The Cubs have spent the last four years in the tank. They're loaded with promising offensive prospects now, and they've even found a few decent pitchers by accident. This figures to be their last meaningless September for a while.
All three of the Cubs' starting pitchers in this series were acquired in late-season trades. First up is righty Jacob Turner, recently added from the Marlins in arguably the first pure buyer's trade of the Theo Epstein era. Turner, a highly regarded prospect, pitched ineffectively at each end of the Detroit-Miami Axis of One-Sided Trades, and when the Marlins sent him through waivers a month ago, the Cubs claimed him in exchange for two pitching prospects. (Maybe they were buying low, but they were still buying...) Turner's been hurt by a .360 BABIP this year, though his strikeout and walk numbers have finally started to move in the right direction. That was exactly how it went in 2013 for the Tuesday starter…
… one Jake Arrieta, who has pitched to a 2.81 ERA in 2014. He'll get some Cy Young votes, and deservedly so. The 6'4 righty is finally paying off the Orioles' faith in him - enough faith to let him start 63 games in Baltimore with a 5.46 lifetime ERA, but not enough to resist trading Arrieta and Pedro Strop to the Cubs last summer in exchange for a half-season of Scott Feldman. That deal's looking pretty good for the north siders now. Arrieta still throws hard - sits at 93 and can crank it up higher if necessary. More importantly, he's ditched his slider in favour of a hard cutter, which has improved his command and helped to neutralize lefty batters. Current Jays are a combined 10/67 against Arrieta, and Jose Bautista, in particular, is 0/10 with 4 walks and a fastball off the skull. Only Adam Lind (4/9, a homer, 3 walks) has had any success against Arrieta.
Wednesday starter Kyle Hendricks actually has better numbers than Arrieta, though in only 10 starts. The Cubs took a flyer on Hendricks in exchange for Ryan Dempster, who proceeded to post a sweet 5.09 ERA for the 2012 Rangers in 12 starts. Another deadline heist for the Cubs? Baseball unfairly discriminates against velocity-challenged righties who know how to pitch, and it's always heartening to see one succeed. This one's a ninth-round pick out of Dartmouth who throws around 88 with a soft cutter, a changeup and a curveball. Hendricks has a very good minor-league track record, and his performance with the Cubs has been even better: he hasn't allowed more than two runs since his debut.
The Cubs' lineup is exciting. Young, talented, very raw. They'll guess, they'll chase, they'll hit 460-foot homers. It's missing its two key hitters in Anthony Rizzo (back strain) and Starlin Castro (ankle sprain), both of whom may be out for the season, which has opened up even more playing time for the kids they've called up. They have indeed called up all of their prospects from the high minors, with the exception of Kris Bryant.
In this lineup full of all-or-nothing hitters, the most extreme all-or-nothing hitter is shortstop Javier Baez, whose ridiculous bat speed draws comparisons to Gary Sheffield, but unfortunately has been insufficient to keep his strikeout rate below 42%. Where most unproven hitters get challenged with fastballs until they prove can hit them, Baez arrived in the majors with his scouting report already written: "do not pitch to this guy!" He currently has the fifth lowest Strike Zone Percentage of anyone in the majors. Only four guys have seen more pitches outside the rulebook strike zone than has Baez: Avisail Garcia, Pedro Alvarez, Juan Francisco and Pablo Sandoval. (You might not think of Sandoval as a hacker in light of his high batting average, but he's actually swinging at more of his out-of-zone pitches than anyone else in the majors except Reed Johnson. Who knew? At the other end of the spectrum, naturally, is Mookie Betts.)
Baez is not the only guy in the lineup with this profile, of course. Mike Olt's starting at first base tonight. He was a late-blooming power hitting prospect for the Rangers who at age 24 was the best hitter in all of AA in 2012. Like Baez, Olt has big power and a bigger hole in his bat; unlike Baez, Olt's four years older and doesn't play shortstop. He may be the new Wily Mo Pena - a menacing righty platoon hitter. He had three hits yesterday, raising his batting average to a robust .154.
The (usual) leadoff hitter is the man with the best name in baseball, switch-hitting 2B/CF Arismendy Alcantara (it rhymes with 'mantra,' and I'll bet you anything Tim Langton butchers it at least once this week). He's speedy and has some pop; his K/BB ratio in the majors isn't so great. He'll guess a lot. Righty-hitting outfielder Junior Lake had the good fortune of starting his career with seven games in Denver and Phoenix last year, and seven games into his carer he was hitting .484/.500/.774. It's been pretty rough for him since then. He'll probably start against Buehrle tomorrow night. My Cubs friends are less optimistic about Lake starting to control the strike zone than they are about Alcantara, for some reason. First baseman Chris Valaika (really a utilityman) and catcher Welington Castillo are also strikeout-prone and moderately powerful.
Castillo is an interesting fielder. He's a terrific pitch blocker and, if you believe the numbers, a godawful pitch framer (dead last in RAA, according to StatCorner). His backup is John Baker, a patient hitter with no power who's simply getting run over like Josh Thole was last year. Third catcher Rafael Lopez, a rookie who's been called up simply because it would be stupid not to call up a third catcher, has given ample evidence that he can draw a ton of walks in the minors. He only has two plate appearances in the majors. When he plays, he will probably be put on the Baker/Thole diet of fastballs and more fastballs.
The Cubs actually do have a few players who can control the strike zone, sort of. Top prospect Jorge Soler, a 22-year-old Havana native who plays right field, had excellent K/BB numbers as he blitzed AA and AAA and forced his way to the majors. Third baseman Luis Valbuena, who briefly passed through Toronto, is probably your best bet. He's patient - he has always walked and struck out a lot - but this year he's hitting far more flyballs than ever before, and more of his flyballs are leaving the yard. He'll probably bat third in Rizzo's absence. Leftfielder Chris Coghlan's a pretty tough out as well. His fielding stats are abysmal, though I suspect the numbers might be unduly harsh on corner outfielders in Wrigley since they have an incentive to guard the lines extra-carefully.
The Cubs have taken full advantage of the September roster rules by expanding to a 13-man bullpen. Hey, why not? You're probably snickering, but they managed to use all 13 pitchers while getting swept by the Pirates last weekend. The closer is 26-year-old Venezuelan fireballer Hector Rondon. The setup man is Pedro Strop, whose command comes and goes, but whose slider is so good that it often doesn't matter. Backing him up are righties Neil Ramirez (a flyball-prone strikeout machine), Brian Schlitter (can't miss bats, can kill worms) and Justin Grimm (a converted starter who's throwing harder and with more focus). DeQuam LaWesley Wright's the lefty specialist. Legendary NPB closer Kyuji Fujikawa is working his way back from injury. Old friend Carlos Villanueva had a nightmarish April as a starter, but has held opponents to .230/.291/.373 as a reliever. Dan Straily, Arodys Vizcaino, Zac Rosscup and Eric Jokisch will also be present. I'm not sure the bullpens at the SkyDome have enough seating to accommodate 13 pitchers plus catchers and coaches. We'll find out soon.
On balance, I think the Jays match up reasonably well against this team. If Stroman and Hutchison have their good breaking balls working, the Cubs' hitters are screwed, and I think there's a fair chance someone literally falls down in the batter's box against Buehrle. That's the good news. The bad news is that these guys are feisty and motivated, since the majors are novel and exciting and they're all competing against each other anyway, and they have some hitters who will absolutely pulverize mistakes. The other bad news is Turner-Arrieta-Hendricks is just about the worst possible draw from the Cubs' six-man rotation. Then again, the Jays' bats have been pretty productive recently. It should be a good series.
Song to Advance Scout to: Dancing in September?