Cubs Notes: Young bullpen arms showing some promise, thoughts on platoon lineups, 5th starter dilemma, and other notes

While much of the frustration centered around the Cubs offense, or lack thereof, there were some encouraging developments in that first series.  The first and most obvious one is that they played a very good and up and coming team to a standstill.  They could have easily won at least 2 of those games and potentially all 3 but it was the biggest source of frustration — the continuing failures with RISP, that was perhaps the biggest reason.  The defense played well except for a crucial error by Starlin Castro in the 2nd game, and there were a few baserunning mistakes, most notably Emilio Bonifacio getting picked off twice.

Whether those things begin to correct themselves remains to be seen but the Cubs can be encouraged both by their starting pitching and their young bullpen arms.  Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, and Jason Hammel all gave the Cubs plenty of opportunity to win the game, which is all you can really ask fr0m a starter.  But I’m not all that surprised.  Samardzija is the team’s best pitcher, many of us believe Edwin Jackson will bounce back, and I wrote an article earlier on how I thought Hammel would get off to a good, Feldman-like start.  Adam Brown has done a great job of tracking those performance and you can read his latest here on Hammel.

What’s been more surprising to me is the early performance of the young bullpen arms.   While veterans Wesley Wright and Jose Veras have struggled, pitchers like Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Brian Schlitter have come into the game firing mid 90s fastballs and some nasty breaking stuff.  It’s something new to Cubs fans who are used to dealing with the James Russells, Shawn Camps, Matt Guerriers, and Michael Bowdens in recent years.  Not that those pitchers can’t have value — and James Russell certainly does, but sometimes you need those guys who can come in who can miss bats and/or break them when the game is on the line.  We’ve seen hard throwing pitchers who can throw strikes, get strikeouts and draw weak contact in key situations.  That is something the Cubs have lacked in recent years.

It brings to mind the wave of power arms the Cardinals have been able to trot out year after year. but I don’t want to get carried away here.  The Cubs are nowhere near that level yet.  But it may not be long before they get there.  In addition to Strop, Grimm, Rondon, and Schlitter, the Cubs have more big arms on the way.  Arodys Vizcaino is the best of the bunch but Neil Ramirez showed he can dominate in short stints this spring.  Armando Rivero, Corey Black, and Juan Paniagua — all of whom have hit 97 or more — could be up in the near future as well.

What was once a long source of heartburn for the Cubs may be developing into a team strength over the next couple of years.

Platoon Lineups

I’ve seen a lot of angst here and other places about the Cubs early platoon system.  I understand the argument and the desire to see guys like Mike Olt play everyday, but I don’t share the same frustrations that most fans do.

As I’ve been saying here in the comments section and on Twitter recently, I don’t believe you necessarily have to play guys everyday to develop them.  You just need to get them consistent ABs.  And in some ways, it can be beneficial to break some hitters in slowly.  There is no doubt that Mike Olt has as much power as anyone in the Cubs lineup, but there is also little doubt that he still has holes in his game.  MLB pitchers can ruthlessly exploit those holes so sometimes you have to ask yourself if a hitter is learning when he is simply overmatched.  It can have the reverse effect of frustrating a hitter and exposing his weaknesses.   In some cases, putting hitters in favorable matchups is more desirable than playing him everyday, especially when he may not yet be ready to handle the load of facing MLB level pitchers day after day.  I feel similarly about Junior Lake and Ryan Kalish.  Lake is still raw and Kalish hasn’t played much in the past couple of seasons.  Do we need to throw them to the lions right off the bat or do we put them in a position to succeed early with favorable matchups?  Maybe you gradually increase their playing time and workload to include increasingly tougher matchups as the season goes on.  Teachers know that process as scaffolding and sometimes it’s the most appropriate way for people to learn.  There’s no cookie cutter way to develop players and we shouldn’t assume playing young players  everyday regardless of situation is the best way to do it.

We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that Mike Olt didn’t play back to back games at 3B until the last week of the spring after battling shoulder soreness.  It’s also possible they could be being cautious with his shoulder early in the season, especially given the damp weather and the greater possibility for injury.  They could save him some wear and tear and have him ready to play everyday by the 2nd half of the season.

Lastly, the Cubs are still and MLB ballclub and the focus is still on winning games at this level, particularly early in the season. If the Cubs felt Olt needed to play everyday, they would have sent him to AAA where development takes priority.  They obviously feel they can better develop him at the MLB level even on a part-time basis while putting both both him and the team in the best position to succeed.

Now…if the Cubs are out of it by August (or even earlier) and they’re still platooning the kids in favor of MLB role players, my opinion will certainly change.  But for now, I’m okay with it.

With that in mind, here is today’s lineups...

  1. Bonifacio CF
  2. Castro SS
  3. Rizzo 1B
  4. Schierholtz RF
  5. Valbuena 3B
  6. Castillo C
  7. Sweeney LF
  8. Barney 2B
  9. Wood P


5th Starter Dilemma

The Cubs have an interesting dilemma as they were forced to use 5th starter Carlos Villanueva in each of the first two games as both were extra inning affairs. I thought the Cubs might consider calling up Chris Rusin for a start but he pitched the opener for Iowa. Many fans would probably like to see the Cubs give prospect Kyle Hendricks the nod — but he is not on the 40 man roster and would require a move by the organization. That move could conceivably be a shift of Kyuji Fujikawa to the 60 man DL.  In that vein, the Cubs could also consider LHP Eric Jokisch, who impressed the Cubs this spring. Perhaps the simplest move at this point is to recall RHP Dallas Beeler, whose heavy fastball and GB style might make him a good fit in the early Wrigley weather. But the thing is I don’t see Beeler on the AAA or AA roster and I don’t know if he’s ready to start the season. One more consideration is Neil Ramirez, who like Beeler is already on the 40 man roster, but after pitching out of the pen in the spring, I do not know if he’s stretched out to go any more than 5 innings, which would still put a burden on the bullpen.

The team could still go with Villanueva and watch the pitch count or just skip the 5th spot altogether since the team had a day off on Tuesday and will have another on Monday.  But considering the Cubs had no plans to go with a 4 man rotation before the season started, I don’t think this is something they really want to do.  Of course, the circumstances have changed, so the Cubs may need to adapt their original 5-man rotation plans.

I imagine these are all the options the Cubs are discussing right now along with the now remote possibility that Villanueva takes his start as scheduled.  For me, I’d like to see the Cubs call up a pitcher, send an RP with options down temporarily, and continue to use Villanueva as a pen option for now.  After the weekend, they can return the starting pitcher back to Iowa and everyone else on the Cubs staff to their normal roles.

Other Notes:

  • Patrick Mooney reports that the Ricketts may be willing to sell minority interest in the team to help raise money for the renovation.  Should we take up a collection and have Cubs Den as part owners?  I kid, I kid.
  • The amateur draft and international pool allotments will rise by 1.7%.   The Cubs have the 6th most money to spend for the draft despite having the 4th worst record, but they do have the 4th most amount of IFA pool money.  Because it’s their normal philosophy and the Cubs don’t have any extra bonus money beyond what they get for their draft position, I see them once again taking a BPA strategy, but the Astros and Marlins have all kinds of options when it comes to allocating their money, so they’ll be interesting to watch.  The White Sox are a possibility in that regard as well as they have over $1M more to spend than the Cubs do.
  • If you want a shortcut to our minors recaps, bookmark this link: Daily Minor League Recaps.



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  • It is only 3 games, but it is hard not to be encouraged by the young bullpen arms. And when you go on to add another 2-3 of them at AAA it gives one hope that we will be able to stay in games this year and actually get to that 72 - 75 win plateau this season.

    Get the offense going and it might actually be worth going to Wrigley in July and August.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Agreed. All sample size caveats apply, but you have to be happy with the way they are throwing so far. It's potentially the kind of bullpen you can bring in and just turn off the lights.

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    I'm willing to give Castro a pass on that error...he should have made the play, for sure, but it wasn't a gimme with the ball scooting under the baserunner the way it did.
    You make some good points on the Olt situation, John. While I don't necessarily have a problem with his playing time to date, we won't be facing LH pitching half of the time, and I would not be happy if he is being strictly platooned (which Renteria has said he is not). I agree, especially with the shoulder issue, that he could be eased into the lineup and put in a position to succeed, but sitting 2/3 or more of the games is not good for anyone's development IMO.

  • In reply to Matt McNear:

    True, but I think he should have focused on knocking it down. I agree on Olt, would like to see him vs. some RHPs too with Valbuena at 2B from time to time. At some point the Cubs will have to choose between Kalish and Sweeney (or trade Schierholtz) to facilitate that kind of maneuvering.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Yeah, would have been nice to see him knock it down and save the run. He's looked pretty locked in, otherwise, IMO.

  • In reply to Matt McNear:

    In general I like what I've seen from him in the field so far. He's playing the ball aggressively and getting rid of the ball quickly when the situation warrants. I think one of the big things he missed in development was the speed of the MLB game, especially from the SS position. I think he gets it now, it's just a matter of staying focused and executing consistently.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Regarding Kalish, do you think there's any significance in choosing to play Barney at 2B today, instead of Bonifaco at 2B, Sweeney in CF, and Kalish in LF, like it was on Tuesday?

  • In reply to Andy Cupp:

    I'm sorry, "like it was on Wednesday". Forgot about the off day.

  • I love the way they put our BP together. I'm still really nervous about Veras, but overall I expect this unit to a team strength and actually get better as guys like Vizcaino, etc work their way into the mix.

    I'm just curious, we've got all this IFA $$$ and can't spend more than $250K on any single guy... How much of that do they trade away? What will it buy us? I'd love to see us pick up a supplemental/compensatory pick in the amateur draft... IDK. Wasn't Castro originally signed for $50K? Maybe they just flood the system with a bunch of young IFA arms/talent and see if we hit on one or two of them...

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    Absolutly agreed about general nervousness about Veras - and yes - I know he is a somewhat experienced closer and he brings that to the table. But I don't ever recall him begin a fantastic closer anywhere he filled the bill.

    And yes - I know he's most likely a 'flip' at the deadline kind of guy holding down the closer spot until something better & more long-term comes along (Strop, Grimm, or Vizciano? Maybe Fujikawa?).

    But he gives me the same sort of 'heebie-jeebie' kind of vibe that Marmol projected the last year or so he was with the Cubs.

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    This current IFA year we picked up 28 players so far. 6 of them were rated in the top 30 and were costly. So we picked up 22 relatively cheap prospects. I would guess we might get twenty some moderately priced IFAs and use most of our allotted money. Of course if another team really wants some IFA money I am sure Theo would trade it for a prospect or two of his liking.

  • I don't understand the need to call someone up for the fifth starter spot. With the early off day, you can just skip the fifth starter spot the first time through the rotation and keep everyone on normal rest. Would seem like the simplest solution while giving you an extra pen arm for a few days.

  • In reply to Gunther Dabynsky:

    They could do that, but the Cubs had no plans to use that extra day off before the season started. Of course, things have changed but the Cubs are obviously still considering their options and one of them is to keep the rotation schedule as they had originally planned. Only way to do that is to call up a pitcher. I don't think it's a particularly big inconvenience. though that could depend on how things play out the next couple of days. I'm sure they'll wait until the last moment to assess the situation.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Agreed, but it would seem far more likely that they just bump everyone up a spot then having to make a 40 man roster move. Could be wrong, but it just seems like the simplest move is the most likely. Definitely agreed that they will wait to make the decision for as long as possible though.

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    The RISP looks like deja vu but I am so excited about what the pitching has shown so far. Plus no one really hits in April anyways right? (Don't crush my flawed logic!) I really like what I have seen so far from the Cubbies!

  • Hey John.

    First thing love the site. Long time lurker and like reading everything you guys do.

    Beeler is going to be in Iowa's rotation but has a forearm problem right now. Heard the I-cubs manager talking about him the other day. Didn't say it was serious or anything but would keep him out for a few weeks.

  • In reply to I cubbies:

    Thanks I Cubbies!

    And I appreciate the update on Beeler as well. Don't like to hear the words "forearm strain" especially when the guy has TJ history in his background like Beeler does.

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    I'm very happy with the bullpen. I've liked watching Theo pick up power arms everywhere he can the last two years and think the bullpen is starting to reflect that work.

    I disagree on Olt, though, and it's close to a breaking point for me. We've been sacrificing the present for the future for two years running and now, by all appearances, one of those big prospects is the short side of a third base platoon. They've had no problem letting Rizzo look horrific against lefties on a regular basis while he gets his at bats there. If it really is the shoulder, then let him play in AAA. He never came close to dominating the level and you say he still has holes in his game, so it seems a decent place to work it out. But given what Cubs fans have been asked to accept the last couple years, I just don't see how you can justify giving Luis Valbuena the lion's share of playing time when Olt is on the active roster.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    If his shoulder is the issue, what difference is there between playing infrequently at AAA or infrequently in Chicago?

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    In reply to mjvz:

    AAA he can play DH/1B to get regular starts like he did in the spring.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I guess I don't see the big deal if this is just a short term thing with his shoulder or if they just want to get the hot bat in the lineup with Valbuena. Sometimes watching can help development too.

    Is this any different than breaking in starting pitchers in the MLB bullpen? Sending them to the minors would get them more innings, but sometimes facing MLB players (even infrequently) is what I guy needs more then just reps.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I don't see how it's sacrificing the future. Not every rookie comes in and plays everyday from day one. I do want to see him gradually increase the workload and be playing everyday by the 2nd half, but I don't think this is hurting his development. I think an organization needs to handle players on a case by case basis when it comes to development and I have to think that when the Cubs made their opening day roster, they considered everything that people are worried about right now and still came to this decision.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Only three games into the season, I don' think we can say for sure that 3rd base will be a platoon. I could see Olt settling into more of a regular role fairly quickly, with a platoon of Barney and Valbuena at 2nd.

  • In reply to Diggs:

    That's a valid point, it's not unusual for managers to try to work all of his players into the lineup to start the season, but that could change as early as May.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Technically, Olt hasn't "earned" his everyday player status. He was lights out at AA in 2012, struggled with his cup of Joe in Sept., then the concussion/eye issues. He struggled in AAA all of last year.

    You've got Villanueva in AAA and he's being pushed by Bryant at AA. The most logical scenario was to bring Olt to MLB, where he can play 3B at the expense of Valbuena vs Villanueva/Bryant. Maybe they intend to ease him along rather than just throw him to the wolves from day one...

    I really don't see why people get their panties in such knots over Olt's playing time. He's going to get plenty of opportunity to prove he is or isn't an everyday MLB player.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    HERE HERE !!!!!!!!!! Couldn't have said it any better . No way to spin or justify the crap . Not after needing big bottles of Prozac to absorb the last few seasons . Olt , Lake , and Kalish need to play . Opening day and we get the Prozac moment lineup circa 2013 , point on Rizzo is spot on. If going to keep the spects on the bench just trade Baez/ Rizzo for RA Dickey now if a couple of wins are SOOO important to smiling Ricky aka Dusty lite and his mancrush on Neifi Valbuena

  • I'm thinking there won't be a call up and Carville might still pitch Sunday. A lot depends on how much the relievers pitch the next several days Imo. If it were me I'd just skip his spot in the rotation if he can't go. Just love the young relievers and it makes me feel good to see Schlitter getting a chance. .. The guy got a raw deal in his first call up.

  • In reply to Paulson:

    Also very possible. I'm assuming that means you think they'll have Samardzija go tomorrow. If Villanueva doesn't pitch the next two days, then he'll have 3 days rest from a short relief stint, which is very doable. That's part of the reason they don't need to make a decision right now. My only problem is that if you do move Samardzija up and then have to use Villanueva in RP in the next two days then you've disrupted your rotation and are right back where you started and either have to go 4 man for the first week or call up a pitcher anyway.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Bosio spoke very clearly about the desire to keep his top pitchers on the 5-day schedule. I would think they would start Samardzija for two reasons. One, Bosio believes the numbers show that he will be more effective when staying on schedule and, two, he wants to get his best pitchers as many starts as possible.

    The concern of using Villanueva out of the pen too often in between starts is valid but not likely. As noted, a lot of young relievers are looking good, and the Cubs appear to have good depth there at the moment. I'd take my chances that Villanueva will be able to be used sparingly enough and that the Cubs will want Samardzija to pitch as often as possible and on his regular schedule.

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    Maybe it's still early, the game hasn't started yet. But there are a ton of empty seats at Wrigley. I thought opening day might be closer to full. I guess we should expect attendance to fall again from last year.

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    We may have only the 6th largest pool of money to spend in the 2014 draft, but it's also the 5th most per pick.

  • Really interesting piece on the history of Cubs managers on espn:

  • I have been impressed with Grimm, Rondon and Schlitter the most. Rondon I thought handled the extras well the other night. He showed poise. If Grimm and Schlitter can keep it down in the zone then you have some good arms to get you through the 6th & 7th leading up to Strop and Veras

  • If the Cubs do bring someone up, I think it will be Jokisch as that might be his role for the future as well. I don't think the challenge will overwhelm him emotionally.

  • Good base running.

  • I don't see a problem with not starting Olt today. In fact, I completely understand it and would likely have done the same thing had the call been mine to make.

    The main reason is because I felt starting Valbuena today gave the Cubs the best chance to win. Winning is still the primary reason to play the game especially at this point in the season. Next is the weather and his ongoing shoulder issue. It's cold and the field is wet. After that, he's a rookie. There's nothing wrong with breaking a rook in slowly.

    The only thing that would have me not like this decision is if it led me to be afraid that Olt will be in a strict platoon. I prefer to see the pattern before I react to it.

  • John,

    Interesting take on the drafty allocated money.

    could you elaborate on why the Cubs have the the 4th pick but only the 6th most money to spend?


  • In reply to DetroitCubFan:

    I imagine it has something to do with the fact that some teams have received compensatory draft picks from losing free agents and thus their pool money has also increased.

  • In reply to DetroitCubFan:

    Thanks. It's becaouse of the comp picks and the extra pool money that come with it.

  • Villanueva says he's confident he can go Sunday. So it looks like Samardzija tomorrow and Villanueva on Sunday unless things get weird.

  • Looks like bulking up may have been a mistake for Sweeney. Just doesn't look like the same hitter, bat looks slow. Not waiting on the pitch like last season. They need him hitting.

  • The Marlins have these picks 2, 36, 39, 43, 77, 106, 108

  • Been watching baseball for 50 years. Can't remember a player declining so drastically as Castro. What is going on?
    Just looks clueless at the plate. Off balance, fishing for the ball.
    Is it just a complete lack of confidence? Or something physical? This kid was one of the best young line drive hitters I had seen in years. Sad to watch at this point.

  • At this point the most likely explanation is that he basically didn't have a spring training. Lets see where he is in a couple weeks.

  • Don't be surprised if the weather and the schedule in April negate the efforts we are seeing from the new manager to be competitive. The 1-3 record gives pause for optimism despite the rays of hope we are getting from guys like Bonifacio. However, four games does not a season make, so the jury is still out on the 2014 Cubs.

    Chairman Tom is changing his rhetoric on the renovations, but his words ring hollow as he merely buys time, which doesn't cost him anything, and trolls for money, which will. Progress is not linear, as Theo warned us, but it would be nice to see a concerted effort on the part of ownership to get something, anything, done quickly, easily and resolutely on the business side.

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