Lots of good stuff today coming off an encouraging Cubs win but it hasn't stopped teams from calling on the Cubs. The team has shown itself very willing to trade good starters in search of young talent. So it isn't surprising when Carrie Muskat reports that teams are once again calling the Cubs in search of pitching -- specifically the Cubs top 3 pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Travis Wood. Now, receiving calls and shopping pitchers are two different things, so we don't want to make too much of this -- but it appears that if the Cubs want to tear down and rebuild their rotation again, the opportunity will be there.
UPDATE 1:50 PM: Muskat updated here article and it now reports a Cubs official as saying they have not received calls.
But not everyone thinks that the Cubs should necessarily trade Hammel, Muskat herself discusses the possibility of extending him in the very same article while Patrick Mooney also broaches the possibility here. Hammel is just playing it one day at a time right now...
“That’s crazy to even bring that up right now,” Hammel said. “Honestly, it’s April. It’s still very early. Like I said in spring training, every player wants to stay in one place for a long time.
“I’m not thinking about that. I want to lead by example and I want to win. That’s what we all want to do. We’re learning how to do that right now.”
Hammel seems to be developing that kind of mentality the Cubs want to see and is already becoming one of the leaders of the pitching staff,
“I always want to be the stopper,” said Hammel, who gave up three hits and struck out seven in seven innings. “You want to be that guy who’s dependable and you know what you’re going to get every time out. Now I’m healthy and feel like I can execute when I want to.”
Personally, I'd really like to see the Cubs turn this thing around and build around Hammel, Samardzija, and Wood rather than start things over again, but that will depend on how much progress they make between now and the end of July.
As for Samardzija, ex-Cubs Matt Garza had to throw his two cents in (as usual),
"Just pitch your way out of it,” Garza kept saying. “Keep your eyes focused. Keep your eyes straight ahead and just pitch. There’s nothing else you can do.”
Another ex-Cubs, Aramis Ramirez, is impressed with Samardzija and says any team would like to have a pitcher like that,
“I’ll take him, yeah,” Ramirez said, laughing. “S---, any team. You ask the other 29 teams, who wouldn’t take Samardzija? He goes out there every fifth day. Doesn’t get hurt. He’s going to give you quality innings and he’s young. He’s the perfect guy for any ballclub.”
Perfect for the Cubs too?
“I don’t know if you want to let somebody like that go,” said Aramis Ramirez, another ex-Cub enjoying life in Milwaukee. “I don’t know what his contract situation is. But, man, he’s pretty good. That’s the guy you should be building around. You just don’t find those guys.”
I couldn't agree more with Ramirez have. Pitchers like Samardzija are indeed hard to find and Theo Epstein basically reiterated that last week, once again calling Samardzija one of his core long term guys. I've always felt the Cubs preferred to keep the big RHP and it's not just Theo's words -- actions speak loudly as well -- when you ask for Archie Bradley and Tyler Skaggs -- or Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman -- you are telling teams you value him a lot and aren't really looking to trade him unless the Cubs can gain more than just cost control. They're looking to upgrade from a talent standpoint. If a team is willing to help the Cubs do that, then it's hard to deny it's the right thing to do -- but if you give me a rotation with Samardzija, Hammel, and Wood plus a host of offensive prospects to come, then I kind of like that scenario. It would make adding the final pieces much easier.
Have the Cubs found their closer?
Another important piece may have emerged yesterday as well as Hector Rondon was called on to close a game. Though it was not a save situation, the lead was just one run bigger and it was against a better team than the one Pedro Strop and James Russell faced when the Cubs lost their most gut-wrenching game of the season vs. the Diamondbacks. Rondon fired mid 90s fastballs, sliders, and cutters on his way to striking out the side in order. That's not something we get to see much as Cubs fans, so even it wasn't a save situation, it certainly gave the Cubs a ray of hope in what has been a sore spot for the past few seasons.
Rondon was our first choice to replace the injured Jose Veras at closer, but the Cubs gave Pedro Strop the first shot. I'm still a fan of Strop but I like my closer to throw strikes because he is that last line of defense. If Strop comes in the 7th or 8th, you can always relieve him if he struggles with his control. That's not a luxury you have with your closer, so he has to be dependable.
Rondon isn't a strike throwing machine but he has been under 3 walks per 9 innings since the trade deadline last year (including 2.92 walk/9 IP so far this year). That's not perfect but Rondon is still young and improving -- plus he has shown the ability to miss bats (10.22 Ks per 9 IP) this year with improved secondaries (slider, cutter) while also keeping the ball low and in the zone. The latter has allowed him to keep the ball in the park (no HRs allowed) and in the infield (58% groundball rate). Both are ideal numbers for a closer.
Right now, I see no reason to go with anyone else. I like Strop in that 7th and 8th inning role and I think Justin Grimm gives them a nice option there as well. If Jose Veras returns to his form, he'd give them a third pitcher capable of missing bats in the late innings.
Castro impresses teammates
Starlin Castro is the original core member but that came into question last year after a poor season on both sides of the ball. The key to his resurgence is confidence -- something I think new manager Rick Renteria helped instill after ex-manager Dale Sveum chipped away at it last season,
“I got my mind really strong after last year,” Castro said. “I’m working hard, and trying not to think about that. I feel happy. When I go to home plate, I trust myself. That’s the reason last year happened — I went up there and I didn’t trust myself. Now, I trust myself. If I strike out, I’ll get another (chance).”
New teammate John Baker is impressed with Castro -- and not just with his talent, but with his work ethic. Baker admits that from afar it's difficult to judge that quality in another player, especially a potential superstar level talent like Castro. His questions have been answered,
“Sometimes when you have young superstars like that, you don’t know what their work ethic is going to be like,” catcher John Baker said. “When you’re playing against somebody, you always want to not give them the benefit of the doubt and find that kind of an edge.
“But coming in here and playing with him and seeing what he went through in spring training to get back to play after (the hamstring injury) and then watching him do his work — he wants to improve as a defensive player. I see him out there all the time, before day games taking groundballs.
“That, to me, is more impressive than him hitting two home runs in a game. He’s a stud. (He) really is striving to be a complete, frontline shortstop.”
Don't look now but the kid seems to be growing up. One talent evaluator once described Castro to me as the kind of player that stands out at you when you are scouting. He's on a different level in terms of his ability. Another trusted scouting contact of mine consistently raves about Castro's physical talent but he's always questioned "what's between the ears" and justifiably so. Castro has not always given the Cubs reason to believe that he has the mental approach that separates the stars from your average everyday regular. This season seems to be different and if he is indeed maturing, it makes me giddy about the possibilities. What can often define a player's career is how he emerges from his struggles and failures. Castro seems to have bounced back stronger than ever and he's once again becoming a central piece in the Cubs long term plans. ZiPS is projecting him now as a league average hitter, which is more impressive when you get that from the SS position -- and the fact that he projects as at least an average defender at that key position adds even more value. But even that could just be scratching the surface if Castro's mental maturity catches up with his physical talent.
We haven't even mentioned Anthony Rizzo yet but he'll be the topic for another article. The jury is still out on young talents like Welington Castillo, Mike Olt, and Ryan Kalish --- but all of them have shown flashes early in the season of being more than just bridges to the next generation of prospects. We'll know more about them by mid-season and if the Cubs can keep their staff together (or upgrade it through trades), settle their bullpen roles, have Castro and Rizzo take it up a level, and have another position player or two emerge as core guys, maybe this season won't be completely lost. Especially if they can add talent like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Hendricks, and a new wave of hard-throwing bullpen arms to the mix as we head into 2015.
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