The Cubs have expressed interest in bringing Camp back next year, and why not? He led the NL with 80 appearances, and for the most part he pitched decently well. He had the lowest walk rate of any pitcher on the staff except for Ryan Dempster, he didn’t give up too many homers, and he managed to strand inherited baserunners at a reasonable clip (15 of 22). His BAbip was basically league average, so there’s no reason to think he had an especially fluky year.
All in all, he was pretty dependable in a season when dependable relievers were hard to find for the Cubs.
The breakdown, according to the official site, notwithstanding any additional performance incentives:
$6 million signing bonus
2013: $5 million
2014: $5 million
2015: $6 million
2016: $7 millon
2017: $9 million
2018: $10 million
2019: $11 million
2020: club option for $16 million or $1 million buyout
What’s there to even say? This is a terrific deal for the Cubs, and will be even if Castro plays out the contract at his performance level from this season. The conventional wisdom is that Castro has had an off year, but at best that’s only half-true. His batting average has dipped, and his walk rate has regressed as well, although it’s ticked back up recently to about where it was last season. He’s set a new career high in homers already, and his isolated slugging percentage is the highest of his career, although his overall number of extra base hits is down. His BAbip is 40 points lower than his career level, and seems to be the biggest culprit in his struggles. At the plate, I think there’s been signs for optimism, although there’s no doubt his season has been a mixed bag offensively.
But his defense is a whole other story. After starting the season with a whole bunch of errors, he’s been, quite simply, a terrific defensive shortstop. He’ll still make occasional errors, but he has fine range and a powerful arm. He ranks first in the NL in both putouts and assists, and he and Darwin Barney have made a formidable double play combo. Overall, I think that the case can be made that this is Castro’s finest season yet, when both offense and defense are considered.
And, obviously, he’s still only 22, still the youngest player for the Cubs this season and the 9th youngest in all the National League. This year seems to have tempered some of the enthusiasm fans have for Castro’s future, but I don’t really see why. It was inevitable that he’d have some bumps in the road along the way, and even this year he’s still a fine overall player. It doesn’t seem unlikely to me that this year will be Castro’s worst, especially if he can keep up his high level of defensive play. I’m still excited to see what the future holds for him.
Six of the Cubs’ seven arbitration-eligible players have agreed to one-year contracts, leaving only Matt Garza’s case yet to be resolved. Here are the terms, with nothing too surprising here:
Jeff Baker: $1.375 million
Blake DeWitt: $1.1 million
Geovany Soto: $4.3 million
Ian Stewart: $2.237 million
Chris Volstad: $2.655 million
Randy Wells: $2.705 million
As for Garza, the two sides are more than $2 million apart in their offers, which suggests to me that a settlement is on the way prior to an actual arbitration hearing. They’re probably too far apart for either side to want to risk being decided against.
EDIT: The Cubs and Garza have settled at $9.5 million, somewhat favorably for Garza given the two sides’ offers ($10.225 million by Garza, $7.95 million by the Cubs).
The Cubs had seven arbitration-eligible players this year:
Essentially, in order to keep these players, the Cubs had to tender contracts to them by the end of the day yesterday, or they would become free agents. Hill is the only player they chose to non-tender, so he’s no longer on the team.
I think the reasons for tendering the six players they did are self-explanatory for the most part, although to my mind Jeff Baker could have gone either way. His principle value to the club is that he crushes lefthanded pitching, although that skill is not really all that hard to come by. Still, he can play second base, so the combination of his versatility and his platoon advantage against lefties makes him useful enough to have around, I suppose.
DeWitt is another player who may have been near the cutoff line, although I continue to think that he’s a better option than Darwin Barney for the starting job. His biggest weakness is that, even though he’s a lefty, he doesn’t hit righthanded pitchers very well, having a pronounced reverse split over the course of his career:
DeWitt, career vs. RHP: 985 PA, .254/.318/.373, 17 HR, 151 K
DeWitt, career vs. LHP: 228 PA, .290/.373/.440, 4 HR, 41 K
This made him pretty much useless last season, with Barney starting and Baker next to him on the bench, because he’s not good enough against righties to make for an effective platoon partner with Barney and he’s not as good against lefties as Baker. Since the Cubs look like they’re bringing back all three players next year (plus the possible addition of Jeff Bianchi to the mix), there will at least be a healthy competition for playing time at second base. Hopefully the new management regime will actually open up competition for the starting spot, because Barney is probably the worst option of the four.
It’s hard to think of a reason why the Cubs should have kept Hill. He has a good reputation defensively, but he’s a terrible hitter, with a lifetime OPS+ of 50 (yes, fifty). Even though he’s still arb-eligible, he’s actually pretty old – he’ll be 33 next season – so if anything, he’s going to get worse going forward instead of better. He’s relatively expensive, making $850,000 last year, which of course won’t break the Cubs’ payroll, but still it’s more than double the league minimum for production far below replacement level. And most importantly, the Cubs have much better options already in the organization for the role of backup catcher in Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger.
In fact, to be blunt it’s hard to understand why Hill ever got as much playing time for the Cubs as he did: 795 plate appearances over parts of 5(!) seasons, in which time he put up -2.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to Baseball-Reference.com. I understand that the backup catcher spot is usually considered a defense-first role, but Hill has essentially been a waste of a roster spot whenever he’s been with the team.
The Cubs have offered arbitration to the following free agents:
They declined to offer arbitration to the following free agents:
I think this mostly speaks for itself. Pena and Ramirez are Type B free agents, and if they sign with another team, the Cubs get a compensatory draft pick between the 1st and 2nd rounds.
There’s no downside to the team here. Both players figure to get multi-year offers on the free-agent market, so arbitration is unlikely in either case. But if for some reason they don’t get satisfactory offers, the bottom line for the Cubs is that having either Ramirez or Pena on a one-year deal is a best-case scenario, even if they’re expensive for the year. The Cubs had already in effect offered Ramirez a one-year, $16 million deal anyway when they picked up his option, and having Pena on a repeat one-year deal sounds ideal even at a higher salary than the $10 million he made last year. If they leave, well, at least the Cubs get something for their troubles.
Of the remaining players, only Wood would bring back a draft pick, but since he’s said that he would choose retirement over signing with another team, I suppose the Cubs didn’t see a reason to offer him arbitration. There have been media reports that the two parties have talked about a new deal, and this is probably a sign that both sides are comfortable with the way things are going.
Aramis Ramirez has been a terrific third baseman since coming over from Pittsburgh in a trade that I was kinda right and mostly wrong about at the time. I wrote then that “if [Ramirez] relearns the patience he once showed [in the minors], I think he’ll be the steal of the new century for the Cubs.” Well, guess what happened? His walk rate was higher in every season he had with the Cubs than any season he had with the Pirates, and he became the steal of the new century for the Cubs. Still, he’s never been a player who walks a great deal, and never mind that part about him not having an impact on the 2003 pennant race….
Anyway, as we all know, Ramirez has been a terrific player with the Cubs, and that trade with Pittsburgh was probably the high point of Jim Hendry’s tenure as GM. He’s also been remarkably consistent – aside from a bad year in 2010, he’s put up an OPS+ between 126 and 138 every year since 2004, his first full season from the team. He’s been occasionally awkward in the field, but despite his limited range, I always appreciated his strong, accurate throwing arm. If he’s rocked the boat in the clubhouse, it hasn’t been bad enough to become public, and while he’s kept a low public profile, he’s been easy to root for.
If first base is #1A on the list of issues facing the club this offseason, third base now becomes #1B. The Cubs actually picked up their half of Ramirez’s 2012 option for $16 million, but it was a mutual option, meaning that Ramirez could decline it and become a free agent. He’s seeking a multi-year contract, and at yesterday’s press conference, Theo was pretty clear that the team was moving on:
“We certainly wish him well in the future. I wouldn’t rule anything out but I would say that given his position as the top free-agent third baseman it’s certainly a likelihood that another team will make him a contract that appeals to him and we will be looking for different solutions. But to sit here at the onset of free agency and rule anything completely in or completely out I don’t think is productive. I think reading the tea leaves it seems likely that he will be moving on and we will be looking for a new solution at third.”
From the Cubs’ standpoint, this is probably a pretty easy call. As consistent as Ramirez has been, he’ll be 34 next season, which is a tough age for third basemen. And Ramirez has not been particularly durable, either; he’s only played 150 games in a season three times in his career, in 2001, 2003 (split between Pittsburgh and the Cubs) and 2006, although he did hit 149 two other times, including last year. He’s not going to become more durable as he ages, and I would guess that he’ll be trying to find a home in the AL where he’ll be able to DH once in a while. Along those lines, he would actually be a decent solution at 1B for the Cubs, but if he’s offered an expensive 3- or 4-year deal it’s easy to understand the Cubs’ reluctance to commit to that.
One other thing that hasn’t gotten noticed much, but I think is important … as consistent as his overall numbers have been, a few years ago, Ramirez lost significant power. Here are his ISO numbers (isolated slugging, which is calculated by subtracting his batting average from his slugging percentage), followed by that season’s NL average ISO, followed by the difference:
2004: .260, .160, +100
2005: .266, .152, +114
2006: .269, .163, +106
2007: .239, .157, +82
2008: .229, .152, +77
2009: .199, .150, +49
2010: .211, .144, +67
2011: .204, .139, +64
Now obviously these numbers are prone to some variance year to year, but I think the trend here is obvious; Ramirez is simply not hitting for power the way he used to, and hasn’t for some time. Like I said, his OPS+ has been very consistent, but that’s because his batting average – and accordingly, his OBP and SLG – has remained much higher than league average. The point is, Ramirez has kept up his overall offensive value even as he’s started hitting for less power, but he’s done it primarily on the strength of his batting average. For various reasons, the Cubs ought to be cautious about this being sustainable over the life of a long-term contract as Ramirez enters into the last phase of his career.
But what a career it has been. He’s been, without any serious competition, the best third baseman the Cubs have had in my lifetime, and I would imagine that if a list of the Top 25 Cubs of all time was made, he’d have a serious case to be included. I’ll hold out some small, unreasonable hope that the Cubs can resign him to a 2-year deal, but if this is indeed the end of his career with the Cubs, he’ll definitely be missed. Good luck, Aramis.
There’s not much to say about this one. Samardzija pitched reasonably well in middle relief last year, although he walked a scary number of hitters (more than 5 per 9 IP). Since he’s not arbitration eligible, the Cubs will be able to bring him back to do the same thing in 2012. He’ll just have to take a slight pay cut, that’s all, and will now make around $2.6 million instead of $3.25 million, since the Cubs are not allowed to cut his salary by more than 20% under collective bargaining rules.
I assume – though haven’t seen it confirmed – that the only real implication of this is that in declining their option for 2012, the team also forfeits their option for 2013, when Samardzija does become arbitration eligible. So if he goes out and has a really terrific year, he might be more expensive next year than he would have been otherwise. Therefore, I take this as a sign that the front office is skeptical of his ability to become a starter, which Samardzija has been vocal about wanting to do. A good year in the rotation would make that 2013 option much more attractive, especially compared to the relatively meager savings this gives them for 2012.
The following players have become free agents:
The Cubs have until midnight Wednesday to sign these guys (if they want to) before they’re able to negotiate with other teams. Of these, the only really tough decision for the Cubs to make is going to be Carlos Pena. Signed on a one-year deal this past offseason, Pena was the Cubs’ second-best offensive player behind Aramis Ramirez despite his ugly .225 batting average. He walked one out of every six times he came to the plate, giving him a respectable OBP despite his hideous batting average, and he actually led the team with 28 homers. Additionally, he gave the Cubs a decent glove at first base. All in all, he wasn’t terribly exciting and could be frustrating at times, but he was a perfectly adequate first baseman, and there’s not much reason to think he can’t deliver about the same thing next season.
However, he’s not a long-term solution, and in a year in which Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are up for free agency, “adequate” might be a tough sell to the fanbase. Certainly the opportunity exists for the Cubs to sign a major upgrade at fist base. Both of those guys figure to be hugely expensive, though, and Pujols especially will probably command a contract length that takes him into the twilight of his career. That’s a risky proposition given the extraordinary salaries they figure to be paying him during that time.
And even if the Cubs aggressively pursue these guys, they may fall short, and risk losing Pena to someone who isn’t in on the Pujols/Fielder bidding in the process. Do the Cubs have faith in Bryan LaHair, who dominated AAA pitching last year but will be 29 already in 2012? What other options are there at 1B if none of the above pan out? Whatever happens, the first base situation is one of the most pressing issues facing the new regime this offseason … and they have a lot of pressing issues.
Among the other free agents to be, I don’t see much reason for the Cubs to pursue resigning any of them except for possibly Wood. Woody has been vocal about his desire to end his career in Chicago, and while he’s a shell of his former self – even his 34-save former self from 2008 – he still struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings last season and still hasn’t averaged giving up a hit per inning during any season in his entire career. He signed with the Cubs on a one-year deal last year at a greatly discounted rate, and while he can still be a part of a good bullpen, I imagine the Cubs’ willingness to resign him this season depends on his willingness to do something similar.
Finally, as for the others:
Johnson had a good season in 2011, in fact his best since he was still a full-time starter for the Blue Jays in 2006. The Cubs certainly shouldn’t expect that from him again, though, and at his usual level of production he’s easily replaceable.
Grabow has struggled with his control over his entire career and has given up a lot of homeruns with the Cubs, not a combination that warrants a new contract.
Lopez and Ortiz were both only with the club in the first place because the team was desperate for pitching depth after injuries, and while Lopez wasn’t as bad as I worried he would be, neither of them have a place on a team that isn’t similarly desperate.
Dempster had a rough year in 2011, with an ERA almost a full run higher than any other season he’s been starting for the Cubs, but a closer look at the stats may indicate that he wasn’t pitching much worse than he ever has. He didn’t give up homeruns at a higher rate than the previous two years, and his K/BB rate was down a little bit, but not much. He did give up more fly balls than usual, which may explain why he was somewhat more prone to giving up extra base hits than he had been in previous years; specifically, he was allowing many more line drives than in years past. But what really stands out to me is that he was simply giving up more hits when batters put the ball in play, which is usually an indication of bad luck.
Batting average on balls in play (BAbip), Ryan Dempster:
That explains a lot. Aside from Casey Coleman, that was the highest BAbip for any pitcher on the Cubs last year for any pitcher that threw at least 60 innings, and it was much higher than the team’s .307 average and 35 points higher than the league average. In other words, because BAbip is highly variable and not really something pitchers have control over, it’s likely that Dempster simply wasn’t as bad of a pitcher last year as his ugly 4.80 ERA would indicate.
And, let’s be realistic. Even with his poor year, he still lead the Cubs with 202.1 innings pitched, and even though the team was 20 games under .500 overall, they actually had a winning record (18-16) when Dempster started. As bad years go, they get a lot worse than this, and there’s no reason to think that he’s washed up or anything so dire as that.
That said, it’s always been generous to think of Dempster as a true #1 starter. Aside from 2008 (and see the BAbip numbers above for some insight into that season), he’s never really been good enough to warrant that status. But he has been good, and even more importantly, he’s been durable, having now put up four straight seasons with 200 IP. That’s a valuable guy to have, even if the $14 million salary that he’ll be paid in 2012 sounds awfully high; for reference, Randy Wolf has made $18 million combined the last two years to provide the Brewers with pretty much the same thing.
That’s a problem for the Ricketts family, though, and even if it is expensive, it’s only for one year and thus not so cumbersome. While the club might not be thrilled at the price tag, Dempster ought to give the team a lot of innings of decent-but-not-great quality. If he’s still the #1 starter next year, it’s a sign that the team is unlikely to go anywhere, but he’d be right at home in the middle of a rotation on a good staff. The bottom line is that if the Cubs didn’t have Ryan Dempster, they’d have to go find someone like him.
Brian: Clement may be just a bit pricey at $6 million, but not too much. Besides, the Cubs didn’t really have much of a choice. He may have slipped a bit this year from his 2002 performance, but there certainly aren’t any guarantees that the Cubs could have found a better pitcher on the free agent market. He’ll fit just as nicely into the 4th starter spot in 2004 as he did in 2003, and he should put up a season pretty similar to his last two even if 2002 was his high-water mark.
I’ll be honest, I like Matt Clement. In a very real way, he’s the perfect representative of how far the Cubs have come in the last few years. For most of the last decade, Clement would have been considered the Cubs’ ace, easily in many years. He’s better than Frank Castillo, Kevin Tapani, and Steve Trachsel. He’s even better than Jon Lieber. Sure, he can be scary to watch against left-handers, and his control can be spotty at times. But he’s become a damn fine pitcher, and it’s remarkable that he’s only the (distant) fourth best on the team. I’m happy that he’ll be around another year.
Christian: Yeah, good signing, if a bit pricey. The key to this Cubs team remaining competitive is keeping the pitching staff together. Clement is the #4 right now, and if Prior, Wood and Zambrano stick around the Cubs will have the luxury of an above-average pitcher in their #4 slot. Improvement by Clement (or, more likely, improved consistency) could move him up the ladder, and allow the Cubs to trade one of their pitchers to address another need.