Some random information heading into the regular season…
- Cubs.com’s Carrie Muskat tweeted that Miss America, Laura Kaeppeler will throw out the first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers’ opening game on Friday. The reason this makes it into a blog dedicated to the Cubs? She is a lifelong Cubs’ fan. I can only hope she wears a Cubs’ jersey out to the mound.
- ESPN Chicago’s Doug Padilla wrote an article about Carlos Marmol heading into the regular season. Dale Sveum talked about Carlos Marmol’s pitch selection and grip improvements made over the course of Spring Training. He spoke about Marmol gripping the seams of the baseball more on his fastball and using that pitch to get ahead in counts or get back into counts. After ditching the awful cutter from last season, look for Marmol to be the fastball/ slider pitcher we’ve seen in the past. Carlos has not allowed a run in his last six outings before today.
- One of the most talked about names in trade rumors as the regular season approaches is Cubs’ CF Marlon Byrd. The potential exists that the Cubs would be willing to absorb some of the salary remaining on the last year of Byrd’s contract. Should Marlon actually be traded, at any point this year, that would all but guarantee Brett Jackson would be called up at some point this season. It probably would not be initially, because the Cubs did send him back to Iowa for a reason. At this point, I would guess Byrd remains with the team until closer to the July non-waiver deadline.
- Like most teams in baseball, the Cubs are looking for help in the bullpen. The only assured slots are going to closer Carlos Marmol, set-up man Kerry Wood, and lefty James Russell. Behind those three are unproven commodities, although it would be a shock if Rodrigo Lopez was not the long reliever going into the season after the spring he’s put together.
- The Cubs are 15-16 this spring. Even though the games do not count, they did not get off to a great start. Hopefully, some of the late spring momentum carries into the regular season, and the Cubs can get out of the gates better than they did last season. If they have any shot at contending, a lot needs to go right, and a fast start is one of them.
Opening Day is less than three days away. Let the real games begin!
Dale Sveum debuted the Opening Day line in today’s 6-3 loss to the Dodgers. It consisted of:
RF David DeJesus
2B Darwin Barney
SS Starlin Castro
LF Alfonso Soriano
3B Ian Stewart
CF Marlon Byrd
C Geovany Soto
P Ryan Dempster
While it is no great surprise to me that Ryan Dempster is getting the Opening Day nod, I had assumed that Matt Garza would be the Opening Day Starter since the beginning of Spring Training because of his leadership, skill, and his excellent second half last season. That is not meant to slight Dempster, who has been an effective, if not excellent pitcher in Chicago for nine years. I merely felt that Garza had earned the right. Dale Sveum thought differently than I did, and his opinion counts more than mine.
The Epstein Compensation Issue Just Won’t Die
Chris Carpenter’s elbow injury is apparently causing the Red Sox to explore their options in the deal sending Theo Epstein to the Cubs. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted that it probably will not go very far because the Red Sox were given Carpenter’s medical records and a physical when he was sent to Boston…and he passed. Cubs’ GM Jed Hoyer was asked today if the deal would be restructured saying, “No.”
The Cubs sent RHP Aaron Kurcz to the Sox and, yesterday, received 19 year old 1B Jair Bogaerts to complete the deal…one could only hope.
The Roster is Taking Shape, But is By No Means Set
There are very few slots remaining on the Opening Day roster, with the back-up catcher slot being given to the left handed Steve Clevenger, Jeff Samardzija being the third starter, and Randy Wells being sent to Iowa. However, with names being discussed in trade rumors, there are some potential openings on the roster. Marlon Byrd being moved (Atlanta or Washington) would open a spot for, most
likely, Reed Johnson to start, and another position player to make the roster.
What has become clear in the past five months is the willingness of the new front office staff to make any move that will benefit the roster, both now and in the future. While it would be in the team’s best interest to keep Marlon Byrd right now, the chances of him being a Cub when we are looking at final roster cuts in 2013 is slimmer than the new waist line he sports. Randy Wells could also be on the black as the Cubs look to improve their bullpen, although it would be hard to imagine getting anything better than a low level prospect for Wells since he failed to make the Cubs out of camp this year…even with their weaknesses in middle and long relief.
At this point of the spring, all of the forecasting, predicting, prognosticating, and analyzing has been done. Repeatedly. This is just some of the fodder that has come out of Cubs camp in the last week or so, since the last post.
- Today, Andy Sonnanstine elected to become a free agent after refusing to take an outright assignment to Iowa. He had an uphill climb to make a crowded rotation picture, and the emergence of Jeff Samardzija made it even less likely that he would make the team. Today, he officially did not.
- Joe Mather has made the team. No. I do not have any insider information that tells me that he will be on the 25 man Opening Day roster when the Cubs head north. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to leave him off of the roster at this point. He’s hitting .432, including two sharp doubles in today’s win over the Indians. Ten of his 19 hits have gone for extra bases. In addition, he made an amazing over the shoulder catch that would
have made Jim Edmonds tip his cap. A man that can play all three outfield slots, and both corner infield slots is something every team needs. Mather does that. There is no way he doesn’t make the team at this point.
- It appears the Opening Day rotation will be Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Paul Maholm, and Chris Volstad when the team heads north. With Travis Wood having some struggles this spring and Jeff Samardzija grabbing the bull by the horns and taking a spot in the rotation, it seems all but a lock at this point.
- Alfonso Soriano has six home runs this spring, and is in the Major League lead this spring. His damage has not been spread out, either. As streaky as Soriano is, he has been mightily consistent this spring. His opposite field blast today was a terrific sign for Cubs’ fans knowing that he is going to be a vital part of any success the team has this season. There are going to be times where he is going to have to carry the team with all of the youth on the roster. At least at this point, with the shorter leg kick and literally huge bat, he looks up to the task.
- The biggest departure between this spring and the last number of years is the aggressiveness on the base paths. Today, Geovany Soto tagged from first on a deep fly ball to center. That never happens. Ever. The traditional teaching of going half way in the event of a drop is not in Cubs’ camp this spring. They have stolen 26 bases, good for fourth in MLB this spring, and have been caught 12 times. Clearly, the Sveum Administration is in full effect. Putting pressure on the defense is going to be important this season because the offensive talent lacks. Edgar Gonzalez today, scored from first on a stolen base, throwing error by Indians’ Catcher, Matt Pagnozzi, and a misplay by CF, and former Cub top prospect,
Felix Pie. It was all about putting pressure on the defense. It won’t work out that way all the time. It will lead to unnecessary outs on the bases on occasion. But it is aggressiveness that the team is going to need. They have to outplay opponents this season because there is a development gap. The Cubs are talented…and severely underdeveloped. Winning this season is going to take baptism by fire. It appears at this point, Dale Sveum has a full book of matches.
The Countdown to Opening Day 2012 is in full effect. We are a mere 11 days from the new season, where Ryan Dempster will take the ball for the second straight season opener, against the vastly improved Nationals and their young star in the making, RHP Stephan Strasburg. Until then…we are stuck in the Dog Days of Spring.
I can recall distinctly…
May 28, 2011. The Cubs were facing a 1-7 pitcher for the Pirates at Wrigley Field. That pitcher threw 91 pitches, struck out 4, and got his second win in a complete game shut out of the evidently hapless Cubs. That pitcher…was Paul Maholm.
Before that game, I had not seen the numbers on Maholm, but he was actually pitching quite well, coming into that May 28 meeting with a 3.65 ERA and a run of tough luck losses that would make Matt Garza feel some pity. Last May, Maholm gave up eight earned runs in five starts.
This spring, Maholm is a near lock to be the third starter with the Cubs. His durability is something the Cubs’ rotation sorely lacked last season, with all but Ryan Dempster spending some time on the disabled list. Last season’s 26 starts were his fewest since his debut season of 2005. And his 162.1 IP were also the lowest mark of any full season in his career. Before last season he had started 30 or more games in 4 of 5 seasons. And the one season with less than 30 starts was a 29 start season in 2007.
His +26 Runs Above Replacement and his 2.6 Wins Above Replacement indicate exactly what the new Cub is. He’s not flashy. He’s not a household name outside of the city in which he plays. He is a solid starting pitcher that will take the ball every fifth day almost without fail. And every team needs one or two of those guys.
Maholm’s strong 3.66 ERA last season is something the Cubs need, too. That would have been good for second of all of the Cubs starters.
Maholm is also pretty good with the bat. Well…he handles the bat well for what National League pitchers need to handle the bat for. His 23 career sacrifice bunts should be enough to make Cubs’ fans salivate after watching the repeated failure of last season’s pitchers to get a bunt down time after time after time. It bears mention that Maholm did make it to the Final Four of the bunt tournament.
Maholm reminds me a lot of Ted Lilly. He is a left handed pitcher, who’s signing got lost in some other rather substantial transactions during the off-season. He could also be a stabilizer after Garza and Dempster in the rotation. And he seems to be a genuinely good person…which always helps. I won’t pretend to have gotten to know Paul Maholm by following him on Twitter (@paul_maholm), but I do think you can get a glimpse of who a person is. And from what I can tell, he’s excited to be a Chicago Cub.
And I, for one, am excited to have him. He’s the anti-Cub of the last five years. No big contract. No big mouth. Hopefully, just a big year.
Of all of the interesting facts that I could find about the additions to the Cubs’ Coaching Staff under new Manager Dale Sveum, the one I found most interesting is that all of them have worked on staffs of division rivals in their past.
Their past is not the relevant part of the discussion. The relevant discussion points regarding new coaches, Chris Bosio (Pitching), Dave McKay (First Base), and Jamie Quirk (Bench) is what they can teach the plethora of youth on the roster. All of the coaches, including the holdovers, have a great deal of experience as coaches at the major league level. Clearly, Dale Sveum wanted to surround himself with knowledge to make his transition to managing happen more smoothly…and it was the first of hopefully many good decision.
New Coaches for 2012
Pitching Coach: Chris Bosio – Bosio’s Wisconsin roots run deep, having pitched for the Brewers, coached and scouted for the Brewers, and been a coach at UW-Oshkosh and Lawrence University in Appleton. He moves south to take over pitchers for the Cubs, replacing Mark Riggins after one season. He is in his third stint overall as a MLB Pitching Coach. Bosio subscribes to the new regime’s methods of statistical analysis, and had charted each pitchers tendencies before Spring Training and left a copy in each pitcher’s locker before the first workout. He is left with the unenviable task of turning around a group that ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every category last season and will need a much stronger showing to improve on the teams 71 win showing last season.
First Base Coach: Dave McKay– Cubs’ fans should know this name well. He has been one of Tony LaRussa’s right hands in St. Louis for years. McKay is generally regarded as one of, if not the, best First Base Coaches in baseball. The base running was awful last season, and it will be on McKay and new Third Base Coach Pat Listach (moved from Bench
Coach after last season) to help the base runners make better decisions and exercise the aggressiveness that Sveum wants to see out of his runners. In addition to base coaching, McKay serves as the primary Outfield Instructor, and according to Manager Dale Sveum, he has taken a keen interest in LF Alfonso Soriano. With so many young players, however, he will have a vital role in his capacities on the bases and in helping the outfield defense.
Bench Coach: Jamie Quirk – Every new Manager needs an experienced Bench Coach, and Quirk is nothing if not experienced. He has been in professional baseball for 37 seasons before 2012, and has been a Bench Coach for 12 years, in two different stints. He was the Royals’ Bench Coach from 1996-2001 and the Rockies’ Bench Coach from 2003-2008 under Clint Hurdle. Quirk spent time as a major league player with St. Louis and Milwaukee, amongst others, and he will bring experience to the bench to assist Dale Sveum in growing into his role as a Manager, and help the crop of young catchers learn to handle a young pitching staff.
Hitting Coach: Rudy Jaramillo
Third Base Coach: Pat Listach (2011 Bench Coach under Mike Quade)
Bullpen Coach: Lester Strode
First and foremost, I don’t care that it’s the second week of March, getting back-to-back wins against the White Sox and Brewers is a good feeling.
Now, on to the more important (debatable) topics of the post:
- Even though the defense and base-running have been better, there are still signs of what ailed the Cubs last year. We saw it today with Blake DeWitt getting picked off of second base against the Dodgers while the Cubs were in the process of taking three consecutive walks. It also happened Friday afternoon against the first batter Travis Wood faced, missing the ball trying to field a bunt and compounding his mistake by playing catch with the right fielder. He clearly appeared to be trying to make up for his mistake, and ended up trying too hard. I know the coaching staff is working diligently on cleaning that up and, in spite of the early mistakes, so far, so good.
- Matt Garza has gotten beaten up in both second innings he’s appeared in this spring. There is no source of concern because it is still mid-March, but it would be nice to see the ace of the staff have more clean efforts in his spring starts. He did have an excellent first inning today, retiring the Dodgers in order on all ground ball outs.
- The Cubs are taking more frequent walks this spring, thus far. Something they failed to do basically all of last season, ranking 29th with 425 walks in 2011, only exceeding the 401 taken by the Houston Astros. It is a good sign that free swingers like Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano are showing more patience at the plate.
- Speaking of patience, Castro hit a 2-0 bomb out against the Brewers. In Arizona, balls carry. Hopefully, though, that is a sign that Starlin will start to drive the ball out when he has the opportunity. As major league players, it is held
that the last things to develop in young players are power and defense. I think there will be a strong jump in home runs hit by Castro this season, probably hitting between 15 and 20, while I think it would be disappointing if he committed more than 20 errors, down from 27 and 29 in his first two seasons.
- Geovany Soto made his first start Saturday against the Brewers (ss), returning from the groin injury that has hampered him this spring. He made an impressive throw to second, catching Logan Schafer on a steal attempt in an otherwise uneventful debut, going 0-2.
During the WGN broadcast on Saturday, Cubs’ TV announcers Len Kasper and Bob Brenly has the opportunity to talk to Manager, Dale Sveum and Brewers’ Beat Writer, Tom Haudricourt. Haudricourt talked about the low level of Sveum’s “BS bar” and how he always gives “a straight answer.” The most compelling, and in my opinion, complimentary thing Haudricourt said about Sveum was “watch what he does, not what he says.” Sveum spoke about camp, his coaching staff (which will be the subject of a later post…stay tuned) and being a first time manager. He discussed how he was pleased with the work ethic of the team and his coaches thus far.
ESPN Chicago’s Doug Padilla wrote a column today about Dale Sveum’s opinion on the impact of Cubs’ fans in Milwaukee. He said that it was frustrating to the Brewers that there were so many Cubs’ fans in the building, going so far as to say the Brewers players “hated it.” On being on the other side of the field, Sveum said, “Being on this end, hopefully we get three-quarters of the place full.”
Quote of the week: “That would have been a tough pitch to bunt.”– Ryan Dempster, after throwing the first pitch of the at bat against former Cubs’ third baseman Aramis Ramirez’s head in the first inning. Rami joked with reporters before the game that he was going to bunt in his first at bat. Dempster said that an inside pitch “got away,” and he did not mean to brush back his former teammate.
There are not many players that can hit 20 or more home runs in every season with a team and be called a bust. Yet, Alfonso Soriano is going through just that. Actually, in Wrigleyville, the only person that is hated more than Alfonso Soriano is the left fielder from about 90 minutes north of Chicago. The question is…why?
Expectations are a good start. When you sign an 8 year/ $136 million dollar contract, those expectations are high. Really high. It doesn’t help when you hit 46 home runs, 41 doubles, drive in 95 runs, and steal 41 bases in 159 games the season before you show up. It doesn’t help that his career low in games was 145 before he showed up in Chicago, but has only managed to play in that many games once (147 in 2010) in the five years he’s been a Cub.
His production, on the other hand has not been anything worth sneezing at. It bears being said that the Cubs do not sniff back to back Central Division Championships without Alfonso Soriano leading off. In 2007, he hit .299. In 2008, he hit .280. He clearly produced at the beginning of the contract with 33 and 29 home runs in 2007-2008. Since, he has seen a demotion in the line up, from lead off to sixth or seventh. He has still managed to hit over 20 home runs in each of the last three seasons. In 2012, he is going to be the biggest threat in the line up. The most established threat, anyway. His production is not what it once was…but he is also getting older. And like any aging athlete that did not miss many games in his youth, his body is starting to let him down some.
His work ethic, amongst fans, has always been a source of contention. This spring, Soriano was one of the last to show up to Spring Training, and the message boards let him have it. For a guy that gets killed for not hustling to first on lazy ground balls and pop flies, some of the work ethic talk is justified. He is a veteran. At this point in his career, he should know that fans and, more importantly, young teammates are going to look at him for how he is playing on a day to day basis.
“The guy works his butt off all the time. There’s no doubt the fans lost a little faith in him sometimes with the things he does, but I think the fans have to understand he’s probably the hardest-working guy in the clubhouse. That’s always refreshing, and players love him to death.”
Those are the kind words of Dale Sveum. When the clubhouse includes the likes of Marlon Byrd, Bryan LaHair, who is looking to capitalize on his first, best chance in the majors, and Darwin Barney, who stole a roster spot last season, that is saying something. Soriano has also become a veteran mentor for Shortstop Starlin Castro. It is that work ethic, though, combined with his talent and veteran savvy that will allow Soriano to remain effective in his advanced age.
The biggest complaint about Alfonso Soriano is probably his defense. I can’t say I understand that. Nobody is going to argue that ‘Fonsi deserves a Gold Glove, but he wasn’t signed for his defense. He may make some bad plays, take some bad angles, and have a bad habit of watching fly balls go over his head, but all of that was known when he signed his name on the dotted line. He’s never been a good defender…even as a second baseman in New York or Texas. With new First Base Coach and Outfield Coach Dave McKay defecting from St. Louis, there is at least some hope that some of the defensive struggles are tightened up.
Alfonso Soriano was the key piece of the trade that brought Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees from Texas. The man can play baseball. He’s older. Father time is undefeated. The game is not over for Soriano, though. And this season, more than any of the past five in his Cubs’ career, he’s needed to carry the load offensively. Regardless of where he hits.