The Cubs are floundering and they've squandered whatever optimism they built for 2012 during the current 8 game losing streak. It's getting harder to think this team can contend for anything more than a top draft pick right now. Maybe that's a good thing in a way, since it keeps the eyes on the long term plan, but it doesn't mean there aren't things to look forward to as early as June.
A while back, my partner Tom wrote about June being the target to officially launch the rebuild. April and May aren't easy months to start rebuilding. Most teams want to see what they have first while some are looking to see if they can legitimately contend. It's more or less a period of evaluation of your roster. By June, you generally know whether you can contend while getting a better grip on what your needs are. The Cubs did get one trade done early with Marlon Byrd, but April deals are rare. It took some extraordinary circumstances to find a team willing to make a deal at that time: a team (Red Sox) off to a slow start with a rabid fan base who expects to contend, a rash of injuries at one position, and a roster crunch where they felt they were about to lose a young arm in Michael Bowden.
The evaluation works for both sides too. The Cubs didn't know what they had in Bryan LaHair, and maybe they still don't. They didn't know if Jeff Samardzija could be a viable starter. They took flyers on guys like Ian Stewart and Chris Volstad, which haven't panned out yet. They also had guys who were about at their lowest value in Geovany Soto and Ryan Dempster when the year started. Soto hasn't helped his cause, but Dempster obviously has. On the bright side with Soto, the Cubs have to be encouraged by the play of Steve Clevenger early in the season before he got hurt. They also have to like the flashes of talent shown by Welington Castillo, especially just before he went down with a minor injury. When those two get healthy and in the lineup in a consistent basis, the Cubs may be forced to see what they can salvage for Soto once he gets healthy again.
Anther player who could soon become expendable is Carlos Marmol, who has been a source of frustration for Cubs fans since last summer. Marmol hasn't raised his performance much this season, but he does have life back in his fastball, which has been consistently at 94-96 mph of late. Some teams were concerned with overuse and the dropping velocity with Marmol, but he has at least allayed those concerns. He's still a viable trade option, especially if he comes back in June and pitches well. The Cubs could also look to replace reserve players like Jeff Baker and Reed Johnson soon as well, while giving more playing time to guys like Adrian Cardenas, Joe Mather, and perhaps start recalling players from Iowa.
Which leads us to the next subject...
The Iowa Invastion
According to my quick in-my-head calculations, Anthony Rizzo cannot accrue the 172 days of MLB service time as long as he's called up after June 21st (specifically June 23rd, I'm told by the guys at TCR). He could still accrue "super 2 status", which makes him eligible for arbitration a year early if he's called up by then, but there's no guarantee "super 2" will still be around by the time Rizzo is eligible, and the Cubs are perhaps more concerned with his service time clock and when he becomes a free agent. They also want to make sure he's ready from a baseball standpoint. They don't want to bring him up as a savior, it's no guarantee he'll outproduce Alfonso Soriano, who he may end up being the guy he replaces if the Cubs decide to move Bryan LaHair to LF. What they want to do is call him up when he's ready so that he can get comfortable and learn to adapt to the way major league pitchers attack him. The call-up should be about what's best for Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs long term, not about unrealistic expectations on how he can save the Cubs current season.
Brett Jackson was also expected to be part of the invasion, and still could be, but right now he's struggling and a June call-up seems unrealistic right now. Jackson is striking out almost once every 3 plate appearances and he's hitting .228. He'll get more time to straighten things out with his contact issues. He may not come up until rosters expand at this point, when he might be joined by other prospects like Junior Lake, and Josh Vitters. Dave Sappelt and Luis Valbuena could also get early looks.
Apart from Rizzo, the Cubs could get the most help from bullpen arms. Scott Maine had an impressive stint earlier in the season, and Jeff Beliveau is beginning to throw the ball very well and down in AA, Alberto Cabrera is showing flashes of becoming a dominant reliever. Both players are on the 40 man roster and could get a call once the Cubs are ready to make some changes in their bullpen.
Robert Whitenack, perhaps the Cubs top pitching prospect after Trey McNutt at the upper levels, is reportedly pitching well in his rehab. He has pitched as high as AA before getting hurt and requiring Tommy John surgery. It'll be a bonus if he can get back to AA and pitch well this season. The Cubs have a decision to make on him for the 40 man roster at the end of the year. I think the way he's recovering so quickly, they almost have to protect him. If he continues at this pace, the Cubs could get a look at him in live action by June, though it's extremely doubtful he'll see any MLB time this season.
The June Draft
We've talked about this a lot lately, so I won't rehash some of the possibilities. Suffice to say that the Cubs have 4 of the top 68 picks. The Cubs should get a very good player at #6 this season and will have a chance to stock up with their other picks. I'll write more later on possibilities with those picks soon.
Sadly, many of the Cubs best prospects are at the very lowest levels of the system: Javier Baez, Dan Vogelbach, Robert Whitenack (rehab), Dillon Maples (rehab), Jeimer Candelario, and Shawon Dunston, Jr. to name a few. Soon after the June draft, we'll get to follow how these players are doing in game action as most will play for Boise of the Northwest League. I'll be following them closely, including catching games whenever I can once they're up. Right now, AZ Phil of The Cubs Reporter is doing an excellent job of monitoring their progress in extended spring training. The news from both Baez and Whitenack are the most encouraging, while Candelario and Dunston, Jr. are also playing very well. A sleeper to keep your eye on is Yasiel Balaguert, whom the Cubs signed out of Cuba. He looks to have a solid bat and has adapted quickly since coming to the U.S.
The International Signing Period
This is technically in early July, but the Cubs will undoubtedly be all over this in June and we'll try to keep up. The one signing that will likely occur before the signing period begins is Jorge Soler. At least that is his hope, as he stands to lose a lot of money if he doesn't sign a deal before then when the new CBA rules kick in. Hopefully, of course, he signs that deal with the Cubs, but it's been extremely quiet around Soler since a story broke where the Cubs were allegedly on the "verge of signing" him.
The rest of the names have to wait until early July. We'll have some of the names to keep an eye on in the not-so-distant future. Last year the Cubs signed Marck Malave, Luis Acosta, and Ricardo Marcano, among others. Malave is the most advanced of the trio.
So while the team is playing poorly, it could be an exciting, eventful month of June. Change is coming soon and for many fans, it can't come soon enough.
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