Cubs Roster Moves

The Cubs travel to Tempe today to face the suddenly depleted Angels. Carlos Zamrbano's final tune-up before Opening Day and he'll be opposed by Jered Weaver. The game is on MLB.tv.

The Cubs also settled on their position players to start the season, choosing the lefty bat and infield abilities of Mike Fontenot over the superior righty bat of Matt Murton's. A difficult, but understandable decision on the Cubs part. While Murton is the better hitter, the addition of Fontenot gives the Cubs two lefty bench bats and someone besides Ronny Cedeno to back up the middle infield. The bench will consist of Henry Blanco, Daryle Ward, Ronny Cedeno, Reed Johnson and Mike Fontenot. I can't say I'm thrilled, but I do hope that if Soriano or Fukudome go down with an injury that Murton is still the top choice to replace them on an everday basis. The Cubs also released non-roster invitee Alex Cintron.

Finally, a loyal reader has four tickets for the April 2nd game at Wrigley versus the Brewers. I'm not too interested in becoming a ticket exchange or broker, but he's offering them at below face value, so I thought I'd pass along the note. Drop me an email and I'll forward it to him if you're interested. They're in Aisle 434, Row 2 and retail for $23 each. He's willing to break them up into pairs and is only asking $20 for each ticket. In other words, $40 or $80 instead of $46 or $92. I take no responsibility for their authenticity and don't think I'll do this for everyone.

So the Cubs' Extra Righthanded-Hitting Outfielder spinner stopped and it landed on...former Toronto Blue Jay, Reed Johnson. The Cubs signed the 31-year-old Johnson to a one-year contract on Tuesday, in time for Johnson to make his Cactus League debut this afternoon against the Giants. (He went 2-for-5.)

Rich Hill's last or second to last chance to straighten things out before the Cubs start the regular season. He'll battle fellow south-paw Jonathan Sanchez.

The Cubs announced more roster cuts today with Eric Patterson and Sam Fuld being optioned to Triple A and Micah Hoffpauir, Casey McGehee and pitcher Les Walrond being assigned to minor league camp. With the addition of Reed Johnson, that leaves 32 in camp with 2 non-roster invitees (Alex Cintron and Chad Fox). Angel Guzman was also put on the 60-day disabled list.

I've updated our 40-man roster page and our new Cubs Depth Chart to reflect the changes.

Bruce Levine on ESPN1000 is reporting that the Cubs have come to terms with recently released Blue Jay Reed Johnson. Johnson was a 17th round pick of the Blue Jays in 1999, back when Tim Wilkin was running things over there and I'm sure the connection helped his cause with the Cubs. He's mostly played the corner outfield spots in his career, but has played 64 games in center in the majors. He had a great 2006, hitting 319/390/479, but has a career line of 281/342/410 with little ability to steal a base. He's also coming off a back injury that derailed his 2007 season. His scouting report on TSN.ca says:

Hustle is his strongest suit. He makes consistent contact and hits well
with runners in scoring position--especially against lefties.

Hustle? Mix that with a little grit and you've got yourself a ballpayer.

BP projected him at 262/324/387 this year which certainly isn't encouraging. On the other hand, he's hit 308/371/462 versus lefties over his career, and that'll likely be his primary role with the Cubs. It's a low-risk, high reward deal for the Cubs to fill out the need for a right-handed hitting center field option. If he stinks up the joint, he'll be easy to cut, and if he hits and plays "good enough" center field defense, it'll be a wise, low-cost move that didn't cost us any trade chips.

As promised, Lou Piniella announced the rotation and closer duties today. After going on back-to-back days, Kerry Wood apparently woke up still able to move and will be the Cubs closer to start the year. When he eventually goes on the disabled list this season, Carlos Marmol or Bob Howry should be able to step right in.

The Cubs starting five will be Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Rich Hill and Jason Marquis. Jon Lieber will start the year in the bullpen in a long relief role, ready to step in when/if Rich Hill continues to struggle with the strike zone or when/if Ryan Dempster continues to be Ryan Dempster or when/if Jason Marquis continues to be Jason Marquis.

The Cubs bullpen will likely look like this to start the year:

Jon Lieber

Kevin Hart

Scott Eyre*

Michael Wuertz

Bob Howry

Carlos Marmol

Kerry Wood

* If Eyre's elbow tightness lands him on the disabled list to start the year, either Carmen Pignatiello or Sean Marshall will likely take his spot.

The Cubs announced their second round of roster cuts, trimming the roster by seven. Pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Ed Campusano, Juan Mateo were sent to the minors and Shingo Takatsu was released. Jake Fox, Luis Figueroa and JD Closser were the position players sent to minor league camp. 


Today at HoHoKam, Carlos Zambrano takes the mound versus the Athetics, who will send out lefty Greg Smith to start.

The Cubs have signed 29-year old switch-hitting FA middle-infielder Alex Cintron to a minor league contract with an NRI to Spring Training. He is expected to report to Fitch Park with the rest of the position players tomorrow.

A native of Puerto Rico, Cintron is a veteran of 598 MLB games over parts of seven seasons, the first five with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the last two with the White Sox. He has a 277/315/401 career line, but hit only 243/281/324 last season as a back-up middle-infielder with the Sox. His best season was in 2003 with Arizona, when he hit 317/359/489 with 13 HR, but he hasn't come anywhere close to that since. He had elbow surgery after the 2006 season.

Signing Cintron is presumably insurance in case the Cubs end up trading Ronny Cedeno to Baltimore as part of the long-rumored package that would be required to get second-baseman Brian Roberts from the Orioles.

Or the Cubs could opt to keep both Cedeno and Cintron as extra men, although that might cause a problem since they might also feel the need to carry a right-handed hitting or switch-hitting "4th OF" who can back-up all three OF positions and also (if necessary) play CF against LHP.

Since Daryle Ward, Henry Blanco, and Matt Murton (if he doesn't get traded) would seem to be assured of three of the five bench gigs, carrying two back-up middle-infielders on the roster would probably rule out keeping a "4th OF" on the bench.

If he isn't traded, Cedeno (who is out of minor league options) could conceivably prove to be the right-handed hitting alternate CF the Cubs are seeking, but that is far from a sure thing (Cedeno played only about a dozen games in CF in the Venezuelan Winter League), and a lot would depend on how he adapts to the position during the course of ST.

The Cubs apparently acquired OF Matt Ciaramella from the Boston Red Sox to complete the Jermain Van Buren deal from a few weeks back. He was a 13th round pick in 2004 who went to the University of Utah, 23 years old, throws lefty, hits from both sides of the plate, can play both corner outfield positions. Put up a line of .302/.360/.422 in A ball last year in 222 at-bats. A scouting report that was posted over at nortshsidebaseball.com says:
Hits for both average and power. Good Speed. Very Intelligent with great baseball instincts. Athletic and strong.

Here's some more links if you care to read up on the kid. Sounds like a quality guy: Interview in Sept, 2004 with his alma mater His old Sox Prospect page A bit on him from Sons of Sam Horn

Thanks to ShawndGoldman for the scoop...

When the Cubs first signed LaTroy Hawkins as a free agent in the first few days of December 2003, they were signing the most dominant eighth-inning pitchers in the game. And, through until early June, that is exactly what they got, and at a good price too. Hawkins' numbers from the start of 2002 (when he was of course with the Twins setting up Eddie Guardado) through to that June were simply formidable...

  IP H HR BB K ERA GB/FB
LaTroy Hawkins 188.1 149 12 36 162 1.91 1.21

It was only then, when Joe Borowski hit the disabled list, that Dusty Baker took the decision that changed LaTroy Hawkins' career - he moved him to closer. This at the time was a move many approved of. Those that disapprove didn't have the strongest case. Hawkins certainly struggled mightily in the role in 2001, but that neglects two points. Firstly, while Hawkins did have a disasterous 2001 as the Minnesota closer, he only earned that job by going a perfect 14-for-14 in save opportunities the year before. Secondly, Hawkins, reacting to 2001, made huge changes to his game that winter - he scrapped a high leg kick and compacted his delivery, which brought him improved control and velocity on his pitches, and he worked hard upon improving his off-speed stuff. The results of his re-invention were the numbers above, so far removed from his numbers prior to 2002 (5.78 ERA) that he may as well have been a completely different pitcher. Hawkins in 2001 wasn't just a bad closer, he was a bad pitcher. The latter was in June 2004 certainly not the case.

Leaving aside debates as to whether the best reliever on the staff should be strictly limited to the ninth with one to three run leads, Dusty's decision to try Hawkins as a closer was certainly justifiable. Where Dusty erred though was in standing by his ninth-inning man too long, when it was abundantly clear that Hawkins, for whatever reason, still couldn't handle the ninth. Instead Dusty ran him out there time and time again, and time and time again Hawkins either failed to close the door or only closed it with a squeak rather than a slam. There was a real lack of confidence and conviction to his pitching, and he seemed far more prone to leaving pitches, especially with 0-2 counts, in areas where hitters could hit them too hard...

  IP H HR BB K ERA GB/FB
LaTroy Hawkins 71.1 73 11 15 58 3.28 0.70

Those numbers, from when he first inherited the ninth through yesterday, would appear to come to the same conclusion. In particular, Hawkins allowed an increasing number of flyballs, and flyballs (especially at Wrigley) have a nasty habit of from time to time leaving the ballpark, which of course is the worst thing a pitcher can do if he's in the business of preventing runs. All the same, those numbers taken as a whole are far from bad. Charicatures of Hawkins as some sort of Alfonseca figure who was responsible for all of our bullpen's woes are far-fetched and inaccurate. Indeed, even that lesser version of Hawkins was still a comfortably above-average reliever, and the Cubs' bullpen will take a hit without him. Then again, as a result of irresponsible management on Dusty's part, overreacting and relegating Hawkins to mere mopup work, that hit had already been taken. And that, combined with the boo-birds of Wrigley, made Hawkins' situation in Chicago unnecessarily untenable. There's more than a touch of the Sosa debacle about the fall of LaTroy, only underlined by the fact the top brass was willing to eat some of his contract to ship him elsewhere.

There is a fundamental difference though between the Sosa and Hawkins trades - the level of the talent the Cubs received in return. Jerome Williams and David Aardsma represent a far better haul given what we gave up than Jerry Hairston and a retired pitcher (though, in fairness, the Orioles will be sending someone to replace Crouthers). Williams, who won't turn 24 until December, is one of the better young pitchers in the game, with pedigree as a prospect and considerable major league experience (and no small amount of success) under his belt. That is though in spite of some areas of his game upon which he needs to work, as per Baseball America...

When healthy, Williams has command of a low-90s fastball that he uses to set up a very good changeup. He has yet to find a consistent third pitch however, with both his curveball and slider lacking the depth or command to be a consistent out pitch. Williams' conditioning also has come into question.

That when "healthy" caveat is a rather large one. Williams last season suffered first from tendinitis in his throwing shoulder and later in the year required arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow. It, of course, goes without saying that shoulder and elbow injuries in one so young are most definately not a good sign. Neither has the way Williams has been throwing so far this year - his customary control deserting him and his ERA, at Triple-A no less, rocketing though the roof. How much of that is attributable to the fact his seriously ill father required liver and kidney transplants during Spring Training (Williams also lost his mother at 19) remains to be seen. The Giants did a good job of offloading Kurt Ainsworth down the stretch in 2003 just before injury completely ruined his prospect status (well, I say a good job, but actually all they got in return was Sidney Ponson for a few months!), and I'm slightly concerned that the same fate may be about to befall Williams, shedding a brighter light on his very disappointing numbers so far. It's possible the Giants know something about Williams that we're not going to like finding out for ourselves.

If that is not the case, and the Giants have traded him in good faith, I simply cannot understand this move on their part. To give up a pitcher as young, as promising and yet as experienced as Williams, not to mention the also very well thought of David Aardsma, who the Cubs can now place at the top of their collection of young, hard-throwing and promising right-sided relief prospects, all for setup man LaTroy Hawkins simply staggers me. Either Barry Bonds is a lot closer to returning than anybody might suspect, or the Giants are simply deluding themselves when it comes to their competitiveness this year. The Giants have certainly had problems with their bullpen, serious problems not helped by Armando Benitez's injury, but their relief corps still ought to be the least of their worries - their offence is unspectacular, their starting pitching besides Schmidt likewise, and their defence disappointing. Without Bonds, there is absolutely no question, in my mind at least, that they are inferior to both the Padres and Dodgers, and maybe even the Diamondbacks too. Even should Bonds return tomorrow, they'd still face an uphill struggle to make the playoffs. What use is a premium eighth-inning guy to them then even in the short term? As for the long term, their team right now is overwhelmingly old, and they simply have to get younger if they're not to fall off a cliff upon Bonds' retirement. Trading away Jerome Williams and David Aardsma for a 32-year old whose contract expires after 2006 goes entirely against that.

Does this trade for the Cubs represent a salary dump, represent giving up on the season? Certainly not. LaTroy Hawkins, though it was overwhelmingly the Cubs' (and the booing Cub fans') own fault, could probably not have continued pitching in Chicago for much longer. Even overlooking that, they still received far more for Hawkins than they could reasonably have expected - it really was an offer they couldn't refuse. Though Williams will be out of options next year, and therefore in the same boat as Angel Guzman and Sergio Mitre, needing to make the team, he at the very least makes a very useful chip in a further trade. At the very best he'll hold down a spot in a sensational Cubs' rotation for quite a while to come. That is, of course, assuming injury doesn't ravage his career first. Aardsma meanwhile has the stuff to become a closer somewhere down the line, and could be contributing in Chicago before the year is out.

The Cubs won twice yesterday, I think. First they got the better of the Giants with this trade, then of course they dispatched with the Rockies.

Specifically, San Francisco's. The Cubs today traded LaTroy Hawkins to the Giants for Jerome Williams and David Aardsma.

Since the Giants are my #2 team (thanks to The Lovely Wife), I'm pretty familiar with these guys. Williams came up in 2003 and had a real nice rookie year (88K, 49 BB in 131 IP) but struggled in 2004 and had to have elbow surgery at the end of the season. He hasn't put it back together since - he started this year on the active roster but struggled and was sent down for a few starts to work on his mechanics, and hasn't come back up yet. This is why:

2005, Fresno: 15 K, 17 BB, 30 2/3 IP, 9.39 ERA

He is having trouble finding consistency with his delivery, and I he's also had to deal with some pretty serious family problems, so he's far from a sure thing, but he's still only 23. When he came up in '03, he looked remarkably poised for a 21-year-old and displayed great control. He's a project, but he's also got a pretty decent upside.

Aardsma, John Sickels' #4 Giants prospect, was the Giants' #1 pick in the 2003 draft and made his major league debut less than a year after being drafted. He was a closer in college and has continued in that role in the minors and in his brief time in the majors. He's also notable for replacing Henry Aaron as the first player, alphabetically, in major league history.

I like this trade. I wasn't as down on Hawkins as some, but given that he had been reduced to pitching mop-up (loss of confidence? loss of talent?), I think the Cubs got a good return for him. I think we'll enjoy Jerome Williams' pooka-necklaced presence on the mound if he gets things turned around (and who knows, being back with Dusty might help), and Aardsma can be a solid piece of the bullpen puzzle.

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