March 1, 2012
NL Central 2012 Preseason Preview, Part I
1. What kind of effect will the new front office have on the team? What will be most affected by the switch?
Stephani Bee: Excellent points. I also think that the new front office represents a change in philosophy, from a team that threw money at problems and wound up making ill-advised deals (Soriano being the last remaining major mistake), to a team that, as you suggest, is willing to take risks and wait patiently for prospects to develop.
And speaking of their farm system, bringing Jason McLeod over to work with scouting and player development will be huge. The Cubs haven't exactly raised the roof in the draft in recent years.
LG: Very true. If I were a Cubs fan, I'd take this as a great sign from the Ricketts family. People have been content with being good enough in Wrigley for far too long. Hiring Epstein makes me feel like the Ricketts want to be better than that.
SB: It helps that the Ricketts family has a deep pocketbook and should be willing to spend money when Epstein and Hoyer ask for it.
In the short term, I don't see the Cubs signing many free agents. They'll probably shell out the dough to lock up key players like Starlin Castro, but I think this is going to be a steadier, patient front office than the North Side has seen recently.
2. Speaking of Castro, he'll be entering his third season as the Cubs' starting shortstop at the ripe young age of 22. Just how good do you think he'll be?
LG: I agree. At an age when most players would be happy to hit .300 down in Tennessee or Daytona, Castro has done it twice in the big leagues. The Central is going to be really scared of him in a few years. My biggest fear would be someone that young skirting a little bit of his practice time for time out on the town—but that's a blanket fear I have for all young 20-somethings with big bank accounts.
SB: As long as he doesn't pretend every day is Mardi Gras, Castro is going to be just fine. His work ethic has earned raves, so the Cubs needn't hire Larry Bowa to get on his case. There's no telling if he's going to learn to work some walks, but his excellent hit tool and solid speed are going to keep his OBP afloat.
Some naysayers insist Castro will need to shift to the keystone in the future. That's totally fine. Right now, he's getting to the balls he needs to at shortstop, and he shows solid range and a good arm, so moving to second base shouldn't be much of a challenge.
LG: And having a bat like that at second base wouldn't be all that bad of a thing for the Cubs, either.
SB: Certainly not, and there's no guarantee Castro will have to switch. The Cubs have the luxury of watching a 22-year-old develop in the majors to see if a change is completely necessary. Castro's quickness should help him stay at the position longer.
3. Will the Cubs continue playing salary munchers and deal Alfonso Soriano? If so, who are the likely takers?
SB: It's an albatross to try to move, and since Soriano isn't a youngish pitcher, teams will probably be even less willing to bring him into the fold. Maybe while the Orioles are in town playing the White Sox, Epstein and Hoyer will seize the opportunity to have drinks with Dan Duquette. As Jon Bernhardt can attest, Duquette has shown great aptitude in making deals that make no sense for his club.
LG: Very true. There is always the option of just cutting ties with Soriano and eating his contract, but like I said, there's always the chance that the guy can get on base a little more and make that slugging somewhat worth it...
4. Will the Cubs deal Matt Garza at the trade deadline? What kind of return might they get for him?
If the Cubs do trade Garza, I'd expect at least one major prospect to head to the North Side, as well as a lower-level prospect with promise, and maybe a throw-in player or a stack of cash.
LG: There's no doubt that a halfway-decent pitcher should fetch a decent price. And there's very little reason to expect the Cubs to want to hold on to Garza for the last couple of months of the season. I wouldn't be surprised if Theo was able to manage that kind of package for Garza. The only real question is which team is going to be close enough to the playoffs to want to make that trade.
SB: The Angels should be duking it out with the Rangers around that time, but they don't have the same kind of farm system they've been known for in the past. Mike Trout probably isn't going anywhere. But perhaps the Rangers will feel the need to pad their starting five.
If a team does agree to a trade, I'd expect them to also ask for a window to work out a contract extension before Garza hits the open market. The opportunity to snag a solid pitcher who can also handle a 200-inning workload will be extremely valuable come free agency.
LG: Absolutely. Free agency doesn't always work so well in the team's favor, but I have faith that Theo would send Garza to whichever team would give the Cubs the best prospects.
SB: The Cubs aren't going anywhere immediately, and they have few prospects who'll serve as building blocks for their next real attempt at a championship, so this is going to be about getting young guys to build around. Epstein and Hoyer have assembled an excellent team of officials, and I expect they'll have their scouts hounding the farm clubs of potential trade partners throughout the year.
5. Aramis Ramirez was the team's best offensive player in 2011, and he signed with the Brewers over the winter. Can the Cubs make up the offense they lost?
SB: Chicago is at the disadvantage this time around, as they don't have so many high-upside players who could break out, or guys looking to bounce back from a poor performance. Some of Ramirez's value was negated by his bad glove, but that's still a whole lot of runs to make up.
The most difficult thing for the club to replace will be power. As you've mentioned, Pena is back in Tampa, there are no guarantees about Castro developing power, and Soriano isn't getting any younger. If you look at the big-league level (or even at the minor-league level), the Cubs have few players who could step in to help fill that kind of offensive void. Brett Jackson is a nice piece, but he's not ready yet, and he doesn't have that kind of bat.
LG: Looking at their offseason, it doesn't seem like replacing Ramirez's bat was that big of a priority, either. Hitters are too expensive. It makes much more sense for Theo and Hoyer to wait until they're closer to contending to try for that.
SB: That last point is the most important. It makes no sense for the Cubs to go out and spend money right now. They can't spend gobs of dough in the draft anymore, but they can save up cash to pay for the pieces that they really want in the future, whether those deals come via free agency or extensions.
LG: Absolutely. But it might not be pretty in the meantime.
SB: Not much about Cubs history has been pretty in the last 100-plus years.
1. Will Mat Latos suffer any major backlash going from an extreme pitcher's park to an extreme hitter's park?
LG: Absolutely. Latos has also been a fine pitcher away from Petco Park. Last year, he had a 3.24 ERA in 91 innings in San Diego and a 3.68 ERA in 102 innings everywhere else. In fact, he gave up eight homers both home and away, so that HR/9 was actually lower on the road. His lifetime splits are similar, with a 3.11 Petco ERA and a 3.57 road ERA. As you said, any move to a hitter's park will hurt any pitcher, but Latos should fare better than a lot of other pitchers.
SB: He's also 24 years old and improving, so the Reds now have a rotation anchor for years to come.
LG: Very true, I'm sure Latos would prefer to have Petco behind him 35 starts a year, but his talent should help him navigate his new home.
2. Should the Reds just keep Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen?
SB: Agreed. The Reds should take care to not take a page out of the Yankees' handbook in their handling of guys like Joba Chamberlain. Constantly jerking a guy back and forth does him absolutely no favours, particularly when that guy is a young man just getting his feet wet in the big game.
Chapman has had some problems with injuries, and I won't pretend to know that toning down his fastball velocity will help preserve his body in the long run, but it might help him harness some control over his pitches. Walks have been a major problem, but who expects to know exactly where a 105 mph heater is going to hit? Chapman is only 23 and might need some time in Triple-A to tinker, learn some control, and get stretched out, but he should be allowed to prove he can't start.
LG: Good point with the Joba example. I mean, we can't really say what happened there, but that kind of handling can't be helpful. Chapman is very young with some remarkable tools. Work on them, tone them, and see what he can do for you. Don't freeze him into a bullpen role just yet.
SB: The Reds invested $30 million in this kid, and they should milk it for all it's worth. If that means giving Chapman some time in the minor to refine his repertoire and come up with some complementary pitches to the fastball and his sick slider, then so be it. Don't allow that kind of talent to go to waste. Some pitchers do succeed with two pitches—like A.J. Burnett... sometimes—but the bigger the foundation you have to build from, the better the rewards will be.
And it's probably weird for me to call Chapman a kid. I'm younger than him.
LG: He's a kid to me, though! Where's my $30 million?
SB: It looks like we need to have a chat with the financial guys about the state of our contracts and stress that we're in the best shape of our lives. Or that we might need to go to the next question.
LG: That's fair (especially since no one would the BSOHL story!).
3. Should the Reds try to extend Joey Votto now, wait until after the season, or wait until the end of his contract?
If I'm in Cincinnati's front office, I'm obviously hoping to sign this guy for the long haul. It makes sense to engage in talks about a new deal right now, though I wouldn't go so far as to say sign on the dotted line now. Waiting probably won't make Votto cheaper, and even an injury won't tarnish much of his value. Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols both set the market standard for first basemen this year, and the Reds will be expected to live up to that. Maybe after a year things calm down and teams start to regain some rationality about contracts, and maybe Votto will give his team a hometown discount.
LG: Very good point. Votto is an excellent player and should continue to be one. If I'm in the Reds' front office, I want him in town as long as possible. But you're right. He's 28 this year, and a contract extension would begin with his age-30 season. How long can you sign someone at that age? We're not talking Ryan Zimmerman or Ryan Braun here. Then again, Fielder is only a year younger than Votto and he's signed through 2020. That'd be a good move from Votto's perspective, but the Reds should try to avoid that.
SB: I believe Votto is repped by Dan Lozano, so we might see a little more sanity in these negotiations. Prince is known solely as a hitter, while Votto is capable of doing more than standing like a statue on the diamond. That has value, but you'd hope the Reds realize where to draw the line on these kinds of contracts.
LG: And Votto has a body type that is easier to trust. Even still, I wouldn't expect an extension that takes Votto out to 2020 unless he has another MVP or two come his way. My guess is they sign something in the four- to five-year range before the end of the season just so they can avoid any "last year of my contract" headaches next season.
SB: I'd actually expect a deal more in the six- or seven-year range, since this is the team's franchise player. The dollar amount is going to be nutty, and I'll just rest easy knowing I'm not the one signing checks.
LG: It wouldn't surprise me. Those age-36 and above seasons always frighten me when they're paid for so many years ahead of time.
SB: They're scary, but players get them because teams value (or overvalue) their services. Cincinnati hasn't been in this position very often, so their first go-around could mean overkill.
4. What's the team's road to the division crown?
SB: The Astros, Cubs, and Pirates aren't going to contend, so we're left with the Cardinals and Brewers as the Reds' primary competition. Both of those teams took major hits in offense over the winter, which should be a lift for Cincinnati. The team's offense isn't spectacular—they ranked in the middle of the road last year—so they're going to be relying heavily on big seasons from Latos, Bailey, and Cueto. As the Giants have proven, clubs can win with subpar offense, and there is still plenty of time to tinker. Teams might be selling off some bats at the deadline, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Walt Jocketty try to land one.
LG: To be fair, Latos, Bailey, and Cueto aren't exactly Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgarner, etc. in San Francisco. The improved rotation should be a big help, though, and Jocketty would be wise to try to improve the team in the middle of the year if it looks like they're staying in contention (which they should).
5. Scott Rolen will be playing his age-37 season, but has been bitten by the injury bug recently. Can he make it back this year? If not, how do you view his career?
I think Rolen is one of the more unsung players of his era. During a time in which Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Ken Griffey Jr. were grabbing headlines, Rolen was picking it at the hot corner and helping hold down the offense for the Phillies and Cardinals. He won a Silver Slugger Award in 2002, and that's a testament to a guy who has knocked more than 2,000 hits, including 500 doubles and 300 homers. His defense was absolutely superb, and those diving stops to snatch doubles down the line were expected.
LG: In most situations, I'd say that a 37-year-old third baseman coming off a bad, injury-ravaged season has little chance of making a splash. But I probably would have been just as pessimistic about Rolen's 2010 season before it happened. But he was fantastic that year, which at least gives me a little hope for this season. However, a shoulder problem for an older player who has to throw across the diamond as often as Rolen does is a scary injury, so I wouldn't be shocked to see a less-than-stellar season from the Gold Glover. Saddened, yes, but not shocked.
I truly believe that Rolen is a Hall of Fame third baseman. He was always a terrific hitter, and very few match his glove. If he had managed to stay on any one team for a long period of time instead of getting shipped off by managers who didn't seem to like him, he would almost certainly be viewed better by casual fans. That sense that teams were willing to get rid of him has to hurt his stature, even if the teams that did it were stupid to do so. I just hope that Rolen can go out with a nice bang.
1. What does the new ownership and a new GM mean for the franchise?
SB: To the detriment of mediocre relief pitchers everywhere, Houston probably won't be handing out ridiculous contracts like Oprah hands out cars. (But if not, we hope Mike would at least try to prevent that.) It's out with the old and in with the new in Houston, and that means that the team that constantly dealt away youngsters in the hopes of finding a graybeard to top its oldest player is going to have to start from scratch. Luhnow is going to have to show a lot of patience, and I expect that the purse strings will be clamped shut for the next few years, but there is hope for happier days ahead in Houston.
LG: Actually, I'd just hope that Mike wanted to hand me a car instead!
There's always hope with a new regime, and oftentimes it ends up being proven unfounded. However, these early moves by Luhnow make me think that the hope is there for a reason.
SB: But we're still awaiting compensation for Mike. We'll have to take that up with Bud Selig soon.
2. Be an optimist! How do the Astros avoid 100 losses?
Anyway. Jose Altuve will prove to be all kinds of gritty and gutty, smacking his way into a starting job. During a game against the Cardinals, lightning will hit off the Gateway Arch (proving it had a better batting average and season than the 2011 Astros) and strike Altuve. He will unlock new super powers: He'll be able to hit 500-foot homers, run faster than a meteor, and the sound of his footfalls will cause his opponents to bow down as he blazes by. Altuve will always be protected by his new best friend, Delino DeShields, who will do as his surname suggests and ensure that no harm comes to Altuve.
Next, Carlos Lee will hop aboard the nearest unicorn and prance out of Houston to parts unknown.
This is where the really important stuff comes in! The Astros will be making lots of trades! Wandy Rodriguez will be dealt to the Angels for Mike Trout, and J.A. Happ and Brett Wallace will be shipped to the Nationals for Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. I'd tell you how Houston acquires Matt Moore, Jesus Montero, Eric Hosmer, Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki, and Shelby Miller, but then I'd have to kill you.
While out on a fishing trip, Brett Myers' boat will be swept away to Paradise Island, where he'll have to undergo re-education by Wonder Woman's tribe of Amazons before he's allowed to leave, and Lance Pendleton will show all the cojones of the Marines at Camp Pendleton as he leads the charge for the Astros to not lose 100 games.
LG: Holy cow. That is quite the scenario—and one that I am quite confident will help the team avoid 100 losses. Your powers of prediction are quite impressive. I'm not sure I could top that. Or if I should even try.
SB: It's a foolproof plan. Let's move on.
3. Say something nice: Are there any bright spots on the team?
There's always someone to watch out for on a team, though sometimes you have to stretch a bit. The Astros still have a halfway-decent pitcher in Wandy Rodriguez, even if he is going to be 33 years old in 2012. Other than Rodriguez (and any potential trade chips he fetches in July), Astros fans are probably holding onto some hope for Brett Wallace and newcomer Jed Lowrie. And though the impact on 2012 is minimal, anyone who has watched Carlos Lee clod around Minute Maid Park for the past five years (see what I did there? El Caballo "clods"? Sorry.) has to be excited to realize that his $18.5 million salary will come off the books at the end of the season.
SB: I thought I said everything was foolproof. But if you insist I take this answer in a different direction...
There's not much happiness in Houston. The team doesn't have much of a farm (especially in terms of immediate help), so don't expect a minor leaguer to be the shining star. I agree that the true joy of the season will be knowing that this is Lee's final year as an Astro. Much like the Cubs' Soriano contract, even if the Astros eat all of Lee's deal, they won't find suitors. So it's one last lap around the fences for the left fielder before he rides into the sunset.
On the other hand, Houston could again try to deal Rodriguez for some prospects, and they should get a little more than the Yankees received for A.J. Burnett.
LG: Bud Norris had a pretty nice 2011, but even as a fellow Cal Poly-alum, I can't expect another 3.77 ERA from him. He always seems to have solid outings against the Brewers, though, so maybe Astros fans can take pride in being a thorn in their division rivals' sides.
4. Will Houston's streak of futility be longer than Pittsburgh's?
A big difference between the two franchises? Ownership and the front office. Admittedly, I wasn't a fan of Jim Crane being approved as an owner, but Pittsburgh's ownership has been rancid. Neil Huntington is doing a solid job in trying to rebuild the franchise, and I think things will happen much in the same way in Houston, only at a faster pace.
So the short answer? No, I don't think Houston will be futile for as long as Pittsburgh has been, but if there is a Borg takeover, I reserve the right to change my answer.
LG: Baserunning is futile?
I have to agree that the Astros run won't be nearly that long. The new front office and the moves they are making are big reasons, but it's more than that. A 20-year streak like Pittsburgh's is really the culmination of very many things going badly in very many different ways year after year. Even running a computer simulation with perfect inputs, the Pirates' run will only show up a very small percentage of the time. I just don't believe that we'll see any run like that again for a very long time, let alone from a team that is so willing to correct it so early in the process.
5. Carlos Lee will earn $18.5 million in 2012 before leaving the Astros. The club will move to the AL West in 2012. Seriously, what does MLB have against this franchise?
SB: Or it could be a conspiracy theory! Bud Selig totally could have negotiated a requirement that there must be at least one laughingstock in the NL Central per year, and since the Pirates looked somewhat less embarrassing last year, the Astros had to really suck.
In all honesty, it is, as you said, a series of unfortunate events that have culminated into some extremely bad circumstances. The Astros used to have a hard time knowing when to hold back and when to go for a division crown, and the current state of affairs is a result of that poor judgment. The move to the AL is logical, and it gives the Mariners and Athletics a team they might be able to beat on a regular basis. But in fair trade, MLB could at least offer to absorb that albatross contract.
LG: Well, according to some, the deal from MLB's side was that Jim Crane was allowed to buy the team in exchange for the move. I'm not sure I believe that, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. We'll only fully understand the reach of this move next year, when we finally learn how the DH thing will resolve with constant interleague play.
SB: And laugh at how the Astros intend to fill that DH spot. A return engagement with Lee, perhaps?
LG: I hope he realizes just how big of a paycut he'll have to take!
SB: The guy gets to ride around on a unicorn this season. You see how much money matters to you when you get to canter around on one of those!