Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Josh Vitters

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Top Ten Lessons Learned in 2010

Goat Riders of the Apocalypse is not going so strong, lately.  But, GOOD LORD?  Can you blame us?

Even the most optimistic, blue sky Cub fans could not possibly enjoy what they are seeing on a daily basis?  Losers of 13 of the last 16?  As it happens, Hendry and Piniella are pretty much doing what I asked them to do earlier this week - treat the rest of this year as if it is Spring Training 2011.  It began when Derrek Lee and Lou himself removed themselves from the proceedings - neither of them are going to Mesa next spring.  We have brought up the freshest produce from the farm.

But, once again, it goes sour, because pretty much everyone we brought up has sucked so far.  It would have been nice to see Micah the Hoff hit a few quick welcome-back dongs, or a Marcos Mateo pitch lights-out.  It is early in our extended Spring Training, but it doesn't appear that any of our recent call-ups are going to help us anytime soon.  So, as was the case going into this season, it appears that most of the heavy lifting in 2011 will be done by the men currently on the roster, a roster, once again, that is last in the majors in one-run losses.

So what have we learned thus far in 2010?

10) Alfonso Soriano may not be the most overpriced sixth hitter in major league history - but then again, he might just be. 

As a longtime student of the intangible and the psychological, I understand why Hendry signed #12 back in 2007.  The interim owner gave him permission to spend whatever it took, and Alf was the premier free agent that winter.  Jim was convinced that the Cubs would win a World Series that year or next, and figured if we had, that people wouldn't care that the club would then owe Soriano $18 million a year for all perpetuity.  It was a crap shoot, and the first two years, Jim shot eights, but then last year, the dice came up seven, and now we're stuck with a number six hitter with degenerative legs, a miserable glove, and absolutely no knowledge of situational baseball.  For the next three years.

9) Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Silva are the yin and yang of miserable free agent pitching judgement

A few years back, officials at two separate organizations took a look at two big, strong, tough Venezuelan guys named Carlos and decided that yes, these guys were Quality, they would eat innings, win games, and lead men.  It would be the wisest thing to sign them to long term contracts worth nearly 8 figures, because everyone knows the work ethic of South Americans is second to none.

Ahem.  So it was inevitable that a few years later, los dos Carloses would both be Cubs, serving as twin anchors, keeping us firmly tethered to the bottom, representing the main sunk costs to the most miserable team contract picture in MLB history.

The difference is: Silva the Hutt is a follower, and Z is a leader.  There is no way to reign in #38 with the Cubs, none.  He appears to respect nobody but himself, which is the very reason why it is going to be so painful when he inevitably moves on to the Yankees a couple of years from now and starts winning games again (hey, Kerry Wood?  How YOU doin'?)  #52, on the other hand, is a follower, and I honestly feel that in the right situation, with the right guidance from the right pitching coach and staff, that Silva could be poked, prodded, and coaxed in a useful direction.  However...

Cool 2010 is the death knell of the Larry Rothschild Era

Several of my knowledgeable friends, like the boys over at HJE have called for the head of Rothschild for years now.  I personally was torn.  For every Wood and Prior who caved in, a Dempster or Marmol seemed to rise up.  Maybe, I have always thought, Rothschild wasn't part of the problem.

But lately?  Outside of Dempster, Marmol, Marshall, the first three months of Silva and the occasional Gorzellany outing, Cubs pitching 2010 has been beyond dreadful.  Walks, mistakes, walks, mistakes.  A conveyor belt of arms have made their way back and forth between here and Des Moines. 

Here's my problem with Rothschild - these guys pitch well in Iowa, come here, get blasted, go back to Iowa, pitch well, come back, get blasted.  And it isn't just a function of the quality of the hitters.  It is the command that they seem to lose here.  Is it the pressure?  Shouldn't be any pressure, throwing for a fifth-place team.  And if it is, whose job is it to help these guys acclimate?  As I see it, he is taking good arms and turning them bad once they get here.

When the new manager arrives, he should be allowed to pick his own pitching coach.

7) Marmol is a major league closer

Speaking of Marmol, he hasn't had a lot of opportunities in 2010.  Yes, the team has the worst one-run record in baseball, but curiously enough, it isn't really the closer's fault.  Most of the games have gone the way yesterday's game went - we fall far behind, and either come back to within a run and fall short, or tie it up only to let one of our "middle" guys, usually Cashner, go blow it. 

The few saves Marmol has blown, his defense helped blow.  Which, speaking of:

6) Our defense utterly sucks

Our catcher is "offensive-minded", a euphemism for a guy who isn't Yadier Molina.  Our third baseman is getting old, frail, and losing what little utility he ever had.  Our shortstop is better than the man he replaced, yes, but is young and may or may not be a major league shortstop.  Our second basemen define 'suck', We got DeWitt because we thought he is better than Theriot, of course, the Dodgers think just the opposite.  Uh oh.  Our fancy hood ornament, DLee has had his worst fielding year.  Soriano has had an Epic Fail year in left.  Our slick fielding right fielder can't hit enough to play, and the guy who can hit in RF should be playing left field. 

5) Marlon Byrd is a nice player

Byrd does everything pretty well.  He is not and will never be an impact major league ballplayer, and his CF play is very average at best.  He is the beneficiary of the "Robbie Gould Syndrome", in which he is surrounded by badness, so his relative competence shines brighter in comparison.  He is a fourth outfielder on a championship team, and although he actually tries to provide the leadership this team so woefully lacks, he really doesn't have the oomph in his game to back it up.

Starlin Castro gets one of his 4 hits4) Starlin Castro is a major league hitter

The storybooks are full of great men who started off as middle
infielders who committed a ton of errors in the field, and were
converted to other positions so their teams would not lose their bat. 
Mickey Mantle comes immediately to mind, and Alf Soriano is a recent,
close-to-home example.  With Hak-Ju Lee in the low minors, there are
discussions that Lee will eventually be the SS, and Castro will play
2nd.  Or maybe 3rd, since the 24 year old DeWitt is on board, except
that DeWitt has 'utility guy' written all over him, and don't 3rd
basemen usually hit with more power?

It is easy to forget that Castro was born in 1990, and that he will gain
most of his strength in the next seven years.  He will never have
A-Roid power, but maybe Jeter power.  The most pleasant development of
2010 has been that, for once, we can believe the hype.  Starlin Castro
seems to be for real.

3) Here comes Adam Dunn

A couple of years ago, when it was late in the free-agent season
(this was the year we signed Milton Bradley early, remember) and Adam
Dunn still did not have a team.  The only substantial offer for a man
who had averaged 40 homers a year the previous five years was from the
godforesaken Nats, and human nature being what it is, there rose an
effort to find out what, if anything, was wrong with Dunn.

Rumors arose that Dunn did not like playing baseball much, that much of
the conversations that would arise when opposing players would stand on
first base next to the Big Donkey revolved around offseason hunting. 
Growing up, Dunn was a football player first, and teams perhaps
questioned his character when formulating contract offers for a
one-dimensional guy.

So, he has played nearly every day in Washington, has continued to hit
his 40 homers a year, and has weathered two trade deadlines.  You know
what?  The man would rather play football and shoot pheasants.  But he still hits and we are going to sign a first baseman this winter.

And just
our luck, watch us sign the guy and watch him age faster than the Nazi
mope in "Raiders of the Lost Ark".  In my gut, I see us going after
Adrian Gonzalez his off season, and ending up with Adam Dunn.  Because
Dunn has always been one of "Hendry's Guys", like the Marquis Du Suck
and Kosuke Fukudome, and we always seem to end up with Hendry's guys.

2) Since nobody seems to know what is going on, Hendry is staying, I guess

The inmates run the asylum at Wrigley Field.  As bad as the Cubs have performed, and for as much pressure that the General Manager of a team such as ours ought to be under, compounded by the fact that he has a known history of heart trouble, Jim Hendry looks pretty damn healthy.

Is he taking his statins and his red krill oil?  Maybe, but hey, why shouldn't he look healthy?  He has the greatest job in the world.  Where else in American business can you mess up, again and again, and nobody calls you on it?  Wall Street?  Well, yeah, but those guys always have the specter of the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission, not the high-falutin college football conference) breathing down their necks.  Lots of those guys jump off bridges, lock themselves in their garages with their Bentleys running, but not Jim Hendry.  His boss is a failed corporate attorney who doesn't know spit from shinola, who in turn works for a owner who is more concerned with piss troughs and gaudy neon signs than a winning ballclub.

There is only one man on earth who gets to play fantasy baseball for real, and lose all the time, and not get called on the carpet for it.  Until there is some accountability established in the Cubs' organization, what you see this year is what you will continue to get in the future.

1) 2011 is going to look a lot like 2010.

Soriano will play for the Cubs next year.  Ramirez will play for the Cubs next year.  Fukudome will sit on the bench and take the Cubs' money next year.  Byrd and Colvin and Castro and DeWitt and Soto will play for the Cubs next year.  Jim Hendry has no ability and no gumption to make a blockbuster trade involving young major league talent for impact major leaguers in return.  Could you see him somehow packaging Castro and Colvin in a trade for, say, Albert Pujols?  Maybe not Pujols, because a Cubs-Cardinals trade will NEVER happen, but something of that magnitude?  How about for Miggy Cabrera or Joe Mauer?  Young stars for a superstar?  Never happen.

As for the pitching, good lord.  While the positional outlook seems stale yet static, the pitching outlook is totally fluid, and utterly without direction.  We have a #2 starter, maybe a #4, a closer and a utility guy, a LOOGY who isn't really a LOOGY with a torn knee ligament, and about 20 other guys who have walked a lot of batters and given up a lot of late-game home runs.  You can't fix that.  The only thing you can do is throw a ton of money at it, and HOPE the guys you sign don't get injured or fat-and-sassy. 

And Ricketts is NOT going to spend a lot of money in the offseasons.  So forget about the Ol' Free Agent Injection.

Fans of the Chicago National League Ballclub have survived the past 102 years on one glorious element: hope.  Yep, the same hope that got our president elected, the same hope that is being frittered away by this same president each day.  Hope is perishable.

I ate whole platterfuls of Cubs hope as a kid, and into my early adulthood.  I confess to have spent good money on the all-you-can-eat hope buffet as recently as fall of 2008.  Nowadays, there is very little fresh hope in the steamer, most of it is discolored and spoiled, like the bananas Soriano and the Fukudome skirt steak.

Our third base prospect, Josh Vitters, is rehabbing.  The next great Korean hope is still years away.  Andrew Cashner was supposed to be the next big thing, but I can't figure out what that thing is supposed to be, unless he is supposed to be a Matt Karchner impersonator.  That's something he does quite well.

But hey, Castro went 4-for-5 yesterday.  Rookie of the Year, gotta be?  Right?

Cubs by position - Third Base

Wow, this is a tough one. There are people on this site who are advocating releasing Aramis Ramirez. Not only will this not happen, I don't think it should. The Cubs simply have no one who can replace him in the organization and, in part because of Ramirez' contract, they will not be able to replace him via free agency after the season. Furthermore, I don't think it's clear that he's finished and I expect him to have a decent second half. Still, my hope is that Cub fans and the management alike remember this first half even if he goes back to a typical season in 2011 and don't try to bring him back in 2012. The problem is, third base has a chance of becoming a black hole once again after he leaves. The Cubs' in house options are very, very flawed.

Major League Level: Aramis Ramirez (age 32): Aram has been one of the most if not the most productive Cub since his arrival in the middle of the 2003 season. He has done it with the bat and overall has not really hurt the team with the glove. So far, 2010 has been a different story. He's well under the Mendoza line at .173 in batting average at the moment. He is producing the negative trifecta at the plate. He has seen his power go down to an ISO below .130 and his contact rate has tanked and he's still K'ing over 20% of the time on the season. On top of this, he has gotten very unlucky and has a BABIP below .200. I think eventually the BABIP will even out and Ramirez will get his batting average up to say .230 on the season. If the power comes back, I think he could be decent in the second half.

The question isn't really about this year though, it's about the future. Thing is, Ramirez has a player option for $16 Million in 2011. He will pick that up. Now, if the Cubs had an in house option to replace him that was either better than him or even just as good in 2011, I'd say release him. Problem is, they don't really have an option but to let him work his kinks out. They may be forced to even bring him back (at a severely reduced salary) in 2012 though like I wrote above, I hope Cubs' management doesn't get fooled too much if he hits, say, .260/.325/.435 or so in 2011. The Cubs have no real option for the 2012 season right now. They will probably play that one by ear and see what's available after 2011.

Major League Level: Mike Fontenot (age 30): Mike Fontenot is a decent player but I don't think he's going to be able to push Aramis out the door at third base. He's really more of a second baseman and I think the Cubs need to commit to a 2011 true platoon of Fontenot/Baker (see below).

Major League Level: Jeff Baker (age 29): Baker is such a solid defensive player that if the Cubs did decide to part with Ramirez, he is an option at the position. In fact he's so good, I would recommend a 2011 rotation which allows Baker 2 starts a week against right handed pitchers at third base. With the bat, he absolutely destroys left handed pitching and should be playing against them all the time. I think the Cubs have him through 2013 and he's exactly the type of player a championship level team has on their bench.

AAA level: Bobby Scales (age 32): There's no real good reason why Bill Hall has a job in the major leagues but Bobby Scales, who is just as good, doesn't. That being stated, he's far more of a bench player than he is some one who is going to be a starter at the major league level. He's also more of a second baseman. One of the problems with this exercise is that many players who are nominal third basemen make more sense at second basemen but I put them here anyway. Scales will show up on the second base list also.

AAA level: Matt Camp (age 26): As a 13th round draft pick back in 2006, it is amazing that Camp has even made it to AAA. He's more of a second baseman, so I will deal with him more in that realm.

AAA level: Marquez Smith (age 25): A stocky right handed hitting third baseman who's upside might be Casey McGehee. He has a decent glove and seems to walk enough to make him intriguing. Problem is, he was below average power and speed and sometimes struggles to make contact. Tack onto that the fact that he's already 25 and he's someone I'd love to see play in the majors but who I don't believe will ever be a regular in the majors. I'd have said the same thing about McGehee 2 years ago.

AA level: Josh Vitters (age 20): The brown eyed handsome man of the Cubs' minor league system and the hope by many to become Ramirez' replacement in 2012. I don't think he'll be ready and I worry greatly that he'll bust big time. Having said that, there are some signs that I am wrong and that he is going to be a stud at the major league level. I hope that is the case.

Here are the positives: He's just 20 years old and playing at Double A. After initial struggles, he's eventually conquered every league he's played at. He has excellent contact abilities and shows decent, slightly above average power. Despite predictions to the contrary he's stayed at third base, so far.

Here are the negatives: He walks so little that it's cause for a celebration when he does. This means that he will have to hit .330 in the major leagues to have a passable OBP and he's probably not going to hit .330. He also has decent but not great power, very little speed and even if he stays at third base, he will always have a below average glove.

It is because of those negatives and his overall youth that I think he'll need all of 2011 and probably all of 2012 in the minors before he's ready to face major league pitching. Those who have called for his ascension to the majors now are mildly nuts, he will probably produce a line of .130/.140/.180 at the major leagues with a weak glove right now. You don't bring up a player like this at this time unless you actually want to ruin not just his confidence but the team's chances of winning long term. Vitters is a project. He's young enough that he might be able to improve his fielding and get his walk rate over, say, 6% by 2013 and be ready. I am hopeful, but I am skeptical.

AA level: Nate Samson (age 22): Samson is a 34th round draft pick who has made it Double A (and is holding his own there). That fact, in and of itself is a good thing. Having said that, he's far more valuable as a shortstop/second baseman than a third baseman. He has zero power and that's an issue for him moving forward. I will deal with him in the middle infield section.

AA level: Russ Canzler (age 24): Canzler isn't really a third baseman either. He's played the position this year for Tennessee but he's really more of a first baseman/outfielder. He is already 24 and he is repeating the level and having a really nice year offensively. 24 year old first basemen who are repeating Double A better hit. I would be surprised if Canzler ever made the major leagues.

A+ level: D.J. LeMahieu (age 21): Daytona appears to be rotating LeMahieu and Ryan Flaherty between third base and second because since Josh Vitters got promoted, they have no one else to play the position. I'll deal with both LeMahieu and Flaherty at the second base review.

A+ level: Ryan Flaherty (age 23): See above. One of my favorite Cubs' prospects though I admit he's fairly old for the level. I'll deal with him more in second base.

A level: Matthew Cerda (age 20): At 5'9" and with middling power potential, Cerda is also more of a second baseman so I will deal with him there. The Cubs just don't have too many pure third basemen in their organization. Peoria has two of them that I am not going to list because I don't see them as ever being prospects. If they end up playing in Double A someday, I will make a note. The Cubs appear to have a great deal of depth at second base.

A- level: Arismendy Alcantara (age 18) At 18 years old, Alcantara is the prospect at Boise. Having said that, he too is more of a middle infielder. The theme continues!

Conclusion: At third base, the Cubs are all in on Josh Vitters as a longterm solution at the position. The only other potential long term solution is Ryan Flaherty and I'm still hopeful he will end up being the choice at second base. If Vitters doesn't work, which I would put the chances at about 50% of being the case, the Cubs will have no other option but acquiring talent to play this position. Third base, in the major leagues, has become a very thin position and unlike first base, there just isn't that much out there that can be counted on fall in the Cubs lap. I truly hope Vitters works because if he doesn't.....

Reader Blog: Prospecting with Jim Hendry

Bobbie Brownlie 

Ryan Harvey

Mark Pawelek 

Tyler Colvin 

Josh Vitters 

Andrew Cashner 

Brett Jackson

Those are the Cubs' first round draft picks since 2002. Colvin is the first to make it to the major leagues. You know about him. Chances are you know about Vitters, Cashner and Jackson as well. This is a big year for Vitters. Despite hitting .444 in big league spring camp this Spring, Vitters didn't draw a single walk, and was reassigned to High - A Daytona, where he has a .300 OBP and is OPSing only .657. Last year, split between A - Peoria and High - A Daytona, Vitters had an OBP of .314 and only walked 12 times in almost 500 plate appearances. Not. Good.

Of course if you know anything about Tyler Colvin's minor league career, you know I could be describing him as well. Tyler raked his way onto the big league club this Spring, but he failed to draw a single walk in all of Spring Training. In limited action (27 plate appearances) this April, Colvin has drawn 3 walks and K'd 5 times, for a respectable OBP of .346. He's also played the OF well in limited playing time. This is encouraging, but its an extremely small sample size. It would be the first time in Colvin's professional career that he's shown any kind of strike zone judgment.

Unfortunately, this is the type of position player that Hendry continues to favor. Both Colvin and Vitters were toolsy ameteurs with little regard for the strike zone. Brett Jackson has shown more patience early in his professional career, but his BB% has dropped from 20% in rookie ball, to 16% at low - A Boise, to 8% at A - Peoria. Jackson is a college hitter, so its not as if he's very young for his level. This isn't an encouraging trend.

As for the pitchers, Brownlie and Pawelek were absolute busts. Brownlie is with his third organization and has a career FIP over 5.00. Pawelek hurt his arm tripping over his X Box, and then picked the controller back up and continued playing. He's with the Reds' High - A affiliate right now, praying he doesn't get called up to the big league squad. Dusty Baker has a taste for rookie pitchers' bone marrow. Sucks it right out of their pitching arms. Look it up.

Here's the point: The Cubs have not done well in the draft, and its cost them at the big league level. When you can't develop your own high performing ballplayers, you have to buy them from someone else. That's how you end up with Milton Bradley in RF. Most of the top teams in baseball have star players on the big league roster playing for less than they would receive in free agency. Let me walk you through it:

NYY - Robinson Cano was worth 4.7 WAR last season, and was only paid $6 million.

Boston - Kevin Youkilis was worth 6 WAR, and Dustin Pedroia was worth 4.9. Together they were paid $8 million.

Tampa - Evan Longoria was worth 7.2 WAR. Ben Zobrist was worth 8.3 WAR.Carl Crawford was worth 5.5. This team would have finished with the best record in the National League. Their triumvirate of home grown stars made less than $10 million together, most of it going to Crawford.

Minnesota - Joe Mauer put up 8 WAR despite missing an entire month of the season. Unreal. Morneau, Span and Kubel were all above 3, and Morneau likely would have topped 4 WAR if he'd been healthy. Scott Baker put up 3.5 WAR while making less than a million dollars.

You might inquire how the top NL teams did. It's the same story in the Senior Circuit:

Philadelphia - Chase Utley was worth 7.6 WAR. Ryan Howard was worth 4.9 WAR. Jayson Werth totaled 4.8 WAR.The Phillies actually paid for Howard and Utley, who earned $11 and $15 million a piece, while Werth was a steal at $2.5 million.

St. Louis - Pujols was worth 8.6 WAR.Wainwright was worth 5.7 WAR.Together they earned about what Soriano is being paid in a single season.

Los Angeles - Matt Kemp was worth 5 WAR. Clayton Kershaw was worth 4.2 WAR. Jonathon Broxton somehow contributed 3 WAR as a CLOSER. He's good, folks. That production cost the Dodgers less than $3 million. Or a weekend in Cabo for Jamie McCourt.

Colorado - This team is the Rays of the National League. They are an absolute pipeline of above average, cost controlled talent. Ubaldo Jimenez (he of the no hitter last week) was worth 5.7 WAR.Troy Tulowitzki was worth 5.5 WAR. Jason Hammel contributed 3.8 WAR. Jorge De La Rosa put up 3.7. They got all that for less than $4 million. And they have a host of great players who will make a huge impact this season, like Carlos Gonzalez, Ian Stewart and Franklin Gutierrez.

Lets look at the Cubs now. Care to guess how many homegrown players put up 4 WAR or better last season? The answer is NO ONE. Only Zambrano and Wells even topped the 3 WAR mark, making them above average but not great pitchers. And for the record, Soriano's WAR last season was slightly below zero. For the uninitiated, that implies the Cubs would have been better sending an average AAA outfielder out to LF instead of Soriano. He was paid $17 million for his efforts.

Conclusion:

The ability to develop star players is key to sustained success in today's major leagues. No team, not even the Yankees can simply spend their way to a World Championship. The Cubs continue to scuffle in player development, which is the root cause of their woes in free agency. The free agent market should be a supplement to your roster, not the bedrock on which your team is built. The Cubs entire OF was bought in free agency, and it's a below average group making a ton of money. This isn't working. Unless the Cubs can begin to perform better in the draft, in international free agency, and in developing their young prospects, they will not challenge for a title. I'm excited about the minor leagues for the first time in a long time, but there are plenty of warning signs from even our best prospects. The 'untouchable' Starlin Castro has the same hack first, ask questions later mentality that has held back Vitters and I suspect will limit Colvin. Cashner may not be able to start at the major league level, although I hope the Cubs resist the urge to bring him up now and put him in the bullpen. And years of Korey Patterson/Bobbie Brownlie/Felix Pie/Jeff Samardzija failures have left me a jaded, bitter fan. The farm system just hasn't gotten it done under Hendry's supervision. The Cubs aren't getting the right players into the system, and they aren't developing the players they do have properly. Jim Hendry should be fired.

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