Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
In the most recent Good Chicago Sports, I discussed why the Cubs' season qualifies as a definite success. Thanks largely to upgrading from the league's worst managers to one of the best, in addition to the continued development of several young pitchers, improved by 21 wins to an 88-74 record. A previously divisive clubhouse united under Dusty Baker, the Cubs weathered majors injuries to Corey Patterson and Hee Seop Choi, and despite an historic NLCS collapse, we see the foundation for extended success here.
The dual keys to success are maintaining the core offense and pitchers. If Sammy Sosa departs as a free agent rather than staying for the final years of his deal, GM Jim Hendry must replace him with an elite right fielder, perhaps Gary Sheffield if not Vladimir Guerrero. Aramis Ramirez merits a long-term extension in the neighborhood of $24M for three years to keep him in Chicago through 2007, and Corey Patterson should receive a deal of similar length as soon as he proves his health. Finally, Hee Seop Choi, who demonstrated the best offensive and defensive potential of any Cub first baseman prior to his injury, certainly deserves another chance to prove himself. Keeping these four players solidifies the 2-5 lineup slots for the next few years.
Cy Young candidate Mark Prior is under contract through 2006. Kerry Wood, who could be a free agent in a year, deserves a significant contract extension, likely in the $33M for three-year range, along with a vesting option. Exercising Matt Clement's $6M option for 2004 is a no-brainer, although neither he nor Carlos Zambrano merits an extension at this time. The Cubs should allow Clement to play out his contract and then depart for draft picks unless Chicago sees a way to acquire either a promising young middle infielder or a young left-handed starter like Casey Fossum for him. Assuming Prior, Wood, and Clement return, Zambrano and Juan Cruz should fill out the rotation. Signing a veteran like Shawn Estes was a dumb idea a year ago, so adding another overpaid veteran instead of trusting Cruz makes absolutely no sense now after the Cubs nearly advanced to the World Series strictly on the backs of young right-handers. Chicago does not need a left-handed starter in 2004, particularly with potential studs like Andy Sisco, Jason Jones, and Luke Hagerty in the pipeline.
Of course, even with the heart of the order and the starting rotation secured for $42M, the Cubs' expected payroll of $85+ allows plenty of room for help elsewhere. Mike Remlinger will return at $3.55M. Both Borowski and Kyle Farnsworth are key members of the bullpen, and particularly since the latter pitcher is homegrown and possesses significant upside, both merit long-term extensions. Giving each pitcher a deal in the neighborhood of $4.5M over three years, in addition to closer incentives, makes a lot of sense. Now, with Antonio Alfonseca, Dave Veres, and Mark Guthrie all likely departing, I'd like to see two of those slots filled from within the system. Todd Wellemeyer deserves one spot based on his early performance before inconsistent work diminished his effectiveness. Francis Beltran and Felix Sanchez should compete for the second spot. Even if Sanchez wins the job, Chicago needs a second lefty based upon Baker's match-up tendencies, so adding one veteran appears wise. Although I don't view Guthrie as an overly bad pitcher, Arthur Rhodes, Ricardo Rincon, and Dan Plesac qualify as obvious upgrades. Adding a quietly effective setup man like Steve Reed, or even Mike Timlin depending on his price, also wouldn't hurt, although spending more than a couple million on no more than two veterans is a terrible idea.
Regarding the rest of the offense and bench, Chicago seemingly appears set at most positions. Moises Alou, Alex S. Gonzalez, and Damian Miller all are under contract at a total of $17M. Arbitration-eligible back-ups Paul Bako and Ramon E. Martinez likely would sign for under $2M total.
Unfortunately, the Cubs only will exceed 85 wins in 2004 if they upgrade the offense. The team lacks a second baseman and leadoff hitter, and while I look forward to Alou returning for one more year, Dave Kelton should replace him in 2005 at a significant discount. Although Randall Simon played well in his time here, Choi also must play first unless the Cubs acquire an All-Star like Carlos Delgado while exchanging Choi for a very promising young middle infielder. The departures of Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek open up $12M in the infield alone, however instead of a first base "upgrade", Chicago needs make a significant splash in the free agent market by adding a top middle infielder.
The obvious target is Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui, the top priority for a half dozen teams. Even if somehow slumps to an .800 OPS in America, Matsui gives the Cubs a switch-hitting leadoff man with significant speed. He also would allow the team to develop a new line of revenue given the likely market for the broadcasting of Matsui's games in Japan. Alex Gonzalez could shift to second base for a year, instantly improving the infield range and providing an obvious benefit to groundball pitchers like Carlos Zambrano. If the Cubs stupidly blow this wonderful opportunity, Angels' middle infielders Adam Kennedy and Dave Eckstein would be capable short-term solution at second base and in the leadoff hole. While we don't want Grudzielanek to return, as long as the Cubs don't blow money on the wasted roster spots that J.T. Snow or Fernando Vina might occupy, I won't be furious with the Cubs' infield decisions. Losing Bobby Hill at the expense of keeping Beltran and Steve Smyth was a mistake, however second base is a not a difficult position to fill under nearly any circumstances.
After selecting power-hitting outfielder Ryan Harvey with the #6 pick in the draft, Chicago landed promising college catchers Jake Fox and Tony Richie with their next two picks. Although either player could develop into a long-term solution at this organizational black hole, a medium-term solution is required beyond the remaining year of Damian Miller's deal. Given that only Patterson, Choi, and perhaps the new middle infielder will bat left-handed, even someone like IRod wouldn't be a perfect fit here. As no quality lefty or switch-hitting catchers appears on the free agent market, the Cubs needs to deal for one. I don't envision Boston moving Jason Varitek right now, so Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Cleveland are the best potential trade partners. Of course, Cleveland should keep Victor Martinez and Josh Bard, and Dave Ross is a good fit on the Dodgers. With Joe Mauer closing quickly on the majors, Minnesota can move A.J. Pierzynski and Rob Bowen. I almost prefer Bowen given his salary and Pierzynski's abrasive attitude towards many opponents. However Bowen doesn't possess a track record of consistent production, and the Cubs desire to win now after last season. Sending a couple of solid pitching prospects to the Twins for Pierzynski is the best option available to Chicago, and a package of Bako, Mike Wuertz or Steve Smyth, and either Jae Kuk Ryu or a young reliever like Beltran should be sufficient compensation for Pierzynski. As he should get along with the staff, a three-year extension should be a mere formality.
With Damian Miller, Ramon Martinez, and Dave Kelton comprising half the Cubs' bench, we certainly can afford to add a couple of veteran pinch-hitters for balance, along with a back-up centerfielder since Kenny Lofton earned a starting job elsewhere. Minor league free agents like Jermaine Clark, Mike Colangelo, Olmedo Saenez, Kevin Witt, or Brent Butler could fill the Cubs' needs cheaply, however I expect them instead to spend perhaps $2M or more for a few free agents, possibly including a non-tender or two. Someone like Scott Spiezio, Chris Stynes, or even Jose Hernandez would be a welcome addition to the bench, however the most reasonable option in the infield may be Tony Graffanino. I'd like to see Chicago keep Tom Goodwin since he fits with this club, although other options include Eric Owens and Orlando Palmeiro. Signing Tony Clark, Todd Pratt, or even Andres Galarraga wouldn't be a bad idea if no better options surface in the Cubs' preferred price range.
Yet neither the Cubs' bench nor bullpen depth really matters this winter as Jim Hendry appears capable of adding any necessary help at these positions cheaply during the season. As long as the team retains the homegrown core of Wood, Prior, Zambrano, Farnsworth, Patterson, and Choi while finding a new starting middle infielder and catcher, Chicago should reach a .500 record in consecutive seasons for the first time in three decades while again competing for the playoffs.
David Kelton, 23, OF-R
Although Kelton didn't impress anyone in his short time in the majors this year, he at least averaged a solid #4.25 pitcher per plate appearance. The only way he'll see regular at-bats in 2004 is if either veteran corner outfielder suffers a major injury, however Kelton could develop off the bench as a pinch-hitter and back-up at the four corner positions. Conversely, giving him another full year at Iowa might be the best test to see if owns the bat necessary to replace Alou in 2005, although the Cubs also could surprise us by dealing him. So while we still like Kelton's long-term upside, he shouldn't make a significant fantasy impact next season.
Beltran's status apparently didn't drop as much as these stats indicate as the Cubs still expect him to develop into a dominant reliever. Unfortunately, neither his 6.1 K/9 nor 3.5 walk rate suggest he belongs in the majors to begin 2004. He remains quite young and could rebound with a strong season, however I see no reason to target Beltran in the spring.
After three minor league seasons, the undrafted right-hander now owns career skill ratios of an 8.8 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, .2 HR/9, and a 7.5 hit rate. While his AA hit rate slightly worries me, Brown, and not Frank Beltran, currently ranks as the best relief prospect in the system. Expect him to continue dominating most right-handers, earn a late-season cup-of-coffee, and then compete for a big league job in 2005.
His 12.1 K/9 will merit attention this winter, however Cash's control notably slipped despite converting to relief full-time and switching from the Texas to Southern Leagues. So while Cash may possess impressive upside, he likely requires a few more years of seasoning.
Gaining a couple years in agegate reduced Chavez's long-term upside, but his AAA debut cemented his status as a future big league regular. He at least appears capable of emerging as an effective reliever if his unimpressive strikeout rate forces a move to the bullpen, so expect to see him in the majors soon even if I doubt he'll remain with the Cubs much longer.
Although Toronto almost kept him as a Rule 5 pick, DuBois instead returned to the Cubs and found himself among the Southern League leaders in OBP and SLG before tailing off at the end of the year. He still posted respectable all-around numbers in addition to a .13 walk rate. Unfortunately, a .73 contact rate suggests further problems for DuBois even if he converts more of his 31 doubles into home runs. He certainly could compete with Dave Kelton for Moises Alou's job in 2005, but I instead see DuBois as developing into a solid back-up over the next few years barring a major improvement in his contact rate or power output.
Frese's solid fielding kept him on the 40-man roster for a few years, however he simply lacks the offensive proficiency necessary for a regular career in the majors. As he lacks both power and the apparent ability to hit for a respectable average, Frese will be lucky to attain anything beyond AAAA status in the foreseeable future.
Although Guzman's status as a prospect is in doubt after he required arthroscopic surgery in July to repair a torn labrum, Chicago expects him to rebound within the next year or so. Selecting him in any draft next year is an extremely risky proposition, but if you want to add a young starter with a very impressive ceiling, monitor health reports in the spring very carefully before rostering Guzman.
The acquisition of Aramis Ramirez should push Harris to second base or out of the organization if the Cubs don't protect him this winter on the 40-man roster. While his contact rate dropped from .87 to .83 this year, he smacked another 34 doubles while increasing his walk rate from .10 to .12. Harris obviously lacks great power, but his approach at the plate ranks with the best Cubs' hitting prospects. Although I don't plan on risking a pick on Harris in any league, he could emerge as a very intriguing prospect if he can handle the full-time move to second base without too many fielding problems.
While Jackson really needed a second season at AA after missing all but 32 games in 2002 due to injury, he didn't perform abhorrently in his AAA debut as he nearly managed a .700 OPS and committed only two errors in 122 games. Unfortunately, he still doesn't impress me as a prospect likely to achieve lasting success in the majors. If the Cubs can exchange him this winter either for a quality major leaguer or a younger prospect with more upside, Chicago should take advantage of that opportunity now before every other team realizes that Jackson likely won't amount to more than a quality bench player. His speed makes him an interesting fantasy prospect, but the uncertainty regarding his career means you should ignore him for now.
The Cubs' lack of quality left-handers in the upper minors might result in Jongejan reaching the majors in the near future, but other than a decent strikeout rate, I don't see much upside in his skills. While he easily could develop into a quality LOOGY, I see no reason to draft Jongejan at this time.
A native of the Chicago suburb of La Grange, Karnuth likely will depart the Cubs as a minor league free agent after posting a terrible command ratio at Iowa. Even a strong rebound following a demotion apparently didn't redeem Karuth in the Cubs' eyes, and given his past struggles at AAA, he likely will plateau as a AAAA reliever, receiving an occasional call-up but no consistent big league experience.
Koronka almost broke camp with the Rangers as a Rule 5 pick, however they returned him to the Reds, where he posted a relatively impressive array of stats that led the Cubs to deal AAAA lefty Phil Norton in exchange for him. Hopefully the Cubs will recognize his decent control and questionable dominance should translate nicely to the bullpen, so although he could remain starting at Iowa next season, Koronka could reach the majors faster if Chicago shifts him to relief work.
Leon simply possesses too much power to remain in the upper minors for much longer. Some team desperate for a third baseman needs to sign him this winter and see if he can overcome his terrible walk rate while starting in the majors. He isn't likely to make a great contributions to many roto teams, but Leon possesses sufficient skills to be useful to some owners.
McDonald deserves a regular big league job, even if just as a backup, given his plate discipline and power potential. Don't draft him until you see some team commit to him, although he normally shouldn't hurt you as roster filler.
While we believed Melian deserved some consideration last year after improving his plate discipline, his complete failure at Iowa, coupled with his further problems back at AA, make him a poor choice for any team. He'll need some luck as a minor league free agent to secure regular starting job unless scouts still see something in his performance that his stats don't show.
Mitre lucked into a mid-season spot start over Juan Cruz and Todd Wellemeyer because pitching schedules only allowed Mitre to start for the Cubs on regular rest. While his poor performance against Atlanta cost the Cubs a game, he continued excelling in the majors and impressed everyone with four scoreless innings on the last day of the season. Improving his strikeout rate from a 5.1 K/9 to a 7.9 mark this season while jumping past high-A to West Tenn is an excellent indicator of future success, as are Mitre's 2.5 BB/9 and .4 HR/9. While he needs a year at AAA Iowa, Mitre's upside makes him a top candidate to replace Matt Clement in the Cubs' 2005 rotation if they don't need him as trade bait. Certainly consider drafting him as long as you don't lose anyone that changes leagues.
Stolen from the Astros a year ago for a month of Tom Gordon's services, the 5'11" Nannini continued to defy most scouts by completely dominating in his second AA season. If the Cubs don't add him to the 40-man roster soon, they almost certainly will lose him the Rule 5 draft since I doubt every team will pass on the opportunity to acquire a AA starter with a 9.2 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9. Nannini merits consideration in Dollar Days if he earns a spot in some team's bullpen, although if he remains in the Cubs' system, hold off on drafting him given the level of competition in Chicago's minors.
Sanchez didn't approach the success of Sergio Mitre despite making the jump with his former Lugnuts' teammate from Lansing to West Tenn. Yet he maintained his dominance and should emerge as a promising reliever by the end of next season. Although he probably needs more minor league seasoning and doesn't belong on any fantasy team right now, Sanchez possesses sufficient skills to see pitch reasonably well if he wins a job in camp.
Chicago still seems to consider him a prospect, however Smyth now owns career AAA ratios of 6.9 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9, not marks one normally associates with a future star. I believe the only reason the Cubs still possess Smyth is their relative dearth of left-handers in the upper minors. Hopefully they'll realize that Smyth isn't the solution to these problems and instead protect a more worthy prospect on the 40-man roster this winter.
The Cubs' third-round pick in 2001, Theriot's combination of plate discipline, speed, and decent fielding at both shortstop and second base might earn him a look at some point in 2004 given the Cubs' lack of middle infield options. He likely isn't a future starter in the majors, however Theriot's upside should allow him to develop into a respectable bench option who can post decent numbers as a MIF.
Welcome improvement in Wuertz's control still likely won't earn him a spot on the Cubs' crowded 40-man roster as his conversion to relief reduces his value to the team. I still expect him to develop into an effective big league pitcher, but the Cubs seem very unlikely to seriously consider employing him in the majors given the number of younger and more dominating pitchers rising through the system.
Chadd Blasko, 22, RH Starter
The depth of Chicago's pitching prospects makes the selection of any young pitcher here a risky move. However, while Bobby Brownlie, Luke Hagerty, Matt Clanton, Justin Jones, Billy Petrick, Rich Hill, and Rocky Cherry all have showed solid skills at times since the '02 draft, is the only member of his draft class to already find significant success above A-ball thus far. His combination of dominance and all-around skill makes him a solid selection in very deep minor league drafts for anyone looking for a future pitching stud.
The sheer number of quality arms in the lower levels of the system should force a high ranking, however I see no one ready to make a significant contribution in 2004 and few prospects that even qualify as good bets for 2005. Unless the depth of your league forces teams to overdraft potential aces like Andy Sisco and Jason Jones while they remain at AA, you will find less interesting targets for spring drafts among Cubs' prospects than almost any other team.
Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2003, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of minor league draft picks from the lower levels of each system:
1. Minnesota Twins(Restovich, Mauer, Crain, Balfour, Bartlett)
1. Dave Kelton, OF
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