9/17 Bullpen, Baez and more

* The Cubs head into the 2014 season without a closer but Theo Epstein feels the team may have that pitcher on the roster now. Kevin Gregg, whom the Cubs signed to a Minor League deal in mid April after he was released by the Dodgers, has stepped in and posted his third career 30-save season. The Cubs began the season with Carlos Marmol as the closer, and he was replaced by Kyuji Fujikawa, until he needed Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

“I’m a believer that closers come from a lot of different places,” said Epstein, president of baseball operations. “You find a guy with some swing and miss stuff and some courage and effectiveness earlier in the game, you should try him in the ninth inning because he has enough balls and enough stuff that he can handle the ninth inning.”

Gregg will be a free agent, and could return next year. The other options include Pedro Strop, acquired from the Orioles in the Scott Feldman deal, and possibly Justin Grimm.

“The bigger story for me is that we started out the year with a bullpen that didn’t perform well and that’s our fault,” Epstein said, pointing the finger at the front office. “I think over the course of the year, it really steadily improved. The pitchers deserve a lot of credit.”

* Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson were on the Cubs’ big league roster last season at this time but this year was a difficult season for the first-round picks. Epstein said Vitters, who was the No. 1 pick in 2007, will be converted to an outfielder this offseason.

“We’re converting him to left field,” Epstein said. “He’s going to come to Spring Training ready to re-establish himself and force himself into the mix as one of our right-handed hitting outfielders.”

Jackson, the Cubs’ first-round pick in 2009, battled injuries this season and ended on Double-A Tennessee’s roster. Epstein said Jackson may follow the same program as Vitters this offseason.

* Javier Baez, the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 2011, was named the Minor League Player of the Year after an impressive season. Fans want to know when Baez will be in the big leagues.

“He’s got all the ability that he needs to play Major League shortstop, not that he’s not still developing,” Epstein said. “We have a shortstop now [in Starlin Castro]. If we’re fortunate to get to that point in time where Baez is pounding on that door and Castro is healthy, then we will look to move Baez around so he can perform at other positions. I think he has a lot going for him, that he can do that. For a young kid, he has tremendous baseball instincts.”

Epstein also said Albert Almora, the Cubs’ 2012 first-round pick who was sidelined with a groin injury, is healthy and preparing for the Arizona Fall League. Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, bothered by a stress fracture of his tibia, was doing baseball activities as well, and preparing for the AFL.

— Carrie Muskat


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What does the preparation for the AFL consist of?

That`s an excellent question, Robert. I`d like an answer to that one myself. I`m surprised by Theo`s candor in the second paragraph of that report with his reference to a closer`s “having balls” as part of the job description. To clarify, I`m not surprised Theo said it, but that he does not mind it being put out there for public consumption. For what it`s worth, I agree with him. As for Baez being moved to another position if and when he`s ready for the bigs, in deference to Castro, I say why not move Starlin, preferably to another team.?

I think the Cubs are waiting to see how Baez develops as a SS in the minors before they make the call on who moves where. People who say that Castro should move now don’t seem to realize that a) Baez is not exactly a great fielder either, as his 44 errors in the minors this season show, b) Castro, while still a below average fielder, has improved each season in the majors and c) Castro will be only 24 next season and is still young enough to consider that he still has room to grow as a MLB player. As for moving Castro to another team, the Cubs shouldn’t do that now even if they wanted to. He still has 6 years left on his contract and is coming off a bad offensive season, so his trade value is not very high right now. If he bounces back at the plate and continues to improve in the field next year, then his trade value will increase and they might actually get something decent in return for him. Right now, not so much. Baez will probably start next year at AAA and stay there until at least mid-June, so might as well give Castro the chance to bounce back and increase his value before you start worrying about who to move where. Heck, if Baez is ready to go by mid-June and Castro is having a good year, you can throw Baez at third or second just to get him up to the Majors and then figure out what to do in the offseason, if you don’t want to break up the core of the team in the middle of the season that is.

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