be compensated for losing Epstein, so any deal by design is meant to have the Red Sox come out ahead. It would be funny, though, if Bogaerts turned out to be someone.
As far as I know, the Cubs still have to work something out with the Padres in exchange for hiring Hoyer. There have been reports that the two teams have already narrowed the choices down to a short list of players, so hopefully that will be settled soon now that the Red Sox deal is finally over.
Camp, a 36-year-old righthander, spent the spring with the Mariners before being released. The Cubs have given him a shot to win a bullpen spot, and I suppose it’s possible that he might do it. He’s spent the last four seasons with the Blue Jays, and he looks like a very average reliever to me. His career numbers (all games as a reliever):
432 G, 488.1 IP, 4.40 ERA, 101 ERA+, 50 HR, 2.7 BB/9, 6.2 K/9
Personally, I’d rather see someone like Rafael Dolis and/or Lendy Castillo win the open bullpen spots than Camp. The team figures to have a rough year, and it seems like a better long-term strategy to see how good some of the younger pitchers are than to give the spot to a 36-year-old who is unlikely to be much better than average. That said, the Cubs have run a lot of below-average relievers out there through the years, so it’s hard to get upset if someone like Camp is able to give the bullpen a litte stability in middle relief.
As for Miller, he’s been a lefty specialist for most of his career, and even though he’s 39 this season, he might still be able to perform decently in that role. But the Cubs just don’t need him. A good team with a strong bullpen could probably afford a luxury like a one-out specialist – Tony LaRussa (natch) found a spot for him last season – but the Cubs aren’t that team.
Seven more, leaving the spring roster at 40 players (* – denotes player is on the 40-man roster):
OF Jim Adduci
C Michael Brenly
INF Adrian Cardenas*
OF Brett Jackson
P Jay Jackson
INF Anthony Rizzo*
INF Bobby Scales
Obviously the big news here is that Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo have been sent to minor league camp, with Rizzo being optioned to Iowa. The organization has been very clear throughout the spring that both would start the season at AAA, so this news is no surprise. But they are the Cubs’ two biggest prospects, and both are widely expected to join the Cubs at some point during the upcoming season.
For what it’s worth, both played well in the spring:
B. Jackson: 36 PA, .276/.400/.586, 2 HR, 10 K, 1 SB in 1 attempt
Rizzo: 36 PA, .364/.417/.545, 2 HR, 9 K, 1 SB in 2 attempts
It’s folly to put much stock in spring stats, of course, but it’s frankly nice to see them both playing well offensively. In all likelihood, this is going to be a rough season, but if these two guys are able to continue their upward trajectories, it will go a long way to making it a worthwhile year despite all the losses. Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later that they get a call; Rizzo especially seems like a good bet to be the team’s best option at 1B right now.
As for the others, the most notable cut is Adrian Cardenas, who was optioned to Iowa, and who I was hoping would get a long look for the starting 2B job. I’ve written before how inadequate Darwin Barney is, and Cardenas is both younger than Barney and has a better minor league track record (he’s yet to make his ML debut). For what it’s worth (not much!), he’s hit well this spring also, putting up a .286/.355/.643 line in 31 PA. Jed Hoyer doesn’t need any criticism from me, but it’ll be frustrating to see Darwin Barney starting at 2B again this year when there are seemingly better options available, although Barney’s had a terrific spring himself.
Heck, even Bobby Scales represents a plausible alternative to Barney. Scales is 34 and a minor league lifer, save for two short stints with the Cubs in 2009 and 2010. In those two stints, though, he put up a combined 91 OPS+ in 158 plate appearances, which is pretty well in line with what you’d expect from his minor league numbers (Barney has a career 79 OPS+ in the majors). Scales has long deserved a better shot than what he’s gotten, as his career minor league .377 OBP and OK power make him a seemingly better option than the Cubs have used up the middle over the last few years. But so it goes.
Jay Jackson was once a decent prospect, and as recently as 2010 looked like he might be about to make the jump to the majors. He put up an ugly 5.34 ERA last year for Iowa, though. He’s not a lost cause, only 24 and with decent control, but he has to work himself back into the picture. He gave up a single run in 9 IP this spring.
Neither Adduci nor Brenly (Bob’s son) would appear to have much of a place in the Cubs’ plans. Brenly simply can’t hit, his homer this spring notwithstanding, and after failing to show any offensive game at all while repeating at Daytona last year would seem to have hit his ceiling. Adduci is marginally more promising, at least showing some on-base skills in the minors. He’ll be 27 in May, though, and doesn’t seem to have a position, splitting time between all 3 outfield positions during his minor league career. He doesn’t have much power, though, and players his age in AA rarely make the majors.
EDIT (4/2/2012): Bobby Scales has been released.
Back when Sonnanstine was signed, I noted that his performance over the past few years had declined conspicuously, even though he hadn’t been very good in the first place. I wrote that, as a result, “he probably won’t pitch a game for the Cubs unless he shows he’s got something first.”
Well, Sonnanstine did not show that he’s got something in his 4 spring appearances, getting rocked for 13 hits and 8 runs over only 5 innings. Now he’s been taken off the 40-man roster and sent to minor league camp. What can you say?
EDIT (3/25/12): Sonnanstine decided that he wanted to see what else was out there, so he rejected the assignment and is now a free agent.
I would have guessed that lefty Rusin would see a little bit of a longer look this spring, since he’s been fairly successful in the minors. He did make an appearance in 3 spring games, pitching 4.2 innings, while giving up a lone hit, walking 3 and striking out 2. His career minor league stats, all in the Cubs system:
60 games, 54 starts, 284.2 IP, 3.51 ERA, 20 HR, 1.9 BB/9, 7.1 K/9
He turned 25 last October, and spent the second half of the season in AAA Iowa, where he made 9 starts and posted a 4.02 ERA. I don’t think he’s a future star or anything, but I think his minor league profile compares favorably to someone like Randy Wells. From what I understand, Rusin doesn’t have dominating stuff, but striking out more than three batters for each walk issued is nothing to sneeze at.
Cruz is 28 and has bounced around sinced originally being signed by the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 2001. The Cubs will be the fifth major league organization that he’s played in, plus he pitched a year in Japan in 2010. He made 11 appearances for the Brewers out of the bullpen last year, but spent most of the season in the starting rotation for their AAA club in Nashville. His numbers there:
25 G (23 starts), 137.0 IP, 3.88 ERA, 14 HR, 4.1 BB/9, 8.3 K/9
That’s not too bad – quite a few homers allowed, but the Pacific Coast League is a high-offense league and De La Cruz’s total doesn’t really stand out in context. He walks more batters than most other Cubs’ acquisitions this offseason, and that 4.1 BB/9 is identical to his career minor league total, so it’s pretty much what the team can expect from him.
I suppose that a big part of the appeal for the Cubs here is that De La Cruz was, without exaggeration, far better than anyone else the Cubs had in AAA last year. Iowa’s rotation was an utter disaster, as we saw when the Cubs needed to find injury replacements. De La Cruz doesn’t look to me like the kind of pitcher that will make much of a difference in big picture terms, but he’s better than what they have in terms of depth, and they basically get him for free.
Kurcz goes to the Red Sox as the player to be named later as part of the Theo Epstein compensation package. This process now presumably lumbers into its final stage, as the Red Sox still owe the Cubs a player as part of the deal. And, of course, the Cubs still have a compensation package with the Padres to work out. Sheesh!
Anyway, Kurcz was drafted in the 11th round of the 2010 draft, out of the College of Southern Nevada. Assigned to short-season Boise after the draft, he appeared in 25 games out of the bullpen, and struck out an astonishing 46 batters in 26.1 innings. He only walked 11, which would be a slightly high number if he wasn’t striking out 46. A K/BB ratio over 4.00 is awfully impressive at any level.
Of course, he couldn’t sustain that, and promoted to high-A Daytona in 2011, that ratio dropped to 2.68. Basically, he walked hitters at the same rate, but struck out about 6 fewer batters per nine innings. He started 12 games, though, instead of appearing exclusively out of the bullpen, and posted a 3.28 ERA. That’s pretty good, the predictable drop in strikeout rate nothwithstanding, and even though he was 21 years old, the jump from short-season A ball to high-A is pretty significant.
In short, he’s not a top prospect, and may or may not make the majors some day, but he’s obviously tough to hit and it’s disappointing to have to give him up. The Cubs are still owed a player from the Sox, though, so we’ll have to see how that turns out before reaching a conclusion either way.
The following seven players have been sent to minor league camp, reducing their spring roster to 48 players (*denotes player is on the 40-man roster):
P Jeff Beliveau*
P Alberto Cabrera*
P John Gaub*
C Jason Jaramillo
INF Junior Lake*
OF Matthew Szczur*
INF Josh Vitters*
Not much to say here in general terms, since it’s still early enough in the spring that no one is getting cut who had a real chance to make the team. Gaub may be a minor exception to that, since he got a September callup last season, when he made four appearances out of the bullpen. That said, he’s had tremendous control problems throughout his minor league career, walking 5.8 batters per nine innings (against an impressive 12.6 K/9), and it’s become pretty clear during the offseason that those kinds of numbers just aren’t going to cut it in this organization anymore. He’s been optioned to AAA Iowa, where he’ll presumably be encouraged to stop walking people, even if it comes at the expense of a few strikeouts.
I think Beliveau actually had the best (very long)shot coming into the spring, since he made real progress in the minors last year and the Cubs’ bullpen is in flux. He had three appearances this spring, the first two of which were not very good. Then he found his stuff in the third and struck out five batters in 2 innings. He’s been optioned to AAA Iowa as well.
Cabrera was added to the 40-man roster after the 2010 season, when he had a very good half-season at high-A Daytona before struggling upon his promotion to AA Tennessee. Like I’ve had to say about virtually every other pitching prospect from the Hendry era, he walks too many hitters, although in his case not as many as Beliveau or Gaub (only 4.1 BB/9 over his minor league career). He doesn’t strike out nearly as many, though, only 7.2 per nine innings, so that ratio still isn’t very good. He was still a starting pitcher last year, but got hit pretty hard in Iowa, posting a 6.60 ERA in 88.2 innings. He’s been optioned back to Iowa to start the year.
Jaramillo – once again, no relation to hitting coach Rudy – is a no-hit catcher who was given an NRI. He’ll serve as minor league catching depth if he stays in the organization at all. (EDIT 3/30/12: Jaramillo has been released.)
Lake is a 22-year-old shortstop who managed a hit in 9 PA this spring. He’s been optioned to Tennessee, where he spent the second half of last season and struggled. He had an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League in the offseason, and he’s shown up pretty regularly on the Cubs’ top 10 prospect lists this offseason, although it should be noted that none of those evaluators seem to think all that highly of him. Put in perspective, he’s younger than Starlin Castro, and at least as defensively raw, although he might have slightly more power. Perhaps he might be a long-term answer at 2B, but for now, he’s not close to major-league ready.
Centerfielder Szczur will also be familiar to perusers of prospect lists, as he’s one of the Cubs’ top 10 by consensus. He has been optioned to Tennessee as well, which I think shows that the new front office is excited about him given how he struggled in high-A last season. On the other hand, he hit his first 10 professional homeruns last year, and still maintained his very low strikeout rate (only 20 in 182 PA). It’s possible that I’m overstating his struggles at Daytona, since the only real difference in his performance there compared to previously is that his batting average plummeted. I’m interested to see how he does in AA.
I think all Cubs fans will be familiar with Vitters by now, since it seems like he’s been around forever – having been first named the Cubs’ top prospect four years ago already – but is only 22. He had his best year last year than in 2010, but the pattern with him is that he struggles when first promoted before improving on his second go-around at a given level. He’s been optioned to Iowa, where he’ll make his AAA debut, so we’ll see if that pattern holds. The basic shape of the situation seems to be that he’ll need to show an increase in power, because by all accounts his glove is problematic at third but his bat is insufficient at first.
Caridad was a late addition to the NRI list, and did not appear in a spring training game for the Cubs. He pitched in 22 games for the major league Cubs between 2009 and 2010, and was actually quite effective over 19.1 IP in 2009. He struggled in the minors last year though, and was removed from the 40-man roster after the season.
He’s already 28, and his minor league record is unremarkable. He’s been assigned to minor league camp, and one has to suspect that if he’s going to get another chance to pitch in the majors, it will be with another organization.