Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The 5 Most Exciting Cubs On The Roster

Do not come to this post expecting a mathematical formula or some sophisticated method for determining players on the brink of breakout. Rather, this is a list of five players on which I have a keen interest entering Spring Training.

Some of them may have a possibly important role in the team's future. Some of them may be role players with a chance to contribute in small, but meaningful ways. Pretty much all of them are going to be the kind of fringe players toward which I am inexorably drawn.

No. 5: Ian Stewart

2012 Numbers:
  • .201/.292/.335
  • 65 wRC+
  • 0.1 WAR through 202 PA

Ian Stewart is probably not a great third baseman. Defensively, his numbers are not bad. UZR, Total Zone, and the Fan Scouting Report all say nice things. But a good defensive third baseman is kind of easy to find. And on a rebuilding team like the Cubs, a good defensive third baseman can be a 25-year-old with strong minor league numbers looking for a chance to prove himself. He doesn't need to be a 28-year-old with 1620 PA at the MLB level already.

Also, through those 1620 PA, Stewart has an 84 wRC+. Third basemen tend to be around 100 wRC+. He's got catcher numbers at a corner position.

So why the heck am I excited about Ian Stewart entering the season? Well, this is his last chance. Not just at a starting job; it very well could be one of his final opportunities to prove he can (a) stay healthy and, more importantly, (b) hit. If he struggles this season, he will likely spend the final years of his career getting long-tossed around various minor league orgs until injuries necessitate he fill a bench role for a week or two.

For Stewart, the stakes are high. His impact to the Cubs is minimal, though. If he succeeds, it means his career continues, but probably not with the team toting around Javier Baez, Junior Lake, Jeimer Candelario, and Starlin Castro. His ceiling in Chicago is stopgap, but I think the 2013 squad -- with a vat of lucky breaks (like Stewart playing well) -- could be in Wild Card contention late in the season.

If Stewart can hit well (at this point, think: 100 wRC+), maybe he adds a run or two on offense, five runs on defense, and a win through replacement value. That puts him near 2.0 WAR, which is about an average starter in the MLB. I think that would be great for Stewart, and a huge bounty for the 2013 squad.

No. 4: Scott Feldman

2012 Numbers:
  • 5.09 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 3.95 SIERA
  • 116 ERA-, 86 FIP-, 94 xFIP-
  • 2.3 WAR, 0.3 RA9 Wins through 123.2 IP

Feldman, in my humblest of opinions, is the 2013 version of Paul Maholm. Feldman, like Maholm, is a pitcher whom I admired from a distance -- and a possible trade deadline bait. If the Cubs are exceeding expectations, and he himself does well too, they could keep him. His price for additional years should not be overly expensive -- certainly not beyond the Cubs' budget -- but if they decide to ship him for prospects, they still have Carlos Villanueva, Travis Wood, or Arodys Vizcaino ready and waiting for a rotation spot (depending on how Spring shakes out).

Steamer, arguably the best projection system for pitchers, forecasts a 4.21 ERA and 3.98 FIP for Feldman in 2013. If he can pitch just 175 innings in 2013 and maintain a 4.21 ERA, that would be good enough for about 2 wins. If he can do what I hope he can do -- bring the ERA to match his FIP -- that would put him in the 2.5 win region. And if he can put his knee problems far behind himself, then maybe 190 or 200 innings would not be impossible? That's close to a 3 win pitcher, all for $6 million. Not the biggest bargain, but more than great for a November pitcher (most bargain bin players come in January and February).

No. 3: Edwin Jackson

2012 Numbers:
  • 4.03 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 3.75 SIERA
  • 102 ERA-, 99 FIP-, 97 xFIP-
  • 2.7 WAR, 2.5 RA9 Wins through 189.2 IP

In the 2007 season, Jackson -- then pitching for the Devil Rays -- lost 8 consecutive decisions; he began the season 0-8. I suffered through every one of those games, including the no decisions in between. My good buddy Cole, a Braves fan (what did he have to be proud about in 2007?), ribbed me about having faith in Jackson. Maybe I still have too much faith in him. But, heaven help me, I still like Edwin Jackson.

His fastball is about 1.5 mph slower now than it was in that wild 2007 season -- a wild season in more than one respect -- and his reputation has taken a decidedly positive turn since that 0-8 start, but I still like Jackson and I still feel like his back is against the wall. Pundits on both sides of the analytical aisle made uneasy remarks when the Cubs signed Jackson for four years at $13 million per year. Yes, the 2013 free agent market for pitchers should be slim, but Jackson strikes most people as an altogether unspectacular pitcher.

Jackson is changing, though, and as he enters his age-29 season, I think Cubs fans will benefit from his growing control of the strike zone. Not only is he get early strikes more often, but he is missing more bats as his slider and changeup offerings improve:


I think Edwin could not only fill the Ryan Dempster innings-eater role, but I suspect he could turn a corner over the next four years and become a solid No. 2 pitcher behind Jeff Samardzija.

No. 2: Nate Schierholtz

2012 Numbers:
  • .257/.321/.407
  • 98 wRC+
  • 0.5 WAR through 269 PA

Over his last two seasons, Nate Schierholtz has around a 125 WRC+ against right-handed pitchers. We expect Schierholtz will assume a large platoon job in right field, swapping out with the equally platoontastic Scott Hairston (another acquisition I quite appreciate).

Schierholtz enters his age-29 season in 2013, but unlike last year's fun (and mildly successful) experiment with Bryan LaHair, Schierholtz has proven MLB success on his resume. He was only worth half a win in limited playing time in 2012, but with a lefty-killer like Hairston on the bench, the Cubs could conceivably limit Schierholt's lefty exposure to even less than the 26% lefty pitcher rate he saw in 2012 (NOTE: 26% is already a low rate).

I think there is enough data to suggest Schierholtz could blossom into a useful, wholly inexpensive platoon guy in right field. And his advanced fielding numbers (UZR, TZ, FSR) all beam about his right field defense. He probably will never be an All Star, but he can help a team win while allowing money to go into different positions (like extending Samardzija or Anthony Rizzo).

No. 1: Kyuji Fujikawa

2012 Numbers:
From my FanGraphs article:
Year Age Tm G SV IP Fujikawa
ERA
Fujikawa
FIP
ERA- FIP-
2007 26 Hanshin 71 46 83.0 1.63 1.43 42 35
2008 27 Hanshin 63 38 67.2 0.67 1.63 18 41
2009 28 Hanshin 49 25 57.2 1.25 1.95 35 49
2010 29 Hanshin 58 28 62.2 2.01 3.26 49 75
2011 30 Hanshin 56 41 51.0 1.24 1.40 41 39
2012 31 Hanshin 46 22 45.2 1.38 1.97 48 55
The minus stats are not park adjusted.

Fujikawa was Japan's Mariano Rivera. Moreover, he pitched for Matt Murton's team -- currently my favorite team, even though they are not managed too terribly well -- the Hanshin Tigers. Fujikawa, say I, is legit.

ZiPS projects a 3.38 ERA and 3.37 FIP over 50.7 IP. In terms of WAR and total team effect, Fujikawa may mean even less than Ian Stewart (somehow). But in terms of sheer awesomeness and late-career success stories, the 32-year-old reliever has me most excited. I fully expect him to wrest the closer job away from Carlos Marmol, either through trade (Marmol being traded, that is) or by means of steady success.

But, alas, as is always the case for relievers, he could bomb his way right into the minor leagues or back to Japan faster than Bryan LaHair reaches 20 homers and 50 strikeouts in Japan (I'm thinking that will take one solid week).

For now, though, he is the most exciting storyline in the Chicago Cubs camp.

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