August 31, 2012
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion at the start of this season that the Chicago Cubs were not going to be in contention for the postseason, regardless of the addition of a second wild card spot in each league. You could have five wild cards in each league this year and the team from the north side of Chicago still wouldn’t be serious contenders. The premise was that under new leadership, led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, that the Cubs would make moves to replenish the farm system and tries to build from within.
The team was proactive from the start, making the move of dealing Andrew Cashner to San Diego for first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Tyler Colvin was dispatched as was D.J. Lemahieu and a handful of other players before the regular season ever got underway. Carlos Zambrano was sent to the Marlins in exchange for Chris Volstad and the Cubs rotation has been a state of flux all year. We previously discussed moves at the deadline that saw starting pitchers Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster get dealt along with reserve outfielder Reed Johnson and catcher Geovany Soto.
With all those moves, not to mention the triceps injury suffered by Matt Garza that prematurely ended his season or Ian Stewart’s wrist surgery, there has been no shortage of youngsters called up by the Cubs this year. Rizzo was called up by the team in late June and following the deals at the trade deadline, top prospects Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters were called up as well. Several pitchers have made their major league debuts as well. Let’s take a look at what some of the young players have done for the Cubs in their first tour of duty in the major leagues, following Thursday’s rousing come from behind 12-11 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Anthony Rizzo: Epstein and Hoyer were well aware of what Rizzo could do as he was Boston’s top prospect. The Red Sox dealt Rizzo to San Diego in the deal that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Fenway Park (though he was subsequently dealt recently to the Dodgers in a blockbuster trade) and were more than happy to acquire him for the Cubs.
Rizzo spent the first couple of months of the 2012 season terrorizing pitching in the Pacific Coast League while Brian LaHair manned first base for the Cubs. LaHair played well enough to be named a reserve for the National League All Star team but he struck out far too often and was dreadful against left handed pitching. When the Cubs recalled Rizzo from Iowa, LaHair occasionally played a corner outfield spot or had a spot start at first base but for the most part, it’s been Rizzo anchoring first base since.
Rizzo has provided solid numbers since being called up. In 57 games, he has posted a .283 average with eight doubles, nine home runs and 30 runs batted in. More importantly, he has curbed his strikeout rate: after fanning 46 times in 128 at-bats with the Padres in 2011, Rizzo has been punched out 38 times in 219 at-bats so far this year. He also has been a solid defensive player, committing just two errors in 466 chances, a .996 fielding percentage. He won’t get many votes for National League Rookie of the Year, especially with Bryce Harper in the mix, but has been a solid addition for the Cubs.
Brett Jackson: Jackson made his big league debut on August 5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, going 2 for 4 with a walk. He immediately followed that by going hitless in his next four games, dropping his average to .118 on the year. Jackson has been hot the past week or so, drilling three of his four homers and driving in six of his eight runs in the past seven games, including a 2 for 3 performance with two runs scored, two runs batted in and two walks in Thursday’s game.
Jackson still strikes out far too often and has looked overmatched at times. He has struck out in exactly half his at-bats so far this season (37 whiffs in 74 at-bats) but has begun to work counts and draw walks as well. Jackson has 14 free passes, helping his on-base percentage to a healthy .341 mark, in stark contrast to his .216 average. Jackson has shown the ability to hit for power: of his 16 hits so far, 10 of them have gone for extra bases with five doubles, a triple and four home runs. It would be no surprise for Jackson to become a fixture in center field going forward.
Josh Vitters: Vitters has been touted as the answer at third base for the Cubs since he was drafted third overall in 2007. With the departure of Aramis Ramirez via free agency to Milwaukee, it was expected that Vitters would make an appearance at some point during the 2012 season and stake his claim at the hot corner for the big league team. Following Stewart’s trip to the disabled list and subsequent statement that his season was over, it was Luis Valbuena, not Vitters, who was called up to play on a regular basis.
Vitters made his big league debut on August 5 in a pinch hitting role. Since then, he’s appeared in 15 games, three as a pinch hitter, including Thursday and a dozen at third base. He’s looked completely overmatched at the plate and is hitting an anemic .093 (5 for 54), with 19 strikeouts. The walk he drew in his at-bat Thursday was only his second of the season. On the bright side, three of his five hits have gone for extra bases (two doubles, one home run) so far. Dale Sveum said that Valbuena will get the lion’s share of the starts in the final month of the season, which would seem to put Vitters back in Iowa to start next season too.
Brooks Raley: With the departure of Dempster and Maholm and the injury to Garza, the Cubs needed some arms to step in and pitch in the rotation. One of them was Raley, who made his big league debut August 7 against the San Diego Padres. He struggled in his debut, allowing seven earned runs and eight hits in four innings of a 7-4 defeat. He picked up his first major league victory in his third start, allowing three runs on four hits in 5.1 innings against the Cincinnati Reds on August 18.
Raley followed that win up with a pair of no decisions: he pitched five innings against the Colorado Rockies on August 25, giving up two runs and five hits, leaving with a 3-2 lead. However, Manny Corpas allowed the tying run to score in the sixth inning and was responsible for the winning run in the seventh in a 4-3 defeat. He made his fifth start in Thursday’s game, getting hammered for seven runs and ten hits in four innings after being spotted a 3-0 lead.
After the game, Sveum said that the start was Raley’s final one for the season, as he was being shut down after reaching his innings limit for the season. Raley finished 1-2 with an 8.14 earned run average in five starts spanning 24.1 innings. He needs to work on cutting down on home runs: he allowed seven in his big league stint, far too many for a pitcher that is a finesse hurler.
Chris Rusin: With Raley done for the year, it’s expected that Chris Rusin will be recalled from Triple-A Iowa to take over in the rotation for the rest of the year. Rusin was 8-9 with a 4.55 earned run average in 25 starts for Iowa this season. In those starts, he walked 53 hitters and struck out 94, allowing 17 home runs among his 146 hits. He was 5-2 with a 4.02 earned run average in 11 games, nine starts with Iowa in 2011 after being called up from Double-A Tennessee.
Rusin made his big league debut on August 21 for the Cubs in a start against the Milwaukee Brewers. He was solid, pitching five innings, allowing one run on one hit with two walks, four strikeouts and two hit batsmen. Unfortunately for Rusin, the Cubs offense was silent that night and he took the loss in a 5-2 Milwaukee victory. Rusin tripled in that game but was stranded. He’s expected to be recalled when rosters expand Saturday, if not sooner.
Wait ‘til next year is somethings that Cubs fans have been saying since 1908. While this one wasn’t unexpected, with the on the job training that the young players are getting now, it may help speed the transition into becoming a winning ball club instead of the lovable losers that the team has been for years.