Category: 2013 Regular Season

Lake Half-Asses One, Costs Cubs The Winning Runs

That seems remarkably hard on Junior Lake.  It was meant to be.  Because sometimes, the truth is really, really harsh.

Today was a growing pain for the kid, who had three hits and drove in the lone run for the offensively challenged Cubs.  And while

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

maybe he didn’t deserve the benching that Starlin Castro got yesterday from Dale Sveum, he does deserve a meeting with both Sveum, and outfield instructor Dave McKay.

From where I sit, after watching the replay over and over (because I could not watch the play live), Junior Lake simply got complacent and dropped the ball.  He got to the spot in plenty of time.  He did not appear to be fighting the sun.  I could be wrong.  I really hope I am.  It just didn’t look that way.  And it led to the Cardinals’ second and third runs.

If my suspicion is correct, it shows that Lake is guilty of an effort mistake, which in my estimation is worse than any other kind, to include the one that Starlin Castro gets tagged with, the mental mistake.  Yesterday is a prime comparison.  Starlin went all out, made a tough play, and spaced on the runners, allowing a run to score.  Junior Lake, today, didn’t have to go all out, got to the routine fly ball, and let it fall harmlessly to the Wrigley turf because he didn’t use two hands when he looked to have ample opportunity to do so.  That is an effort mistake, from a player who has limited experience in the outfield.  There is no excuse for that.  Effort should be the last thing you’d have to worry about from Junior Lake right now as an outfielder.  To have the play he had today should raise the maturity concerns that have been raised about Starlin Castro.

Photo: PHIL VELASQUEZ

Photo: PHIL VELASQUEZ

Effort mistakes are inexcusable.  Junior Lake’s today is the first that I can recall from him in his time with the major league club.  David DeJesus had a similar one on June 13th, dropping a routine fly, allowing a run to score against the Reds, albeit in a game the Cubs eventually won in extras (where it was Starlin who got tagged for dogging it admiring his near walk-off in the ninth).  The Cubs are not good enough to not play hard all the time.  When they don’t, especially against the Cardinals or like two months ago against the Reds, they won’t win.  Young players like Junior Lake, who are in auditions with the team have no excuse for not busting it 100% of the time.  Veterans like DeJesus, who’s had his share of mental and effort blunders this season are also in auditions.  What makes it worse for a player like DeJesus is that players like Lake are watching him and what he does on and off the field every single day.

Maybe the veteran leadership is what the Cubs are missing.  Say what you want about Alfonso Soriano and, going back further, Marlon Byrd, effort was not an issue from those veteran players.  That might be where they’re missed the most.

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Cubs Bullpen Can Be Fixed…Without Looking Outside The Organization

Michael Bowden, Alex Burnett, Shawn Camp, Rafael Dolis, Kyuji Fujikawa, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier, Kameron Loe, Carlos Marmol, Blake Parker, Zach Putnam, Brooks Raley, Henry Rodriguez, Hector Rondon, James Russell, Eduardo Sanchez, Pedro Strop, Hisanori Takahashi, and Carlos Villanueva.

That is the list of everybody who’s appeared in a game for the Cubs out of the bullpen thus far.  And that pen has been much maligned.  For a lot of reasons.  The 24 blown saves advance that perception, even though many of those “saves” were blown in the 7th and 8th innings, and not the 9th.  In all actuality, the 9th inning hasn’t gone all that bad for the Cubs.  When the Cubs get to the 9th inning with a lead, they are 45-4.  For comparison sake, they are 1-58 when they enter the 9th trailing.  And overall, the bullpen has been much better of late.  Since the additions of Strop, Guerrier, and Parker, the pen has been solid, and it has not regressed since Guerrier was lost.  With Russell, Parker, and Strop, the Cubs finally have a bridge to Kevin Gregg in the 9th, who has gotten the job done in spite of how interesting it may be.

Looking forward, the Cubs figure to have James Russell, Blake Parker, Pedro Strop, and Carlos Villanueva back in the bullpen next season.  Villanueva may be in the rotation for periods, but it seems like he is best suited to be in the pen, and fill in as a spot starter.  That leaves three openings for next season’s bullpen.  Matt Guerrier may be invited back after rehabbing from forearm surgery.  The Cubs also have some players who can fit nicely into relief roles in the system already.  Brian Schlitter has been dominant at AAA Iowa this season, racking up 17 saves without blowing one.  And Arodys Vizcaino should be back from his elbow issues the last couple of years.  The plan is, tentatively, to send him to play in fall and/ or winter leagues, to get him back on the mound, which would serve him well in rehabbing this off-season.  And he may end up as a starter at some point, but a cautious approach with him, and letting him get innings in a bullpen role would be a way to bring him back at the major league level without running up 150-175 innings in his first year back.  Filling the last slot with Hector Rondon, who has a good arm and a year of experience could make the Cubs pen much better, assuming everyone stays healthy and pitches similarly to how they are now.

Projected 2014 Opening Day Bullpen (assuming no outside moves are made):

Hector Rondon
Brian Schlitter
Carlos Villanueva
Arodys Vizcaino
James Russell
Blake Parker
Pedro Strop

While this exercise is highly speculative, the point is simple: the Cubs have the arms to improve the bullpen within the organization.  And every one of the players in my projection has been in the major leagues, including Schlitter, who appeared in seven games all the way back in 2010.  They have some depth, too.  If the Cubs can figure out what is wrong with Henry Rodriguez and get him to throw strikes, he’s a viable option.  Matt Guerrier has already expressed interest in returning on a minor league deal, and at this point, there is no harm in that.  Eduardo Sanchez was a once promising reliever with the Cardinals, and is young enough to recapture his form.  Kyuji Fujikawa will return at some point next season from Tommy John Surgery.  And most importantly, maybe, Carlos Marmol, who couldn’t finish games at the end of his Cubs’ career, and Shawn Camp, who got beat up a lot this season will not be returning.

The pen is already better right now than it was for most of the summer.  And there is talent in the organization to improve it further next season.  With any offense at all, the Cubs might actually flirt with a winning season, which would be a positive step in the rebuilding effort.

 

Cubs Struggles Not All That Surprising

On July 29th, the Cubs returned home for the first time since the All-Star Break, seven games under .500, and without Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, who’d both been dealt on the west coast road trip.  Things looked good.  They’d won the trip against the Rockies, DBacks, and Giants, in spite of moving Garza and Soriano.  But some warning signs were there…

First, they weren’t scoring all that much in San Francisco.  They scored six runs in the series.  It’s not like they were lighting the world on fire.  They were just less futile than the Giants that particular weekend.  And the Giants hadn’t been playing all that well, anyway.  The Cubs were playing an equal, in spite of what that banner from last October might have said.  The Giants simply aren’t all that good this season.

Coming home, they got a series with the lowly Brewers.  Who are in the division.  Which, this season, automatically means inexplicably losing at least two of the games.  Lo and behold, they drop three of the four, all of which were in typical 2013 Cubs fashion.  Pedro Strop gave up the only five runs he’s allowed as a Cub in the first game.  They dropped both games of a doubleheader, blowing leads on a James Russell home run allowed in the first game and a Kevin Gregg blown save in the second, with a third strike call that wasn’t and a soft line out to short that wasn’t helping them blow the lead in the ninth inning.

After the Brewers, they got the Dodgers for four.  As of today, the Dodgers have won 40 out of their last 48.  In case you weren’t sure, an .833 winning percentage is freakin good.  They’ve been killing everybody lately.  It would have been a surprise if the Cubs won more than once in the series, and it doesn’t come as any surprise that they didn’t win at all.  The Dodgers are a buzz saw right now, and the Cubs were a thin sheet of plywood at that point.  Sure, they could have scored some runs in the last two, but it’s not earth shattering news that they didn’t…they haven’t been scoring all that much all season long.

The road is a little more kind to the Cubs.  Splitting six games with the Phillies and Cardinals is a good result.  In spite of their record, the Phillies still have some talent on their roster, and the Cardinals have been toward the top of the standings in all of baseball since Opening Day.  Winning half of your road games is a good thing, so no complaints there.

Getting the Reds, and Mat Latos when you get back home isn’t the house warming gift a struggling offense wants or needs.  And Latos was nasty on Monday night.  So they got shut out again by another good pitcher.  They got to Homer Bailey a little bit, which was nice to see, but Bronson Arroyo, who’s pretty solid, and loves to stick it to the Cubs for whatever reason, shut them down again.

I give you that nice summary of the painful last two and a half weeks to tell you this…all of those (with the exception of the Brewers) are pretty decent teams.  The Cubs just aren’t.  Not after trading away another 40% of the rotation and the clean-up hitter.

Let’s go back to spring, with a refresher of what Theo said…

“What I want to avoid is the middle ground.  It’d be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick. We’re not hiding that. There’s no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?

We’re going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season. If we have a legitimate chance to push for a playoff spot then 2013 can become our primary focus. If we think a playoff spot’s not in the cards, there will be no concern for appearances or cosmetics whatsoever. We’ll continue to address our future and trade off some pieces that would keep us respectable.’

And presto…the team who didn’t have a chance for the playoffs this season made their cold assessment, looked to the future, moved some parts that could keep it respectable, and it’s gotten ugly against some better than average competition.  And we’re bitching about not scoring any runs?  WE WERE TOLD THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN SIX MONTHS AGO!  If you thought the Cubs had a chance to win the division or compete for a playoff spot, you were one of three things: on the team and have to believe you’re not going to suck just to keep your own sanity, a big time optimist, or delusional.  I had the Cubs, as they arrived at camp, hanging around .500.  (I also had the Pirates finishing dead last in the division, so take it for what you will)  I made that prediction early because nobody for sure can never tell who’s going to stay or go, or get hurt.  And, the team that broke camp, actually played well enough to be near .500 every month except for April (10-16) and thus far in August.

The moral of the story here is simple…It is ridiculous to be on board with the rebuild and bemoan that the team isn’t all that good during the middle of it.  It’s even more ridiculous to be critical of how ugly it is when we were told explicitly by the guy who was going to decide on who to move and when to move them that it was probably going to happen.  None of this is a surprise.  If it is, you haven’t been paying attention.

I now return you to waiting for Javier Baez to hit another home run in AA.

Don’t Say Mid-Market Like It’s A Bad Thing

Theo Epstein spoke today, and like all times when Theo has something to say, it’s generated some buzz.

“A million here, a million there, that’s what we can afford.  We’re not in position to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency. But if we can do it in that (international free agency) market, we might as well try to monopolize it as best we can.”

That line from Theo has started the “mid-market” talk among fans and media, alike.  Patrick Mooney put out a great piece which explicitly called the Cubs just that.  Then again, knowing the Cubs’ history of flushing money down the crapper and how the landscape of baseball is changing with the new labor agreement, is that such a bad thing?

At the risk of repeating myself, the way the Cubs are going about their business is the best way to do it.  Free agency is not going to produce a team that goes from the bottom of the division to the top after just one winter, like the Cubs managed to do between the 2006 and 2007 seasons.  There are no quick fixes.  So spending “a million here, a million there” on international free agents and by acquiring a load of talent to retool from within is the last best option.  Minor league talent is currency.  Teams can develop and field that talent when it reaches the point major league ready (unlike the Cubs have…see Patterson, Corey; Pie, Felix) , or they can use it to acquire established players…which is the “new free agency.”  Teams who are selling off veterans like the Cubs have the last couple of seasons are essentially teams of free agents who can be had if the price is right.

Drafting and development hasn’t been a strength of the Cubs in the past.  Bleacher Nation had a piece yesterday that should make the former front office want to huddle in a corner and cry.  You think the team we’re watching is bad?  Take a look at that roster.  It makes me cringe.  The good news is, the article BN referenced is linked, showing all 30 teams…including the Red Sox, which was led by Theo Epstein.  In a weird, mid-market sort of way, a number of the major pieces of what made the Red Sox good over the second half of his tenure were homegrown…like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholtz, and Jonathan Papelbon while players like Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez were used as currency to obtain other useful parts.

The era of big market supremacy has passed.  In all reality, it never really existed.  Even the Yankees in the ’90s were mostly homegrown with some complimentary free agents sprinkled in.  It is time to embrace the “mid-market” philosophy of spending wisely and developing players…because it works.

Javier Baez May Be Forcing His Way Into Cubs’ 2014 Plans

Javier Baez is good.  He’s really, really good.  And based on the looks of things, he has very little interest in remaining in the minor leagues for all that much longer.

Currently with AA Tennessee, Baez hasn’t had any drop-off in production since being promoted from High A Daytona.  In fact, looking at the numbers, they’re remarkably similar in a lot of respects.  With Daytona this season, Baez was a .274/.338/.535 hitter.  With Tennessee, the pace has been .273/.329/.580.  Last night, he hit his 12th home run with the Smokies and 29th for the season.  What makes these numbers more impressive is that both the Florida State League and the Southern League are considered pitcher friendly.  He is sitting at 14th in the league in home runs in just 34 games.  If he had the at-bats to qualify, he would also lead the Southern League in OPS.

Photo: Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies

Photo: Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies

Clearly, when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said that a prospect will get promoted if he dominates his competition Javier Baez took it to heart.  That is the exact kind of thing you want from your top prospect, too.  He’s not by any means a finished product, but he is making leaps and bounds at the plate.  He still strikes out more than his fair share (about 28% of the time), and his walk rate isn’t what you want in a middle of the order bat.  The walks part of the equation is coming around, though.  He’s taken 33 of his 47 professional walks this season.  While some of the lack of walks before this season is probably due to inferior competition at lower levels of the minors, the numbers bear out that he’s not walking up to the plate hacking quite as much as he used to.

The area of concern that remains about Baez, and the thing that can hold him back is his defense.  He has 40 errors for the season, and a .929 fielding percentage, which isn’t going to cut it at any level.  To his credit, his fielding percentage has come up with Tennessee, from .922 in Daytona to .946, which can probably be attributed to, in part, better field conditions in AA than were seen in the Florida State League and a smaller sample size.  This also shows how little fielding percentage should be used to judge defense.  Baez has all of the tools to play three infield positions, and could end up supplanting the platoon at third or Darwin Barney at second.  His range and arm work well at both positions, in addition to short stop.   Jed Hoyer said earlier this summer that he thinks Baez can stick and play short in the majors.

It would be a surprise to see Javier Baez to go to Spring Training and win a spot on the 25 man roster when camp breaks.  With the way this front office develops players, there is, while non-zero, a very slim chance of it happening.  It is entirely possible that Javier Baez breaks with AAA Iowa, however.  Considering how he’s played at AA Tennessee, it is possible he’s doing what he’s been asked: forcing the organization to move him up.  There is still some time to play in 2013, but nothing that has happened to this point should suggest a slowdown in Baez’s production.

AA is a phone call away from the major leagues.  Ask Starlin Castro.  When Baez gets to Iowa, he will actually be a mere phone call away from the majors.  If he plays as well in Iowa as he is in Tennessee and did in Daytona, there is no reason to believe that the offensively starved Cubs would not call Baez, especially if they find that they are one more bat away from being a competitive team.  Ultimately, it’s up to Baez.  If he dominates his level, he moves up, until he gets to Chicago.  At that point, we all hope he dominates at that level for a long time.

Borbon Designated…For Stupidity?

Almost immediately after the game yesterday, Julio Borbon was designated for assignment.  In the ninth inning, Borbon made a Grade A Stupid Play, bringing TOOTBLAN to a whole new level.

If you ask Dale Sveum, he would have you believe the two events are closely related, via Bruce Miles:

“That, obviously, was an unfortunate thing that happened.  It is a point that we just can’t keep having those things go on, and he’s had a few of them himself. So it was time to make an adjustment to the roster and see if somebody else can do the job.  Those are things that are controllable. You don’t have control over swinging at a slider in the dirt. Nobody’s wanting to do that. Those are physical things. Things you have complete control over is knowing the game and thinking ahead, understanding the ramifications. In that situation, you mean absolutely nothing at that point. You can literally stand on second base and not do anything, and everything will be perfectly fine.”

When I read that, I have to admit, my BS detector went nuts.  While Dale is correct when he points out that there have been multiple instances of Borbon running himself off the bases, he would also be correct if he said that about every Cub this season.  If he wanted to send a message about poor play, why does David DeJesus have a job?  He was completely brutal yesterday, and he’s had a number of concentration lapses that have directly led to runs scoring as an outfielder.

The answer is simple…Borbon was the 25th man.  He was probably on his way out the door soon, even if he would have hit a walk-off grand slam yesterday.  At some point in the near future, Ryan Sweeney and Brian Bogusevic are going to be coming back.  The Cubs have also been mighty left-handed this season.  At least for the time being, Donnie Murphy, who was added to the roster today, is a right handed hitter who has hit pretty well at AAA Iowa.

My guess is, he’ll be on the first bus back to Des Moines when either Sweeney or Bogusevic return.  And newcomer Cole Gillespie will likely get the boot, also.  Dale and the front office just happened to fall bass-ackwards into an opportune time to send a message to Junior Lake (who’s run into his share of stupid outs in just a couple of weeks), and the other youngsters who are watching the big league club from the minor leagues.  And he was right to do it.  It just doesn’t mean that what he said was the whole truth.

As Deadline Passes, Cubs’ Priority Should Be Extending Dale Sveum

In just about two days time, the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go.  The Cubs, who have been more active than any team in the month of July, will see a considerable slow down in activity with the passing of the draft, the initial international free agent signing period, and the trade deadline.  That leaves them with an ample opportunity to take care of what may be the most vital piece of business they have left before next season: Extend the contract of Manager, Dale Sveum.

Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

As Theo Epstein’s hand picked successor to Mike Quade, Dale Sveum has done everything the Cubs could have imagined…and more.  He deserves to go into next season with some job security, and the Cubs should go into this off-season, where they will surely try to add players who can help the major league team take the next step toward respectability, with stability in the manager’s office.

Although his 109-156 record isn’t outstanding, it is also not his fault.  He walked into a complete overhaul of a roster of albatross contracts, aging veterans, and young players who really weren’t major league players.  To make matters worse, the front office either traded or shut down major portions of his starting rotation…in both 2012 and 2013.  The bullpens he’s had to work with have been largely unproven young players or veteran retreads (*cough cough* Shawn Camp *cough*), and it has shown in the win-loss column.

Dale Sveum was hired to do two main things: Keep the clubhouse together and develop young talent.  He’s done exceedingly well on both fronts in his first two seasons.

On the player development front, the biggest feather in his cap is the coaching staff he’s put together.  While he may have had Rudy Jaramillo and Pat Listach as hold overs for either part or all of last season, the additions of Dave McKay, David Bell, and Chris Bosio have all been successful.  Dave McKay helped turn Alfonso Soriano into a serviceable left fielder.  After years of being afraid of the wall and hopping around like a wounded bunny rabbit, Soriano had the highest UZR among NL left fielders last season.  It’s amazing what a little coaching will do after Soriano admitted that he hadn’t gotten any outfield instruction before last season, from either Quade’s staff or Lou Piniella before him.  Anthony Rizzo is another success, as Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach, brought his hands down, shortening his swing, and making him better than the .141/.281.242 hitter he was with the Padres in 2011.  The anecdotes serve as evidence of a whole: the Cubs are a vastly improved defensive team from the years before Sveum.  And the approach at the plate is starting to get better, too.  Nothing happens over night, but the results are starting to show up.  In spite of all of the player movement, trades, and lost veterans in the clubhouse, the Cubs have a winning record since May 26 (30-25).  While the sample is small, the results matter.  Even with major bullpen issues and a complete inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are playing competitively.  The steps in the right direction are adding up.

The clubhouse is the other place Sveum was asked to thrive.  As a former top prospect, he can relate to the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and soon Javier Baez, et al.  He can also relate to the 25th man on the roster because that’s where his career ended after a devastating leg injury.  He knows the weight of expectations and he knows the plight of the role player who is tasked to sit and wait for his name to be called, and the need to be ready.  He relates to his players because he’s been there and done that.  And while he took some undeserved criticism for his loyalty to Shawn Camp from fans, it was not his job to get rid of Camp.  It was the front office’s.  Having his player’s back, especially one who he’s had history with, was the only move he could make that doesn’t send the alienating “as soon as I see trouble, I’m going to turn my back on you.” message.  That’s a terrible image to portray to the rest of the team.  The fact that Dale said it was tough to see Camp go may have made fans cringe, but it probably made the team smile a little bit.  When veterans like Matt Garza hang around after being shut down with 2 1/2 months left in a 100 loss season, it says as much as there is to say about a clubhouse…especially when Garza admitted if it had been Quade’s clubhouse, he would have gone home.  And being able to sign quality free agents like Edwin Jackson after a 100 loss season doesn’t happen if the player thinks the manager is a bum who can’t manage a clubhouse.  Think about it.  Has anything obscenely negative come out of the clubhouse during Sveum’s tenure?  For a team with the win-loss record the Cubs have had, you’d think there would be something.  Especially in a media market like Chicago.  But it’s been remarkably quiet.  Which means the bad stuff is being handled where it should…in house.

Dale has been charged with over-seeing a complete rebuild, which couldn’t have been fun, couldn’t have been easy, and couldn’t have happened in any worse a place than Wrigley Field, where every year is “THE YEAR” to a group of people who only watch the game and read the box score in the paper each morning.  The reality is, last year, this year, and probably next year are not “THE YEAR.”  But the team is heading in the right direction in spite of the instability among the player personnel.  That is a credit to Sveum, and the right thing to do is ensure that he never gets to “lame duck” status in the last year of a contract with a team, who next year may be able to win consistently for the first time in his tenure.

Besides.  He got shot in the face and laughed it off.  How cool is it to have a manager like that?