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It’s not uncommon for me to have little working knowledge of a player the Chicago Cubs select in the Rule 5 Draft. The players are, by their very eligibility for the draft, not necessarily top prospects. But usually I recognize a name. I gotta tell you … I do not recognize this name.

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Today, the Cubs took 24-year-old righty Gray Fenter from the Orioles’ organization, and I’m gonna have to do some quick legwork to get up to speed. It’s all the more difficult when there wasn’t a minor league season, of course.

First, the minor league stats for the 2015 7th rounder:

The Cubs acquired Wick from the Padres on Nov. 20, 2018, and Wieck came over from the Padres at the 2019 trade deadline.

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Both have gotten big outs for the Cubs the last two seasons, but neither acquisition made a lot of noise at the time, and as the Cubs assemble their bullpen for 2021, they’re looking for more of the same.

The Cubs selected right-hander Gray Fenter in the Rule 5 draft Thursday and picked up right-hander Robert Stock off waivers from the Red Sox on Dec. 2.

Fenter, who’s 16-9 with a 3.21 ERA in five minor-league seasons, has made 49 starts and could figure in the team’s starting-pitching depth.

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Stock was 0-1 with a 4.73 ERA with the Red Sox last season but has had some success at the major-league level with a 2.50 ERA in 32 appearances in 2018.

But their records aren’t that relevant. It’s all about certain traits — things that jump off the page — that have caught scouts’ eyes. Teams will zero in on an intriguing facet and try to build off that. That’s what the Cubs have done recently, and they’re hoping their strong track record continues.

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“I think [with] a lot of the guys that you end up claiming on waivers, there’s normally a couple of things that you see that you want to tweak,” team president Jed Hoyer said. “And I’m not naive to think that when one of our guys is claimed on waivers, I’m sure people have the same thoughts.

(via FanGraphs)
Immediately, I’m wondering how and why a guy Fenter’s age was putting up numbers like that at A ball and was not promoted.

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Some quick research indicates that Fenter was a big-time overslot signing out of high school (strong commit to Mississippi), and he’s simply developed very slowly since then. He had Tommy John surgery in 2016, saw very limited action in 2017, and then had limited seasons in 2018 and 2019. He was at times considered a top 15-20 prospect in the Orioles system, but the slow development seems to have taken him off those lists.

Again, though, I’m wondering why he wasn’t pitching at High-A, at least, in 2019, because he was clearly too good for Low-A. He’s pitched in the mid-90s at times, and has a huge 12-6 curveball. It’s pretty easy to imagine that the Cubs are thinking he could be an immediate bullpen option, even though he’s pitched as a starter in his minor league career thus far.

This looks to be a deep scouting play, which is kind of wild when there were no games to scout. As near as I can tell, Fenter wasn’t at the alternate site or instructs, either. So, yeah, deep play. More on Fenter soon.

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Chicago Cubs: RHP Gray Fenter (Rule 5 pick)

The Cubs will have multiple bullpen spots up for grabs this spring, and Fenter will receive a long look as a Rule 5 selection from the Baltimore organization. In 2019, he went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 123 strikeouts in 94.1 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .185 batting average at Single-A. He has the stuff to thrive in a bullpen role with an upper 90s fastball and a plus curveball, and he could be a pleasant surprise.

Yu Darvish Jersey

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Yes, I know. You hate the Yu Darvish trade. You think the Cubs are tanking.

In The Athletic, Peter Gammons says that isn’t so:

For the Cubs, this isn’t about tanking.

Well, that’s a provocative statement. Let’s let Gammons elaborate:

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“The farm system,” says one Cubs observer, “is already being completely rebuilt. The Padres trade only makes that better and Cristian Hernandez, who is in this year’s international class out of the Dominican, has been comped to A-Rod.”

Well, that’s very interesting. Of course, Hernandez is another 17-year-old kid and even if he does wind up as good a player as Alex Rodriguez (without the PEDs, one would hope), he’s still two to three years away from the big leagues.

But wait, there’s more!

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The Cubs think fireballing lefty Brailyn Márquez will be up this season, as will right-hander Adbert Alzolay. Catcher Miguel Amaya is close. Outfielder Brennen Davis has the earmarks of a star. Nico Hoerner is a really good player, in the infield or center field.

That sounds like a system ready to produce, if not multiple star players, at least solid major-league regulars and pitchers.

And what about the four players the Cubs got from the Padres?

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“We really like the guys we sent to the Cubs,” says one Padres official who, unlike some who commented on the trade, saw all of them extensively in the instructional league. He sees 6-foot-5 switch-hitting shortstop Reggie Preciado as a “hit tool guy who can play a corner.” Shortstop Yeison Santana is a “strong kid who could stay at short or anywhere in the infield.” Outfielder Ismael Mena is “a really athletic front-of-the-order tools guy who probably will be on a corner.” Outfielder Owen Caissie is a June second-rounder with power.

This all sounds really good. Yes, they are all probably at least three years away, perhaps more. But as Gammons reminds us, speaking of Fernando Tatis Jr.:

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None of the players the Cubs got from the Padres have played in the minor leagues yet. But neither had Tatis, five years ago.

And as I have noted elsewhere, the Cubs could still contend in the NL Central in 2021 even after trading Darvish:

As Hoyer planned the reboot, he could make the Darvish trade — and perhaps more to come by the trading deadline — because of the lack of spending in the NL Central. The Cardinals have not seemed inclined to add any big pieces. The Brewers can’t afford to. The Reds seemed poised to be back in the high life, but they are losing Trevor Bauer, traded Raisel Iglesias and are moving on to their next window. And the Pirates are not going to add high-priced players.

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“Perhaps more to come by the trading deadline.” Well, maybe. That would depend on how the Cubs are doing in the division race, no? If the Cubs are in first place at the deadline, would they still trade potential free agents Bryant, Baez and Rizzo? I’d think they’d rather hang on to them in that case, even if this Cubs team doesn’t seem likely to win any postseason round — and remember, we still don’t know what sort of postseason we’re going to have. It could wind up being expanded to the point of having wild-card series again, as we did in October 2020.

I don’t believe the Cubs are going to trade Willson Contreras, despite the rumors out there. He’s not expensive and he’s under team control through 2022. Jed Hoyer and his team should be working on a contract extension for Willson, in my view. As Gammons notes:

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When there is a restoration of normality at Wrigleyville, the Ricketts family investments will begin to profit again. The Darvish trade will free them of $19 million to use on player payroll.

Get it done, Cubs. Because if you don’t, those Wrigleyville profits might not happen.

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The Chicago Cubs hope Jonathan Holder can provide the same success that Ryan Tepera and Jason Adam did in 2020 at a thrifty price.

Holder, 27, who pitched parts of the last five seasons for the New York Yankees, agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed contact with the Cubs on Thursday. He is 10-6 with a 4.38 ERA in 157 major-league games, averaging 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

Holder was 3-0 with a 4.98 ERA in 18 games for the Yankees last season. His ERA was inflated by eight earned runs over his final three games. Holder posted a 3.14 ERA in a career-high 60 games in 2018.

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Holder will receive $750,000 if he makes the team, according to a source.

Earlier this month, the Cubs claimed reliever Robert Stock off waivers from the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs’ 40-man roster stands at 36.

It’s weird to be digging into a set of projections for the Chicago Cubs 2021 season before they’ve really done anything this offseason, but, hey, at some point publications have to pull the trigger. Also, it’s not actually true that the Cubs haven’t done anything yet this offseason – they’ve done a lot of subtracting! Also, reliever additions!

That is to say, I do expect the final Cubs roster to look different come Opening Day (whenever that is), but for now, you can still get a lot of insight into how the ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs is eyeing the current composition of the roster, and how it sees 2021 playing out for certain players.

It ain’t great!

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Head over to FanGraphs to see the particulars on each player, because I’m planning to just discuss the groups more generally.

A blanket caveat, I guess, is that because the NL Central figures to suuuuuuck in 2021, the Cubs don’t have to look like a behemoth to be competitive. Indeed, it kinda seems like they’re banking on that. And in the aggregate, FanGraphs sees the Cubs as more or less competitive. Is that good enough to keep the band together? Good enough to make additions? Or should the Cubs sell further from here?

Starting Rotation
An extreme version of what we say narratively, what with two very good starting pitchers at the front, and then a whole bunch of questions thereafter. Even Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills project horribly (more than 15% worse than league average), Alzolay presumably because of the limited track record of success, and Mills presumably because of the rough peripherals. You can have reasons to be more optimistic than the system on each, but it’s a reminder that these guys are not sure things. And they’re the third and fourth starters!

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The system is not a fan of any of the Cubs’ upper-level minor league starters either, and for you to be optimistic on that front, you’d have to believe the Cubs did more than the average team in developing those guys over the lost minor league season.

Any way you slice it, you come to the same conclusion we’d already been at for a while: if the Cubs want to be competitive in 2021, they’re going to need to add a quality starting pitcher or two. Especially because we already know that the innings are going to have to be spread around to more guys this year. At least the starting pitching market is extremely deep this offseason in the buy-low, reclamation pool where the Cubs will be swimming.

Craig Kimbrel projects decently well, and that’s about it. But what did you expect for a positional group where the Cubs have made it an affirmative strategy not to load up on guys whose on-paper projections would necessarily look great? By way of example, Jason Adam projects as 10% worse than league average, which seems pretty reasonable when you look at his statistical body of work. But we know that he’s pretty dramatically changed his pitch mix with the Cubs, and thus have reason to suspect that the version of Adam we see in 2021 could bear very little resemblance to the guy he was before 2020, and on which most of the projections are based.

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That said, you would nevertheless like to see a lot more rosy projections for your young, upper-level arms who figure to be rotating in and out of the bullpen. A lot of those guys, plus additions like Jonathan Holder and Robert Stock, project as just around average.

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Whatever the forecasts here, though, I’m less worried about the bullpen over the course of a full season than I would’ve been four years ago if you’d shown me the group. The Cubs’ pitching system has just been very, very good at this recently.

ZiPS is deeply unimpressed by the improvements in Willson Contreras behind the plate in 2020, which is understandable because it was a small sample … but also, we know that framing is one of those skills that can develop rapidly, and then you tend to have it until/unless there is a physical issue. I’m comfortable projecting Contreras to be much better defensively than ZiPS says (and also, frankly, much better than merely 4% better than league average offensively).

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Victor Caratini is right there where you’d expect him, below average offensively overall (but solid for a catcher), and about average defensively. There’s probably upside in the bat from here, but even at what he is right now, that’s a valuable player to have.