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.

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