Other than the pursuit of Japanese star RHP Masahiro Tanaka, the Cubs didn’t make a lot of waves this offseason. They improved the bullpen, they added some role players, and took a few flyers.
With prospects not yet ready for the big leagues, it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now to add expensive 30 year old free agents, but with the emergence of a few of those flyers this spring, the Cubs may be in position to make some last minute improvements to the team and/or the farm system.
The strong spring performance of three players have given the Cubs a little bit of flexibility to make a deal. Rick Renteria recently said that Emilio Bonifacio has shown well enough to challenge for the everyday 2B job while also giving the Cubs the top of the order player that they lack. Ryan Kalish, meanwhile, has seemingly picked up where he left off as a prospect and is looking to make the 25 man roster this year. Both players add an element of athleticism to a team that has been sorely missing in the past few years. Mike Olt’s potential to open the season at the 3B — and I’ve heard today that he’s a game or two away from playing there this spring — will open up options in the infield.
The problem is finding a way to get them into the everyday lineup, but according to Bruce Levine, the Tigers may be able to help out here. Levine reports that the Tigers are evaluating both Nate Schierholtz and Darwin Barney to help fill the gaps created by the Andy Dirks and Jose Iglesias injuries.
The Cubs would like pitching in return and while the Tigers aren’t considered a top flight organization when it comes to high ceiling prospects, there are some intriguing arms to consider. The most intriguing may be Endrys Briceno, who is a long, lanky pitcher with lots of physical projection to so with raw arm strength. Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus thinks he can be a potential #2 starter, though he is far from that right now. A more low risk prospect is 2012 2nd round pick Jake Thompson, who has the kind of size and stuff to be a mid-rotation innings eater. The Cubs would probably like to pry the more MLB ready Robbie Ray loose, a pitcher they showed some interest in when he was part of the Rangers system, but getting a solid LHP prospect from the upper levels of a rather shallow farm system is a lot easier said than done — especially when the Cubs would only be offering short term role players in return. Still, Ray doesn’t have a huge ceiling and is likely more of a bottom of the rotation pitcher, so it’s not out of the question
If the Cubs want to take a different sort of chance, they could look into former top LHP prospect Casey Crosby, who has shown better stuff but past TJ surgery and struggles with command make him a greater risk than Ray. His good height and downward plane could play well at Wrigley if he can throw strikes. Dealing for Crosby helps grease the wheels a bit too because he’s on the Tigers 40 man roster, which makes the deal a little easier from a logistical standpoint.
If the Cubs do make a deal, it will have to be creative — think Mark DeRosa type deal, which as we remember, was a deal in which the Cubs were able to pick up 3 relatively unknown pitching prospects, one of whom turned out to be Chris Archer. In other words, the Cubs are going to have to do their homework and hope they dig out a diamond in the rough.
If the Cubs don’t make a deal, then they’ll have to make some tough decisions internally. The first is what to do with Ryan Kalish, who has outplayed every Cubs outfielder with the possible exception of Justin Ruggiano. And if Kalish does make the team, what does that mean for Junior Lake? He has struggled this spring and is probably the kind of player who needs to get reps everyday rather than platoon or come of the bench early in his career.
Another important decision is what to do in the infield with the emergence of Mike Olt and Emilio Bonifacio. Would that push Barney to a utility role or do you keep him at 2B and make Bonifacio your supersub who can play 4-5 times a week at various positions? And if Olt starts at 3B, what happens to versatile sub Donnie Murphy, who was an asset vs. LHP last year, an area in which the Cubs have often struggled in recent seasons?
The decision to keep both Kalish and Bonifacio would also mean creating a couple of 40 man roster spots. It’s possible that both Kyuji Fujikawa and James McDonald will be put on the 60 man DL. That would be a simple solution. Another idea that is dancing around in my head is to cut ties with former top prospect Josh Vitters, who dogged it out in LF and let a flyball drop just outside the foul line. It’s one play and we normally wouldn’t put too much stock in it, but given Vitters reputation for being a little laid back, combined with a questionable commitment to winter ball two years ago, then coming back from an injury visibly out of shape last season, you have to wonder how much longer the Cubs can wait for the light bulb to go on for the once highly regarded prospect. I believe he’s better off with a change of scenery and a spot on an AL roster — maybe they can even include him in a potential deal with the Tigers, though a tight roster situation may complicate that scenario.
These are some decisions the Cubs probably didn’t expect to make this spring, but they are welcome ones to say the least. After the failures of flyers like Chris Volstad and Ian Stewart early on, it’s good to see the Cubs take some chances on players that at least appear to be paying off this spring. Those payoffs could have a ripple effect down the line as well. Not only can Bonifacio, Kalish, and Olt add much needed skill and athleticism to the roster, but they could allow the Cubs to move players like Schierholtz and Barney to help bolster the pitching depth in the system.
Lastly, it should also be noted that while the Cubs are in a position to make a deal, they don’t need to make one. Kalish is on a minor league deal and both he and Olt can still start the year in AAA, so this isn’t going to be a deal simply to create MLB roster space, they’ll have to get something worthwhile in return.
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