Trade an all-star, not a question mark

My list of Cub untouchables would be the guys who could be crazy-great, you’re just not sure (and the GM on the other side knows it), and so you’re liable to sell a little low and conclude a trade that you will regret later on. Schwarber is in that category, partly because of the injury and also because of uncertainty over his position. Baez is another, since he is still being refurbished as a hitter. Happ is a third.

Happ swings as hard as Baez, and connects more frequently. His toolset features power from both sides, something that comes along once or twice a decade (and has never actually come along to the Cubs). Superior organizations like the Yankees and Cardinals are always on the lookout for switch hitters. The Cub organization is rising, so fittingly they have two switch hitters in the regular lineup plus a top prospect with that elite tool.

Schwarber also fits into one of baseball’s prized categories, the lefty slugger. Naturally Brian Cashman covets Schwarber; but no relief pitcher is worth a top lefty-hitting slugger. Schwarber cannot suit up and help the team right now, so many Cub fans feel like they would be getting something for nothing, which is obviously short-sighted.

I don’t know why you would trade Rizzo or Bryant but I wouldn’t call them untouchable. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to trade an MVP candidate. How does that make you better? But at least you would not be trading a question mark, and you would be assured of getting a boatload of talent back. Same (more or less) with Russell, Contreras, Almora, all of whom have gotten off on the right foot in the majors and shown that they can handle challenging defensive positions, as Bryant did last season when he demonstrated that he could play third.

This is not a recommendation, necessarily, but have they thought about trading Russell? He still has a high enough ceiling that we don’t really grasp how good he is going to be. Something about Russell’s body from the shoulders up (including his face) always reminds me of a certain all-time great. So, yes, I’m actually contemplating the trade of a 22-year-old all-star shortstop who reminds me of Willie Mays.

Russell would bring back players–pitchers, presumably–who would keep the turnstiles at Wrigley spinning into the last week of October. The day after the trade, Baez would take over at short, with Gleyber Torres next in line in case Maddon can’t resist utilizing Baez as a plug-and-play device. I just wonder if the Cubs couldn’t go forward confidently at shortstop with Baez and Torres, and never look back.

young Mays
Russell

Pitching prospects — thru 7/9

This is an updated list (through July 9th) of Cub pitching prospects ranked according to the formula K9-(H9+BB9). That’s strikeouts per nine innings minus the sum of hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine.

Note that the eight top-ranked starting pitchers are all from the lower minors, either class A South Bend (Casey Bloomquist, Kyle Miller, Preston Morrison, Ryan Kellogg, Kyle Twomey) or A+ Myrtle Beach (Trevor Clifton, Jake Stinnett, Eric Leal).

With four of the five Cub starters at the major-league level having gone into a swoon recently (with Lester the last of the four pins to fall), and with the bullpen always suspect, a young starter who happened to be pitching well at Tennessee or Iowa could have helped the parent club; but Pierce Johnson, Duane Underwood and Tyler Skulina were busy establishing themselves as the worst starters on the farm, according to this ranking. Paul Blackburn and Ryan Williams have slightly better numbers but chronically low strikeouts-per-nine rates–5.8 and 6.1, respectively; so they haven’t earned a call-up.

It is well known at this point that a pitcher chosen by Jason McLeod in five Cub drafts has not thrown a pitch in the major leagues thus far, save for Zack Godley, whom they traded to the Diamondbacks and who is on the staff there. Meanwhile, Vizcaino is alive and well in Atlanta and Tony Zych is alive (though not well: he’s on the 60-day DL) in Seattle. But less well known is that McCleod’s drafts have not produced a major leaguer at any position (except Godley) who was drafted later than sixth in the first round.

The Cubs won’t be seeing that high a pick for a while. Any blue-chipper that they trade for pitching later this month will be difficult to replace.

Excellence–sustained or even fleeting–will require drafts that yield better pitching talent.

Hitting prospects

Here is the first iteration of the list that will become the Cub hitting prospects for 2017, based entirely on minor-league numbers.

The ranking is based on total bases, walks, steals and games played. It takes the sum of total bases + walks + SBs, adjusts it slightly, and divides by games played to arrive at a score, according to which the players are ranked. (Hitting prospects are starters, not pinch hitters or defensive replacements, so dividing by games is roughly the same as dividing by at-bats or plate appearances.)

The adjustment represented by the “adj points” column is Points minus Games. This adjustment rests on the idea that one total base (or walk or SB) per game is a baseline, required to get you to zero.

Players included here are at South Bend (“sbn”) or higher. I include Eugene (half-season league) numbers and even Arizona League (“cbz”) numbers if a player has advanced to South Bend (A ball) or above.

Number-driven rankings work for me because they eliminate the BS factor. I would love to read scouting reports by professionals who are paid by major-league teams, but those reports are closely held. If you want to know what pro scouts really think, you might have to wait until amateur players are drafted in June or minor-leaguers are traded for, mostly in late July and during the offseason. Probably the most reliable ranking we ever see of baseball players at any level is the draft order in June.

If you go to Baseball Reference and click on Minors, NLB, Japan,…, and then select Chicago Cubs for the year 2016, you can click on the OPS column to get a ranking of all Cub minor leaguers by OPS. The ranking will be about the closest thing you’ll find on the web to my ranking. The difference will be that I factor in stolen bases where OPS does not. Stolen bases reflect speed and quickness, including on the defensive side. Andreoli is 6th on my list, but only 16th by OPS. Hannemann gets a big bump up for SBs, from 20th by OPS to 8th in my ranking. And while total bases are counted in SLG which is included in OPS, I seem to put more weight on total bases than OPS does. Look at Ryan Kalish, for example. Nobody with a mere 29 total bases in 21 games could ever make it near the top of my ranking, unless he was super-fast. Yet Kalish is #4 in OPS. I rank him #15.

In terms of using WAR instead of OPS–well, they don’t calculate WAR for minor-league players. I don’t know the reason. My guess is that WAR relies on arcana (like ballpark adjustments) that are not available for minor-league games. Is it fair to say that the statistical community is bolder when predicting the past–a player’s MVP or HOF worthiness, for example–than when it is asked to weigh in on the ML-worthiness of young players? (If so, what does that say about the scientific pretensions of advanced stats?)

A few comments:

Eloy has the most total bases. Vogelbach is second, Happ third. Happ could be traded, or he could be playing on the Cubs next year. One or the other. A switch-hitting power guy is a nice-to-have.

Cub fans will feel good about a trade later this month, at least partly because it will involve the loss of a prospect they never heard of. Ian Rice will be that prospect. Now you can’t say you never heard of him. He’s right at the top of this ranking, just below Contreras. He’s a catcher out of U. of Houston last year, taken in the 29th round. Just know that he walks a lot and hits home runs. His 13 homers are second only to Vogelbach’s 15 in the Cub minors.

Javy Baez and Dan Vogelbach, the Cubs’ first and second picks in 2011, are certainly looking like major leaguers lately. Good on Tim Wilken.

Angry (Red)Birds

Tough series with the Cardinals, but the Cubs were breaking in a new catcher, a new CF and two new relievers. The Cubs are in a strong position for the postseason this year, but they won’t stand pat. I don’t know if Concepcion and Patton are the answer to what is wrong with Richard and Grimm, but at least we caught a glimpse of what has been working for Patton at Iowa.

By the way, why are Cardinal hitters allowed to get in an ump’s face after a called-third strike, like Matt Carpenter did in the eighth inning yesterday? I thought hitters got tossed for that. Or does the rule apply to every team except one? Against the Cubs last week, the Nats’ Anthony Rendon was ejected just for showing anger/frustration, without having said a word to the ump.

The plate umpire yesterday (Quinn Wolcott) is on the young side, just turned thirty and in his second full season as a full-timer. I guess the Cardinals are still grooming him.

Matheny displays the harshest glare and fiercest scowl since La Russa. The Cards generally do a few things well, but umpire-intimidation is right at the top.

Remember this classic Cardinal moment from last July? Watch Molina in the video, beginning at 45 seconds in. The game is less important than the head game.

Pitching prospects 2016

This is a list of Cub pitching prospects ranked according to the formula K9-(H9+BB9). That’s strikeouts per nine innings minus the sum of hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine. We look at strikeouts for this obvious reason: if you don’t miss bats in the minors, you’re going to have difficulty turning all that contact into outs in the majors. You might get a shot at the majors, as Casey Coleman did, but it will not last long. Kyle Hendricks, never a power pitcher, did rack up 7.7 K’s per nine innings in his minor-league career, compared to Coleman’s 6.1.

We also look at hits and walks. We used to look at just strikeouts versus hits allowed. We called that the Marmol Index, on the theory that Carlos Marmol rose quickly up the ranks of closers in spite of chronic wildness. But Marmol fell hard back to earth, and was last seen in the majors in 2014 at age 31, and last year at Triple-A. In retrospect, we don’t have a positive feeling about his career trajectory. (As a Cub fan, I remember Marmol too well to feel comfortable whenever Strop or Grimm, two talented relievers who, like Marmol, constantly search for but never find a consistent release point for their fastballs, take the mound.)

The Marmol Index–K9-H9–is still represented in the next-to-last column of the table below; but the final column, by which the table rows are ranked, is, as I have already indicated, K9-(H9+BB9).

It’s early in the season, but the numbers give Cub fans a couple of reasons for optimism. One, the three highest ranked pitchers are relievers at Iowa, a phone call away from the majors. They are Spencer Patton, Felix Pena and Gerardo Concepcion–two righties and a lefty.

There are also four starters, Trevor Clifton, Jeremy Null, Jake Stinnett and Pierce Johnson, with more strikeouts than hits-allowed. Clifton, Null and Stinnett are ranked 10, 12 and 15 overall, according to K-(H+BB).

Smokin’

Second-baseman Chesny Young reached base five times Tuesday night as the Tennessee Smokies closed out a sweep of a five-game road series at Mobile against the D’Backs’ AA franchise. Young raised his BA to .382 and nudged his OPS up over 1 to 1.035, third best in the Southern League. He will never lead the league in slugging but his .321 BA in 2015 did net him the Carolina League batting crown; and this was at the end of a long first-full season: his BA stood at .337 as late as August 1. No other player in the league ended the year above .297.

Young is one of thirteen members of the Tennessee roster (fourteen when pitching ace Duane Underwood finishes a brief rehab assignment in Mesa) who formed the nucleus of championship teams at Kane County in 2014 and Myrtle Beach last year. Nine current Smokies are listed among the Cubs’ thirty top prospects according to MLB Pipeline at mlb.com. Young is not on the list.

To me, the most interesting prospects at Tennessee are Young, Zagunis, Brockmeyer and manager Mark Johnson. Zagunis is a righty-hitting outfielder with a slugger’s build who is simply the walking-est man in the organization. He had 80 walks at Myrtle Beach last season, against 86 K’s. At Mesa in the Arizona Fall League he had 19 walks in 66 plate appearances, with the result that his OBP of .455 looks like a typo, sitting 221 points above his .234 BA.

The reasons for my interest in Brockmeyer are detailed here. Johnson managed Kane County and Myrtle Beach to their recent championships, and gets bumped up a level each time he wins a trophy. Paul Sullivan has described the former White Sox catcher as “on a path to becoming a major league manager after winning back-to-back titles with two different affiliates.” This is how managers get fast-tracked.

But Young is a bat-handling specialist, as Johnson is quick to note.

“He is a professional hitter with only a couple of years of professional baseball under his belt,” Smokies manager Mark Johnson said. “He has quality at-bats day-in and day-out. He has the ability to manipulate the barrel and get it on the ball like you don’t see very often. There’s only a few people that can do that on a nightly basis. He’s a very gifted young man who has a good head on his shoulders.”

I don’t recall a Cub prospect before Young whose batting average sits comfortably in the .340-.350 range in late July. Young’s minor-league slash line at all levels is .327/.402/.404(/.806). He needs to improve the third number, the SLG, in order to boost the fourth number, the OPS. It’s a small 2016 data sample, but he does have 2 doubles, a triple and 2 home runs in 26 hits, which yields a gaudy SLG so far. The table below is the minor-league slashes of current major-league second basemen, a set of numbers we can compare with Chesny Young’s as he progresses through his double-A season and gets closer, rather quickly, to the Cubs.

(I note that Young is third behind Zobrist and LaStella–coincidence?–for OBP and tied for first with Altuve for BA; but he is last in SLG if you disregard Theriot and Cedeno, two relics of a forgettable era.)

Arms race

The word in the Sun-Times this morning, going into the third day of the winter meetings, is that the Cubs want to sign Jason Heyward and then offer Soler to the Braves in exchange for a controllable young flamethrower like Miller or Teheràn. Meanwhile, there are reportedly talks with the Rays involving Javier Baez and various Tampa pitchers. The Cubs, it appears, have responded to their lackluster playoff performance against the golden-armed Mets by engaging in an arms race.

If these stories have legs, I’m okay with it. All I would say is that Soler and Baez have a certain usefulness to the Cubs going forward, whereas there are players in the system, also potentially attractive to other teams, who are more expendable.

I’m not referring to Gleyber Torres or Eloy Jimenez, who are #1 and #9 in Baseball America’s recent ranking of the Cubs’ top-ten prospects. Those two are simply too young to trade. Jimenez is a beast on the order of Soler, and maybe a better defender. And while you would think that Addison Russell was safe from any foreseeable challenge at shortstop, Gleyber might be the guy to push him. You don’t trade a young player who could turn out better than the one he would replace. If, in a year or two, the Cubs really did believe that a transition at SS would be seamless, imagine what the return would be in a trade involving Russell!

The expendables I am referring to are Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario, #2 and #10 in the recent BA listing. I take the Cubs at their word that Kyle Schwarber will transition to mostly being a catcher. Sometimes the Cubs say things that are PR when directed toward their own players and fans, or misdirection toward other teams. But I also believe in this principle of team construction: play a guy at the hardest position that he can handle well. If Schwarber can become a pretty good catcher, then play him there. Does that leave Contreras with the job of backup catcher? Maybe–but I don’t think so, because, like Tim Cossins and Mike Borzello and Chris Bosio and other Cub coaches, I’m a Cael Brockmeyer fan.

The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Brockmeyer seems too big to be a catcher.

“He’s a freak,” Borzello said. “You’re talking about a guy who’s a monster, and somehow he becomes small when he’s catching. You want to be a big target but catch small — it’s hard to explain. He can get underneath any baseball you throw, which makes it a lot easier to receive.”

Getting low is important because if you can get down below a pitch at the knees, the ump is more likely to call it a strike. I happened to see Brockmeyer last summer when Myrtle Beach visited the Potomac Nationals, and he did a superb job of framing several below-the-knee fastballs that Duane Underwood was issuing. Brockmeyer was in A+ last season, because, at 23, that’s where his bat belongs, but he has done stints at both double and triple A–because that’s where his glove belongs. If they need a guy to catch, they call him up. I think the major-league club will feel the same way. I know that Theo & Co. like defense-first catchers, because they employed two of them (especially David Ross) in the majors last season. And speaking of getting low: Brockmeyer was charged with one passed ball in 585 innings last season (including 68 innings in the Arizona Fall League).

Schwarber and Brockmeyer would make a pretty solid catching duo, and might not leave any possible opening for Contreras.

Like Contreras, Jeimer Candelario had a breakout year with his bat last year, mainly at double-A. I saw him also at Potomac, before he was called up to Tennessee. Athletically, he stands out from the crowd. His best position is third base; but, according to the theory that you play a guy at the hardest position he can handle well, Kris Bryant will be blocking Candelario’s path to the majors for the foreseeable future. Nobody thinks Candelario might be better than Bryant.

In my time as a Cub fan, I don’t recall an excellent prospect being blocked by a player in the majors, and here I’ve just identified two of them. It’s a good time to be a Cub fan, and an interesting time. There’s a bit of a learning curve.

Pitching prospects — final numbers

This is a final, end-of-season list of Cub pitching prospects ranked according to the formula K9-(H9+BB9). That’s strikeouts per nine innings minus the sum of hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine. Three pitchers on the list–Edwards, Jr., Garner and Buchter–have strikeout totals that exceed the sum of hits allowed and walks surrendered. Similar rankings in years past have taught me that very few apprentice pitchers become major leaguers, and that it is appropriate, therefore, to set the bar very high. The numbers indicate that Edwards, Jr., is our top pitching prospect today. Most of our other high prospects are lower down in the system, with nine of the top twenty just having completed a championship season at high-A Myrtle Beach. Those nine Pelicans, highest to lowest, are Garner, Markey, Berg, Skulina, Farris, Underwood, Rakkar, Pugliese and Martinez. (Pugliese finished the season with two relief appearances at Tennessee, and did not participate in Myrtle Beach’s playoff run.)

I know that bench space is limited in the pen, but Buchter and Francescon look like they might be able to help the big-league club right now.

Ryan Williams is tenth or eleventh on the list, depending on whether you include Trevor Cahill with his scant 7.2 innings. Williams is held down by modest strikeout numbers, but 109 hits and 18 walks in 141.2 innings is crazy. Williams skipped Myrtle Beach and put up most of his numbers at AA Tennessee in just his first full year as a pro.

Williams was also the Cubs’ winningest minor-league pitcher at 14-3, with ten of those wins for Tennessee. This is anecdotal, and does not affect the rankings in any way. Mitch Atkins–never considered a strong pitching prospect–was 13-4 in 2006 and 17-7 in 2008. But Atkins’ numbers in those two years, according to the K9-(H9+BB9) formula, were -7.20 and -7.83, whereas Williams this year is at -1.84.

Hitting prospects–final numbers

This is a ranking based on total bases, walks, steals and games played. It takes the sum of total bases + walks + SBs, adjusts it slightly, and divides by games played to arrive at a score, according to which the players are ranked. (Hitting prospects are starters, not pinch hitters or defensive replacements, so dividing by games is roughly the same as dividing by at-bats or plate appearances.)

The adjustment represented by the “adj points” column is Points minus Games. This adjustment rests on the idea that one total base (or walk or SB) per game is a baseline, required to get you to zero.

Players included here are at South Bend (“sbn”) or higher. I include Eugene (half-season league) numbers and even Arizona League (“cbz”) numbers if a player has advanced to South Bend (A ball) or above.

Bryant, Schwarber and Russell are ex-prospects, and Lake is gone, but I leave their numbers on the table for reference. The top ten hitting prospects, then, based on this formula and these full-season numbers, are:

1. Baez (Javier)
2. Happ
3. Szczur
4. Zagunis
5. Andreoli
6. Vogelbach
7. Contreras
8. Baez (Jeffrey)
9. Young
10. McKinney

I don’t feel that I should give Gleyber Torres a bump up for being a flashy shortstop, since this is a list of hitting prospects. I am aware that in previous years, the list’s top echelon has featured more than a couple of 1B-LF types who could hit as well as any shortstop but were not real prospects, since you have to hit almost like Rizzo to play first base in the majors. (Rizzo is a superb 1B as well.) When Rizzo played 70 games at Iowa in 2012, we ranked him at the top of this list, with a score of 1.91.

I neglected to produce this ranking in 2013 and 2014. In 2010, there were six players at the top of the ranking with a score of 1.40 or higher: Starlin Castro (1.88), Brett Jackson (1.69), Brandon Guyer (1.68), Brad Snyder (1.62), Robinson Chirinos (1.51) and Micah Hoffpauir (1.40). Castro, Guyer and Chirinos are solid major leaguers. Snyder and Hoffpauir are first basemen. I can’t explain the demise of Brett Jackson.

Right behind Hoffpauir in 2010 were Dubois, LaHair and Canzler, three more first basemen. This was the Cub organization in 2010: draft picks and time and money wasted on 1B-LFs. In 2011, the year before Theo took over, a second-round pick was used on Dan Vogelbach, who four-and-a-half seasons later is still at AA. The organization has changed since Vogelbach was picked. First basemen are not prominent in the 2015 list. I see Vogelbach near the top, Jacob Rogers in the middle and Balaguert and Matt Rose farther down, out of sixty-five names.

Happ may be a little high in the ranking, since he put up his best numbers, by far, at Eugene. (Players who weren’t promoted from Eugene don’t even get their names and numbers in this list.) On the other hand, Happ did rack up 65 total bases in 38 games at South Bend, with just about half his hits going for extra bases. It’s just his first half-season of ball anyway, but he has shown what we should be looking for in a hitter: hard contact, the ability to take a pitch, and speed and aggressiveness on the bases.

What’s the next level for Schwarber?

He needs to be challenged.