Dunn deal? Cubs must think about defense first

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Dunn deal? Cubs must think about defense first

Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010
7:47 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Adam Dunn views himself in a way that others do not as a first baseman instead of the designated hitter who should be working four at-bats a night in the American League.

Dunn turned 31 this week and was once athletic enough to be recruited to play quarterback at the University of Texas. He is said to have the personality and swing for Wrigley Field, where he has generated 25 homers and 46 RBI in 66 career games.

Dunn would be the kind of left-handed bat that Cubs general manager Jim Hendry craves. Dunn would also be a defensive liability and another expensive long-term contract on a roster already saddled with those problems.

Even if these awards are based more on name recognition and offensive production, it was no surprise that the Cubs were shut out Wednesday when the National Leagues Gold Glove winners were announced.

You saw Alfonso Soriano hop while catching the ball, Starlin Castro slump when he couldnt make the play and Aramis Ramirez slow to react.

Your eyes told you the same thing the numbers did in 2010. The Cubs finished tied for last in the league in fielding percentage (.979). They committed 126 errors, or 25 more than the major-league average. They gave away 99 unearned runs and lost 32 one-run games.

That happened with a three-time Gold Glove winner Derrek Lee at first base for almost five months.

The Fielding Bible and its expert panel virtually ignored individual Cubs when voting on its annual awards. The online database at FanGraphs gave the Cubs an Ultimate Zone Rating of -7.3, which would slot them as a below-average, middle-tier team.

We can argue about the best way to understand and value defense, but there was a consensus on the Cubs. Whether youre looking at traditional statistics, new-wave metrics or just body language, you know that they need to improve their overall team defense.

The Cubs were outscored 767-685 last season and there is no easy way to make up that deficit, especially with a payroll that wont be increasing and more than 100 million already committed to nine players for 2011.

There will be hard choices to make at first base, with the rotation and in the bullpen. Most of the improvement will have to come from within.

Forget about the Soriano money its already gone. Yes, he will be 35 next year. And the energy he brings to the clubhouse, along with his willingness to work, isnt worth 19 million annually through 2014. But the Cubs cant write him off as a lost cause.

He hangs in there. Im so proud (that) he is committed to defense, manager Mike Quade said. He made a commitment to trying to be as good as he could there. Hes not dealing with the same lower half when he got here. We all know that.

(But) this guy will go home and work out and get himself in shape and come back expecting to have a better year next year. (I) know that he will.

The Cubs have similar hopes for a more mature Castro, who will turn 21 during spring training. Castro will be a priority for new bench coach Pat Listach, who worked with another talented rookie shortstop in Ian Desmond, the only player in the majors to commit more errors than Castros 27 last year.

Ramirez could be a free agent at this time next year. No one will really care about his defense if he makes a salary drive with 35 homers and 100-plus RBI.

Dunns talents could be unique enough to make a similar compromise. Since 2004, he has played in at least 152 games and hit between 38 and 46 homers each season. The Washington Nationals arent necessarily finished negotiating with his camp.

The Cubs and Nationals figure to take a look at Carlos Pena, whos regarded as a much better defender. Pena hit only .196 in Tampa Bay last season, but still accounted for 28 homers and 84 RBI, which would have led the Cubs in both categories.

Penas agent, Scott Boras, has shown that hes not afraid to get a client a one-year deal to restore market value and land the next big contract. Hendry will wait to figure out the shape of his roster before committing Tyler Colvin to the outfield or first base, which the 25-year-old hasnt played since college.

We think hes ready to be an everyday player, Hendry said last week. Well just see what spot we need him at before we get to camp.

The Cubs will have to weigh the unseen consequences of bad defense. Its turning over a lineup too soon, burning a reliever earlier than youd like or facing a No. 3 hitter when it should be the bottom of the order.

Better defense could reduce the pressure on all the young pitchers the Cubs think they have coming. It could give them the sense that they dont have to be perfect and can just throw strikes.

Then again, it would also help pitching with the confidence of a three-run lead after Dunn drilled another ball into the bleachers.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."