Clubs rebuild. It’s a part of the process. Just look at what’s happening in Oakland right now. Every year, franchises begin rebuilds, continue rebuilds and occasionally start them all over again when the first one sinks into the swamp.
Rebuilds take patience. They can be exciting, and they can be frustrating. Those feelings are not mutually exclusive, in this case. The start of a rebuild can be exciting, because it ushers what is oftentimes a much-needed change in direction. There are typically big transactions that occur at the start of a rebuild, and big transactions are exciting.
The middle part of the rebuild sucks, and is the frustrating part. For several years, the on-field major league product is bad, and watching bad teams isn’t fun. The hopes of the team lie in minor league prospects, and minor league prospects don’t always pan out. When they don’t pan out is when the rebuild starts all over again, and that’s the worst kind of rebuild.
But as exciting as the beginning of a rebuild can be, nothing tops the realization of a successful rebuild and the expectation of imminent success that looms. Years of patience are awarded by the arrival of top prospects reaching their potential, coupled with a couple of marquee additions to compliment the shiny budding plants that are the homegrown prospects. The successful rebuild culminates with the flip of a switch, seemingly overnight, from “rebuild” mode to “contend.” It’s as liberating a switch as there is to be flipped as a front office executive of a major league franchise, and it’s a switch the Cubs are flipping as we speak.
A year after the promotion of top prospects Jorge Soler and Javier Baez and the breakouts of Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta, with the arrival of Kris Bryant imminent, the Cubs look to push their chips in the middle for 2015 and beyond.
They’ve been rumored for one of the big three free agent starting pitchers – Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields – since before free agency began. Their rotation, after Arrieta, is very thin, so it will take more than just one of those aces to build a competitive staff. The Cubs shored up one of those holes by signing former-Cub Jason Hammel to a two-year, $20 million contract yesterday afternoon.
The Cubs signed Hammel to a two-year contract less than 12 months after they signed him to a one-year contract, which nicely reflects how the state of the organization has changed in that time. Last offseason, when the Cubs inked Hammel, they did so as a rebuilding club. The plan with Hammel was the same as the plan with Scott Feldman a year prior: sign him to a cheap, one-year deal, fix him, and flip him at the deadline for prospects. Feldman netted the Cubs Arrieta, who pitched like a legitimate ace last year. Hammel helped the Cubs acquire Addison Russell. But this Hammel, this one is here to stay. This one is to help the Cubs win now, rather than in the future.
As is the hiring of Joe Maddon. As is the trade for Miguel Montero, which the Cubs completed on Tuesday afternoon, sending a couple of low level pitching prospects to Arizona. Welington Castillo is the current catcher for the Cubs, and he’s actually outproduced Montero by a considerable margin the last couple years, racking up 5.6 WAR to just 2.1 WAR from Montero. But there’s a few things about that.
First, Castillo has likely overperformed at the plate in that time, while Montero has likely underperformed. After four years of above-league average production at the plate, Montero’s offense plummeted in 2013 as he dealt with a lower back injury. He improved in a healthy 2014, but was still below-league average, thanks to a .275 BABIP. Montero has a career .306 BABIP, and while his age likely brings that down a few ticks, there isn’t much that’s changed in his batted ball profile to warrant such a steep dropoff. Steamer projects Montero’s BABIP and wRC+ to return to league-average levels in 2015 and forecasts him as a +3 WAR player. Castillo, on the other hand, has had his offensive numbers inflated by a .347 BABIP in 2013 that was likely an aberration. Steamer projects Castillo for a 95 wRC+ in 2015, and forecasts him as a +2 WAR player.
But there’s something that our WAR figures — and the Steamer projections — leave out, and it’s the biggest difference between the two catchers. You know what it is. Of course, it’s pitch framing. By StatCorner’s calculations, Montero was the most valuable framer in the league last year, at +24 runs. According to BaseballProspectus, Montero’s framing was worth about +19 runs, putting him in the top 10. Castillo, on the other hand, was valued at -24 runs by StatCorner and -11 by BP, putting him in the bottom five. No matter how much weight you put into the framing numbers, or which site’s formula you trust more, it’s clear: in going from Castillo to Montero, the Cubs would be going from one of the league’s worst framers to one of the best.
Examples of balls, according to the PITCHf/x strike zone, that went for strikes with Montero behind the plate:
And some examples of strikes, according to the PITCHf/x strike zone, that went for balls with Castillo behind the plate. The differences are subtle, but then again, everything about pitching framing is subtle. You see some of the things in Castillo’s technique that could lead to such poor numbers.
You see a flimsy wrist:
You see a noisy head and stabby glove:
You see this:
It makes sense for a team trying to court a high-profile free agent pitcher to acquire an elite pitch framer, especially when the one they currently have is the opposite of elite. Lester, notably, experienced first-hand what a switch like that feels like this year.
Maybe you don’t believe pitch framing numbers should be weighted as heavily as they are. I’m not even sure that I do. The numbers agree Montero is about a +2 WAR framer. Let’s cut that in half. Add it to his optimistic +3 WAR Steamer projection, and Montero comes out as something like a +3.5 WAR catcher in 2015. The numbers agree Castillo is something like a -15 framer, let’s regress that to -5. Castillo comes out as something like a +1.5 WAR catcher. It isn’t a monumental upgrade, but it’s an upgrade.
It looks even nicer when you consider the platoon splits. Castillo can’t hit right-handed pitching, but he’s run a 134 wRC+ in 206 plate appearances against lefties in his career (granted, .376 BABIP alert). Montero, on the other hand, has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching the last two seasons, but has been at least league-average against righties. Between the two, you’ve a lefty-masher who controls the running game as well as anyone, and you’ve also got an elite pitch-framer who hits righties. That’s an attractive combination not only for the Cubs lineup, but for a free agent pitcher considering coming to the Cubs.
The Cubs are expected to take on the entirety of Montero’s remaining $40 million, three-year deal, but given the forecasts and his framing abilities, that doesn’t seem like a terrible contract. Especially given that the Cubs have money. The payroll was just $93 million last year, but it was as high as $144 million in 2010. They’ve only got about $70 million on the books for 2015, and that number could double. Money is not an issue for the Cubs right now. If the they want to spend, they will.
Then there’s this:
If #Cubs get Lester, industry source says next move would be to pursue big bat and try to accelerate revival. A bat in addition to Montero.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 9, 2014
The Cubs are in that exciting, rare window where a multi-year rebuild appears to be complete, and the front office can finally have some fun in the open market. Front offices having fun typically translates to fans having fun, and there’s nothing not to like about what the Cubs are doing right now. They went out and got Joe Maddon to manage their championship-hopeful team. They went out and got Jason Hammel. They went out and got Miguel Montero, and that should help them be able to go out and get a top-tier starting pitcher. And even if/when they get that top-tier starting pitcher, they plan to go out and get more. Montero isn’t the biggest piece of the Cubs puzzle, but he’s a piece. It’s a puzzle the Cubs have been building for nearly five years, and it’s a puzzle that’s nearly complete.
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