Thursday, May 31, 2012

How to Fix the Cubs

By Louie Centanni

With the worst record in the National League (and a tie for the MLB worst) as of this writing, it's safe to say the Chicago Cubs have some holes to fill. Though nobody picked this team for the World Series, few thought they'd be the worst team in all of baseball. So the question is simple: what basic steps can the Cubs make to improve without threatening their future?

First off, I want to propose my most radical change. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of (somewhat unfounded) support for Starlin Castro as the franchise player and b) the starting shortstop. I do not want to argue that Castro is not a good player. Let's be honest, his 162-game averages of .305/7/65 are respectable. However, there are a few major issues with his game: he hates taking walks (only 4 in 189 plate appearances in 2012; yes, FOUR); he strikes out too much for a non-power hitter (on pace for roughly 98 this season); he is an absolutely atrocious defensive shortstop (league-leading 29 errors in 2011, 8 so far in 2012). Put all of these facts forward, and what's the solution?

Move Castro to center field. Now, I'd be remiss not to mention that Castro has improved this season. According to a Bill James sabermetric stat that measures how many runs per season a defensive player is worth, Castro has improved from -15 last season to +6 this season. However, his physical skills are ideal for a center fielder. Out there, he could focus more on hitting, roam a relatively small centerfield (Wrigley Field), and not have to worry about the pressures of being involved in the most defensive plays on the field.

What effect does this have on the rest of the organization? Well, for starters, there would be a surplus of outfielders. Brett Jackson, the CF-of-the-future, is having a mediocre season at AAA Iowa, so his ascension to the majors might be on the slow track; however, where would he play? That's a fair question — one that I have worked out with the next change.

Release Alfonso Soriano, bring up Anthony Rizzo to fill his roster spot. I already know the counterarguments: Soriano has over $36 million left on his contract, he's a veteran and it would hurt the clubhouse morale, can the minor leaguers do as well as him yet? And then on the Rizzo side: don't rush him up, he hit .141 with the Padres after his call-up last year, blah blah blah. This move is inevitable, so what better time than now?

Listen, Soriano could be the greatest guy in the world, but he's holding a spot that a youngster could be learning to play. Kerry Wood's talent was waning (not nearly as rapidly as Soriano's, mind you) and he stepped away to give the young guys a chance. This was a noble, though sad, decision. It's time the Cubs ask Soriano to do the same — and pay him out, cut their losses.

Rizzo is currently hitting .353 with 16 homers in the minors. The guy is too good for AAA. Is he good enough for the MLB? Maybe not. But he'll never get acclimated to this level if he isn't given a legitimate chance. The big difference between the Cubs/Rizzo situation and last season's Padres/Rizzo one is that the Padres were in relative contention and, in effect, asked Rizzo to produce immediately. With the Cubs, he has the luxury of knowing he is not the savior. This team is built to win in 3+ years, not now, so the pressure to be great would not be there.

Suddenly, we have a dramatically different defensive setup: Bryan LaHair moves to LF (Soriano out), Castro to CF (Campana back to the bench), David DeJesus in RF (warming up the spot for young Brett Jackson in 2013). Rizzo at 1B, Darwin Barney at 2B, Ian Stewart at 3B, and here's where the third major change comes in.

Find a young shortstop. How? I don't know that answer. Draft? Maybe (the Cubs are currently slated for one heck of a draft pick). Trade? This might work. Certain organizations who want to contend this season (see: Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, et al) might be willing to part with a young prospect at shortstop in exchange for a Matt Garza or a Ryan Dempster. As much as the Cubs wouldn't want to let either of these guys go, keep in mind: build for the future. If you lose an extra 10 games this season for the benefit of the next 10 seasons? Well worth it.

Lastly, the Cubs need to address their bullpen. Pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Paul Maholm, and Travis Wood are a good 2, 4, 5 combination for a starting rotation and either Dempster or Garza can fill one of the missing slots, so the starters will be fine. The 'pen, however, is not nearly as pretty. With Carlos Marmol's fear of bats and Wood retiring, there is a lack of experience back there. This is the portion of the team that can be developed most slowly and handled — if the team gets close to contention by next year — through free agency. I don't want to sound like I'm glossing over a major hole in the Cubs' roster, but I want to make it clear that a bullpen should not be prioritized over youngsters with all-star potential who will be playing every day (Castro, Jackson, Rizzo, etc.).

Obviously, the Cubs can't make enough rapid changes to become an immediate powerhouse, but with minor tweaks such as these (all wholly realistic), they could put themselves into contention as early as 2013. The NL Central is not the strongest division in baseball, and we've seen wild card teams prove again and again that just getting hot at the right time can make all the difference in the world between an early vacation and the World Series.

If the Cubs want to truly rebuild, then they need to do so in a way that builds camaraderie and trust among their current youth. The above ideas accomplish that.

Here's to hoping Epstein and Jed Hoyer see similar pathways to success and that the Cubs fanbase can enjoy a World Series before another four generations pass.

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