It's become a tradition here for me to assign letter grades to Cubs players for the first half of the season at the All-Star break.
It's also become a tradition for many of you to vehemently disagree with some of the grades I assign. But then, that's part of the fun of doing all this. I should note that I'm assigning grades based on expectations for the individual player, not on a universal scale. Thus, a B for a certain player might be different than a B for another player, depending on how he was expected to do.
That out of the way, here's how I view the 2013 Cubs players and coaches as we pause the season for four days. Note: I'm only doing the players on the current 25-man roster, plus DL'd players likely to return soon, and a couple of others who might become factors in 2014. (The Cubs have used 43 different players already in 2013, a franchise record for before the All-Star break; the club record of 53 was set last year. That mark has a pretty good chance of being broken.)
Welington Castillo: B- Castillo's defense has improved considerably this year; he's thrown out 29.8 percent of basestealers, a good number, and gotten better at pitch-calling and pitch-blocking. His offense, though, has stalled. An OPS+ of 86, with a .353 SLG, is not what we thought we were going to get from Castillo, who hit 63 minor-league homers in 1663 at-bats. He's still young enough that this could improve, but he needs to start now.
Anthony Rizzo: C+ Rizzo has been a disappointment. Not that anyone expected him to be Joey Votto in his first full big-league season, but his BA has been mired in the .240s and he's hit only three home runs in his last 50 games. He needs to step up his offensive production to get to the level Theo & Jed thought he'd be at when they signed him to a long-term contract. Rizzo does play solid defense; that's a bonus.
Darwin Barney: C- Barney's defense has been good again, though he recently made errors in back-to-back games. His hitting has, in a word, been awful -- a 67 OPS+ isn't going to cut it no matter how well he fields. He is hitting .252/.260/.387 with four of his six home runs since June 12. That brings him from "awful" to "mediocre". It's got to get better, or he's going to wind up a utility player.
Starlin Castro: C- Which is the real Castro? The one who was hitting .228/.264/.318 on June 23? Or the one who's hit .303/.346/.487 with three HR in 76 at-bats since then, after Dale Sveum finally gave him a day off? There are signs that the latter could be true; he's also played better defense since that day off (not "benching", as ESPN put it Sunday night). If he can keep that going, he might even be able to get back to his 2012 numbers, not superstar figures, but at least decent, and headed in the right direction.
Luis Valbuena: B Has done everything asked of him. Works counts, draws walks, plays solid defense, hits for a bit of power. If only the Cubs had a real third baseman, he'd be one of the best utility players in the league. Perhaps he still will be once the Cubs return to contention -- every contender needs guys like this.
Alfonso Soriano: C+ Soriano, a classic streak hitter, went on one starting June 21; in 20 games since then he's hitting .305/.326/.744 with nine home runs in 20 games. Perhaps if a team thinks he can continue this, they might trade for him. Doesn't seem likely, and it's looking like Soriano will finish the year a Cub. He's running the bases better this year -- leads the team with 10 stolen bases. (Low bar to hurdle, I admit.)
David DeJesus: Incomplete DDJ was having the best year of his career and was a prime trade candidate before he was injured running into a wall at Citi Field a month ago. If he comes back in, say, a week or so and can play enough to convince other teams he's healthy, he could still be traded.
Nate Schierholtz: B Schierholtz, also having the best year of his career, has been a pleasant, relatively inexpensive surprise in right field. I could see the Cubs keeping him for another year, if they can find a decent platoon partner for him.
Dioner Navarro: B+ Has been far better than anyone could have expected; also having the best year of his career, he could be traded, or kept as a backup/mentor for Castillo. He needs to lose some weight, though.
Ryan Sweeney: Incomplete Sweeney got his chance to play every day when DDJ got hurt, and then he got hurt, also running into a wall, at Safeco Field. (Irony: two Cubs outfielders get hurt running into padded walls on the road, while staying perfectly safe at brick-walled Wrigley Field.) Sweeney will be back in August and will likely get a chance to show if he's worth penciling in for 2014.
Cody Ransom: B- Ransom has had one of the weirdest careers in big-league history. Though he has played in 11 MLB seasons, he has averaged only 72 plate appearances per year. He's been with 10 different big-league organizations and played in the majors for eight of them... and at age 37, is having a "career year", though it's hard to call a 108 at-bat year that. Of all MLB players in 2013 who have at least that many at-bats, only 17 have a higher OPS than Ransom (.905). One of those, incidentally, is Ryan Raburn (.908), who the Cubs should have signed instead of Scott Hairston. But that's another story. Most of the rest are MVP candidates. Go figure.
Julio Borbon: D Borbon has been mostly used as a pinch-hitter, but he's not very good at that (5-for-29). He's also used as a defensive replacement, but hasn't done that well there, either. And he's fast, but that doesn't help if you can't get on base (.271 OBP). I suspect he might be DFA'd soon.
Dave Sappelt: D+ I just don't like the way he plays. I can't really explain it. He doesn't really do anything very well. I could see a DFA here, too.
Brian Bogusevic: D+ Add Bogusevic to the list of mediocre outfielders running through the 2013 Cubs roster. He made a nice catch Sunday night against the wall in center field. But the way he's hitting, you can see why the Astros let him go.
Cole Gillespie: Incomplete Hey, he's hitting 1.000 (1-for-1)! Not going to be a star of any kind, but he was a consistent hitter in the minor leagues (.863 career minor-league OPS) who drew walks. Could possibly be a useful RH-hitting outfielder for the rest of this year, and in 2014.
Jeff Samardzija: B Shark's been mostly good this year, with a couple of clunkers thrown in just to remind us he's still a work in progress, at age 28 having made just 52 major-league starts. The last outing, where he was crushed by the Angels, put his ERA over 4.00, but he's likely to wind up this year about where he did a year ago, only with more innings. Is that worth a long-term deal? Stay tuned.
Matt Garza: A- Garza's having the best year of his career at the perfect time both for him (to cash in on a long-term deal) and for the Cubs (either to give him one or to trade him, and trade seems likely). Thanks, Matt, for helping the Cubs long-term in either of these things. And take your shaving-cream pies with you. That's getting real old.
Edwin Jackson: D+ Jackson has made 18 starts. I would categorize five of them as excellent, six as awful, and the other seven in the middle. His last two have been in the excellent category, which perhaps bodes well for the second half. Let's hope so, because we've got him for three and a half more years.
Travis Wood: A- Has been a revelation, one of the best pitchers in the National League, a first-time All-Star, and even can swing the bat (one of the few who would actually be worth having in the lineup every time instead of a DH). At 26, I'd expect him to continue to get better; if he throws this way in the second half, lock him up long-term. An excellent Theo & Jed acquisition.
Carlos Villanueva: B Villanueva has shifted almost effortlessly between rotation and bullpen this year; it's not his fault that Dale Sveum didn't really use him correctly as a reliever. With trades coming, he's likely going to be in the rotation the rest of the year.
Kevin Gregg: B+ I would have given him an A-, but in his last 10 appearances he's allowed 17 hits (1.70 WHIP) and nine earned runs (8.10 ERA). Looks like he might be past his sell-by date. He's a major trade candidate, and given that he's never been as good as he started out this year, is 35, and not part of the Cubs' future, I hope they can deal him.
James Russell: B Russell also got off to a fine start, but his last 13 appearances covering eight innings: 1.875 WHIP, 5.63 ERA. Looks like he could use the four days off; he's a key part of this bullpen and I hope he comes back strong in the second half.
Blake Parker: C+ Parker, at times, looks like he might be closer material. Then there are other times he loses command, and if he is your closer and he does that, he's the second coming of Carlos Marmol. Needs to become more consistent.
Michael Bowden: C+ He's kind of like Parker; looks good at times, bad at others. Sometimes I wonder how he gets anyone out with that slingshot motion. Has piled up a ton of frequent-flyer miles between Des Moines and Chicago this year and is likely to get some more.
Pedro Strop: B Has been very good since his acquisition -- 0.667 WHIP and no runs allowed in six innings. Dale Sveum doesn't seem to know how to use him; he's got the velocity to be a decent setup man, as he was in 2012 for the Orioles.
Matt Guerrier: C- He's a placeholder, here only because Carlos Marmol had to be traded. He's not likely to be back in 2014.
Hector Rondon: D+ At times, has looked pretty good. At other times, has looked like a guy who has had to come back from surgery and never had any major-league experience. I'd expect him to come down with Rule 5 Disease soon and wind up on the DL, if the Cubs can find a better back-end-of-the-pen option.
Kyuji Fujikawa: Incomplete The Cubs would have been much better off from Day 1 if Fujikawa had been healthy and pitched like he did in Japan. It was a worthwhile risk that didn't work out; he might be back by mid-season 2014.
Dale Sveum: C There's no doubt that players respect Sveum and play hard for him. His lineup selections have often been head-scratching and his bullpen management skills border on bizarre. He'll probably finish out his contract in 2014 and the Cubs will seek out a new manager after that.
Jamie Quirk: C Does anyone know what Jamie Quirk actually does?
Chris Bosio: C+ The plus is for Travis Wood, who has improved dramatically under Bosio. Does Bosio deserve the credit? Who knows? I haven't seen any turnarounds that I can credit directly to his coaching.
Dave McKay: B+ McKay gets credit for making Alfonso Soriano a better outfielder the last couple of years and for helping the team be better and smarter baserunners. This was a very good hire.
David Bell: Incomplete I've seen a few bad sends from Bell, who is in his first year as third-base coach. He's snared a few foul balls batted in his direction. Otherwise, it's as if he's not even there.
James Rowson: C The Cubs are supposed to be developing more patience at the plate; I've seen some of this, but whether it's Rowson's doing is unclear. In general, there hasn't been a huge amount of improvement from Cubs hitters since he replaced Rudy Jaramillo midway through 2012.
Rob Deer: Incomplete Can anyone tell me what an assistant hitting coach actually does?
Alberto Gonzalez, Brent Lillibridge, Steve Clevenger, Scott Hairston, Scott Feldman, Kameron Loe, Shawn Camp, Rafael Dolis, Brooks Raley, Chris Rusin, Henry Rodriguez, Zach Putnam, Hisanori Takahashi, Carlos Marmol and Alex Burnett also played in at least one game for the Cubs this year. I trust you don't need me to tell you any more about any of them.