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March 25, 2014

Prospectus Preview

NL Central 2014 Preseason Preview

by Ken Funck and Harry Pavlidis

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In the week leading up to Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus is conducting a division-by-division dialogue, asking and answering five questions about each team. Below, Ken Funck and Harry Pavlidis discuss the National League Central.

Other preseason previews: NL East | AL East

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 88-74
Team WARP: 37.6 (11.9 pitching, 25.7 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 715
Runs Allowed: 654
Team TAv: .265
Team FRAA: 12.6

1) Are the Cardinals the devil? Are Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan still geniuses?

Harry Pavlidis: Of course they’re not the devil. They are the most wonderful organization in the world, they have the best fans, the best broadcasters, the best beer, the best horses….wait, what’s wrong with me? Of course they are!

I do believe their coaches were outstanding. Let’s not forget Dave McKay, now with Arizona, who had a noticeable impact on Alfonso Soriano’s defense and was part of a move away from rampant TOOTBLANs in Chicago. It seems to me that the Cardinals’ ability to have quality coaches stems from the quality people they have upstairs—hire a good manager who hires good people and so on and so on. That’s the only way you can sustain success—as they have—through the inevitable turnover of key personnel.

Ken Funck: They clearly have the tastiest Kool-Aid, but you’re right about the organization as a whole—success breeds success. It may seem like everything they touch turns to gold, but they’ve also had pitcher injuries (Wainwright, Carpenter, Garcia) and failed prospects (Zack Cox). Duncan especially seemed able to spin success out of far less talented subjects than Derek Lilliquist gets to work with. Enjoy it while it lasts, Cardinals fans. Some day they, too, will have a run of bad drafts. Bottom line, though: Right now they’re the best at what they do.

2) When will the Oscar Taveras Era officially begin?

Harry: I have no idea (looks at Super Two rules). July? If his ankle is healthy and the CBA’s relevant service-time dates are in the past, he’ll most likely be forcing his way into the bigs with that bat of his.

Ken: Kevin Goldstein always used to say that these things are never planned, but are driven by external events. If Bourjos, Craig, Holliday and Adams all hit, do you intentionally mess with a good thing? However, the odds say that at least one of them will get hurt or struggle, so we’ll see Taveras at that non-specific point. I for one can’t wait, since his ability to put bat to ball has always had scouts impersonating young girls at a 1964 Beatles concert.

Harry: He could be a star, but let’s hope the screams don’t force him into the studio and off the road.

Ken: Even if the end result is Sgt. Pepper’s? Wait, I guess the baseball equivalent of that would be Tavares retiring early to become the best hitting coach in baseball history. That would suck.

3) Is Carlos Martinez a starter or reliever long term?

Ken: The Cardinals are starting him out in the bullpen this year, but I think he winds up in the rotation relatively soon. Trevor Rosenthal always had the scent of late innings about him—no third pitch, yada yada—but Martinez may have the best stuff of all the young Redbird pitchers, and he needs to pitch every fifth day until it’s proven that he can’t.

Harry: I’m with you on this one; there’s a start-til-you-can’t philosophy that I’m becoming more and more comfortable with. If the answer is “reliever long term,” great, but that wouldn’t preclude him from being a quality starter in the short- or medium terms. And that third pitch does matter. Things usually don’t work out well for two-pitch guys multiple times through an order.

4) Which young Cardinals starter will be the staff ace in 2016, or will it still be Adam Wainwright?

Harry: Waino is the boss until someone knocks him off. I don’t see it happening yet. He’s one of the rarest birds of them all, a real ace.

Ken: Agreed. The tough question then becomes, who’s next in line? Shelby Miller struggled down the stretch, and Ben Lindbergh has mentioned some disconcerting things about HITf/x and how hard Miller was hit last year. Martinez can be a monster, but even though I want to see him start, he seems like he carries the biggest risk of injury/bullpennery. My money would be on Michael Wacha proving out as the best combination of present skill/upside/durability to eventually front the rotation. Note how I don’t even mention Lance Lynn or Joe Kelly, whom lots of teams would plug into the middle of their rotations in a heartbeat. It almost seems unfair.

Harry: Stocked to the gills. Or beaks.

5) Is Yadier Molina the most valuable player in baseball?

Ken: You can certainly make that case. Beyond all the tangibles—controlling the running game, defense (and defensive positioning?) behind the plate, the surprisingly consistent offensive production—you have to believe that some of the success the Cardinals have had with their pitchers (especially the young pitchers who show up and produce from Day One) has had something to do with the confidence Yadi seems to breed.

Harry: It’s like having a Dave Duncan behind the plate. Communication skills, game planning, swing reading … and he has the trust of his staff, and that is a big part of the confidence. To go the numbers route, vaguely, we know he smothers the running game, that he’s one of the best framers and pitch blockers around. And as best we can tell, his game calling is another plus. Add in that solid bat he’s developed, and he could be pushing things into Trout territory.

Ken: Totally agree. Have we said anything bad about the Cardinals yet? Isn’t there some doctrine that says we have to? Ummm … Jhonny Peralta doesn’t have great range. Tony Cruz has a weak stick even by backup catcher standards. Visible and audible smug satisfaction is an annoying trait. Kevin Siegrist absolutely has to regress. Seth Maness actually walks people sometimes. So there.

CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 81-81
Team WARP: 33.8 (12.2 pitching, 21.6 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 660
Runs Allowed: 659
Team TAv: .257
Team FRAA: 19.6

1) Can a guy with a concussion, a busted eye socket, and more staples in his head than Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler really consider himself lucky? If so, when will Aroldis Chapman be back to his normal, dominant self?

Harry: Let’s hope so. This type of traumatic accident can bring out the best in a person, too. I’m just relieved that he’s due to come back sooner than later, considering how horrifying the incident was. May is the target, but I’ll always ask for extra time for anyone with a head injury.

Ken: My belief about the winnowing system that leads to major league players tells me that their will to succeed will help them overcome something like that far more than the average person. I suffered a fairly traumatic lower-leg injury when I was in high school, and I still sometimes see or think something that reminds me of the moment of impact and makes me cringe. (Like just now.) Someone like Chapman, however, is likely better equipped to “engage the mechanism” (to quote a bad Kevin Costner move) and shut those thoughts out. Let’s just hope he doesn’t suffer any further post-concussive symptoms.

Harry: The concussion recovery is probably the biggest X-factor. Patience will pay off if there are lingering effects.

2) How does Bryan Price differ from Dusty Baker, other than less reliance on the word “dude”?

Harry: I’m expecting a lot fewer toothpicks and wrist bands, too. Price will manage his pitchers differently—yeah, yeah, insert Dusty Kills Pitchers Joke here—according to what I heard on a recent Reds broadcast. I guess Dusty didn’t count getting up and down a few times as a day of work, so Price will probably be more cautious when warming guys up and keep a different tally of consecutive days/pitches thrown.

Ken: Over time, I’ve grown to think that Dusty gets slagged more than he should for what happened to the Cubs pitching staff years ago; on the other hand, I think he’s gotten praised more than he should for his success with teams that had a lot of great talent on hand (see: Bonds, Barry). He’s been an easy target. That said, Price differs from Baker in that he seems to understand pitching, or at least pitching in the modern era, more than Dusty did. And given the importance of pitching to this team in particular, that’s a Good Thing.

Harry: I’ll submit that the biggest change will be in the clubhouse. We’ll have next to zero insight into that, but Dusty’s reputation as a Player’s Manager was to the extreme side, in his own “I’m Your Teammate” kind of way. I never felt like Dusty managed a team well through adversity, which is always the biggest test of leadership.

Ken: Hear, hear. I’ve always felt that intangible leadership qualities, demanding accountability, and putting players in the best position to succeed were by far the most important part of a manager’s job. And, of course, we can’t really measure it except by W-L, which is confounded by a zillion other factors. Does Bryan Price have that? Who knows?

3) Why is volume inversely related to understanding? And on a related note, will people STFU about Joey Votto’s RBI total?

Ken: Of course they won’t. Even if someone I know with a great understanding of PITCHf/x ran a study that showed that Votto’s performance when he swings at pitches that resemble those that would otherwise become ball four is abysmal and costs the Reds runs, none of the haters would believe it. Or understand it. Or even read it. Beliefs about what being a “run producer” means have had a century to develop some pretty impressive roots, and it will take a lot more digging before they can be completely removed (if ever).

Harry: Either my ego is inflated or that was the worst “stealth” research request ever submitted to our staff. Quite possibly both. I would even start simpler, in the RBI frame of reference. How many RBI chances did he have? How many did he convert? How many outs did he make in the process? RBI is a funny number, and unless you ask the questions about what’s behind it (by the way, BP has an app for that) it’s nothing but window dressing. And the window often opens to a brick wall. Once that wall is revealed, or the inquisitor’s curiosity remains unsatisfied, then you whip out the PITCHf/x data and ask it some questions.

Ken: I know the idea of sabermetrics is to start with a question and no preconceived answers, but I think you’d know the answer to this before you even started looking. Asking a hitter to swing at pitches he doesn’t want to swing at seems like a terrible idea in countless ways.

4) Can Billy Hamilton get on base enough to steal 80 bags?

Harry: His bat makes a bit more noise than I thought it would, which won’t matter if pitchers find multiple holes to exploit. I took the over on 70 and I’ll take the maybe on 80.

Ken: My first formulation of this question asked about stealing 100 bags, but saying no to that seemed too easy.

Harry: Because predicting the future isn’t hard enough, so good job, Ken.

Ken: I started there because I actually considered for a few minutes that the century mark was a possibility. It all depends on OBP, of course, and PECOTA has him at .301. Even his 80th percentile is a pretty mundane .334.

Harry: That’s the biggest surprise, is that his OBP doesn’t have to be much for him to hit his steal targets. He’s faster than a cheetah with a cheetah strapped to its back. Because cheetahs aren’t built to carry that kind of load. That scene in Harold and Kumar was bogus.

Ken: Congratulations, Harry. You found the logical flaw in Harold and Kumar. And they said it couldn’t be done. In any case, even expecting a low OBP, I’m going to say he steals 76 bags. Too bad he isn’t a better hitter (not that he’s awful); I wonder what his ceiling would be if he got on base at a .380 clip.

5) With the expensive portions of several back-loaded contracts coming soon, is Cincinnati’s contention window in danger of closing?

Ken: Quite possibly. Votto and Homer Bailey, and to a lesser extent Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, are getting more and more pricy for a small-market team like the Reds. Developing young starters like Tony Cingrani and Robert Stephenson definitely helps, but when you consider their current competitive ecology—competing against the farm systems and cash of the Infallible Cardinals and the Future Juggernaut Cubs—you have to wonder if the Reds will be able to keep up financially.

Harry: If the Reds follow the ways of the other teams in the Central they can make the transition from money throwers to system developers. The money they’re giving to Bailey seems reasonable for a quality pitcher, which is what he’s become. If Cingrani and Stephenson can join the back and the front of the rotation, respectively, the Reds will be just one arm away from a very solid top four. If you have that plus Votto and Bruce, the rest will come down to efficient acquisitions, player development, and additional dollars to spend. Or maybe just the first two.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record:
80-82
Team WARP: 30.9 (10.6 pitching, 20.3 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 695
Runs Allowed: 701
Team TAv: .260
Team FRAA: 4.9

1) Can Ryan Braun handle right field? Exactly how good will his offensive numbers have to be to earn any actual nose-held MVP votes?

Harry: It should be a bit of a challenge; the spin off the bat is different, and he’ll have different decisions to make for throws, so there may be a learning curve on those dimensions. Plus, he’ll experience the right-field sun in Wrigley for the first time at some point—that will test anyone.

Ken: If Braun posts his typical season, matching his career average lines of .312/36/117 and .312/.374/.564(!), he should earn some down-ballot support. Those votes won’t require as much of an explanation. To actually get a few first-place votes, I’m thinking .320/45/145 would work. To actually win the award, he’ll have to break baseball in a Bondsian sort of way. The redemption wheel hasn’t had nearly enough time to spin to satisfy our thirst for narrative.

Harry: I think the biggest (well, maybe second-biggest) obstacle in the way of Braun getting MVP votes will be the team not being a contender. He can certainly craft a “now I’m clean, for real, and playing a new position” narrative (though I doubt his media skills will allow him to fully do so), but he can’t lift this team out of mediocrity—unless he really goes Bondsian.

2) Who’s on first? And, unlike last year, can they outproduce Abbott and Costello?

Ken: Unlike last year, they’ll start out by having actual first basemen play first base, which on the surface seems like a step in the right direction. But choosing between Lyle Overbay, Mark Reynolds, and Juan Francisco brings new meaning to the old canard “pick your poison.” An Overbay/Reynolds platoon, which seems to be the plan, may not be the worst thing in a world that also contains war, cancer, ticks and Skip Bayless, but PECOTA pegs them both as replacement-level players. Having them both avoid same-side pitching should make them an improvement on last year’s historically bad production for Milwaukee first basemen, but this is reason no. 1 why I haven’t bought a ticket on the Wild Card train.

Harry: Any shot that this replacement-level platoon thing is a stroke of genius? A couple down I-94 pop into mind, like the Reed Johnson/Jim Edmonds bonanza, or, more recently, the production the Cubs got out of the likes of Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom, and Donnie Murphy at third. Could there be some advanced metrics, and/or savvy scouting, involved that takes it deeper than a simple platoon of replacement-level parts?

Ken: Sure, there could be, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Maybe Overbay’s glove is an undervalued asset? Hard to picture it, though. Overbay will be better than replacement if he doesn’t have to face any lefties, and Reynolds should be a good fit for Miller Park, but it still most likely adds up to more of a problem than a solution. Too bad Hunter Morris didn’t take a step forward last year. Maybe Mat Gamel is available.

Harry: Oh geez, you just had to bring up Gamel. Let’s move on before we cause any more upset.

3) Along with Jean Segura, will any other youngish-sters (Scooter Gennett, Khris Davis, Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg) grow into long-term solutions?

Ken: Sure, they’ll all have their uses, but none of them will be stars. I like Davis the most, since he’s always hit and I can picture him turning in a run of late-arriving Josh Willingham seasons. Peralta seems like a guy whose command will never be good enough to pitch near the top of the rotation, but whose stuff and durability will keep him in the middle. Thornburg is the wild card, since I’ve always thought he could be a mid-rotation starter, but the club seems determined to keep him in the bullpen. Gennett is a folk-hero-in-waiting, but like most folk heroes, he’ll be more myth than man. He can hit some, but he doesn’t walk, and his iffy glove will look better than it is because of his max-effort approach, the way an outfielder who makes a lot of diving catches looks better than a guy whose speed and instincts helps him avoid having to dive in the first place. Scooter isn’t a bad player, but he’s likely to appear more valuable than he actually is.

Harry: Thornburg seems suited for a starting role, so I imagine the Brewers know something we don’t. I’m a lot more comfortable with Peralta than most. I think as he matures and his delivery becomes more consistent bit by bit, and as his velocity starts to tail off with age, he may be around the zone more often. With that power sinker he can be a brutal guy to face.

Ken: It’s a great pitch, and if he learns to command it he can rack up the strikeouts and ground balls all the smart kids tell me are the keys to pitching success. I’m betting he never gets there, but the fact that he might is something to get excited about.

4) Who’s more underrated, Carlos Gomez or Jonathan Lucroy?

Harry: It’s got to be Lucroy. We’re just starting to fully quantify the value of receiving and game calling skills. It’s opaque to most fans, and it doesn’t show up on highlight films like great catches in the outfield. Outside of Ben Lindbergh, I don’t think anyone does framing highlights.

Ken: Agreed. Everyone stands and cheers when Gomez leaps over the wall to haul back a would-be home run ball, but no one cheers Lucroy when he cons an umpire into thinking ball four is actually strike three. Milwaukee’s bargain-priced up-the-middle trio of Lucroy, Segura, and Gomez is the envy of many teams, which should put them in a good place, but first base is still a disaster. That should be a happy problem to have since it’s theoretically easier to solve, but it’s been 12 months already and the club is still chewing on the end of its No. 2 pencil and staring off into space.

5) How does the front three of Yogarzohse stack up with those of the other NL Central teams?

Ken: Love that term, Harry—Yogarzohse sounds like a team in the Belarus Premiere League, or maybe a Turkish gangster whose greatest trick was to convince the world that he didn’t exist. That’s a reasonable top three, but not an outstanding one. Yovani Gallardo isn’t racking up the whiffs like he used to, and I don’t buy his down-the-stretch production as a harbinger of resumed acedom—he pulled the same trick late in 2012, yet stumbled out of the gate last spring. Matt Garza’s production has never matched his stuff, and I get the sense whatever long-duration spell Dave Duncan cast on Kyle Lohse is just about due to wear off. As usual, I’m irrationally exuberant about Marco Estrada, but in sum the Brewers rotation ranks behind those of the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates, as well as the Sabathia/Sheets/Gallardo and Greinke/Marcum/Gallardo playoff rotations of the recent past.

Harry: You pretty much hit it on the head. Milwaukee’s rotation doesn’t measure up either in the division or in its own history. How does it match up against Samardzija/Wood/Jackson, though? Milwaukee’s “good enough for major-league mediocrity” rotation looks like enough to keep the Brewers out of the basement, but only by virtue of their offense.

Ken: Agreed, although I would argue that Samardzija and Wood have a better shot at pitching in the postseason this year, just not for the Cubs.

Harry: Truth.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record:
79-83
Team WARP: 25.9 (6.7 pitching, 19.2 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 650
Runs Allowed: 670
Team TAv: .260
Team FRAA: -10.5

1) Once Gregory Polanco arrives, will the Pittsburgh outfield turn every fly ball into an out?

Ken: Well, some of them are bound to land in the bleachers, so there’s that. Hard to beat the thought of a Marte/McCutchen/Polanco outfield from the standpoint of pure athleticism, though. When asked about terrific defensive outfields, my default standard of measurement has been Dwayne Murphy, Rickey Henderson and Tony Armas, but I don’t have numbers to back it up, just memories of youth. This Pirates outfield has a chance to be something Pittsburgh fans will be telling their kids about.

Harry: I’ve been getting geeked over this outfield alignment since I first saw Polanco. That was when I had that “ah ha” moment where I realized the Pirates had at least a chance at developing a world-class, historically great outfield. The Bucs have a team approach to limiting the number of fly balls allowed while ensuring that they can get most of the ones that do head skyward before they land. If you have three guys manning the pastures who can also impact the game at the plate and on the bases (one of them an MVP-caliber superstar), special things can happen. Sounds funny, like a dream, but it’s real and potentially spectacular.

Ken: And imminent, I hope. Coming this summer to a ballpark near you.

2) Can Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon be Thing 1 and Thing 2 in a long-term contender’s rotation?

Harry: There’s already debate in the scouting community about which is going to be better. Given how these things usually go, just having One Thing would be a success story, right? If the Pirates show a knack for developing (healthy) arms, they’ll have a pair of guys who could be that sought-after two-headed monster.

Ken: Along with the outfield, if anything keeps the Pirates in contention over the long haul, it’s these guys. Picking between Cole and Taillon could be like picking between caramel and nougat. You’re right to worry about injury (TINSTAAPP and all that), but the potential is here for a team that no one will want to face in a short series.

3) Will Francisco Liriano do it again? How much will his regression and A.J. Burnett’s departure impact this staff (see question no. 2)?

Ken: Liriano has fooled me before, and usually not in a good way. PECOTA sees some regression, but not back to his “vagabond bad starter with upside” days, and I think I agree with that. PECOTA also sees the Buccos falling all the way back down to fourth in the division, and pitching regression and the loss of Burnett clearly has something to do with that as well. How annoyed would you be by the loss of Burnett if you were Neal Huntington?

Harry: I find it odd that Burnett chose Philly over Pittsburgh, unless he badly misread which one is a contender or I’m badly misreading Burnett. Either way, he was outstanding last year and will not be easily replaced.

Ken: I was surprised by PECOTA’s seeming pessimism about the Pirates. They’ll miss Burnett, and Liriano may regress, but they have young talent to plug in (e.g., Polanco, Taillon). They should still be in the running for a Wild Card spot in my book.

4) Is Dan Fox running this team, and if so, when will they admit it?

Harry: Framing-enabled catchers. Two-seam-equipped hurlers. Shifting infields. Fox’s influence is notable, and it’s a reflection not just of his own success but of an organizational commitment to leveraging analytics. That said, after his next big innovation is apparent, they can just tell us the truth and let him wear the gilded eye patch in public.

Ken: We live in magical times, my friend, and I rest easy at night knowing that the people who make decisions for baseball teams are far smarter than I am about how to make baseball decisions. I can’t say I necessarily felt that way 10 years ago, which speaks to both increased awareness on baseball’s part and increased understanding of everything that goes into running a baseball team on my part. Teams have access to more and better information than we do and have hired many of the best and brightest (like Dan, and Keith Woolner, and James Click, and Mike Fast, and Kevin Goldstein, and Colin Wyers, and Max Marchi, etc., etc.) to leverage it. I’m comfortable with the thought that “outsiders” are now more likely to find evidence of something that a team has already figured out than to find something entirely new.

5) Is the Shark Tank going to be safe for opposing swimmers, er, hitters?

Harry: On one hand/fin, I always doubt the general ability of relievers to repeat performances (good or bad, but especially good). On the dorsal side, they seemed to have an assembly line of power arms available. They remind me of the Cardinals in that way.

Ken: Agree with both of your points, but I tend to put my chips on the former. This may sound like a copout, but there are so few relievers who are consistently good that I gave up trying to predict bullpen performance years ago. Jason Grilli isn’t exactly Mariano Rivera, so I’m not about to jump into the Tank with both feet.

CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 73-89
Team WARP: 25.1 (8.0 pitching, 17.1 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 638
Runs Allowed: 710
Team TAv: .253
Team FRAA: 11.5

1) When will we see Javier Baez and Kris Bryant at Wrigley, and where will they play?

Harry: So much of this depends on Mike Olt and the trade market for Darwin Barney. External factors will either make things tougher or create openings, as could pressure on management to promote the kids. But they both should expect to wait until the Super Two date passes before even getting consideration.

Ken: And remember what Theo said: no cookies for Cubs fans! Others may note an increased pressure on the front office to start making some serious improvement in the standings this year, but so far they seem like they’re willing to take the heat and stick to their long-range plan. I don’t think we’ll start seeing the kids until they’re ready, and despite the Baez power show, it would be nice to see him draw a walk once in a while.

Harry: He’ll be forced to make adjustments in Iowa. If he gets any semblance of zone control going, pitchers will be forced to pitch around him or suffer the consequences. He has a ways to go.

Ken: But man, it’s been fun to watch so far. I think we’ll see Bryant and Baez late this summer. Still interesting to me is where Baez plays if Castro bounces back. He sure looks like a third baseman to me, which would mean Bryant is a right fielder. If I’m posting odds on where they play the most over the next four years, those are my favorites. (But there’s always second base for Baez.)

2) Are Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija part of the long-term plan?

Harry: I think they’ll both be gone if things don’t change from the status quo, which is Samardzija trying to wait out a bigger contract. The longer he waits, the more risk there is for the Cubs in terms of getting a long-term return on their investment. If Shark drops the demands—or pitches like he says he can—things could come together. Wood, on the other hand, smells like trade bait since he doesn’t come with the aforementioned question marks.

Ken: Agreed on Wood—he seems like a guy who is just about at his peak value, and while I love to watch him pitch, there’s not enough upside there for this front office. I’m not sure that the organization views Shark as a long-term answer either, although I think there’s a case to be made that they should. He might be one of those guys whose performance will perpetually lag behind his peripherals, but he might not be, and if they’re willing to shell out cash for healthy innings from Edwin Jackson, why not spend a little more on Samardzija? The pitching has to come from somewhere, after all.

Harry: What if Samardzija ends up being a frustrating innings eater like EJax? There’s nothing really wrong with that, and much of the frustration seems to stem from a mis-setting of fan (and manager) expectation. As innings eater is still one of his possible outcomes, that could explain the hang-up with his demand for front-line dollars and the difficulty the Cubs could face in getting a hefty return in a trade.

Ken: That’s fair. And from a fan standpoint, at least it adds some interest to this season’s big-league team, along with the questions about Castro and Rizzo and whether Olt can be healthy and productive. I wonder if anyone will ever even bother to glance at the score this year.

3) How soon will the Cubs reach .500, and when will they make the playoffs?

Harry: At this point, 2015 and 2016, respectively, would be the optimistic dates. I would be a bit surprised if they don’t have at least one postseason trip under their belts after 2018.

Ken: And I’ve written about the optimistic view recently, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since the odds are against all these prospects staying healthy and reaching their ceilings together. And yet … I can see them around .500 in 2015 and competing for a Wild Card in 2016 if they add a little pitching. The front office has done a great job of finding undervalued talent to use and trade; I would imagine they’ll be just as adept at finding undervalued talent to fill in around their future stars.

Harry: Right, it’s optimism and not delusion.

4) Will any of the current pitching prospects be rotation stalwarts for the next competitive Cubs team?

Ken: I’m a believer in C.J. Edwards and can picture him in the middle of the rotation in a few years. Pierce Johnson is really just a name to me and little more. Oh, and then there’s their as-yet-undetermined top draft pick this year. So much stands in the way of a pitching prospect that it almost feels like an exercise in futility to figure out who makes it and who doesn’t. Develop (or acquire) a shoal of them, throw them at the wall, and hope a few of them stick! In his piece on the Cubs at Grantland last week, Rany Jazayerli hinted at the perceived wisdom of drafting and developing hitters with your top picks, avoiding the risk associated with drafting young pitching. I guess I buy that.

Harry: When the Cubs acquired Edwards, I was higher on him than most. After his breakout in Daytona, I’m suddenly lower that most. I’m still on board, but I want to see him succeed and build strength outside of the Florida State League. If he struggles in Tennessee I’ll probably be less concerned than most, since I haven’t marked him down as a world beater yet. Johnson is a nice-looking pitcher; he’s not as flashy as Edwards, but he has the profile. Jen-Ho Tseng made waves with his backfield outing recently and there’s the promise and upside of Duane Underwood to track. The depth is starting to build, but Rany’s assessment would align with what the Cubs seem to be doing. This year’s draft could be an exception year, where they grab a pitcher in the opening round.

5) Junior Lake? (Really, that’s the question.)

Ken: Junior Lake (really, that’s my answer). I think saying Junior Lake is like saying “aloha,” since it could mean hello, goodbye, utility player, Triple-A outfielder, All-Star left fielder, Felix Pie

HP Lots of tools that show up in games. Lots of flaws that show up in games. The man is more of a question than an answer, but the entertainment value is high.

Ken: So, I guess I’m copping out. I have absolutely no idea what to expect from Junior Lake, and I kind of like it that way.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here
Harry Pavlidis is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Harry's other articles. You can contact Harry by clicking here

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