Once again, it's time for me to assign letter grades to each of the 36 men who have played for the Chicago Cubs before the All-Star break.
Just the fact that the Cubs have used "only" 36 players is progress. Last year the Cubs had used 45 players by the break. What this might signify is that the roster is becoming a bit more set, players are settling into roles, and the bullpen has been better so random waiver-wire guys don't have to be claimed and pitch one or two games and then get let go.
This is a positive development, no question about it.
Remember that the grades I'm issuing are somewhat subjective. Think of it as grading on a curve, even for each individual player. What that means is that many times, I'll be assigning a grade not just for performance, but whether or not that player played above or below expectations. You'll probably agree with some, disagree on others. Here goes!
Anthony Rizzo: A+ Rizzo bounced back from a somewhat subpar 2013 to make what we hope is the first of many All-Star games. He's third in the National League in home runs, fifth in walks and overall is having a potential breakout year at age 24, exactly what many of us thought he needed to do. He also showed signs of becoming a team leader. Well done, and keep up the good work.
Darwin Barney: D+ Barney's batting is still subpar, but in the 15 games before the break, he's hit .296/.296/.389 in 54 at-bats, hinting that he might still be useful enough to keep around as a utility player going forward.
Starlin Castro: A Castro, too, is on a comeback from a horrific 2013 to be on pace for the best year of his career, and another All-Star selection, his third. He's on pace to hit close to 50 doubles -- something a Cub has done only twice in the last 77 years -- and could hit 20 home runs. His defense and concentration seem better, and at 24 his best years should still be ahead of him.
Luis Valbuena: B Valbuena did an excellent job until about mid-June, when he inexplicably stopped hitting. Since June 20 he's hitting .162/.213/.297 in 80 plate appearances. Overall, his numbers are still decent and he's played well in the field at both second and third base. But the recent slump drops his grade, which could have been an A-.
Welington Castillo: C+ An injury that kept Castillo out for a few weeks hurts his grade, as does his mediocre .236/.292/.375 hitting line. He can occasionally hit for power (six home runs in 208 at-bats), but overall seems to have regressed from 2013.
Junior Lake: D+ I just don't know what to make of Lake. There are times when his bat and baserunning speed make me think he could be a useful player. Other times, the strikeouts just pile up and he looks like he needs more Triple-A time. The OPS+ of 69 and 93 K's in 257 at-bats pretty much scream out, "Needs more work."
Nate Schierholtz: D+ Nate has just not hit well all year. Had a little streaklet from mid-May to early June where he hit .269/.329/.463 with three doubles, two triples and two homers in 18 games, but other than that he's been awful.
Emilio Bonifacio: Incomplete The team would certainly have liked to have had him healthy, because there are clubs who would take a versatile player like this, despite his really mediocre batting performance since April: .207/.250/.293 in 140 AB since May 1. He'll likely be activated after the All-Star break so that the Cubs can shop him around.
Mike Olt: D- And if not for the 12 homers, this would be "F." 79 strikeouts in 180 at-bats? He's been really terrible. It's a shame, because there were signs in his minor-league numbers that he might be a good big-league player. It doesn't look like that's the case anymore.
Justin Ruggiano: B- After a bad start and an injury that kept him out for a month, Ruggiano has played very well since his return, hitting .311/.376/.487 with 10 doubles and three home runs in 119 at-bats. The best thing about Ruggiano's year is that he's actually hitting righthanders well, something he hasn't done in the past -- .286/.361/.429 with three of his four homers. There's been some trade interest in him, supposedly (Royals) -- I'd say do it before they change their minds.
Chris Coghlan: B Similar to Ruggiano, Coghlan got off to a slow start but since June 27 (17 games) he's hitting .393/.457/.672 with three homers in 61 at-bats. A slightly higher grade than Ruggiano because he's younger and might have some value to the Cubs going forward past 2014. He's also played the infield in the minor leagues and could potentially fill in there in an emergency.
Ryan Sweeney: D+ Injuries appear to have done him in; I see no evidence of the guy who seemed close to a breakout year in 2013.
John Baker: C A month ago, this might have been a D-, but Baker has played well defensively and has begun to hit after a horrific start. Over his last 13 games he is hitting .378/.511/.432 -- no, that's not a misprint -- with nine walks in 47 PA. His numbers are approaching "acceptable" for a backup catcher.
Arismendy Alcantara: Incomplete It's really hard to judge a player after five major-league games. But he has played extremely well, in all aspects of his game: hitting, fielding and baserunning. I'd very much like to see him stick around the rest of the year, he's been very impressive.
Ryan Kalish: D+ Didn't really do much of anything that was impressive or said "This guy is worth keeping around."
Eli Whiteside: D- If he never plays in the big leagues again, he can always remember that his final major-league hit was a booming RBI double off the left-field wall at Wrigley that came within a couple feet of being a home run.
Travis Wood: D As I wrote in the recap to Sunday's game, I really have no idea what's happened to Wood after his All-Star season in 2013. He'll need to pick it up in the second half. If he doesn't, I'd think the brass might even consider non-tendering him for 2015.
Edwin Jackson: F Self-explanatory.
Jake Arrieta: A Has been a revelation. Whether it was tipping his pitches and he's stopped doing that, or just figured something out that he's never been able to do consistently before, the Cubs got a huge win out of the trade with the Orioles.
Carlos Villanueva: D Has been bad as a starter. Has been decent as a reliever. There's been some trade interest in him (Royals, along with Ruggiano). Here's hoping the Cubs get some value out of him in trade; he's very unlikely to be back in 2015.
Brian Schlitter: B- For the most part, he's been quite good, apart from a couple of memorable meltdowns. I give Schlitter a lot of credit for coming back from multiple injuries that looked like they might be career-ending, to have a career that looks like it could last a few years as a competent middle reliever.
Hector Rondon: B Has had some blown saves. But most closers do. He's still growing into the role; whether he maintains it past this year depends both on him, and on...
Neil Ramirez: A- Ramirez, who was a starter in the Rangers system, was moved to the bullpen with excellent results. His WHIP and ERA are outstanding and he seems to have the kind of mound presence and attitude that a closer requires. I think the Cubs could give him a shot at the role in 2015 even if Rondon finishes 2014 well.
Pedro Strop: B As he was for most of the second half of 2013, Strop has been a good setup man, even with the occasional failure. He should be a part of the Cubs bullpen for the next couple of years, at least.
James Russell: B After a somewhat mediocre 2013, Russell has recovered to throw well in most of his 2014 outings. There is, I'd think, a pretty good chance he'll be wearing another uniform by August 1.
Wesley Wright: B Wright, too, could be traded; he doesn't appear to be a long-term piece for the Cubs. He's done what he's been asked, throws strikes and doesn't give up home runs (just one in 26⅔ innings).
Zac Rosscup: Incomplete Rosscup is likely auditioning to take over the spot of Russell or Wright when one of them is inevitably traded.
Justin Grimm: C- Has been great at times, awful at other times. I think he needs to go back to Triple-A to either work on his pitch selection as a reliever, or get stretched out to start again.
Chris Rusin: C Rusin's been the "take one for the team" guy this year, called up twice when the situation called for a pitcher who could simply pile up a few innings. I still think he could become a useful back-end starter, or even a LOOGY at some point.
Blake Parker: D I think the Cubs need to move on from Parker. There are plenty of similar pitchers who are younger (Parker turns 30 next June) who will be available on waivers or by trade this offseason.
Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel both get "A" for their time with the Cubs; both were having the best years of their careers and brought back solid value in the trade with the Athletics. Much good luck to them this year in Oakland, and hopefully the Cubs will reap the rewards of that deal in three years or so.
Kyle Hendricks, Dallas Beeler, Tsuyoshi Wada: Incomplete At least two of these pitchers will be back after the break to go into the rotation. All pitched well in their brief callups so far, and I think all of them have at least some potential to be useful big-league starters.
Jose Veras: You really don't want or need to hear any further about Veras, except for this note: in all of Cubs history, only six other relievers pitched in as many (or more) games as Veras for the Cubs in a season (12) with an ERA as high or higher than his (8.10) and WHIP as high or higher than his (1.725). If you really want to know, here are all seven of them.