How can you make our young players better?
That’s what Cubs executives will want to know on Thursday, when they’re expected to interview Tampa Bay Rays bench coach Dave Martinez in Chicago. The ex-Cub has spent six years next to innovative manager Joe Maddon, a run that has produced five 90-win seasons, four playoff appearances and a trip to the 2008 World Series.
Whether or not you can clone a small-market miracle, the Rays have been a model for developing players, incorporating young assets and maximizing talent.
Dale Sveum’s game-planning and defensive shifting helped Darwin Barney win a Gold Glove in 2012. But the offensive struggles experienced by too many up-and-coming players got Sveum fired last month. That has kept Cubs executives busy looking for a new manager, who might have to make difficult decisions at second base in the near future.
Throughout October, CSNChicago.com will take state-of-the-organization snapshots, rewinding the 2013 season and looking ahead to the future, trying to figure out what’s next for the Cubs.
Core issues: Barney will turn 28 in November, meaning he’s not that young anymore. One club official has wondered how much better he’d fit on a monster team like the Detroit Tigers, where his offense wouldn’t be magnified, his defense could shine on the biggest stage and his intangibles would matter in October.
Barney bought into the program and hit .208 with an OPS that was almost 100 points lower than 2012 (.569 vs. .653). Barney finished with the lowest OPS among qualifying second basemen in the majors. It was 102 points lower than next-to-last Dan Uggla, who hit .178 for the Atlanta Braves.
Barney was also credited with 11 Defensive Runs Saved — the third-highest total in the game — and is viewed as a glue guy in the clubhouse. He’s a homegrown player who helped Oregon State University win back-to-back College World Series titles. He gets playing in Chicago and would love to be part of The Core.
X-factor: With Starlin Castro entrenched at shortstop, Javier Baez will likely have to find another position. Baez is definitely on the fast track after putting up 37 homers and 111 RBIs in 130 games split between advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee during his age-20 season. Baez is projected to open next season as the Triple-A Iowa shortstop, but there’s a feeling in the organization that his next move could be to second base.
On the radar: One National League scout raved about Arismendy Alcantara, saying he could play better defense at shortstop than Castro or Baez. Alcantara enjoyed a breakout year, going to the Futures Game and showing some pop (15 homers, 36 doubles), speed (31 stolen bases) and patience at Tennessee.
Here’s a prospect buying into the organization's hitting philosophy. In 1,249 plate appearances spanning 308 games in his first four professional seasons, Alcantara walked just 75 times. In 571 plate appearances this year, he drew 62 walks.
Alcantara figures to be one phone call away, beginning next season as Iowa’s second baseman.
Off the radar: Cubs executives were said to be miffed with the way Sveum managed the roster, wondering why Logan Watkins — the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2012 — got only 38 at-bats after being promoted from Iowa on Aug. 4.
Watkins made five starts at second base for the Cubs and went 0-for-13 as a pinch-hitter. He didn’t put together a great season at Iowa, hitting .243 with eight homers, 26 RBIs and a .711 OPS in 107 games. But he’s still only 24 years old and should benefit from the exposure and the experience.
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@DatDudeBP: Cubs writers desperately searching for stories could turn to Brandon Phillips, who reported for spring training with the Cincinnati Reds and said he felt “Punk’d” last year when he found out Barney won the Gold Glove.
“If somebody asks me a question, then don’t get mad at me for what I say,” Phillips said in April. “Don’t ask me a question that you already know what my answer’s going to be.
“It’s like if somebody asked you a question about your job (and) they say this person’s better than you or this person deserves more money than you or whatever.
“Your (answer’s) not going to be like: ‘Yes! This guy deserves more money than me!’ Even though you don’t think that. You’re not going to say that. You’re going to tell them how you feel. If you’re a real man, you’re going to say how you really feel.”
Phillips kept rolling and switched to a high-pitch voice: “‘Well, you know, uh, he deserves it’ and all this other stuff when you really — deep in your heart — know how you feel.
“I don’t worry about that, man. I said what I said, and I’m very happy. I mean ... do you know how many things I have for myself? I’m very happy where I’m at.”
This year’s winners will be announced during a primetime ESPN 2 special on Oct. 29. Will the Cubs have a new manager in place by then? Stay tuned.